Looks like the new kids on the block are putting me to shame with their awesome posts on the site but I'm still here folks and it's time for your regular Friday instalment of 'memo to the executives'.
To most of the people who read our site, the word 'remake' usually brings the immediate reaction of violent stomach cramp. If we're talking about a remake of a popular Japanese film then add a bout of dysentery to that. It's not an instinctive snobbish attitude as the results speak for themselves. It's a genre (if it can be called such) that just doesn't have a good track record.
But there is one particular film, which was rumoured to be getting the American remake treatment, which actually sounded enticing. A film whose story and premise is both distinctly Japanese but strong enough that it could easily be reconfigured into something more palatable for a Western audience. A film which appears nothing more a typical slice of teenage slasher sadism on the surface but deals with such a potent and relatable subject matter that it stays with the viewer long after the film has ended.
For those of you not familiar with it, 'Battle Royale' tells the story of a Japan of the not too distant future which has fallen into economic and social collapse. Employment is at an all-time low and in relation to that, juvenile violence and delinquency is at an all-time high. After all, why should the youth conform to the educational system if there is no point in working hard and no prospect of a future they can aspire to? In order to quell the problem, the government puts a new system of control in places and established 'The BR Act' where by every year one class of school children is taken against their will to an isolated island location which, for the following three days, will be their battleground as they are charged with the task of killing each other. They are given a random weapon, a map, and an explosive collar fitted to their necks which will explode after the three day time limit if the game has no winner. The only way to win is to survive. The only way to survive is to ensure that everyone else is dead. The only prize is survival and the knowledge to take home of what a government is compelled to do to ensure control.
The story specifically focuses on a group of teenagers referred to only as 'class B', a typical band of truants who made life hell for their teacher Kitano (played by the legendary Beat Takeshi). Compiling the shock of being kidnapped and chosen for the next 'Battle Royale', the class find that Kitano is the man in charge of the game and takes great pleasure from watching them destroy themselves (and even gets in on the action in two cases). Providing a centre to all the mayhem as battle commences are two students who forge a deep bond and find the will to survive and protect each other, determined to escape before they will be forced to make the choice of killing the other to survive. There are only about 40 other students in the way of making that happen so it shouldn't be too hard.
Huge fan as I am, I've never seen the film as particularly dense. It isn't the kind of movie which throws allegory and subtext at you in every scene, or pretentiously pretends to be anything more than what it is; an extremely well made 'what if' comic book fantasy set in a dystopian fascist future not too far apart from our own world. It focuses on a premise and situation which every school kid on the planet could imagine themselves in. But it also, rather than just focusing on one or two protagonists and allowing the rest of the class to be hollow sacrificial lambs, cuts away to many other kids on the island and through wonderful writing creates plenty of engaging characters. What makes this all the more impressive is that most of these characters only get one scene in the film. In the space of a few minutes, the audience gets a complete character portrait allowing for a certain amount of emotional attachment before their inevitable grisly death.
That is what separates the film, and hopefully any remake, from standard slasher exploitation fare. That is what has made 'Battle Royale' a classic in the ten years since its release and that is the heart of the piece, for me. In those character/death sequences, we get to see almost every possible aspect of teen angst/school life represented. We have the cheating girlfriend being hunted by the jealous ex. We have the nerdy kid with glasses, always desperate to be better than everyone, immediately embracing the goal of the game. The happy couples who are faced with the prospect of killing one another commit suicide. The tech genius friends band together to try and hack the military network. The flower power brigade tries to rally for a ceasefire (and get gunned down for their trouble). The girl clique of the class ends up in a typical argument groups like that would have but with poison and machine guns thrown in. And in the most powerful segment, a girl played by Chiaki Kuriyama (you may remember her as the evil Gogo Yubari from 'Kill Bill: Volume One') finally gets her revenge on a cowardly stalker-esque boy who made up stories about sleeping with her. He finally gets penetration, but not the way he was hoping.
You could say some of it leans heavily on cliché but it works in a film like this where we're really watching archetypes fighting to the death rather than specific characters. If you give a remake the same treatment, but with American teenagers, every one who sees the film will find a particular character or situation to relate to; something out of their past. It works exactly the same for the rest of us who have left our school days behind many years ago. It's just fun spooling ideas of the different kinds of characters who could be dropped in this situation and how they would react to it or maybe even the people we remember from our own life at school. For the purposes of the remake imagine:
* The teacher's pet, always determined to be better than everyone else, always thinking they ARE better than everyone else but now thrown into a situation where being in the teacher's good books isn't going to be enough to survive. In fact, they'd probably be the first to get hunted down and lynched.
* The quiet nerd who goes it alone, methodically trying to figure out the best way to win making him one of the most feared opponents on the island.
* The psycho who uses their body to lure in prey of the opposite sex.
* The most popular girl in school and the groupies who surround her, even in the game but now all have their backs up wondering if she will play them off against each other and eliminate them.
* The anarchist usually holed up in their bedroom coming up with wild plots to bring down the government and now actually in the position of fighting back against them.
*Not to mention the teacher in charge of the 'Battle Royale'. One thing that should be followed to the letter from the original is the genuine and understated performance of Beat Takeshi's Kitano. It's all the more frightening when a seemingly sane minded person is putting his students in this situation because he genuinely feels it is the best way to deal with the youth, as opposed to a camp, eye bulging loon.
If the viewer wasn't thinking it before, once they have found someone in the film to connect with, they immediately begin thinking about what they would do in that extreme situation. When all is said and done, it boils down to the question of whether you want to survive and what you are prepared to do for it versus rolling over and dying because of something you are not prepared to do. I doubt there is a single kid growing up and being prepared for the world they will face after leaving the safety of education that hasn't been told about the dog eat dog order of things and how we all need to be aggressive and a little ruthless to get ahead. 'Battle Royale' speaks directly about the consequences of such a philosophy when teenagers are placed in the ultimate symbolic representation of the dog eat dog world. It is quite literally, 'kill or be killed'. And it is quite deliberate that the cast of the film are clearly in their last year or so of high school and on the precipice of making those choices which set the course of the rest of their lives.
In the original film, one of the more contentious plot points was that 'The BR Act' was not some secret government project but a widely know piece of legislation backed up during each year's game by enthusiastic media coverage. The whole point of the film I suppose is to paint the picture of a future Japan where the youth are so feared that the rest of the population would have no moral issue in passing such a law to keep them in line. But just for the sake of taking the core idea and presenting it differently, I would like to see the remake treat 'The BR Act' as a secret government initiative. It just seems to make more sense in an American version of the story that the only members of the public would know about Battle Royale would be the kids who are kidnapped to be a part of it, with the rest of the country (including the kids parents) being given some convenient excuse as to their disappearance, although news and rumours travel in underground circles as to what really happens to them; an idea which sounds so ridiculous it is dismissed by most people outright. This is not to say there should be any change in the dystopian situation of the country. The idea of a country (especially America) being on the verge of economic collapse has more resonance today than the original film did back in 2000. But having the 'Battle Royale' program be a covert operation slim lines the story and answers a lot of questions the audience would otherwise be asking themselves if everyone in the country were immediately accepting of the idea of kidnapping school children and forcing them to kill each other. It adds some mystery and intrigue to the first act of the film as we discover what is going on through the kids’ eyes and solves the little problem of the necessary exposition required to explain the rules of the game.
Such a change in plotting necessitates a change in ending as well. The original film climaxes with the two protagonists escaping the secret island, being branded as fugitive criminals by the government and going on the run. Rather than defiance against a fascist regime, in the remake it would be interesting to see the exact opposite; the survivor embracing and conforming to it. Let us say that the main protagonist starts the film as something of a wastrel. They are completely disillusioned by the future they in, a country which is in such trouble that there is no chance, let alone guarantee, of a good career no matter how hard you work at school. Initially, as the Battle Royale begins, it seems like the final straw and they contemplate suicide right then and there. Then a close bond begins to form with one of the other students, with whom they battle the elements together, leading the audiences who have seen the original to assume the remake will end in exactly the same way. Eventually, all the other students are dead and it comes down to the two of them. Rather than just patiently waiting for the end of the game to run its course, the teacher pulls the final sleight of hand. The prize for the sole survivor will be more than their life back, but an actual career in the government; a cushy government job if you will. All of a sudden, all those fears of returning to the country they know with all its problems and uncertainty flood back. They realize they were only fighting because they thought they were going to die and wanted to at least make it difficult for the others. With that no longer being the case, our protagonist, almost instinctively and without hesitation, kills their best friend to take the prize. The morals of friendship and loyalty are thrown out of the window in favour of the rules of dog eat dog.
Alternatively, cruel on the audience as it may be, perhaps the film should end on the dilemma of the characters in their final moments of the game, both of them with a weapon in their hand, both of them weighing the two options presented. Since this is the culmination of the film's message, maybe it is best not to present the answer but cut to black and leave the audience to ponder what they would do in that situation. Then again, maybe it is dramatically unsatisfying. Either way, the audience has something to take home and think about. A remake that lingers long in the memory; you don't see too many of those.
You may actually remember rumours from a few years back when New Line Cinema (R.I.P.) acquired the rights to produce the 'Battle Royale' remake. Apart from the absurd rumour that it may be aiming for a PG-13 rating, it practically vanished without trace, long in fact before New Line itself suffered the same fate. I really do hope that someone else picks up the rights and gives this property a go. We roll our eyes at the remakes which get made because there seems little point in shooting them. They appear to be nothing more than shot for shot recreations (that 'Nightmare On Elm Street' remake, despite potential, looks like it has fallen into that very trap). With 'Battle Royale' you at least start with a bloody good story which can be reconfigured into something else and still honour the original's spirit and tone. Though the idea could be moved to a Western setting, the film is so distinctly Japanese that an American remake cannot help but be different. And if it sucks, it's just another notch on the blackboard....
....and you can stick an explosive collar on me for my baseless enthusiasm.