It seems like everybody these days wants to watch scores of teenagers battle to the death. The success of Suzanne Collins’ 2008 novel “The Hunger Games” has spawned two more sequels, a forthcoming film adaptation, and even a recent parody, “The Hunger Pains,” published by a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. In the course of all this mania, a few fans have reminded us that Koushun Takami’s Japanese novel “Battle Royale”—the teenage-blood-fest genre’s actual progenitor—has been all but neglected in the United States, as has its controversial 2000 film adaptation directed by Kinji Fukasaku. The film, which began its Boston-area premier last week at the Brattle Street Theater, is in-your-face entertainment at its boldest, but it ultimately suffers from an inconsistency of tone.
Set in a not-so-distant-future totalitarian state, “Battle Royale” follows a group of students selected to participate in a three-day fight-to-the-death contest set up by the government to crack down on youth insubordination and delinquency. After being briefed by their scorned former teacher, the gleefully deadpan Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), the unlucky high schoolers are each given a weapon and launched into the forest of a deserted island to either kill each other off until one survivor remains, or die en masse via remote control explosion.
Perhaps its simple concept—”Lord of the Flies” meets “Survivor”—is the greatest strength of “Battle Royale.” Set at a Brechtian distance from the characters’ misery, the audience is invited to revel in the irony that this flock of unruly youth should be set against each other in a reality show with dead-serious stakes. The cathartic spectacle is enhanced by Kitano’s performance, a vivid enactment of a teacher who has been ignored and disrespected one too many times. “Life is a game,” he pronounces matter-of-factly. “This country is no good anymore. So today’s lesson is you kill each other off.” As the doomed teenagers react to this news with panic and terror, we are not asked to sympathize but rather to laugh along with the maligned older generation.
The problem with this tone of alienation is that it is hard to maintain. The film, with its constant adolescent bloodletting, is certainly aware of its own wild envelope pushing; screen-violence guru Quentin Tarantino, perhaps unsurprisingly, endorsed it as “[the one movie] I wish I’d made.” Tarantino’s enthusiasm for “Battle Royale” is fitting given the film’s aspirations toward the outrageous, but he himself is ultimately the undisputed master of crafting a tone of alienation. When his characters accidently shoot each other in the face during casual conversation, we tend to laugh in spite of our shock and disgust because it is done in a way that illuminates the patent absurdity of everyday life, specifically in the bizarre and amoral world of modernity. “Battle Royale,” with scene upon scene of pleated-skirt-clad Japanese schoolgirls machine gunning each other to bits, wants to provoke this same kind of nihilistic effect but does not commit to it entirely. As a result, we get stuck with an emotional narrative following three specific contestants which, in the breaks between the shooting and stabbing, makes this feel like another schlocky teen movie. Sullied with a teenage romance-cum-revenge tragedy, the film confuses its own nihilistic thesis—as if “Pulp Fiction” had a subplot from “Twilight” inserted into the margins.
Like a voyeur, Fukasaku beckons us to watch as these dozens of teenagers accept, all too quickly, the every-man-for-himself mindset of the game, only to suspend the rule for the film’s protagonist, Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara), who somehow evades any of the Hobbesian debasement his companions suffer and instead maintains the moral posture of a Boy Scout.
Whatever sordid implications about human nature the film’s premise might have tried for are dashed against this paragon of the innately chivalrous main character, whose unfazed and level-headed goodness, even when thrust into a world of mad amorality, seems almost to belong in another movie. Shuya may try to shepherd the weak through the valley of darkness, but this film has established a world where only the tyranny of the evil makes any sense. At the end of the day, one can not help but wish that Tarantino had made this film, too.