Monday, October 19, 2009

Spookey Month: Battle Royale

Someone put the first 8 or so minutes of the infamous dystopian sci-fi/horror flick Battle Royale on YouTube, but I'm not going to link it here. Go check it out for yourself. Or, better yet, go rent or buy the DVD. Right now. Watch it in its entirety, then come back here and read this blog post. Or read the blog post, then go watch it. Either way is fine by me.

Adapted from a novel by Takami Koshun and directed by Fukusaku Kenji, Battle Royale tells the story of a junior high class taken (along with two sinister ringers) by the government to an island and forced to kill each other off until only one remains-- the "winner." Both the novel and the film have engendered quite a bit of controversy over the ensuing years, but they also have their share of cult followers, of which I happen to be one. More so of the movie; the book left me kind of cold.

The movie stars the invincible master-of-all-trades Kitano Takeshi, otherwise known as "Beat" Takeshi; this guy is omnipresent on Japanese TV hosting various shows, teaching filmmaking, writing art criticism, making his own movies. A universal genius who's seemingly tireless. It also features Maeda Aki, Shibasaki Kou and Kuriyama Chiaki in key roles. Maeda plays Noriko, the perennial outsider and nice girl who becomes the story's co-protagonist. Shibasaki is Mitsuko, one of the many villains in the story, a crazed bad girl who decides to play the game to the hilt. And Kuriyama is Takako, an athletic and somewhat independent gal whose vanity proves at least one luckless kid's undoing... and her own.

Shibasaki and Kuriyama impressed Quentin Tarantino so much he wrote parts for them in Kill Bill; unfortunately, Shibasaki was unable to participate.

Her fight with Uma Thurman's character would no doubt have been the stuff of cult film legend. As it stands, Kuriyama does the honors, basically playing an even more insane variation of Shibasaki's Battle Royale character.

The movie's full of cheesy moments and nagging plot holes. How does a junior high teacher become an official in the BR program? If the result of each year's battle is such a media frenzy, why don't the students know anything about it? And while most of the young actors were actually teenagers, few of them look nearly young enough to be junior high kids. Not even Kuriyama Chiaki, who was-- as incredible as it may seem now-- only about 15 or 16 years old when she made this movie:

But flaws aside, it's the little moments that make Battle Royale such a pleasure. Maeda's awkward outsider's charm-- at the movie's start, no one bothers to tell her the entire class is taking the day off-- and the way silent killer Kiriyama (Ando Masanobu) uses a megaphone to broadcast a dying girl's final squeals to her friends on the island:

And then we have the "Lighthouse Girls," a group of cheerful, popular students who set up a peaceful little society in an abandoned lighthouse. All the best of friends, their plan to somehow escape the game ends tragically when paranoia and secret jealousies erupt in a close-quarter gunfight:

But don't worry. Shibasaki, Maeda and Kuriyama are all still alive, doing well. They're always popping up in movies, TV dramas, on magazine covers or simply wearing gorgeous blouses in the fashion spreads within. But I'll always remember their desperate 48-hour stint on some nameless island off the coast of Japan where they dared ask-- and answer-- the question, "Could you kill your best friend?"

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