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Fight cubs

In school's out – forever. By Chuck Stephens

Battle Royale

KINJI FUKASAKU'S BATTLE Royale isn't just the only war film worth seeing in this sickening season of drumbeat jingoism (Mel Gibson's forthcoming We Were Soldiers) and brain-flaying pyrotechnica (Bruckheimer and Scott's nauseating Black Hawk Down) – it's also the first full-on exploitation classic of the new century. At once a high-voltage popcorn-muncher and a Swiftian proposal for educational reform, this thrill-a-minute, kill-a-minute rethink of To Sir, with Love by way of Lord of the Flies surges on-screen with an ardent blast of classical gas and never for a moment slackens its sails. In it, the 10-seconds-from-now future of a morally and financially bankrupt Japan is one in which the disaffections and truancies of middle school-aged youth are held solely to blame for a nation's decay. The final solution – decreed by parents and politicians so studiously absented from culpability that they never appear on-screen – is to send a lottery-selected class of teenage no-hopers to a remote island to murder one another. Only the last coed standing will graduate.

Based on a controversial novel by Koushon Takami and directed by the 70-plus-year-old genre veteran Fukasaku from a screenplay by his son, Kenta, Battle Royale – which plays for one show only at the New PFA Theater Sat/26 – is one of 2001's most exhilarating films. Give part of the credit to "Beat" Takeshi Kitano – sporting a haircut that only Moe Howard's mother could love – who nominally stars as the film's bloodthirsty über-sensei, and part of the credit to Fukasaku, who even at his advanced age can choreograph characters and camera movements in ways that make Baz Luhrmann seem nailed to the floor. But neither of those advantages manage to steal the show from the cavalcade of young tearaways who make up the film's enormous cast. Never have so many novices and newcomers made so much of the split seconds they'll have on-screen before someone slits their throat or lodges an axe in their headband. Watching a fine mist of blood spew from a samurai's thorax may be the oldest of chambara (swordplay movies) clichés, but when that thorax belongs to a teenage scream queen in loose white socks, a whole new mytho-erotics of death and desire suddenly takes flight.

Fukasaku's best films aren't at all synonymous with the ones that, in this country anyway, he's best known for. A decade ago Castro Theatre fans may have made something of a camp classic out of the director's drag doozy Black Lizard (which features one of the East's deadliest trannies and a butter-buffed Yukio Mishima as a slab of frozen beefsteak), but hardcore auteurists know that Fukasaku's real meat and potatoes is a series of tough-nuts '70s yakuza flicks collectively known as Battles without Honor and Humanity. In those tabloid turbines of group slaughter and group grave digging, the director will typically spend the first 40 minutes of the movie introducing 30 or so thugs – in freeze-frames, mug shots, or front-page tabloid photo-snaps, complete with their name and ranking in the organization – only to spend the last 40 minutes systematically wiping them out, and reiterating their monikers and vital statistics once more. That crazy insistence on list-making persists throughout Battle Royale as well: all 42 of the kid commandos are named, renamed, toe-tagged with a personal subtitle upon their terminations, and reidentified during the next morning's roll call, which Kitano, via loudspeaker, addresses to the dwindling group.

It's easy to see how Battle Royale could – and perhaps already has, in bedrooms and video parlors across the planet – become a kind of Rocky Horror Picture Show for the new century. Every character has some subtle tick or tonsillar cue worth fetishizing, and every subtitled snippet of dialogue sizzles with snarky inflections that beg retort or reiteration by a boisterous and devoted chorus: "Every inch of me will resist you!" one virgin/vixen snarls to the crossbow-toting suitor who demands to deflower her before death forecloses on their sexual innocence. Each overinflated outburst, one after another, seems to beg for a splurge of parody as well, even if the most outrageous of its vocalized emotions remain just knowingly ridiculous enough to head lesser hecklers off at the pass: consoling the dying waif who secretly adored him, one of Fukasaku's young gladiators showstoppingly blurts through his veil of tears, "You're the coolest girl in the world!"

Part of what gave Battle Royale its initial publicity burst was the way right-wing literary critics, reelectable politicians, and other moral lip-chewers rushed to condemn and suppress the film before they'd even seen it. (Kitano, characteristically, opined that Toei Studios had probably bribed the politicians to so vocally condemn the film in order to boost its opening-day box office.) Rewardingly, the Japanese Rating Board refused to scissor the film's excesses and instead imposed an R-15 rating, hoping to prevent impressionable youth from seeing their reflections in the mirror. Fukasaku responded with exactly the same sort of encouragement teacher Kitano bestows on his doomed pupils: "Kids, don't worry about the R-15," Fukasaku shouted to the press. "Just rush into the theater! I made this just for you, kids! I hope you guys have enough guts and wits to make it in!"

'Battle Royale' screens with Blood and Law Sat/26, New PFA Theater, Berk. Patrick Macias reads from and signs TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion before the screening and introduces the films. See Rep Clock, in Film listings, for show times.