Thursday, March 22, 2012

Culture Shock 03.22.12: Before 'Hunger Games,' there was 'Battle Royale'

Stop me if you've heard this before.

An authoritarian government takes children from their homes, drops them in an isolated setting and forces them to fight to the death until only one survives.

That's the plot of "The Hunger Games" — based on Suzanne Collins' best-selling young-adult novel of the same name — which opens Friday in theaters nationwide.

It's also the plot of "Battle Royale," a controversial film that became a blockbuster in Japan more than a decade ago but is only now reaching our shores — officially, anyway.

Until now, Americans — even Netflix — had to rely on imported DVDs from Asia and the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, "Battle Royale" has a small, but loyal, following in the U.S., despite not getting an official release here until this week, when Anchor Bay Entertainment issued "Battle Royale" on Blu-ray and DVD in order to capitalize on the "Hunger Games" hype.

Like "The Hunger Games," "Battle Royale" began as a novel, in this case by Koushun Takami. "Battle Royale" then inspired a manga adaptation, published in America in 15 volumes.

This English- language translation by American comic-book writer/illustrator Keith Giffen, upset some fans because it added a "reality television" element — absent in the Japanese version — that ended up prefiguring the reality-show element in "The Hunger Games."

But the similarities between "The Hunger Games" and "Battle Royale" really end there.

"The Hunger Games" is ultimately a PG-13 movie aimed at kids and starring a likable heroine with a silly name — actually, everyone in "The Hunger Games" has a silly name — who serves as a role model for girls everywhere.

"Battle Royale" is nihilistic, brutal, bloody, darkly satirical at times and, without giving too much away, the kind of movie in which any character you think of as a likable role model is going to end up dead, probably done in as much by their own naivete as anything else.

In the movie, which differs somewhat from the book, the Battle Royale program starts in response to a student strike.

It's an effort by the government to assert control over an increasingly rebellious youth population.

To that end, each year a class is sent to a remote island where its members must kill or be killed.

Apparently, Battle Royale is what happens when governments don't have wars to send their youths off to die in.

While some of the students break off into groups and try to cooperate with each other, they have to fend off attacks from above in the form of psychotic teacher Kitano and from within in the form of equally psycho classmates. Some of them, however, have a plan to fight back, provided they can hold off disaster long enough to carry it out.

Here's the twist: Unfettered death and mayhem perpetrated by teens on teens has never been so much fun. "Battle Royale" is sick and twisted entertainment for people who realize the whole idea of making children kill each other is sick and twisted.

So, you might as well roll with that.

"Battle Royale" is the master work of the late director Kinji Fukasaku, otherwise best known for the loopy, over-the-top sci-fi epics "Message from Space" and "The Green Slime," as well as the Japanese sequences of "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

And it stars the great comedian and actor "Beat" Takeshi Kitano in the deadly serious role of a former teacher who methodically ensures the 21 boys and 21 girls of class 3-B get down to the business of killing one another.

It all reaches absurdist heights.

But in the absurd is usually where you find the deepest truths.

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