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Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Try keeping your head through this



Battle Royale II

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Running time: 133 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

"Battle Royale," Kinji Fukasaku's last completed film, created what is a rarity in the Japanese movie business: a scandal. Based on a best-selling novel, this film about 42 school kids forced to play a murder game by a repressive government made guardians of public morals see red, even before its December 2000 release. Diet members and the minister of education publicly voiced alarm, while Eiren -- the film industry's censorship body -- slapped an R-15 rating on the film, which meant that kids the same age as its 15-year-old protagonists were banned from seeing it.

News photo
Teenage warriors get ready for war in Kinji Fukasaku's "Battle Royale II"

The problem was less the film's violence per se (it didn't show much that hadn't been shown before, from Hollywood and elsewhere) than the tender age of its victims and the massiveness of the slaughter. The film was not total exploitation (in between shots of heads exploding, the characters bonded, fell in love and otherwise showed up the inhumanity of the regime) but Fukasaku was obviously out to shock, and shock he did. Naturally, once the authorities decried the film's effect on impressionable young minds, the young flocked to see it. "Battle Royale" ended up grossing 3.1 billion yen, the most of any live-action Japanese film that year.

Now there is a sequel, "Battle Royal II -- Requiem," of which Fukasaku directed only a small part before succumbing to bone cancer Jan. 12. His son Kenta, who had served as producer and co-scriptwriter on "Battle Royale," took over and vowed to complete the film in Fukasaku's spirit.

The new film also boasts an R-15 rating, but the whole approach is different. Whereas the teens in "Battle Royale" knifed, shot and otherwise dispatched each other with a ruthlessness familiar from Fukasaku's yakuza films -- think a dystopian "Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity)" -- the ones in "BR2" are forced to fight a common enemy: rebels led by Shunya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara), the long-haired, doe-eyed survivor of a previous Battle Royale.

Also, whereas the previous film enthusiastically detailed each death, while skimping on character development, the new one models itself more on "Saving Private Ryan": The slaughter is still terrific, but we get to know the survivors -- and their enemies -- better.

The most striking difference, however, lies in the film's politics. In "Battle Royale" we learned just about as much about its future world as we did in the "Terminator" films -- the minimum needed to get the plot rolling. Its message: insane fascist government is bad, youthful love and friendship is good. "BR2," however, reflects the post-9/11 world we live in now. Its villain of villains is an unnamed country that bestrides the globe like a new Rome and forces its client states, including Japan, to do its bidding, while relentlessly destroying those who threaten its power. In other words, I rather doubt that Kenta and his film will get an invitation for a White House screening -- or even find a U.S. distributor. "BR2" is doing brisk business in the rest of the world, however, with deals in Europe signed.

The plot gears start turning much as they did in "Battle Royale," with a new class of 42 rebels and misfits, recruited from the nation's third-year junior high schoolers. After a all-night bus trip, ostensibly to a ski resort, they arrive at a secret army base, where they are herded by soldiers into a huge cage that is to be their "classroom."

Their teacher and rugby coach, a scowler and growler named Riki (Riki Takeuchi), wearing a sinister black trench coat and with his face contorted into a demonic mask, tells his students about Nanahara's World Seven terrorist organization and its nefarious deeds, including a spectacular attack on Tokyo in which City Hall crumbled like -- well, think of the most obvious analogy. World Seven has declared war on all adults -- and Riki's own family has ended up as collateral damage. Now, he tells the students, they are to invade World Seven's island base and destroy it in three days. They have all been paired up and outfitted with explosive necklaces that will blow both partners to kingdom come if one tries to desert -- or if they both fail in their mission.

After killing two recalcitrants to, as Voltaire once put it, "encourage the others," Riki ends the "lesson." The subsequent invasion plays like D-Day in "Saving Private Ryan," only with fewer boats, fewer rounds and the strobe set to a higher level. More than half the attack force falls, but the survivors make it into the World Seven lair, which looks like a Third World shantytown gone vertical, as decorated by a Roppongi club designer. There they confront Nanahara and his gang and find that they have something in common, namely a hatred of the system that could conceive of a Battle Royale. The attackers turn against their masters -- and their masters soon come at them in force. The time for games is over.

Like many a Japanese war movie, "BR2" ladles on, not only the ultra-violence, but the sentimentalism. Dying warriors give heartrendingly noble speeches before they expire, while their comrades, lusting for righteous revenge, throw themselves selflessly in harm's way.

Meanwhile, friendship and romance bloom. Takuma Aoi (Shungo Oshishiro), a hot-blooded punk, challenges Nanahara's authority -- but ends as his closest ally. As played by Takuya Fujiwara, Nanahara is a moody, poetic Byronic type, who waxes philosophic amid hundreds of candles. No wonder Aoi wants to take him down. Another standout is Shori Kitano (Ai Maeda). A quiet girl, if a deadly warrior, she reminisces longingly about her vanished past and her strange-but-kindly father (Beat Takeshi) -- the teacher in "Battle Royale."

Kenta Fukasaku may have sincerely tried to realize his father's vision, but he is 30, and his feel for the characters and material is accordingly more contemporary. His references are not a boyhood spent amid wartime destruction and postwar chaos, but Japanese manga and Hollywood action movies. The result is something of a mishmash -- but one that should satisfy most "Battle Royale" fans, not to mention Osama Bin Laden.



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