(Originally posted on 2/24/04)
A metaphor for adolescent angst? A satiric look at 21st century Japanese society? Or merely a twisted, trashy black comedy about kids forced to murder each other? Either way, Kinji Fukasakuâ€™s hilariously energetic Battle Royale -- a jazzed-up hybrid of Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, and â€œSurvivorâ€ based on the novel by Koshun Takami -- races along with the swift, brutal precision of a samurai sword cutting through cotton. In a dystopian near-future plagued by delinquent kids and skyrocketing unemployment, Japan decides to perform some corrective surgery on its population by placing one class of students each year on a remote island, giving each boy and girl a weapon and a map, and having them play a three-day game of â€œlast man standing.â€ The kids -- nerds, outcasts, drop-outs, bullies, sweethearts, and various other high school archetypes -- either ruthlessly embrace the gameâ€™s kill or be killed ethos or simply refuse to participate by committing suicide. Fukasakuâ€™s film has a throbbing, bloodthirsty verve, and the sports ticker text that announces each kidâ€™s death (and provides a count of how many are still alive) gives the action its chilling gallows humor. In gauzy flashbacks, we witness the kidsâ€™ turbulent former lives -- Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) lives in a foster home because his mother ran away and his father committed suicide, while bitchy elitist Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki) battled a drunken, whorish mother and her pedophilic paramour -- and this underlying portrait of parental neglect becomes a possible explanation for Japanâ€™s youth run wild. Takeshi â€œBeatâ€ Kitano is creepily transfixing as the former teacher who nominates the kids for Battle Royale, and even if his characterâ€™s motivations are frustratingly underdeveloped, the filmâ€™s delirious bloodlust washes over most of the screenplayâ€™s deficiencies. The â€œfight the powerâ€ ending is disingenuously optimistic and one-sided, but Fukasakuâ€™s Battle Royale nonetheless provides an acute depiction of the way in which self-preservation instincts amplify teenagersâ€™ already fickle notions of friendship, loyalty, and love.