Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Battle Royale With Cheese

For a few individuals, notoriety is not a curse, but a gift.  Notoriety is a cruel mistress. Some are broken under her stiletto heel, while others seem to thrive. And there's no way to know where you reside on that scale until Fate's Dominatrix straps on her skin-tight leather outfit, ties you to a chair, slaps that weird leather mask with the zipper for the mouth on your head, and pulls out her whip. When that happens, only two things are certain: 1) in this game, there is no safety word, and 2) your life will be irrevocably changed from that point forward, for better or worse.

Despite a general broadening of horizons, widespread desensitization to concepts traditionally constructed as provocative, and technological and social advancements allowing for more open discourse, true artistic notoriety is still far from being an endangered species. This is due in large part to two basic human urges: 1) the urge to take offence at almost anything and 2) the urge to rebel against authority or to construct our identity as opposed to the mainstream and so remain "unique."

Both of these opposing forces help explain the mystique surrounding Battle Royale, a little cinematic gem from Japan first released way back in that turbulent time known as the year 2000 (also known by fans of 20th century video games as the year of countless predicted forms of apocalypse and Flight of the Conchords fans as the time of the great robot uprising). I'm not sure exactly what happened to delay the release of this movie in North America for twelve years. The most commonly espoused story is that the movie was so violent and so disturbing that it's release was simply banned outright like gay marriage. This is, in fact, the story I was told and the story I chose to believe ever since I heard about Battle Royale way back in 2002. 

It was a sort of romanticised vision of things. I don't remember the last time I've derived so much pleasure from a movie I hadn't even watched. For ten years, I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of Battle Royale. First off, I was in "the know."  Few people on this continent outside of a select circle even knew the movie existed, so I immediately felt like I was part of something bigger. I was in on some sort of cultural conspiracy. I got the satisfaction that comes from the sense of superiority of knowing something a lot of other people don't seem to know. I also derived satisfaction from being more open-minded and cognitively accepting of a broader range of artistic and philosophical pursuits than the oppressive, amorphous Authority that had banned this no-doubt stunning piece of cinema based on archaic views on depictions of sex or violence. Third, the knowledge that Authority had banned this movie and was one literally one step away from organized, Nazi-style book burnings and fascist midnight rallies where names of suspected dissidents were bandied about like so many cans of Pringles and mob mentality had taken over as the townsfolk were whipped into a frenzy by their charismatic leader and encouraged to take up arms, grab their torches, and go door to door, neighbourhood by neighbourhood on a witch hunt, dragging people from their beds and forcing them to swear undying and eternal allegiance to the Regime under punishment of extreme, sadistic torture and full frontal lobotomies gave me the feeling that I was on the side of Right and Good, armed with the blades of Logic, my loins girded with the impenetrable armour of Reason.      

Ultimately, the concept of Battle Royale allowed me to embrace my rebellious nature, at least inside my own head. But maybe that's where it matters most. Either way, for me the notoriety surrounding the film afforded an emotional outlet to stick it to The Man (in a totally non-gay way, of course). Embracing this type of notoriety is a way to rebel against authority in a socially safe and acceptable way, much like people ride roller coasters to court death in a socially safe and acceptable way.

Earlier this year when Battle Royale was finally released in North America after all these years of perseverance, I felt a twisted sort of vindication. Finally, the silent rebellion had broken the evil brotherhood of Hollywood censors and religious zealots that had conspired to oppress Artistic Expression, and were no doubt mere steps away from locking away artists who opposed the status quo in Guantanamo Bay with all the other terrorists and lost souls. As I shelled out the money for the four-disc collector's edition Blu Ray (what else?) I looked the cashier in the eye with pride. He looked at me as he handed me the bag emblazoned with the letters HMV - the letters of freedom - and gave me a small nod as if to say "Well done. Stay the course, brother." And I returned the gesture as if to say "Fuck yeah!" It was then I realized the Nod of Approval had become the secret handshake of Western counter culture, a secret code to identify ourselves to each other in the open without drawing attention from the forces of darkness that sought to divide and conquer us in the worst ways imaginable.

Of course, it had never occurred to me that the reason for the long-delayed North American release of Battle Royale might have just as easily been due to something as mundane as disputes over licencing fees, a fairly plausible theory I read over at IMDB. Another theory was that it was a form of temporal censorship, what with memories of the Columbine high school shootings fresh in people's minds at the time of this movie's release.

It wasn't until I finally watched Battle Royale that I realized A) how fucked up the premise of the movie actually is, and B) how much I have become desensitized to depictions of violence. Battle Royale takes place in a distopian future (Is there any other kind?) where each year a random class of high school students is chosen to compete in a no-holds-barred fight to the death. The competition takes place over three days, during which time they must kill their fellow classmates or risk being killed themselves. And the motivation for killing your fellow students? At the end of the three days if there is still more than one person left alive, everyone will be killed. Before each student is sent out, he or she is given a duffel bag with rations and a random "weapon," which could be anything from an Uzi or a hand grenade to a pair of binoculars or a pot lid (which actually turns out to be a pretty effective weapon). To keep track of all the students, each is outfitted with a nifty and stylish electronic collar which contains a GPS and a microphone, as well as an explosive device powerful enough blow their heads off. And just for fun, the secluded island where the competition takes place is divided into grids, and every couple of hours one of these areas becomes a danger zone where the electronic collars will automatically blow up just to keep the students on their toes.

Too revealing for a Bar-Mitzvah? 
What do you mean?
And yes, if that sounds familiar it's probably because there's a watered down version of the same story called The Hunger Games that is currently circulating through Western culture in both book and movie form. I can't even begin to fathom the glaring inconsistencies of the fact that the same subject matter that was regarded as controversial in Battle Royale (whether it actually led to a ban or not) to be considered massively entertaining when presented in The Hunger Games in the form of a Hollywood blockbuster starring hot young Hollywood actors. Needless to say, if you're not a 13 year old girl then Battle Royale is probably more your cup of tea.

It was about a month ago now that I first witnessed Battle Royale with my wife, and Ryebone who was safely duct taped to a kitchen chair following his shenanigans prior to watching The Experiement. I remember it was about halfway through and I made some comment about how the violence wasn't as extreme as I thought it would be, and how some big name Hollywood films were more violent, and I didn't get the controversy, until my wife pointed out to me that the premise was high school kids killing each other. It took several minutes for that statement to sink in and then I realized what kind of demented psychopaths the Japanese really were. When it finally hit me - kids killing kids - I felt like some strange fog had been lifted. While Battle Royale wasn't the most sadistically violent film I'd ever seen (After watching Ichi the Killer I had to take a shower because I felt so dirty.), the premise is really fucked up.

My friends?  They, uh, got lost. Yeah, lost.
And that's when the realization about my desensitization to depictions of violence hit me like a ton of bullets. You'll notice the specificity of the language I use here when I distinguish between a desensitization to depictions of violence as opposed to a desensitization to violence itself. This semantic differentiation is important to make, especially in the context of the ongoing debate about the potential effects of portrayals of violent actions in movies and video games on the minds of our citizenry, particularly children. 

Whenever an extremely violent act is perpetrated against some unsuspecting victims, these days there is a tendency by some advocacy groups and irresponsible media outlets to respond with a knee-jerk reaction, blaming various forms of artistic expression for the actions of the individuals who carry out these heinous acts. I won't deny that our perception of the wold is influenced to some degree by the cultural context in which we exist, and there are sociological factors which contribute to cognitive development. What I will argue, however, is that there is not a simple, one-to-one, cause-and-effect relationship between witnessing depictions of violence and committing violent acts. The distinction that no one seems to make is that while watching somebody's head get blown up in a movie I may calmly reach down for another handful of popcorn, witnessing the same thing happening on my front yard would most likely give me nightmares for years. Watching violent movies has, at the most, desensitized me to violent movies. For the vast majority of normalized people, making the distinction between fantasy and reality is not really as difficult as we believe it to be, and for the few individuals who have trouble making that distinction there's most likely a strong disposition to psychotic behaviour regardless of exposure to artistic depictions of violence. Of course, I'm no psychologist, so don't take my word for it.

Despite the fact that at first glance Battle Royale may just seem like violence porn, there are actually several significant thematic elements at play. The first is the Lord of the Flies paradigm, where free from the bounds of normalized social constraints people are more inclined to act on their "base" urges, and man's inhumanity to man, and yadda, yadda, yadda. I mean, it's been discussed to death and there's really no new insights I can offer that haven't already been examined (however crudely) by millions of high school essays dating back to whenever Lord of the Flies was written.  (Well, I mean, I could offer new insights, I just don't feel like it.) 

The second major theme is the generational clash. The whole point of the Battle Royale and pitting high school students against each other in a game to the death was in response to widespread dissidence among Japan's youth. In the movie, there is a sense of social unrest, and a sort of youthful revolt as 800,000 students walk out of their classrooms, and teachers are getting stabbed in the ass with no real consequences. So in order to curb the generational revolution before it starts, the government hopes to break the spirit of these youthful upstarts through displays of extreme violence, such as the Battle Royale, where adults demonstrate their power by showing that they can actually make young people turn against themselves in a sort of Charlie Sheen-esque type of self-destruction. While the theme of a generational clash can find relevance in virtually any historical period and any culture, I would imagine it would resonate more strongly for Asian audiences where respect for the traditions and elders of their society are held much more sacrosanct than here in the West.

On the other hand, there is a lot of enjoyment to be garnered from Battle Royale on a purely visceral level. There are some pretty unique and gruesome deaths, and a great deal of fun "What the fuck?" moments. The movie has a pretty good sense of itself, and there's some tongue-in-cheek stuff amidst all the seriousness of, you know, fighting to the death with your BFF. Something I really appreciated was the running death tally after every death/series of deaths, which to me was both comical and quite helpful, because with a class of some forty-odd students, it's a lot of murders to keep track of. 

School officials couldn't quite account for the low sales of the class pictures that year.
And as for my private little rebellion against authority, I'm kind of torn, because I was so in love with the idea of Battle Royale that I had never anticipated actually watching the damn thing. I suppose the notoriety of the whole thing has been diminished now that the movie actually has been released in North America, but it still feels more like a fringe thing that not a lot of people here know about, so I suppose I can still slate my rebellious thirst. However, this film will be one of the few where the idea of the movie and the movie itself both co-exist as separate entities, and I'll never quite be able to resolve the two.

Bottom line, Battle Royale is a great little gem to add to the collection, both in terms of quality and packaging. It's an important, slightly esoteric film to impress your friends with, and a must-have for fans of Asian cinema. I'm also a fan of physical media collection, and I can always appreciate a nice package, and this four-disc set is nothing to scoff at. It looks great, and feels heavy enough to use as a weapon should you ever be caught up in the middle of your own fight to the death. Whether it be fellow students, family, friends, or co-workers, the Battle Royale Blu Ray box set will effectively meet your bludgeoning needs. I'll give BATTLE ROYALE an 8/10 = One Creepily Silent Head Stalking His Prey on a (Mostly) Deserted Island


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