Friday, June 05, 2009
Movies: Royale with cheese.
Konnichiha, Screamers and Screamettes!
Today, we're going to discuss Battle Royale 2, the cinematic blunder that put paid to the Battle Royale cross-platform Japanese sci-fi actioner juggernaut with a sizable cult in the States. But, before we get ready to royale, a little backstory . . .
The rise and fall of the Battle Royale franchise, the popular Japanese novel that became the cornerstone of a tiny multimedia fiefdom, is an interesting case study in how a work can shift and adapt as creators and audience members negotiate the essential meanings of a work. What makes Battle Royale so interesting is that, in this case, this mutability turned out to be the franchise's greatest strength and its complete undoing.
The Battle Royale franchise began in 1999 with the novel by Koushun Takami. The novel tracks the violent deconstruction of a class of junior high students caught up in the government's Battle Royale program: a surreal war game (which Japan – now the central nation of the Republic of Greater East Asia – has been running annually since 1947) that pits students against one another in a bloody, fatal combat. The students are armed and dumped on a desert island. They must kill one another until there is only one student left. Failure to follow the rules of the game is punishable by the detonation of a lethal collar each student has been fitted with. If the students fail to kill at least one of their classmates within a 24-hour time period, all the collars explode and everybody dies.
Packed with action, the book is a bizarre and ruthless thrill ride that manages to take time out for a few sex scenes (who wants to die a virgin, right?), some political ranting, and some less-than inspired pop-psychology. It's a bracing read that constantly teeters on the edge of collapsing into utter stupidity. The problems that threaten to undermine the book will last with series in all its incarnations.
First and foremost, the premise, while arresting, becomes unworkable on closer inspection. Why would anybody subject kids to this? The reason given in the book makes no sense. The BR program exists to "teach kids a lesson" about how the government can do whatever it wants to them. That's all good and well except that most of the kids you're teaching this lesson to are dead by the end of the program. Also, as the book makes clear, kids seem to be shocked when they find themselves part of the program. Let's ignore the weirdness of the fact that all children are subject to a death-lottery, but none of them seem to know it. Instead, ponder the futility of this death match in the face of what seems to be the kids' utter ignorance of the BR program. Furthermore, isn't it clear that the lesson that is really being taught is that the government is a bunch of sick bastards and you shouldn't trust them any further than you could throw the Shin Maru Biru? Every time the premise is revisited in later films and sequels, the reason for the BR program will be reworked; and yet, no filmmaker or writer will be able to cook up a notably better reason for the existence of the BR program. It's a deus ex machina: The BR program only really makes sense as an excuse to send a bunch of young children to their violent deaths.
The second major flaw sticks out most glaringly in the book and later manga adaptations, but it clings to the movie adaptations as well: In order to keep the action of the book cracking, Takami had to make his kids hyper-proficient in all manner of militaristic activity. Not only do surprising large percentage of the children in the novel seem suddenly proficient wielding all manner of weaponry, they manage to build explosives, they possess the knowledge to hotwire automobiles, and are otherwise are physically and mentally equipped to engage in full-on action hero daring-do.
These are major sticking points in the novel and it is a measure of the book's pulpy power that it is able to shoulder right past these completely reasonable objections. The stomach-churning spectacle of watching these children have at one another is enough to keep the reader focused. This dynamic will hold true for all later incarnations of the franchise.
Submitted for 1998 literary contest, the novel was ejected due to its controversial content. Released the next year, the book went on to become a sensation. Originally, Takami wrote the novel as an indictment of the youth of Japan. The post-war generations had, he felt, grown progressively softer and softer. The war had given the older generation a distinct sense of Japan's collective destiny and an appreciation of the importance of personal sacrifice. By contrast, Takami found the modern youth of Japan shallow, automaton consumers, with personalities borrowed on loan from cut-rate mass entertainments. Takami wasn't alone in this assessment. Called the "bean sprout generation," the Nipponese analog to our own Generation X was the subject of endless headshaking cultural studies and hysterical op-ed pieces. (Though, honestly, the Japanese didn't know how good they had it: While the 1990s was the nadir of a nation-wide economic crisis brought about by the boomer era corporate class, the Land of the Rising Sun didn't get the double-barrel pointblank blast to the face of the dotcom burst and the po-mo financial shenanigans that adult Gen Xer's aimed at America.)
This cynical take on Japanese youth culture was woven throughout the book. Most of the students are, by design, completely interchangeable. They speak in quotations from pop songs and films and television. Those students that are individuated are, more often than not, sinister. One is a nymphomaniac serial killer. The worst of the students – a brain-damaged sociopath who volunteered to be part of the game – is described as being literally without emotions or reasoning capacity. Even the good students are fairly vacuous. They are less moral beings than beings that happen to have absorbed messages that make them reluctant to kill, second hand pacifists who got their notions of non-violence from PC rock stars.
But, the ultimate meaning of any work depends on the reader as much as the writer. Battle Royale hit Japanese youth culture like a neutron bomb. They read the work as an elaborate metaphor for the crushing standardization crucial to the numbing hive-society of post-war Japan. In the naked social Darwinism of the BR game, Japan's young saw an allegory for the pressures of conformity. Despite his own "get off of my lawn"-ism, Takami and his novel became unlikely icons of a youth culture in revolt. It's scandalous connection to a mass stabbing – a madman wielding a short sword went ape in a crowded Tokyo shopping district credited it as an influence – actually boosted its status, giving it the gravitas that bloodshed instantly, if undeservedly, grants texts. (Remember, Screamers and Screamettes, the words of Oscar Wilde: "Dying for something does not make it true.") Takami quickly realized where his bank was and adapted to the role of youth spokesperson with admirable flexibility. If asked now about his book, he is quick to explain that its satiric target was always the square world of the adults. He's with the kids now.
Strangely, angry youth weren't the only ones who found the book spoke to their anti-authoritarian sensibilities. Kinji Fukasaku, veteran director of the legendary Yakuza Papers series, was reminded of his own war era youth. During the war, Japan would draft entire classes of school children to support the war effort. Fukasaku's class was drafted and put to work in a munitions factory. When that factory was destroyed in an attack, many of the children from Fukasaku's class were killed. For Fukasaku, the premise of the book was barely metaphorical.
Fukasaku's 2000 film Battle Royale is a film that rises above its novelistic source material. Although neither the screenwriters or the director were more able to make the BR Program makes sense than Takami was and their decision to create a more sympathetic teacher character that would connect the death game to the students' past falls flat, they elevated the role of the students and reframed the story to explicitly create a kids-versus-adults tale in which the kids are innocent victims of grotesque adult tyranny. The film is explicit in its pacifist sympathies (though the viewers could be forgiven if they find this philosophical viewpoint hard to swallow when it is served up with such a heaping helping of gory and explosively thrilling violence). References to the most sinister students get blunted. In the novel, for example, one of the students ran a Lolita prostitution and blackmailing racket prior to her selection for the game. In the novel, this same character has sex with several of the males in the class during the game as part of a black widow strategy for offing the better armed, stronger male competition. In the film, her overt sexuality and criminal background are toned down to the point that one really needs to have read the book to pick up on any hint to her past. This softens the students and helps build audience sympathy. The film also cleverly tweaks the rules of the game to add a countdown dynamic to the conflict: In the film, there must be only one student left at the end of three days or everybody dies. These changes make the film both dramatically and thematically stronger.
This first film is, for my money, the high point of the franchise. Despite some awkward CGI blood splatter, the action in the film is grabbing. The teacher subplot is a dead end, by the restrained surrealism of Beat Takeshi's performance as the program director gives his scenes some needed irony. The film's overt sympathy with the children not only give the film a heart, but it allows the director to fashion them into heroes. Finally, this same sympathy takes the books stunted characterizations and reworks it into a often moving representation of young people in the grips of something so large and horrific that their inarticulateness is sign of poignant vulnerability. Battle Royale is a very good film.
Though the film opened to decidedly mixed reviews – including strongly worded attacks from government officials who saw the film in a special screening prior to its release – it made bank and ended up getting nominated for best picture at the Japanese Academy Awards. (It won the JAA Audience Popularity Award, but failed to take home best picture.)
The franchise's next incarnation was a 15 volume manga adaptation. Started in the winter of 2000, the manga was originally conceived as a faithful adaptation of the novel. For example, the sympathetic teacher-figure is replaced by a leering, sadistic creep that is more reminiscent of (though more extreme) the program leader in novel. However, as work progressed, the manga's creative team started taking the work in its own direction. Allegedly, the manga creators' started to roam off the reservation because they "cared for the characters." This popular reading of the manga is supported by the fact that much of the manga is dedicated to fleshing out the backstories of the students, with several volumes-worth of work dedicated to events that occurred before the students were selected for the game. I personally find this reading unconvincing. What is really notable about the manga is how thoroughly it embraces the grotesque and exploitative aspects of the original concept. In the original novel and the film, for example, the fate of the woman who runs the orphanage that is home to two of the students is never discussed. In the manga, she objects to the use of her young charges in the program. For her insolence, the program director rapes her and then has his soldiers kill her. This despite the fact that he snatched the kids on a school trip, so there's no reason whatsoever that he would ever have to confront the woman who runs the orphanage; that he's got the law on his side and can draft whoever he wishes, so her objection is irrelevant; and that presumably nobody wants their kids drafted, but we don't see the program director rape and kill his way through every set of parents involved.
Turning the program director in a clearly insane madman is typical of the "this goes to eleven" approach that appears throughout the manga series. Where the novel treated the students as mini-adults without much interior life and the movie accented their horrible awkward vulnerability, the manga relishes ripping them apart, stripping them of their clothes, and otherwise shoving the taboo breaking nature of the work in front of the reader. In fact, there are several scenes that, given current US laws concerning the illegality of even drawn representations of explicit underage sex, make the book too questionable to risk owning, in my opinion.
(As an aside, another reason not to buy the manga is that Tokyopop, the company responsible for its American publication, took extreme liberties with its translation. Most notably, they used new dialogue to change the BR program from some weird "The Lottery"-ish blood sacrifice to the ever-hungry ghost of Japanese militarism into that lamest of cultural expressions: a reality TV show. Not only does this not work thematically – the idea that all these resources would be squandered on a reality show that also required 40-odd families a year sacrifice their children is the least believable and least resonant motive of all the various motives put forth for the program – but it does not even work on a literal basis as the plot requires that the children not be under constant visual surveillance. The mishandling of Battle Royale, and the subsequent revelation that many other titles were similarly botched, has been a PR fiasco that Tokyopop still has yet to completely live down.)
The manga was the beginning of the end for the Battle Royale franchise. A soulless exercise in shock schlock, it added a strain of pointless extremism to the franchise that poisoned the well and doomed further efforts to make the idea meaningful.
Which brings us to Battle Royale 2: the uneven and unsuccessful 2003 sequel to 2000 film. Humorless, self-important, wrong-headed, self-righteous, and dull, it is hard to think of a sequel that did a greater disservice to the original. Even the full title - Battle Royale 2: Requiem - smacks of the pompous pretension of the flick.
The second BR film opens with an explicit reference to the WTC attacks. After we get some exposition telling us that the survivors of previous BR programs have banded together and formed an anti-adult terror group, we watch them detonate and collapse several skyscrapers in Tokyo.
Then we get a short bit of the daughter of the program director form the original film. Apparently she holds a murderous grudge against the survivors of the first flick, whom she blames for the death of her father. This is, in fact, waste work since, as we'll see later, kids in these flicks are compelled to fight, so it doesn't matter what your motives are. Fight or die: Them's the rules and it doesn't take some tortured past to make these kids go at one another.
The action proper of BR2 starts much like previous film: a bus-load of school kids is shanghaied by the police state government for their death game program. Curiously, like the students of the first film, they seem to be oddly unaware of the BR program despite repeated scenes of media frenzy regarding the winners of the program. If you were a ninth-grader in this alternate history Japan, don't you think you'd avoid bus trips?
"Where's your field trip permission form Tajiri?"
"Oops, forgot it again. Tell you what: You guys should just go without me. I'll just stay here and read about, you know, not being stuck in some hellish hybrid of Sweet Valley High and The Running Man."
"I'm unfamiliar with your pop culture references. They seem uncharacteristic for a male junior high school student from contemporary Japan."
"We don't have junior high school either, teach."
"Touché. Box clever, I see."
Anyway, the panicky students are introduced to a new program director who, sadly, is pulled from the manga instead of a first film. A pill-popping doofus who seems to be doing an impersonation of Jim Carey impersonating an Elvis impersonator, the new director is painfully hard to watch. This new director explains that, under the new BR rules, the captured kids are going to be sent against the terrorist group, called the Wild Sevens after a popular brand of cigarettes. Why send kids? The director explains this by writing the name of every country the United States has bombed in the past 20 years. Waving to this list of American shame, the campy director announces, "Life is not fair." Seriously. That's the reason for the new BR program. We're not going to send highly trained commandos or nuke the terrorist camp from orbit (the only way to be sure, I'm told) because "life is not fair." This will be typical of the film's political insight. Not only does it immediately connect the Lost Boys terror cell to the Al Qaeda group that attacked New York. It will later connect them to the Taliban – the guys who used to whip women in the streets for having the temerity to be literate – and suggest that it is part of what makes them heroic. Anything not American = good. This simplistic moral calculus will reach its nadir when several characters discuss the fact that "that country" (in the future, Japan will talk about America the way people talk about their spouse's exes) is going to Tomahawk missile the island the terrorists live into rubble. They act like this represents some great disaster despite the fact that, by the end of the film, they will all have been responsible for sending more than 40 school children to die on that island. Really, had they just let America blow the island to atoms, they could have spared the entire class. But, hey, whatever, America is the bads.
The new director describes the new rules of the game – basically the same as the old rules with the twist that you're partnered up and if your partner dies than your necklace explodes (again, why does that help the government when it means that every death takes out another of your "troops"?) – and then suits up the kids. The children are sent to the terrorists' island hideout and, in a scene that riffs off of Saving Private Ryan, the kids land in a bloodbath. This moment, a breathless blur of gunfire and horror, is the film's highpoint. It's all downhill from here.
The kids fight one another for 20 minutes or so – really tearing the crap out of one another. The students are overpowered and subdued. Eventually, the surviving students join forces with terrorists. There's a lot of incomprehensible political talk, including several speeches from the leader of the terror group that sound as if some screenwriter just chopped up and recombined political manifestos he pulled off the Internet. There's something almost profound about how little sense these William S. Burroughs-ish speeches make. If it wasn't so clear that the filmmakers genuinely believed that they had something to say, Battle Royale 2 would rank as one of the greatest satires of "social issue" films.
Finally, the government comes to the shocking realization that, perhaps, the best way to deal with a nest of dangerous terrorist is to send in somebody other than a small crew of completely untrained school children. Plan B is, apparently, to flood the island with hundreds of actual soldiers. Why they even had a Plan A is a mystery. To say that this final battle includes an extended Wild Bunch reference is to imply that it is more interesting than it really is. There is a loopy scene in which the disgraced program director suddenly appears on the island in a rugby uniform and blows up. I kid not. I've given you about as much explanation as the film will. If it doesn't make sense now, seeing the flick won't help.
Eventually, perhaps out of boredom, "that country" blows the whole damn island sky high. The end? Not yet. Apparently the island, which was far enough away to rule out a full-scale military invasion, has a tunnel to the mainland. I'm serious. A tunnel under the ocean. An engineering feat that must have rivaled the construction of the Chunnel at the very least. And, natch, the government doesn't know anything about it.
So, several of our heroes escape to Afghanistan where, presumably, they will live happily ever after in utopia that the Taliban created in Afghanistan.
I can see a filmmaker wanting to make a film denouncing the imperial era in which, despite the change in management, we seem to be living. We deserve it. We have behaved and continue to behave like assholes. However, by attempting to rework what was, at its best, a deeply personal mediation on the sins of WWII era Japan into an indictment of US foreign policy, BR2 became a smug and incomprehensible disaster. The final result is less a parable of American abuses of power than a few disorganized jabs at American foreign policy that occur in the proximity of a parable that's been gutted of its moral core. If the manga represented the gleeful dumbing down of the franchise, BR2 gives viewers the sad spectacle of a moronic concept that doesn't know its moronic. Worse yet, it is insufferably dull. Give this one a pass.
(For the completists out there, the manga had a sequel too. In the second series a class of kids is snatched and shoved into the Navy's survival program. The same thing, but with boats. I have not bothered to follow it.)