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May 3-9, 2006

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Cult Leader

Japanese Nightmarez: 'Battle Royale' is satire on the edge

By Steve Palopoli

SO THE much-hyped American Dreamz turned out to be a piece of cinematic junk nobody had any use for. Here's my vote for worst trend in satires: movies that claim to be making fun of something, but really just re-create it. Scary Movie 4, for instance, isn't really a parody of horror films. It's more like a series of miniremakes with the supposed bonus of lots of people being punched in the face. Likewise, American Dreamz isn't so much a parody of reality television as it is a re-creation of American Idol with people acting slightly stupider than in real life.

That got me thinking about the few movies that have actually torn through the thick critic-proof skin of the "reality TV" phenomenon and gotten to the meat of the issue: how does the construction of one person's reality for the consumption of others dehumanize both the consumers and the consumed? There are some very Hollywood treatments of this question like The Truman Show and EdTV, but I prefer a couple of the darker and more dangerous satires. One is 1992's Man Bites Dog, a French film about a camera crew that starts chronicling the exploits of an obnoxious, murderous thug and gets in way too deep. It initially attracted a cult because of some over-the-top violent scenes, but then faced a bit of a backlash when people started watching it for the wrong reasons. The brutality is beside the point; it's really a black-comedy attack on the cinematic sacred cow that is documentary filmmaking. Another one worth a look is Series 7: The Contenders, a reality-TV parody with a clever conspiracy twist.

But the best as far as I'm concerned is Battle Royale, the Japanese jaw-dropper about a class of junior-high students forced by the government to play a game where they kill each other off on an island until only one remains. A wicked blend of Lord of the Flies, The Most Dangerous Game and the 1975 bloodsport-as-opiate-of-the-masses classic Rollerball, Battle Royale is the best cult film of the decade thus far. Too arty to be an action film, too visceral to be an art film, it's more of a broader social satire than a direct parody of the "reality" phenomenon, but it hits at a lot of the same issues. There's really nothing else like it. What makes it especially spooky is that these characters act like real teenagers, and after the initial terror of realizing their situation, they quickly adapt and revert to their dumb teen squabbles, grudges, mind games and cat fights. Only now they have machine guns and stabbing weapons to act them out with.

Because they do so, in several intense scenes, many people think Battle Royale was "banned in the U.S.", but that's not actually the case. The Japanese company that made it simply hasn't been willing, for whatever reason, to make a deal with a U.S. distributor, which has left the film's cult following stateside scraping for bootlegs from around the world. Not good enough! Battle Royale deserves the proper treatment here.

If you're a fan of the film, I also recommend reading the book by Koushun Takami, which has officially made it to the U.S. Over the course of 600 pages, you can imagine it has room to develop a tad more context. And it cleared up some questions that stuck with me no matter how many times I saw the movie, like: who the hell is that bloodstained, ragdoll-clutching girl at the beginning? Turns out she's not the previous year's winner, as most people assume, but a memory of the main character Shoyu from when he was five, his first vision of "The Program" glimpsed on a television screen: "He realized now that this was the first time he had seen an insane person. But at the time he had no idea what was wrong with her. He only felt inexplicably afraid, as if he'd seen a ghost."

Kind of how that opening, even stripped of its explanation, makes you feel as a viewer.

The movie's best addition is Takeshi Kitano as the gamemaster. The book has a different character with none of his relevant subplots, and only hints at the monstrous humor that Kitano pulls out of the role in what I think is his best performance ever.

Director Kinji Fukasaku also brings a symbolic level to the story that gets more interesting over repeated viewings: repeated flashes of ocean washing over rocks around the island seem to represent unattainable freedom, and the island playing field might be meant as a microcosm of the entire island nation of Japan.

Sadly, this edgy piece of satire that showed Fukasaku at the height of his powers was also his last film. After a 40-year career (he was best-known previously for his yazuka pics), he died in 2003 while filming the sequel to Battle Royale. His son Kenta Fukasaku completed Battle Royale 2, which hasn't yet been officially released in this country, either.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback, confessions about weird films you love and questions about that one movie you saw one time to [email protected]

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