Wednesday, April 18, 2012

'Round about midnight: Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale

Posted By on 04.18.12 at 12:38 PM

Takeshi Kitano (back turned) oversees the battle proceedings.
  • Takeshi Kitano (back turned) oversees the battle proceedings.
On Friday and Saturday at midnight, the Chicago Cinema Society will present Kinji Fukasaku’s cult favorite Battle Royale (2000) at the Logan Theater. Along with the venue's recent participation in the International Music & Movies Festival, this marks an encouraging development for the newly reopened Logan—proof that the management is working to showcase movies that aren’t playing elsewhere in Chicago (according to the Cinema Society website, the theater intends to arrange further such events with the group). I’ve never been a fan of Battle Royale—along with Black Lizard (1969), it indulges in a kitschy side of Fukasaku’s filmmaking a bit too often for my taste—but I appreciate the effort to screen it in a theater, where its expertly staged gross-out effects should have the maximum effect.

For readers unfamiliar with Battle Royale, the film takes place in a future Japan overrun with juvenile delinquents. To curb the problem, the government launches a program in which a ninth-grade class is taken to a deserted island and forced to kill each other until there’s only one survivor. Takeshi Kitano, in an exaggerated comic performance, plays the gym teacher who oversees the “game.” It’s interesting that this premise triggered worldwide controversy in 2000 and then became the basis of a best-selling children’s book less than a decade later. But where The Hunger Games purports to be straight-up fantasy, Fukasaku stressed the autobiographical significance of Battle. Born in 1930, Fukasaku was around the age of the movie’s protagonists at the height of World War II; at 15 he watched a number of his peers get shot down at the munitions plant where they all worked. The movie is in some ways Fukasaku’s testament to that life-shaping event.

The movie’s violence is alternately cartoonish, thrilling, and revolting. It’s easy to see why Quentin Tarantino named the film his favorite of the last 20 years (he paid tribute to it by casting Chiaki Kuriyama, one of the movie’s leads, in Kill Bill: Vol. 1). But the film is merely the final chapter of one of the most fruitful careers in Japanese crime cinema. It’d be great if this upcoming screening kicked off a wave of Fukasaku revivals. To name just a couple of his most influential works, Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973) and Graveyard of Honor (1975) would both look great on a big screen.

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