Friday, 24 August 2012

On 24.8.12 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments
Two words I heard frequently earlier this year were "Battle Royale". This was the time when The Hunger Games was in cinemas and, while many enthusiastic youths (grumble) were praising it as the new Twilight and many others were condemning it as the new Twilight, one more interesting criticism that seemed to pop up often was that the storyline was ripped from a cult Japanese thriller entitled Battle Royale. While I hadn't seen Battle Royale myself, I agreed with Five Live's Mark Kermode, who argued that it's in the nature of genre to repeat itself - Battle Royale owes as much to Lord of the Flies as The Hunger Games does to Battle Royale. Similarity to any previous story was not the problem with The Hunger Games.

No, the problem with The Hunger Games was that it was too long, at times dry and humourless, and the camerawork was distractingly unsteady in every single shot. But the story in itself was interesting; a satire on contemporary media told through a dystopian society in which the upper classes watch selected members of the proletariat fight it out for survival. It also had a strong heroine in Katniss Everdeen, a role perfect for rising star Jennifer Lawrence.

I finally watched Battle Royale last night (thank you, Film4 and Sky+) and the first thing I noticed was that the media element of The Hunger Games isn't present here. Rather than Big Brother with guns, the main plot device behind Battle Royale is a government program to deal with the growing problem of undisciplined youths by dumping a class on an island and making them kill each other, which, frankly, makes less sense - killing off one class in secret is hardly going to solve a nationwide problem and is only going to incite further rebellion if people find out about it.

Despite this, the story which Battle Royale tells is a complex web of teenage relationships - and it tells it very well. Throughout the process, friendships crack apart as often as skulls and the teenagers are as likely to pour out emotions as bullets. Shuya Nanahera forms the romantic bond with the girl he likes as he never dared to previously, as an introverted boy rendered angry by the suicide of his father. Mitsuko, the girl who was socially awkward and disliked by others, soon becomes the most dangerous psychopath on the island. One kid, realising his death is imminent, just tries to get laid. Even the teacher running the experiment is made sympathetic; he's a lonely figure, unable to bear the behaviour of unruly students as it reminds him of the daughter that rejects him, and much more complex an antagonist than expected.

Yes, what Battle Royale does well is asking the viewer what they would do in this situation by exploring how young people of vastly varying psyches react to it (a theme I want to pick up on in a screenplay I'm writing about a group of students reacting to the news of the imminent alien apocalypse).

It's also extremely violent. From the initial classroom briefing involving a girl getting a knife thrown into her brain and a boy's neckband blowing a bloody hole through his throat, it smells of "definitely not cut to be able to get a 12A certificate". This violence shocks but never just shocks for the sake of it; it exemplifies the awful situation the characters are placed in and the finely directed, gritty action builds up a rough tension to grip the audience's attention.

The Hunger Games stands up on its own as a popular blockbuster with its own strengths and with something interesting to say, but for my money, the Japanese film that it's been compared to is the superior. Battle Royale is a deep and involving study of human relations which doesn't shy away from a bloody violence which is not exploitative but accentuates the emotion. Their plots are similar in ways but wildly different in others and there's no reason the two films can't co-exist peacefully.

I'll leave you with this hilarious joke:

What do they call The Hunger Games in France?

Battle Royale with Cheese.


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