Battle Royale 2 by Kenta Fukasaku (Review)

Battle Royale 2 takes everything that was great about Battle Royale and replaces it with something that’s formulaic, amateurish, and exploitative.
Battle Royale 2 - Kinji and Kenta Fukasaku

When I first heard rumblings about a sequel to Battle Royale, one of the more controversial (and powerful) films I saw last year, I was admittedly skeptical. But I was also intrigued. Battle Royale was an unwavering film, balancing equal amounts of satire, black comedy, gory action, suspense, and teen drama to create a film that was shocking, not just for its violence, but also for its emotional and character depth. When Kinji Fukasaku announced that he would proceed with Battle Royale 2 even after being diagnosed with cancer, it looked like the same fighting spirit that fuelled the original would be fuelling the sequel as well. Tragically, Fukasaku died just days into the filming and his son Kenta, who had written the first movie, picked up the directorial reins.

Even with the spirit of the elder Fukasaku no longer driving the movie (not from this side, at least), I still had some hope that the sequel would be a halfway decent film. There were certainly plenty of places to take the story of Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa, the two teens who had — spoiler alert! — managed to survive the first game and were on the run as murderers. But when I heard that Aki Maeda, who played Noriko, would only have a cameo role in the sequel, I was disappointed. It had been the burgeoning relationship between Shuya and Noriko that gave the first movie much of its emotional heft, and I didn’t want to see that facet of the story lessened.

Then I saw the teaser trailers that leaked on the Web, which opened up with a scene seemingly inspired by September 11th before delving into a montage of glamorized action footage that left me feeling a bit uneasy for the film’s potential. But even as other details of the movie came to light, as well as some initial reviews (that were mixed at best), I still had some hope. I wanted to believe that somehow, the power of the first film would carry over, like a wave, propelling the sequel to equal heights.

And so I decided to try and come into the sequel with somewhat lowered, more sobered expectations. Maybe, just maybe, I’d be pleasantly surprised. But alas, I realize now that I was still blinded by my anticipation. And as the movie played on (and on and on), I came to realize that Battle Royale 2 wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d heard. It was worse.

Much worse.

The sequel takes place 3 years after the original and the government still hasn’t figured out how to deal with the rebellious youth. Shuya has been branded a world terrorist and along with the rest of his cadre, a group called Wild Seven, Shuya declares war against all adults and destroys several skyscrapers in Tokyo, killing thousands. Escaping to their island fortress, Shuya and his cohorts await the backlash. However, rather than do something sensible — like a precision military strike or bombing raid — the government institutes the “Battle Royale 2” act.

The “BR2” act is just like the “Battle Royale” act — only bigger, louder, and dumber. Again, the government selects a junior high class at random, dumps them in a military compound, tells them they’re responsible for Japan’s deplorable state, and sends them out into the wilds to do battle. This time, however, the rules are slightly different.

Rather than fight each other, they’re now ordered to track down and kill Shuya. They’ll be properly armed and armored — as it turns out, Battle Royale has become quite popular and now has corporate sponsorship. And as added incentive, the infamous exploding collars are back. But in a perverse teambuilding exercise, the students are paired up, boy and girl; if their partner dies, or wanders out of range, their collar explodes as well.

After a brief explanation by their former teacher (played by Japanese cult film icon Riki Takaeuchi), the students are sent off to raid the Wild Seven compound. As they storm the beaches Saving Private Ryan style, they’re easily mowed down by Wild Seven, who don’t realize they’re killing fellow teenagers until it’s too late. Shuya and his group had assumed the adults would take them seriously, rather than send off a bunch of their peers to do the deed.

While it makes sadistic sense — it’s yet another way for the adults to strengthen their authority by having the troubled youth kill eachother off — it was at this point that I realized I was in for a world of cinematic pain. Although Battle Royale wasn’t an especially subtle movie, it feels downright mouse-like compared to the roaring rampage that is Battle Royale 2. Everything about the sequel is bigger, much bigger than the first movie. The kids are more childish, the screams are louder, the spurts of blood are messier (and also faker, thanks to lots of bad CGI), the action is more intense, the explosions are louder, and the adults are much, much more sadistic.

If I had to make a guess, I’d say that Fukasaku was so worried about failing his father’s legacy that he decided to play it extremely safe and focus on the one element he thought he could get right — the violence and action — assuming that’s what people would want to see. While understandable, this being his first directing job and all, it’s also sad. Sad because he seems to have forgotten that the original’s power came, not from the bloody violence (which was powerful, true), but from the strong characters and the powerful sense of tragedy and betrayal that permeated the film.

The kids in the first Battle Royale truly did feel like junior high students trapped in a horrible situation, and not just because the cast members really were normal junior high students in real life. Their reactions to the situation felt incredibly authentic, and it was impossible not to start pulling for them, hoping they’d somehow make it through. Of course, this also worked masterfully in building tension and suspense.

Unlike American movies, where students fall into neat little stereotypes and it’s usually pretty easy to pick out the good guys, the bad guys, and the cannon fodder, Battle Royale played no favorites and took no sides. You never knew who was next, nor did you know who would be the next to turn on their friends. In addition to making the film one heckuva nailbilter, it really did make the film all the more tragic. It was truly gut-wrenching to see a bunch of friends turn on each other in a moment of paranoia. And rather than seem gratuitous, the movie never once let you off the hook, but made you feel the tragedy of each death — even if it was the death of a bully.

But “gratuitous” is about the only word I can think of that accurately describes Battle Royale 2, and even that feels too lacking. For starters, not a single one of the kids is likable or even memorable. The kids fit into neat little stereotypes — there’s the nerd, the fat girl, the jock, the punk rockers, the bad girl, etc. — and you’re given precious little opportunity to grow attached to them. Very little background is given on any of the students, with the exception of a handful of flashbacks which feel manufactured to try and imbue the plot with a bit more depth. There’s Takuma, the “Shuya” character of the sequel, whom we learn was abandoned by his mother — but it has nowhere near the power of Shuya’s backstory. And though there’s somewhat of a relationship between him and a classmate named Nao, it’s so underdeveloped it might as well not exist.

The only student-related plot of any interest revolves around a girl named Shiori Kitano, a transfer student whose estranged father (played by Takeshi Kitano) happened to be Shuya and Noriko’s teacher in the original. Hoping to somehow reconcile with her father, whom she ignored her whole life, she signs up for the competition to track down his killers. Sadly, this plot point is sorely underdeveloped, seemingly popping up only when Fukasaku feels the movie needs an introspective moment. In one scene, she comes across a piano in the bombed out Wild Seven compound — in perfect condition, mind you — and proceeds to play a haunting melody that leads to all sorts of flashback footage. It’s so melodramatic, overwrought, and cheapened you want to choke.

By the time the students reach the Wild Seven compound, it’s pretty obvious where the movie is heading. They find Shuya — but rather than the fearless leader you’d suppose, he spends much of the movie staring sadly off into the distance, waxing pseudo-philosophical as he lights candles for the dead, or looking like he’s about to vomit. Of course, the students realize the error of their ways and join forces with Wild Seven but it’s never really clear why. Sure, Wild Seven is fighting against the BR act and adult oppression, but they’re easily the most unorganized and undisciplined terrorist group ever — but what would you expect with a leader as ineffectual as Shuya? He rambles on and on and it amounts to only so much melodramatic mumbo-jumbo, quite unlike the impassioned pleas he made in the first movie.

It’s ironic that one thing Fukasaku does focus on — the action and violence — is also poorly done. The action scenes strive to be brutal and fearful — until you realize it’s just a bunch of kids running along the beach screaming their pretty little heads off. And whereas the violence in the previous film was truly shocking, here it just becomes annoying after awhile. Dismembering, decapitation, blood pouring out of a pipe in someone’s belly — it’s so ludicrous and over the top that it has no effect whatsoever. It’s not even enjoyable as mindless fare either, because Fukasaku is so obviously trying to make a statement of some sort. Just what it is, unfortunately, gets buried by all of the gunfire, exploding mines, and overwrought melodrama.

And it’s not just with Shiori Kitano’s story or the action where Fukasaku drops the ball. With the revelation that the Battle Royale act now enjoys great popularity and corporate sponsorship, Fukasaku had an easy opportunity to make some sort of statement about media and violence. But he does nothing with it. And whereas Takeshi Kitano’s character in the first movie engendered some sympathy as you learned more about his reservations and regrets, Riki Takaeuchi is so out of place here, with his scowls, outbursts, and swaggering gait, that his change of heart (in one the movie’s most surreal and hilarious scenes, he shows up in the midst of battle in his rugby uniform to cheer on the kids) is lackluster (and that’s putting it mildly).

I could go on, as there’s much more that I could lambast the film for, but I do want to mention the film’s criticism of American foreign policy. Now mind you, I’ve no problem with a movie that tries to take America down a notch or two. Lord knows we’ve given those who wish to do so ample reason and opportunity. However, the movie’s criticism is so poorly done that it’s not thought-provoking at all, and certainly not offensive. In fact, it’s downright laughable, making for some of the most surreal and awkwardly-handled scenes in the movie.

As Takaeuchi is explaining the rules of the game to the class, he begins making a list of countries — all of which, he tells them, have been bombed by America in recent years… and that’s it. I suppose the implied threat is that, unless the students start shaping up, Japan might appear on that list (again), but it’s a rather clumsy attempt to bring some global politics into the movie. And later on in the movie, the Wild Seven compound is hit by a missile fired from America. While “America” is never actually said — they only say “that country” — it’s pretty obvious to whom they’re referring, and the adults in charge are soon seen bending over to prevent Washington from making further strikes. Again, Fukasaku attempts to impart his movie with something resembling intelligent discourse on an important issue — and fails to do so.

I also found it interesting and slightly disturbing that our heroes feel they have more in common with Middle-Eastern terrorists than anyone else. While none of this is said outright, the implications and sympathies are there. And when combined with the opening September 11-esque scenes, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth — and the fact that it’s done in such a poor, ham-fisted manner makes it even worse.

I haven’t had such a strongly negative reaction to a movie in quite a long time. And it’s not really so much out of disgust as it is sheer, unadulterated disappointment. Battle Royale 2 takes everything that was great, exciting, and passionate about Battle Royale and replaces it with something that’s formulaic, amateurish, and exploitative. It’s a real shame that this is how Battle Royale’s legacy plays out. I can only hope that future viewings of the original aren’t ruined by my memories of this train-wreck.

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