The original Battle Royale was one of the most audacious movies I’d ever seen; it used pulp-movie violence as a way of making uncomfortable points about the way society preys on its own. It was in a class by itself, and the unashamed way it treated its subject matter guaranteed that it would never be seen in the United States. Its massive (and surprising) success in Japan guaranteed a sequel, and sure enough, two years later—after the horrors of 9/11 and the subsequent responses to it—a sequel has been released, designed to capitalize on both the success of the first movie and the grimness of the times.
The bad news is that all of this ambition has not produced a worthy movie. In fact, it has produced a downright awful one. Battle Royale II: Requiem is a failure on the level of Resurrection of the Little Match Girl, so wrongheaded and inexplicable it defies rational explanation. First, it’s a retread: its setup and payoff follow almost exactly the same pattern as the first film, so the shock of surprise isn’t as great. And second, its points about terrorism and warfare are so muddled, so hamstrung by the movie’s lack of basic logic or real understanding of its subject matter, that it’s hard to tell what the real point is. That terrorism is bad? That the people who fight terrorism are often just as bestial as the terrorists? That there are stars in the sky?
I know that it’s probably not good form to compare BRII compulsively to its predecessor, but let’s face it—the movie invites the comparison so thoroughly that it becomes hard to watch it on its own terms. The original movie had an airtight logic of insanity that made it work. In an increasingly degenerate future, the “Battle Royale” act is created: every year 42 high school students would be kidnapped, placed on a deserted island and given three days to kill each other off. Only one survivor was allowed, or none. The original film ended with a group of survivors breaking the back of the system and managing to escape, and made many intelligent and strongly satirical points about society’s inclination to blame children for its own problems.
The sequel picks up two years later. The survivors have formed a terrorist group called the Wild Seven, and have been responsible for blowing up the Shinjuku Towers—one of the first images in the film, a tasteless moment which is obviously intended to exploit 9/11 for a Japanese audience. The Wild Seven have barricaded themselves on an island off the coast of Japan and have issued a declaration of war against “the adult world.” Rather than simply bomb the island flat (which would at least make sense), the government has decided to modify the Battle Royale act and draft a new batch of 42 students as soldiers to go in and take the place.
BRII’s opening scenes mime the way the original BR was set up: the students, a gang of no-future delinquents, are kidnapped out of the worst high school in Japan. (In the original, they were A students, but never mind.) Terrified and panicking, they’re herded into a garage to have the rules explained to them by an adult handler. In the original movie, it was Beat Takeshi (who also appears in a flashback cameo), whose taciturn detachment made the most horrific goings-on credible. Here, it’s Riki Takeuchi, who overacts so wildly (and badly) that he robs his scenes of any emotional power. To keep the students from rebelling, they’re paired up and tagged with electronic collars. If they stray more than fifty meters from their buddy or one of them gets killed, the other one dies as well.
Now, in the original film (I have the bad feeling I’m going to be saying that a lot here), the game was totally closed-ended. It didn’t matter how illogical or insane the game was, because it was a game. Warfare, on the other hand, is not a game, no matter what people say—it’s most definitely not a game to the combatants—and the way the movie tries to translate the logic of the original BR to a more open-ended war doesn’t hold up. If they can go through the trouble of packing up the kids, tagging them with collars, and airlifting ammo right into the warzone, how much harder is it to call in an airstrike against the so-called bad guys? Because then we wouldn’t have a movie, that’s why—something which the movie’s Grand Guignol climax only winds up proving without realizing it.
I guess the idea, again lifted from the first film, is that warfare (especially a “war” like this) is not supposed to make sense, that war is inherently absurd and illogical. Fine. But even satire of illogic is supposed to have its own logic. If we start calling the internal logic into question instead of allowing it to work naturally, the whole thing falls to pieces. Either the movie is meant to be a surreal pulp fantasy or a serious exploration of terrorism and war, so when it tries to play both sides it comes off as horridly misconceived. In that sense, the movie is genuinely offensive: not because it’s so explicit or excessive, but because it doesn’t even know what terms it’s supposed to be working on. We shouldn’t be second-guessing the film when it’s trying to slam us against a wall.
One of the few ideas the movie flirts with, not very effectively, is who the real enemy is. When the kids get their own gunned down by the Wild Seven and find their anger switching to the terrorists instead of their adult captors, that inspires a few scenes of introspection, but they go absolutely nowhere. I liked a moment where one of the girls, a diabetic, injects herself with insulin and comments, “My parent’s DNA; how about that?”—the same parents that ostensibly want her dead anyway. There is barely another moment in the movie that approaches that level of genuine incisive irony.
On a technical level, the movie is more than competent. The combat and action scenes take strong cues from the recent spate of hyper-realistic war films like Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan (especially the latter), but they wind up being weirdly unemotional. Many of the most potentially interesting characters are slaughtered so quickly, and the rest of them are never seen as anything more than a screaming mob, that it’s impossible to get to know them. A good many scenes between people are done at a fever pitch of hysteria, so the movie consists of back-to-back scenes of people screaming at each other, or shooting at each other, or screaming at each other while they shoot at each other. Things calm down a bit in the second half, but become no less misguided or uninsightful.
This all leads into another problem, one pointed out by François Truffaut a generation ago. It’s very difficult to make an anti-war film, because it often makes the experience of war vicariously thrilling. That’s definitely the problem with BRII: the combat scenes don’t have the pointed subtexts that undercut them in the first film. They’re more like straightforward action-movie filler, and they miss the point. People have argued that this is in itself the point—that the movie is “challenging” or “testing” us, or something equally pretentious. I think it’s just easier to call a spade a spade and say that the movie doesn’t have a damn clue. The war scenes are also numbingly repetitious and prolonged, to the point where the movie could have been 20 minutes shorter and not lost much of anything.
And then finally there is the movie’s attitude towards terrorism, which is just plain confused. On the one hand, the terrorists are former Battle Royale program survivors and their victims, all fighting for—what, exactly? The unalloyed right to kill adults? Or is it just the ones who are “oppressors”? In their purview (and in the movie’s, by extension), any adult who doesn’t grab guns and start smashing in heads is a collaborator. By that point we’ve come full circle to a viewpoint that is no less fascist than the one the movie claims to be against. The movie is so busy knocking down synthetic strawmen of terror and war that it never stops to examine its own unquestioned assumptions.
BRII was directed in part by Kinji Fukasaku, the incredibly prolific Japanese director who created some of that country’s most commercially successful films. He was dying of prostate cancer when he commenced production, and never completed principal photography; the director’s chair was taken over by his son Kenta, who also penned the scripts for both movies. His son has apparently learned well: the movie is never short of exciting camera movements or razor-sharp editing. He’s also done something most directors never do: make a populist movie about subjects most commercial directors would never dream of approaching. Somewhere along the way, though, the audacity of the project overwhelmed everything else about it.
There is a moment right at the end of the film that for me defines exactly what is wrong with BRII. One of the key characters turns to his comrades and says, “We’re all in this together.” The problem is, by this point, we no longer have any idea who he means by “we.” Even more depressingly, neither does the movie.