Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Battle Royale 2

...by damn, this film is a strange experience. It's one of the most singularly confused works of art I've seen, but confused in such oddly charming (and somehow uniquely Japanese) ways that I feel kind of fond of it. The first film, if you happened to miss it, is set in a dystopian future in which, every year, a select group of junior high school students are taken off to a desert island and forced to play a game in which they murder each other. The last one left alive is the winner; if anyone tries to escape or opt out of the game, or if there is no winner, students are fitted with exploding collars, which kill them in rather garish ways. You play or you die; student is pitted against student, paranoia and mistrust are encouraged, and the system inevitably rewards the most ruthless among the kids. The lack of any sensible explanation for why teachers and adults would want their children to murder each other forces us to read the film as an antiauthoritarian parable, siding with children against corrupted, murderous "adult" values (and who gives a damn why a code of values is screwed up, when it's enough to point out that it is). It's a fun experience; it tries hard, for a work of exploitation cinema, to sympathize with its youthful audience and to encourage them to resist the things they see around them that are wrong. I'd always feel happy to see students of mine reading the book that the film was based on during class, when I taught in Japan.

Battle Royale 2 changes the tale a little bit. (If you're set on seeing the film, you might not want to read what follows, that surprises may be as fresh as possible). The students in the class that are chosen for the contest aren't pitted against each other, but set on a mission to find a survivor from the previous film, who has organized with other survivors and become a terrorist devoted to killing adults and opposing the Battle Royale system. The film resembles a conventional war film in ways -- and in fact lifts scenes and visual effects straight from Saving Private Ryan, particularly when the students land, under heavy fire, on the beach of an island where the terrorists are hiding. After suffering heavy casualities along the way, they finally confront the terrorists (who didn't realize that the people they were defending themselves against were fellow students, fitted with collars, fighting only under the threat of death). As will be obvious to anyone watching the film, so it's not much of a spoiler, the students, with minimal convicing, abandon their mission and, freed of their collars, join the terrorists' ranks.

Sounds like a straightforward follow-up, but where the film becomes a truly weird experience is that the terrorist "heroes" are equated very clearly with Al Qaeda; their initial act of terror which they are being hunted for is decimating two towers in Tokyo; and their hiding place, when not on the island, is, believe it or not, Afghanistan. There is ample speechifying about oppressed people standing together against their common enemy, and a list, cited twice, of all the countries in the world that America has bombed in the last 60 years; and even though the direct enemy in the film is the Japanese government/ educational system/ etc, there is ample reason to think that "killing adults" is a figure for resisting American global domination, which is made the target of a couple of choice tirades. The film is clearly on these kids' side, too; it seems to be meant to appeal to any Japanese kid who rooted for Osama bin Laden during the initial round of the war on terror, who wished they too could take up arms against America.

And some did, too; I have firsthand knowledge, talking to a disaffected, pot-smoking 20something high school drop out and shoplifter named Teru, who I briefly was buddies iwth over there, about how he was so happy Osama wasn't caught, how glad he was that America had been attacked. For all the more highly-advertised emulation of American pop culture that one finds in Japan, for all their overt subordination to American political power, under the surface, resentment of America is extremely strong there, and in Teru's case was coupled with a complete ignorance about the realities of what life is like under fanatical Islamic dictatorships. I mean, Afghanistan under the Taliban is hardly an icon of freedom from oppression (particularly given that half the survivors in the film are women). So what we're witnessing in Battle Royale 2 is pure fantasy of the queerest sort; innocent kids who, knowing very little, but wanting some hero to identify with, are choosing to identify with terrorists resisting America. Well. What could be a cooler fantasy, really? (for an angry 15 year old who is profoundly ignorant of the world, in the special way that, among first world nations, only the Japanese are insular and mis-educated enough to be).

So this is a phenomenally confused film, but like I say, I'm fond of it. There's a desire to believe in something, to have some sort of cause that can be identified with; in that the film goes so far off the mark in finding an acceptible one, it reveals more about the sincerity and naivete of the filmmakers than it does about its alleged subject, and it's hard not to feel just a bit protective of them and of their work, however grotesque it is. It's not unlike the protective feelings I get when I see people praying in church, the odd times I end up in one: I get sentimental about belief, and somehow, the more misguided it is, the better.

What else can I say? The film has ample violence, an excess of Japanese sweetness and a dozen too many declamatory, posture-filled speeches designed to prove the intensity and more-makoto-than-thou sincerity of their speakers. It has cameos by Beat Takeshi and, get this, Sonny-fuckin'-Chiba. There are strangely compelling images of 15 year old Japanese girls, cute as pie, firing machine guns at attacking soldiers. There's a really strange scene involving a teacher who also is fitted with a collar, turning up in the midst of battle wearing a rugby uniform. I don't know how to justify it, but I really quite enjoyed this experience, dizzy as it left me.

In case you're curious, you can read other reviews of it, mostly bad, here.

By the way, you can find bootlegs of the film on DVD, if you know where to look, in Chinatown. They cost under $10 each, are region free, and, as far as I know, are the only way to currently see it in North America. (I also scored the Korean blockbuster Silmido and the late Fukusaku Kinji's Battles Without Honour or Humanity there today; he directed Battle Royale and co-directed Battle Royale 2, which his son Kenta took over after he died. Oh, and I found Miike Takashi's Izo, but alas, there are no subtitles for the wonderful songs by Tomokawa Kazuki, which were my favourite part of the film. Oh, and I found the classic Chinese propaganda/horror film The Men Behind the Sun, I think it is -- there's no English on the case, just Chinese characters and the numbers 731, but it looks right. That's a film I've always been scared of seeing... Hint to videophiles: go spend the day in Chinatown).

Post script: with thanks to Dan, I thought I should point out that the IMDB discussion on the America-bashing in this film is somewhat entertaining to read...

No comments: