Kinji Fukasku's teen-splatter classic Battle Royale. Premiere, July 2001.
Action movies from the East are super-hot commodities in Hollywood this year; every distributor in town seems to be dusting off an old Jet Li or Jackie Chan picture, hoping to rope in the Crouching Tiger crowd. So a picture with the commercial track record of a Battle Royale should be a hot prospect. The Internet fan site Dark Horizons already has it earmarked as "the next big crossover hit from Asia."
Despite its obvious commercial strong points, however, Battle Royale has not yet been picked up for distribution in the US, and some observers of the movie marketplace are betting that it never will be. "It would be almost impossible to release it here," declares Louis Anderman, a Vice President of Creative Affairs at Miramax and a long time Asian-cinema booster, "not without a huge controversy that would blow up in your face."
The sticking point is the film's super-sensitive subject matter: it's a non-stop bloody chronicle of kids killing kids. And when we say kids we mean rosy-cheeked 14 and 15 year olds in fetishistic school uniforms, slaughtering each other with pistols, sickles, knives and nun-chucks.
One obvious difficulty is the movie's off-center tone. The picture is not a slice of familiar teen-gang neo-realism that wear's it social responsibility on its sleeve. Director Kinji Fukasaku calls it "a fable," and its premise recalls such cautionary chronicles of near-future blood sport as Rollerball, The Running Man and the Survivor parody Series 7.
Once a year in a neo-fascist, 21st century Japan, a typical middle-school class is randomly chosen for shipment to the killing fields on a remote island. The kicker is that each contestant has been outfitted with an electronic explosive dog collar, and if more than one of them is left standing after three days, all the survivors will be executed by remote control. The kids have only two choices: kill or die.
The embittered former teacher who runs the show is played by the great stone-face "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, the director and star of the current trans-Pacific gangsters drama Brother and a formidable cult figure in his own right.
In case you're wondering, it isn't only Americans who raise a stink over this sort of thing. In Japan, too, youth crime has become a hot-button issue. Assaults and murders committed by young people rose 25( there in the year 2000, according to TIME Asia. When a 17-year-old detonated a bomb filled with nails and screws in a Tokyo video store, his explanation made headlines: "I wanted to destroy people."
Battle Royale was controversial in Japan even before it went into production. One member of the ruling Liberal Democrat Party, Koki Ishii, mounted a personal campaign to suppress it, and a bill mandating new restrictions on sex and violence in entertainment aimed at young people was debated in the Diet, Japan's parliament. Predictably, the protests backfired at the box office. The movie "wouldn't have been a hit otherwise," suggests the respected Japanese movie critic Tadeo Sato. "Seeing the film is became a sort of resistance against politicians."
Despite a local rating of R-15 (no one under 15 admitted) the film was such a crowd-pleaser in Japan that it has quickly re-issued as Battle Royale: Special Edition, with enhanced special effects and 8 minutes of new footage. (The re-release entered the Japanese box office charts at number two, second only to that tasteful example of R-rated Americana, Hannibal.) The film has even inspired a suite of tie-in toys, action figures of Beat Takeshi's character and two uniformed students, the latter outfitted with teensy explosive collars and stick-on wounds.
The film also has some serious-minded defenders, who see it as a blunt-force metaphor for Japan's boot-camp educational system. "Education in Japan is a series of competitions," sociologist Mariko Fujiwara has suggested. "It has become disastrous in the last decade as people discover that graduating from a good university doesn't guarantee success anymore." Understandably, perhaps, Battle Royale's images of kids forced into cutthroat competition by remote adult authority figures struck a nerve with the Japanese.
Kinji Fukasaku, a mild-mannered, white-haired, 70-year old gentleman, is not the sort of filmmaker who normally has his finger on the throbbing pulse of youth. But Fukasaku was a product of the hellish World War 2 era, and in interviews he has said that the recent wave of youth murders in Japan resonated with his experience: "Many infamous crimes, like the Kobe beheading case, were committed by 15-year-olds. That made me review what I was doing when I was 15. I was in junior high then and working at an armaments factory, and everyday the factory was bombed. I had to clean up the corpses of other kids who were killed. That's the root of who I am."
For Miramax's Anderman, "the final irony is that Kinji Fukasaku made this film to speak to 15-year-olds out of his own experience, and because of the R-15 rating in Japan, teenagers couldn't go. It's like Requiem for a Dream here, which got an NC-17 last year. To me, that's a film that kids should see, one of strongest anti-drug movies ever made."
The few films from Fukasaku's almost 40-year career that have been released commercially in the US are also among his least typical productions, ranging from the gender-bending Yukio Mishima vehicle Black Lizard (1968) to the Japanese-language sequences in the last big-budget Pearl Harbor spectacular, Tora Tora Tora (1970).
But aficionados of Japanese Outlaw Cinema swear by Fukasaku's nihilistic yakuza gangster pictures of the 1970s, the three-film series Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973-74) and Graveyard of Honor (1976). His underground rep is prodigious. When Fukasaku came to Los Angeles for the first of the American Cinematheque's popular Japanese Outlaw Masters programs in 1997, he was invited to the set of Jackie Brown to hang out with a long-time fan, director Quentin Tarantino.
Some of the most violent bits in Battle Royale are vintage, sardonic Fukasaku: the stone killer who uses a bullhorn to broadcast a girl's death cries to his fellow students, a severed head tossed through a window with a live grenade in its mouth, and a clique of Japanese Heathers whose final cat fight erupts into a gun battle. But despite its gleeful extremity the movie can't be dismissed as exploitation. It doesn't invite us to relish the carnage. There are no sensuous slow-motion shots or acrobatic stunts. It often feels like a lacerating anti-war movie, a compassionate look at kids in crisis who either crack from the strain or rise to the occasion.
"Some young audience members actually leave the theaters feeling uplifted," reported TIME Asia. "In the film, two love-sick characters survive because they learn to have faith in a stranger, and each other. 'By the end, one of the boys did trust the others,' says moviegoer Akiji Wada, 17. 'That's good. Things should be like that.'"
But in America today, Louis Anderman insists, "it would be almost impossible for people to see the irony of Fukasaku's presentation. Like all the best satire it cuts a little too close to the bone." David Schultz, distribution supervisor at the American Cinematheque, puts it even more bluntly: "If the next school shooting were to occur while Battle Royale was still playing, there's a good chance that somebody would get sued."
Some indie distributors are also suggesting that the Japanese production company, Toei, has unreasonable expectations for Battle Royale in the American marketplace. "We offered to take it out as an art house film," said one, "but Toei wasn't interested. They see it as this huge commercial hit and they want to open it on 300 screens in shopping malls. What they don't understand is that it in the US it will never get past the MPAA ratings board, and the major theater chains will never play it un-rated. If you cut it enough to get an R rating there'd be nothing left."