Thursday, March 3, 2011

The 25: Part 24: Battle Royale

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider the best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)

(Look there's no two ways about it. This one got away from me. I tried trimming it down but the piece didn't quite work for me. The subtitle of this project was "A Cinematic Autobiography". This entry is simply more autobiographical then most. If you just want to know what the hell I thought of Battle Royale I cheerfully invite you to skip the first 1,000 words)

Most writers don’t seem to want to discuss Ain’t It Cool New’s effect on film criticism, the way conversation skirts around an uncle imprisoned on unspecified charges when the rest of the family gets together for Thanksgiving. Yet like it or not they’ve done so much to define it. The democratized everyone with a laptop and the requisite amount of snark is a film critic model we all enjoy (?) today is thanks to AICN. I write about film on the internet, and you, presumably, read about film on it. Which means both of our roles have been by a large extent defined by AICN.

Which yeah certainly has its drawbacks. Chief among them, The Talkback, synonymous with the lowest form of discourse on the Internet for good reason. And yes they’ve got as much blood on their hands for the endless circle of hyperbole and hype that constitutes such a discouraging amount of what passes for film criticism on the internet. For me the dividing line as a reader came when they stopped doing script reviews. The Script reviews represented a no holds barred philosophy that the site simply doesn’t have anymore. A take no prisoners “We’re going to tell everyone exactly what kind of shit you’re selling” aesthic that single handedly brought down entire films. When they stopped doing that, it signaled a willingness to play ball with the studios and the site was never really the same after that. I still make AICN a daily stop over my coffee as they’re a good source of information, but there’s nothing there that is actively dangerous to anyone any longer.

But despite all that I come not to bury AICN, but to praise it. What AICN did that made it truly valuable was they for the first time opened the doors on the Hollywood sausage factory for everyone to see. Exposing the ugly world of reshoots, rewrites, and demographic focused test screenings for all the world to see, all with the studio execs standing there in their bloody aprons, blinking in the light, wondering what the fuck just happened.

Further more, AICN was there to document the DVD boom from the beginning, and as a result became a tireless advocate for older films and archival prints. I might not have much use for Knowles as a critic, but as a historian and programmer he has my full respect. It was through AICN first that I learned Criterion and Kino had the good stuff. It wasn’t just the classics, it went out of its way to get the word out on the B films the second runs. And I was introduced to a hell of a lot of films and filmmakers through AICN.

Here’s a list. just spit balling off the top of my head, of films and filmmakers I know I was introduced to thanks to AICN: Prime Cut, Shaun Of The Dead, Bullet In the Head, Sam Fuller, Brides Of Dracula, The whole of Brian De Palma, Seijun Suzuki, Darren Aronofksy, Jean Pierre Melville, Ghost World, Fight Club, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Buckaroo Banzai In The 8th Dimension, Knife In The Water, The Iron Giant, Monte Helleman, Near Dark, Mario Bava, Ong Bak, Suspiria, Brazil, Out Of The Past, Master Of The Flying Guillotine, Richard Linklater, Alfonso Cuaron, The Wicker Man, The Long Good Friday, The Grifters, The Harder They Come, The Taking Of Pelham 1,2,3, Charley Varrick, Guilmero Del Toro, Oldboy, Peter Jackson, Stephen Soderbergh Gun Crazy, Southern Comfort, Murder My Sweet.

The fact is that for all the missteps, reading AICN has made me a better and more adventurous film watcher. And if there’s one young reader of Things That Don’t Suck who will be able to say that because of me, then I will humbly consider my job a very well done one.

Which brings me to one more point (I swear to Christ we’re going to get to Battle Royale) because there was certainly one writer who was based at AICN who influenced me as a critic as well as a viewer.

I make absolutely no secret of the fact that I consider Drew McWeeny to be the primary influence on my criticism, both stylistically and philosophically. He’s my Lester Bangs. The first person to ever make me want to really engage a movie by writing about it and one of the few critics who can change my mind, positively or negatively as to whether I’ll see a movie in the theater. It wasn’t so much his prose, though that’s certainly been an influence as well (I can hope). Lucid, always readable, backed by an exhaustive knowledge of film history but never swamped in jargon, conversational without losing authority and with an occasionally employed dry absurdist wit that will burn like napalm when he spies a deserving target.

But it’s the passion he brings to bear on the films that I really try to emulate. To read McWeeny is to see modern film as a war and its history as a gift that is almost sacred. When McWeeny is truly engaged by a movie either positively or negatively he positively bleeds for it.

The other element of Drew’s criticism that I always seek to emulate is how unabashedly empowering it is. Drew never writes about some obscure film just to demonstrate how much he knows about film history. Or how nice and far his viewpoint is outside of the mainstream, or to shut down your argument with his superior knowledge. He does it to galvanize you. Snap you out of your complacency with the films that studios and marketing departments fall over themselves to spoonfeed you. I truly believe that if there’s any value to what we as bloggers do it’s in providing a counter myth. We offer other options as to what’s out there. Whether it’s older films that you’re expected to forget about, genre movies that are too disreputable to be worth your time, or foreign movies that are simply supposed to be outside the viewers purview, we point to these films and say “There are other options.” And McWeeney more then anyone else showed me how that was done.

Which brings us back to Battle Royale, which seems to me to be the ultimate AICN movie. It’s a movie staring a present day cult icon directed by a latter day one. It has a gruesome urban legend premise, but is also a genuine piece of cinema, not just a gimmick. And most of all it’s a secret handshake, one that tells you that you’re one of us. It is a movie with no marketing campaign, no outside entity trying to shove it down your throat. While there might be cooler, more obscure films to name drop, if you are aware of Battle Royale it’s for one reason and one reason only. You care about film.

Battle Royale has had a surprisingly big footprint for a film that still has not technically had an official release in the US. You can see it in Susan Collin’s Hunger Games and in the gleeful carnage of Stephen King’s (unsurprisingly a big booster of the novel) Under The Dome. The Story has become almost a phenomenon in and of itself since its ghost release, with both the novel it was based on and the subsequent manga adaptation becoming independently popular.

Some would argue that this is merely the residual influence of Lord Of The Flies. One can hardly come across a review of Royale that doesn’t make some mention of its older more respectable brother. Yet there is a small but crucial distinction in Battle Royale’s story that crucially alters its message and makes it’s finger prints completely distinct.

The difference and this is a key is that while Lord Of The Flies is a novel which derives its horror (or if you prefer it friction) from how thin societies veneer is. Aghast at how quickly Politics, Religion and good old fashioned English Good Sportsman ship fall by the wayside. When the chips are down and societies comforts, restraints and controlling influences removed it’s not long before waiting one’s turn for the conch is quickly replaced with beating in Piggy’s brains and saying one’s evening prayers morphs into worshiping a dark God made manifest by a rotting pig’s severed head on a stick.

In Battle Royale however it is society that is the cause of the madness and carnage, not the cure for it. Battle Royal is a story of institutionally enforced madness. It is not the base nature and animal instinct that forces the children to devolve into murderous savages, it’s the edict of their own government. It’s only some vestiges of decency left in them that eventually allows two of the victims to become more then pawns in the grisly game.

In short the horror of Lord Of The Flies is the horror from within. The horror from Battle Royale is all about the horror from without. Kinji Fukasaku said the message of his film was “run” and he meant it. Golding would sadly counter that there’s no way you can run.

In it’s own horribly grizzly and twisted way Battle Royale is a much more optimistic piece of work then Flies is.

The other thing that sets Royale apart from other would be copycats is director Kinji Fukasaku. Fukasaku had one of those careers that seem powered by Quantum physics, responsible for some of the absolute classics of 70’s Japanese Gangster cinema, Sympathy For The Underdog, The Yakuza Papers and Graveyard Of Honor, as well as Tora, Tora, Tora and the immortal The Green Slime and Message From Space.

While another more modern director would be all too eager to give the film a distancing ironic sheen ala Matthew Vaughnn (Or even a contemporary of Fukasaku's. Imagine the film in the hands of Seijun Suzuki or Christ forbid, Takashi Miike.) director Kinji Fukasaku remained a director of the old school. The film despite it’s rampant amount of gallows humor (most pointedly in the cheery J-Pop instructional video used to introduce the rules of the game) never makes Battle Royale enough of a joke so that we can laugh at it.

That’s the thing that makes Battle Royale linger when so much other empty shock has gone the way of yesterday’s memes. Battle Royale doesn’t want to make you laugh. It doesn’t want to amuse you or make you stop in the middle of the film to send a text telling your friends about this fucked up movie you’re watching. Fukasaku does not want you to find this cute. He wants to shock you, he wants to enrage you, he wants to sicken you. And for me at least, from the moment the chubby kid opens fire with a cross bow he’s successful. It’s engagement with the viewers by any means necessary.

Part of it’s my age. My generation was one that didn’t need to go to the movies to see footage of school kids opening fire on one another. The ghosts of Kleboid and Harris were our boogie men. Maybe that’s why Battle Royale never has the comfortable intellectual distance of satire for me, it might take a hellish amount of bureaucratic rambling to get The Battle Royale Act passed, but I found it all too plausible to believe that once it was everyone would start playing along. Many have pointed out that the act in itself doesn't make a great deal of sense. Since the class fated to battle to the death is picked at random it wouldn't be an effective deterrent. But to me that's just the perfect last turn of the screw. It's not a deterrent, it's just a petty awful revenge.

Yet Fukasaku is too crafty a filmmaker to simply try to force his outrage on you. Battle Royale is as stylishly directed and relentlessly paced as any great action movie. Juxtaposing the beauty of the island arena with the ugliness of the actions there in and once again highlighting the unnaturalness of the violence.

Envelop pushing is so often just empty sport, what makes Battle Royale such a powerful movie is that it is completely worthy of it’s premise. But it is a premise so strong and ugly that it’s doubtful an American distributor would have been able to look past it. It needed an independent voice, someone unafraid to highlight it. Luckily that’s just what it got. Luckier still there’s a whole lot more of us out there now and man if we ever start living up to our full potential…


Budd said...

Loved this movie. Went out and read the book afterwords. Regardless of how good the movie was, the book was that much better. They both work though. I didn't look at the movie afterwards as lacking. It was a very good adaption.

J.D. said...

This is a pretty incredible film and I can remember when it first came out and how a copy of the film was such a highly attainable item to have, a right passage for the discerning film buff. BATTLE ROYALE is certainly a button-pusher of a film that divides audiences - people either love or hate this film but I think that was the intention - to provoke a response from the viewer.

I'd love to see Criterion give this an official release on Region 1 but I heard that the company that owns the film has made pretty outrageous demands which probably means we won't see a release over here any time soon.

Paul D. Brazill said...

Top film. Good post,too.

Neil Fulwood said...

Didn't realize 'Battle Royale' was so under the radar in America. It got fairly good distribution in the UK; I saw it on the big screen and bought the DVD just a few months later.

Great piece, Bryce. Good call, too, on how essential AICN used to be. Like you, I found the site worked best when it lifted the lid on the sheer fucking stupidity of the studios. As a place to go for film criticism, however, it's way down on the list.

le0pard13 said...

Wonderful post, Bryce. I appreciate the discourse and influence AICN had on you as much as your look at Fukasaku's seminal film (plus, any film that has the great Takeshi Kitano in it is always going to be highly watchable in my book). As J.D. said, it's a button pushing film, but it's going to make think AND react at the same time (whether you like it or not). Enjoyed this. Thanks.

StephenM said...

I love this movie. And I think Drew McWeeney's great, too. I never really read AICN, probably because I only rally started reading movie blogs over the last two years. Their site is so defiantly low-tech now that I have no idea how to navigate it. Occasionally I'll just try to surf around it, but it's just hard to read. I read McWeeney at HitFix, though.

What do you think of the extended cut of Battle Royale? I much prefer the original myself, but it seems like the extended one is more popular and easier to find, probably because of the extra blood.

Hans A. said...

The other literary comparison that BR gets is to "The Most Dangerous Game;" and that influence is fairly overwhelming throughout the film. One of the things that I've always taken from that short story is the examination on what motivates a human to kill another. Some are reticient, while some are in their natural element. Chiaki Kuriayama made herself a household name with her performance. She's amazing in the film and as the film progresses, she reveals herself a born killer.

Fukusaku was an interesting film maker. He always blended his social criticism with sensationalism, kind of like Samuel Fuller or like fellow countryman, Kihachi Okamoto. What is so provocative about this type of filmmaking is its near-hypocritcal approach. Yes, Fukusaku is commenting on youth violence (which apparently had spiked in the culture around the time BR was made); but he is also attempting to entertain his viewer with his violence.

Beat Takeshi, who is usually super stoic, is fantastically animated and cruel in this one. His character is so sinister; yet that initial scene in the hallway where he encounters the violent teenager makes you side with him at least a little. Battle Royale is almost like the adults versus the children in a zero-sum game.

Also interesting, BR and Miike's Ichi the Killer were the first two films to get a R-18, restricted rating in Japan. Both merit the rating.

I enjoyed reading your take on the film, Bryce, and I hope you have a good weekend. Be cool.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Budd: I agree, the book is certainly worth reading in it's own right and I recommend everyone to do so. It's rare that two takes on the material can both work so well in different ways.

@ JD: Oh man Criterion would own on this film. That's one I wouldn't mind getting the double dip on. But I kind of like this movie's status as the last of physical bootlegs. I mean in the bit torrent era everything's different. But its kind of nice to have one last movie where you have to get it through Bootleg. I mean jeez in an error when you can own a legal copy of The Holy Mountain what's left?

@ Paul: Thanks much appreciated.

@ Neil: Huh that's funny, it bordered on urban legend here for a while. I guess it's the reverse Reservoir Dogs.

But yeah now that McWeeny's gone I rarely read the criticism on AICN. Though Masswyrm is occasionally good for a laugh.

@ le0pard13: Thank you sir. Yeah when you write a 2,000 word review and barely get to mention Kitano you know you've got a lot to talk about.

@ Stephen: I continue to enjoy McWeeny on Hit Fix as well. Even if he's gotten a bit more vindictive over there. Then again, you can't look at so much laziness over so long a time without getting pissed off.

I wasn't aware there where too cuts of BR. Honestly I'm not even sure which I have. I'll have to investigate.

@ Hans A: Nice point on The Most Dangerous Game.

But REALLY nice point on The Sam Fuller connection. I never made it but that's a dead on description of Fukusaku. Nicely done.

I'm not familiar with Okamoto's films but I plan to change that ASAP. Any recommendations on where to start?