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Watching Battle Royale for the first time in nearly a decade, and am struck, having just seen both, just how sorry and pathetic a xerox The Hunger Games really is of this film.

Excellent acting, true pathos, a real sense of attachment and emotional involvement with every single one of a 30+ character cast, most of whom were, I believe, younger than those in the US bastardization. Kinji Fukusaku shows what a real director can do with this sort of material: proper camerawork and framing (none of this nauseous shakycam, quick cutaway and overreliance on greenscreen and CG crutches), a much better script, and a more intelligent, far less blunt take on a very similar politicosocial message.

…Further, this wasn’t dumbed down and made “safe” for a pampered YA audience looking for the next emo “hottie” Twilight wannabe – killing is as brutal and disturbing as it would be in the real world (though not overdone, this isn’t a Tom Savini job).

And best of all? The message is realistic. Trust no one, at least not fully. While both recognize where things are headed, with the old and rich eating the young and poor and exploiting them to their own ends (and in both political and entertainment arenas), Suzanne Collins’ silly little lovechild would have us believe that romance and trust will save the day, and that there are no TRUE “baddies”, even in a 1%er dystopia. Even the bad guys are given a backstory, some ambiguity, a rationale, as if they’re just as well meaning as the rest of us. The real world is already showing us quite different.

You want the real version? Skip the weird looking girl and ignore your teenage daughter’s squeals of delight, and check out Battle Royale.

Drilling down a bit, we find an underlying metaphor relating to the military (in particular, the draft/conscription and the kamikaze, as Fukusaku was in fact of that generation, and in one of the extras, he’s shown describing to his young stars some of his wartime experiences (namely, when the allies landed, and how the Japanese soldiers like himself would hide under their dead friends bodies to avoid being killed themselves, but how they were simultaneously in a fugue shock state where they didn’t care whether they lived or died…).

This goes even beyond a wartime level metaphor, though, as it’s more of what’s being spoken to with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the individual fighting the insanity of society and The State by just being oneself in an existentially authentic sense), but here the metaphor becomes more pointed, the involuntary conscription even less avoidable.

This is (with Royale) a statement about a fascist leaning society who feels its youth are too out of control and disrespectful, and chooses random classes of middle school students to kill each other (whether this is actually for anyone’s entertainment doesn’t really enter into it, it appears to be more of a fascistic societal punishment scenario).

In the end, the winning couple, whose naivete and the fact that they had the good fortune to impress a returning participant who was involved for an undefined rationale crossing soul searching (his trying to figure out the meaning of his dead girlfriend’s final smile) and revenge (but against what, and whom?  By playing the game by their rules? – it seemed more suicidally motivated than anything) into covering for them and keeping them alive, were not granted anything for their survival, except a life together “on the run” as wanted criminals and murderers.

In other words, “winning” in a scenario where one’s life is not truly one’s own is in fact an ongoing loss, a Catch-22, in Heller’s phraseology, a no-win situation, where even the ones pulling the strings are losers (Beat Takeshi’s family hates him, and he goads the survivors into killing him – again, a direct suicidal motivation as “the only way out” of the “game”).

With Hunger Games, it’s more directed at where things are going in the US – touching on reality TV, a news network that exists solely for propaganda purposes (and to ensure the vested interests remain in power and keep the ostensible barbarians at the gate mollified and distracted attacking each other rather than going after the obvious villains of the piece), and a society where a very small percentage retain an absurd level of finance, power, and control of commodities while the larger portion of the society around them starves and remains under submission, to the point where they voluntarily sacrifice their young “in tribute” and for entertainment purposes (which simultaneously serve to rub it in, that they ARE under the thumb of their “betters” (whose only redeeming virtues are the fact that they have the financial wherewithal to restrict the flow of necessities to the rest of the nation…i.e. today’s obstructionist Congress; and the fact that they control the sources of information/propaganda).

But even with this timely and appropriate wakeup call to the nation as the buildup, Collins (or at least the filmic interpretation thereof) totally drops the ball by:

1.      Failing to show the horrors of war.  Far from everyone being some kind of a “hero” (a disturbing use of Orwellian Newspeak inaugurated by the Bush administration to effect a paradigm shift among the people, and prevent another Vietnam-style mass uprising against the senseless Iraq War, fought for corporate oil interests at the expense of our national debt, freedoms, and constitutional rights, not to mention all the  suicides of our soldiers that resulted therefrom), Battle Royale slams the point home, its murders are simultaneously vicious and obviously disturbing to those forced to enact them – they are quite obviously just as tortured as we are in being forced to view the spectacle.  Collins’ whitewashed version keeps its killings offscreen and “safe”, and they’re not very disturbing at all, except in abstract…much like the media was instructed to stay “hands off” with the Iraq war, and to the same end.  If no one really sees what is going on, the illusions of “heroism” and flag waving can continue unabated and without introspection or debate.

2.      Positing a wholly unrealistic solution to the problem.  Where Battle Royale is fatalistic, and posits a no win situation where the best one can hope to do is survive and attempt to retain as much of the self as possible without all this totally changing one by dint of what one is forced to do to survive in the first place, Hunger Games was very hippy dippy, “love will save the day”, “oh, if only Katniss could learn to trust (her partner, the little girl, et al)”, everything will work out just fine.  By showing a sympathetic side and hinting at some motivation behind the actions of the Capitol leaders and residents, the implication is that by understanding the enemy, everything will work out, because we’re all just swell and all want to be friends and on equal footing in the end…which unfortunately, as much as I and many of us out there might wish it, is decidedly NOT the real world.

3.      Being forced to utilize American actors, who are too prissy, Method-oriented, and accustomed to pampering on set and in the media to actually “go for it” and get into the situation, the character, the horror of it all.  I never fail to be astonished by independent, outsider and foreign film, and how far it veers from US film by committee…the bottom line is that it (being contemporary American film) remains soulless, where something like Battle Royale utilizes some actors and actresses who went on to do things afterwards, but at the time, most were “newbies”, if not nonactors…and yet, ones who really went for it, and who were not only totally believable, but actually got you to care about them, however brief their part.

Yes, part of that is the script, and part the direction, but nothing works if you have a bad actor.  And I think it says a lot that the only one who stood out to me in Hunger Games was Lenny Kravitz, a nonactor who impressed with his innate ability to handle at least what his part demanded.  Woody Harrellson was supposed to be a falling down drunk…never got that impression once, I thought he stepped in out of a bad cowboy flick.  Donald Sutherland phoned in his brief part, scowling and smirking evilly for all of 4 minutes aggregate of screen time.  I couldn’t even tell you if anyone else “of name” was in it, but they certainly didn’t build any affection or concern for their characters…while I did enjoy the movie in a “summer blockbuster” “another Twilight emo kid confection” level, it made zero impact on me on the level we’re talking here.

4.      Being forced to utilize yet another half-arsed modern director.  Again, no idea who this guy was, but his shakycam, nauseating sweeps and reliance on CG left him on the same shelf as McG and Gus Van Sant…a commercial director who should have stayed selling Coke and Charmin.

After being absent from domestic DVD for over a dozen years, Battle Royale is now available in a number of versions.  The best and most comprehensive is the 4 Blu Ray Complete Collection, which comes with about 2/3 of the extra features present on the earlier UK PAL Arrow Films set (no discernible logic for losing so many features here – Anchor Bay certainly dropped the ball in comparative extras), but a much cleaner and sharper picture than Arrow’s version (which came in a muddier blue tinted version, similar to the Asian disc being sold closer to the film’s original release).  While there are fewer extras, and both the “director’s cut” and the quite frankly abominable sequel (directed by Fukusaku’s son and wholly without merit) are utterly extraneous, this is the way to go for most interested parties.   This was originally released in a fold-out format made to look like a class yearbook, but this version was very quickly supplanted by a standard, overstuffed “Amaray” case, which is unfortunately the version I wound up with – a minor but niggling concern.

There is a film only version as well, but this one contains zero extras.  There are also DVD versions of both the film only and Complete Collection.

Accept no apparent reservations from the above and get your tail out there and pick this one up already, before Hollywood follows through on its threat to ruin…I mean “remake” it in its usual emasculated over-funded flop/tax writeoff style.