The original Battle Royale set off a maelstrom even before it hit the screens in December 2000. Based on a popular 1999 novel by Koushun Takami, the film's graphic, almost gleeful violence, most of it perpetrated by school kids against each other, provided an easy target for conservative politicians eager to blame pop culture for a youth-crime wave sweeping the country. The free publicity boosted Battle Royale to a stratum of box-office success usually reserved for cartoons and TV-drama spin-offs. The film raked in $25 million in Japan alone—a formidable haul, given the depressed state of the country's film industry. It went on to fill theaters in 22 countries (the sequel already has distribution deals in 28) and to achieve cult status among connoisseurs of cinematic cruelty. Oddly, it was never released in the U.S., where its teen-on-teen mayhem was deemed too suggestive for impressionable and trigger-happy American youths.
The sequel picks up the tale of the original game's survivors, along with a handful of others who have managed to keep their heads. They've organized into a terrorist unit called the Wild Seven, a group dedicated to exacting explosive retribution on the society that wants them dead. The government, in turn, recruits yet another class of kids to hunt down the vigilantes on their island stronghold. Leader of the Wild Seven is Shuya Nanahara, played by fiery-eyed 21-year-old Tatsuya Fujiwara. In the first film, Nanahara is a somber schoolboy who survives more due to luck than killer instinct. In the sequel, he reappears as the almost impossibly intense and charismatic—though still somber—terrorist mastermind. Holed up in his ramshackle fort, torn between enlightened world-weariness and revolutionary zeal, he's a teenage mix of Osama bin Laden and Joseph Conrad's Kurtz. "They may call us evil," announces the philosopher-terrorist in a bin Laden-style address, "but we'll never abandon our struggle for justice."
As this declaration implies, Battle Royale II is a film with a heavy hand and a heavier heart. "We never set out to make Harry Potter," says director Fukasaku. "The point is to make people think about big issues. I want the audience to try and see the world from a terrorist's point of view." Inciting contemplation is an ambitious—some would say foolhardy—agenda for a summer blockbuster, but to Fukasaku it's the only way to stand out from the season's foreign competition. "We're up against the new Matrix and Terminator 3," he says. "Japanese movies can't compete in terms of budgets and special effects. If we want people to watch, we have to provide something that Hollywood can't." That something, according to Fukasaku, is an alternative to what he sees as the moral certainty of American culture, as reflected both in its movies and its foreign policy. Lead actor Fujiwara, at least, seems to be in the director's camp. "Nanahara may be a terrorist, but I personally think he's the one who's standing on the side of justice," he says of his character. "He's a good role model for young people."
Politics and role models aside, Battle Royale II still relies on Hollywood devices for much of its impact. The battles are as long and relentless as in Saving Private Ryan; copious blood and gore saturate virtually every scene. Death, ubiquitous as it is, usually comes garnished with generous amounts of melodrama. And most of the heroes are endowed with idol-caliber good looks, most notably the Wild Seven's icily gorgeous sniper Saki Sakurai, played by teen siren Natsuki Kato.
Although it outguns its predecessor in terms of bullets, bombs and dramatic battlefield deaths, Battle Royale II lacks the original's who'll-die-next-and-how suspense. Much of the satisfaction in the first movie came from watching the kids transform, Lord of the Flies-like, into bloodthirsty killing machines as the game races towards its climax. The characters in the sequel are a simpler breed, eventually teaming up against malevolent adults. Fans of the stubbornly misanthropic original may feel betrayed by the intrusion of more humane sentiments.
They have death to blame. The first Battle Royale was the work of Kinji Fukasaku, a legendary director of yakuza films known for his deftness at blending violence and black humor. When he died of cancer at the age of 72, having completed only one day of shooting on the sequel, his 30-year-old son Kenta—author of both films' screenplays but lacking in directorial experience—took over his father's job. Kenta's humble, self-effacing approach charmed some and annoyed others. Actor Takeshi Kitano, who played the original group's teacher in the first movie and reprises the role in flashback sequence, reportedly commented that the younger Fukasaku was "more polite than a Kyoto tea lady." Kenta insists that the finished product is a Kinji Fukasaku film, even though he directed almost all of it himself. "I thought of my task as completing my father's last movie, rather than making my first," he says.
For a depressed and disoriented Japan, that behind-the-scenes tale of filial piety may be more rousing than the grim generational combat depicted in the film itself. Battle Royale II is a decent war flick, though it's nowhere near as entertaining or unsettling as the original. But the story of a dying director striving to complete his final work and a devoted son dedicated to finishing the job may just provide Japan with something that it needs even more than another celluloid bloodfest: an emotional lift.