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Plot: 42 students, 3 days, 1 winner. Let the games begin.

Even more than twenty years later Battle Royale (バトル・ロワイアル) has lost none of its inherent power. It was, is, and remains a milestone, a worldwide phenomenon that Japan hasn’t been able to match nor surpass to this very day. To put it another way, Battle Royale is a well-deserved classic not just of Japanese, but of world cinema. There’s a point to be made that Albert Pyun (of all people) got there first with the stylish but ultimately limp Mean Guns (1997) that was marred not only with a so-so story but, more importantly, with action scenes and shoot-outs that lacked in weight and oomph. In Battle Royale every kill counts and every setpiece builds on what came before. Time has not diluded it in any way. In fact the irrevocable passage of time has only amplified that Kinji Fukasaku was on to something at the dawn of the millennium. No other movie has come close to matching, let alone surpass, this unbelievable milestone. This was something that only Asia could produce and find a worldwide audience for.

Battle Royale unites two iconic names of Japanese cinema: director Kinji Fukasaku and comedian, game show host, actor, and director Kitano Takeshi. Fukasaku was a versatile and consummate professional whose work spanned several decades and genres. He has a versatile and experienced filmmaker who had done it all. He was one of the key directors that helped establish and define the yakuza crime genre with titles as Rampaging Dragon of the North (1966), Japan Organized Crime Boss (1969), Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), and Yakuza Graveyard (1976), among others. Fukasaku worked with Luciana Paluzzi on the American co-production The Green Slime (1968) (a clandestine sequel to Antonio Margheriti’s Space Station Gamma 1 franchise) and filmed the Japanese scenes for the big budget Hollywood war epic Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). He had made samurai period pieces in the form of Shogun's Samurai (1978) and The Fall of Ako Castle (1978), Star Wars (1977) inspired space operas with the deliciously kitschy/zany Message From Space (1978), tried his hand at fantasy wuxia with Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983), and delved into dystopian science fiction with Virus (1988). Kitano had been part of the stand-up duo Two Beat and hosted the gameshow Takeshi’s Castle (1986-1990). As an actor he was in, among others, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and stood in front and behind the camera for Violent Cop (1989), Sonatine (1993), Gonin (1995), Hana-bi (1997), Brother (2000), and Zatōichi (2003). Battle Royale would be Fukasaku’s swansong and revive Kitano’s career.

Battle Royale’s journey from novel to screen was not free of fight nor controversy. The basis for the big screen adaptation was the 1999 debut of Koushun Takami and its accompanying seinen (young adult male) manga. Upon publication the Japanese Parliament in all its benevolence and wisdom tried to get it banned. Instead of relegating it to obscurity it prompted audiences to buy it en masse making it a surprise best seller. When Battle Royale hit the cineplexes across 200 screens in December 2000 members of Parliament were once again up to their old tricks. The result? Crowds descended upon cinemas in numbers eager to see what all the hubbub was about and the box office reflected just that. Battle Royale grossed ¥3.11 billion domestically (it collected 212 million yen or US$1.8 million in just the first week and for the next five weeks it would remain just as profitable), was released in 22 countries (except in the United States were Toei refused distribution for over a decade, mostly out of fear of potential lawsuits and the political/cultural climate.) Battle Royale was easily the most talked-about foreign movie this side of Rape Me (2000). Not only that, it would end up creating the now widely known battle royale literary and videogame genre. For the longest time Americans could only get it through import. Anchor Bay Entertainment would eventually release it direct-to-video in 2010. Two years later Americans got their own with the trilogy of The Hunger Games young adult novels (in 2008, 2009, and 2010) from Suzanne Collins which got their own big screen adaptations in the following years.

Kitano-sensei (Takeshi Kitano) explains Battle Royale to Kurasu 3B

At the dawn of the millennium Japanese society collapsed. A deep recession put 15% or some 10 million people out of work, and 800,000 students boycotted the schools. The youth, unruly and delinquent, was out of control and fearful parents were driven to desperation. In fear of a civil uprising if nothing was done to remedy the quickly escalating situation Japan’s fascist, totalitarian regime passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act, otherwise known as Battle Royale. The Battle Royale is an annual televised event to instill fear of the government into the citizenry and quell any dissidence. A busload of students of Kurasu 3B of Shiroiwa Junior High School from the fictional Kagawa Prefecture town of Shiroiwa are en route to what they believe is a field trip. Orphan Shūya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara), his best friend and fellow orphan Yôshitoki Kuninobu (Yukihiro Kotani) as well as the privileged and sheltered but otherwise innocent Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) and her best friend Megumi Etô (Sayaka Ikeda) are jittering with excitement. They are gassed and driven to a remote location surrounded by military checkpoints. Then everything went black…

As they come to the 42 students find themselves in a derelict classroom where they are welcomed by their former teacher Kitano-sensei (Takeshi Kitano, as Bito Takeshi) who informs them that they were randomly chosen to partake in this year’s Battle Royale. The kids laugh it off and put no stock into anything Kitano says until the bloody mutilated remains of Masao Hayashida-san (Ken Nakaide), Kurasu 3B’s current educator, is carted in. Kitano explains that Hayashida-san was “no good” and protested the selection too much. Having barely regained their composure the group is shown a short game instruction video presented by an incredibly cheery and kawaii hostess (Yûko Miyamura). When Fumiyo Fujiyôshi (Aki Unone, as Aki Inoue) disrupts the video Kitano kills her for subordination by throwing a knife in her head and Shuya’s friend Yôshitoki Kuninobu has his neck collar activated and is blown up when he protests too much to the slaying. At this time Kitano informs them that they are joined by two transfer students. Shôgo Kawada (Tarô Yamamoto) is the survivor of a game from three years prior and Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Andô) voluntarily signed up just for the thrill. Each are given a duffelbag with food, water, a map, and a randomly selected weapon and every few hours a random sector will become a danger zone. As the classroom systematically empties, the game’s on. Battle Royale, it seems, has begun.

Hirono Shimizu (Anna Nagata) confronts Mitsuko Sôma (Ko Shibasaki)

Shuya’s first and immediate priority is seeking shelter and offering protection to Noriko, out of respect of his best friend Nobu who he knows was infatuated with her. Unburdened by trivial things such as a conscious and a moral compass Kazuo Kiriyama and Mitsuko Sôma (Ko Shibasaki, as Kô Shibasaki) are free to indulge their bloodlust and misanthropy making them very efficient and proficient killers. On their way to shelter Shuya and Noriko run into axe-wielding Tatsumichi Ôki (Gouki Nishimura) and in the skirmish following Shuya’s attempt to talk him down Ôki is accidently killed with his own weapon. What Shuya doesn’t realize is that in the foliage young Yûko Sakaki (Hitomi Hyuga) saw the whole thing convinced that Shuya killed the object of her affection. It’s then that they meet Shôgo Kawada who jokingly refers them to Pot Lid and Binoculars after inquiring what weapons they were given. At a distance Yûkiko Kitano (Yukari Kanasawa) and Yumiko Kusaka (Misao Kato) heard the kerfuffle and are screaming for everybody to lay down their weapons and think up a peaceful resolution. In a distant warehouse Keita Îjima (Ren Matsuzawa) and Yûtaka Seto (Yutaka Shimada) will use computers and guerrilla tactics to stop Battle Royale. Their leader is Shinji Mimura (Takashi Tsukamoto), better known by his hacker alias The Third Man. In the woods an argument between athlete Takako Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama) and Kazushi Nîda (Hirohito Honda) turns deadly. (Chigusa’s “every inch of me will repel you!” monologue is justly legendary.) As night falls Shuya and Kawada valiantly defend Noriko from an assault by Kiriyama. Wounded and exhausted Shuya is brought to the lighthouse by Hiroki Sugimura (Sôsuke Takaoka). Sigimura himself is on a quest to find and rescue the girl he loves most, Kayoko Kotôhiki (Takayo Mimura).

Satomi Noda (Sayaka Kamiya) on the verge of enacting the Lighthouse massacre

At the lighthouse Yukie Utsumi (Eri Ishikawa) has improvised a make-shift commune where she lives together with Satomi Noda (Sayaka Kamiya), cook Chisato Matsui (Asami Kanai), Yûka Nakagawa (Satomi Hanamura), Haruka Tanizawa (Satomi Ishii), and Yûko Sakaki. In a moment of youthful exhiliration she confesses her love for Shuya, which leaves him confused. The girls are resigned to their fate that their days are numbered but tensions run high regardless as they are consumed by paranoia and paralyzing, mind-killing fear. Yûko holds a vial of potassium cyanide with which she intends to poison Shuya for killing Ôki. When Yûka ends up gorging on a plate meant for Shuya and bloodily dies it finally drives Satomi, already half-mad with terror, over the edge who empties her Mini Uzi killing all the girls except for Yûko who was able to find shelter. Shuya witnesses only the bloody aftermath and Yûko killing herself. As the game draws to an end Mitsuko and Kiriyama turn on each other, the Third Man launch their attack and Sigimura at last finds Kotôhiki after a three-day expedition. In the classroom where they started Shuya confronts Kitano-sensei and Shuya and Noriko escape the island as convicts. In the city Noriko obtains a switchblade, and now that they’re both armed they’re ready to take on their repressive government.

Pot Lid (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Binoculars (Aki Maeda)

Battle Royale made domestic stars out of its lead cast and many of its supporting players. Tatsuya Fujiwara and Minami have remained steadily employed since and both have amassed respectable filmographies. Aki Maeda wasn’t able to lever her appearance into a career and become an A-list leading lady upon reaching majority. Soon after she shifted her career mostly towards television. Her other big movie was the fuwa fuwa comedy Linda Linda Linda (2008). Sôsuke Takaoka, Shigehiro Yamaguchi, Yasuomi Sano, and Masanobu Andô have all become fixtures of Japanese television with Takaoka appearing in Cutie Honey: Tears (2014). Ko Shibasaki has also remained active on both the big and the small screen, and has a parallell career as a singer. Sayaka Ikeda has only starred in Ultraman Saga (2012) from Tsuburaya Productions. Video Training Girl Yûko Miyamura as well as Aki Unone, Satomi Hanamura, Shirô Gô, and Yuuki Masuda have all remained steadily employed as voice actors in both manga and videogames. Battle Royale made an international star out of Chiaki Kuriyama. Kuriyama would go on to play assassin Gogo Yubari in Quentin Tarantino’s two-part Kill Bill (2003-2004) saga - a thinly-veiled retread of Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (1973) with a dash of TNT Jackson (1974) - in what largely can be considered a pastiche of Asian action and wuxia. Chiaki would refrain from further English-speaking roles because of her shaky mastering of the language. She could more recently be seen in Blade Of the Immortal (2017). As for its international influence and cultural impact Battle Royale has been mentioned in Shaun Of the Dead (2004), Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Juno (2007) and American TV shows such as Lost (2004-2010) and Community (2009-2015).

Takako Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama) and her switchblade

Kinji Fukasaku went out on a high note with Battle Royale as this was the kind of violent epic he was born to direct. Usually it takes several years for a picture to attain classic status, but with Battle Royale that title was bestowed upon it almost immediately. Seldom does a movie live up to the early hype and even rarer is the instance wherein it exceeds it. Even more than twenty years later Battle Royale has lost none of its relevance, or its impact. In the years since Tsurugisaki Lighthouse on Cape Tsurugi in Miura, Kanagawa Prefecture has become something of a minor tourist attraction of sorts and the character of Takako Chigusa is popular among cosplayers. Japanese schoolgirls have always been fascinating to the West in any context, let alone in this one. The legacy of Battle Royale is incontrovertible, and its impact reaching far beyond cinema extending into mass entertainment at large, especially video games. The inevitable sequel Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003) was forgotten about as quickly as it arrived, and under no circumstance would, or could, it be able to live up to the high standard set by the original. Even more than twenty years later Battle Royale remains as poignant, powerful, and relevant as ever. If you haven’t seen it, what better time than now?

Plot: inflatable doll is given sentience and is in awe of the world around her.

Air Doll (空気人形) is a Japanese fairytale with a pronounced South Korean magic realist bend. As an elegant mix of drama, romance, and comedy that blends the joie de vivre of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001) it tells a timeless coming of age and has that intangible intense oneiric quality of either the best French or Spanish fantastiques or Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders (1970). Complete with allusions to Carlo Collodi’s classic children’s tale Pinnochio and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz it was hailed by critics in the specialized press and critics in the blogosphere as a true fairytale for grown-ups. Air Doll is a musing on what it means to be human and a sobering reflection of some of the mounting problems that Japanese society was (and still is) facing. it’s what the Japanese call fuwa fuwa (light and airy) but the problems it identifies couldn’t be more real. In other words, Air Doll is both timely and a modern classic. If Love Object (2003) had been a romantic drama it probably would have looked something like this. It was screened at the Un Certain Regard section of the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, was selected for the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and won the Association Québécoise des Critiques de Cinéma (AQCC) award at the 2010 (14th) Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. This is something that couldn’t have come from any other place than Japan. If anything it cements Hirokazu Kore’eda’s reputation as the prime purveyor of humanist cinema.

The basis for Air Doll was the 20-page Gōda Tetsugaku-dō: Kūki Ningyō (or Gōda’s Philosophical Discourse: The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl) by Yoshiie Gōda. As the seinen manga upon which it was based Air Doll examines the unescapable loneliness of and what it means to be human in an impersonal, consumerist and performance-oriented late-capitalist society or how everyday life is for the median metropolitan Tokyoite. What it is to be fallible in a society that places impossible expectations – social, personal, economic, and otherwise – on its citizenry, does not tolerate failure, and puts honor in all of its various forms above the wellbeing of the individual. It also adresses the then-growing problem of the hikikomori (ひきこもり), something which has only exacerbated in the decade-plus since. The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl used Pinnochio as an allusion to examine the rigidity of gender roles, dysfunctional masculinity, and the management of emotions in a society that fails to engage with them. Instead of a wooden puppet coming to life Air Doll is the story of an inflatable sex doll gaining sentience. Like the Tin Woodman in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz the Air Doll too is looking for nothing but some tenderness and compassion. And just like Bruce Springsteen they are looking for “a little of that human touch.” Like so many ur-characters one question drives the Air Doll: “what does it mean to be human?” It explores that universal need for companionship and belonging, and the clawing, aching desperation that those suffering from anxiety and depression often experience. Air Doll takes a fantastical, near-magical approach to examine some very real problems.

One day inflatable Lovely Girl Candy sex doll Nozumi (Bae Doo-Na) is given kokoro (heart/soul) by some providence, divine or otherwise, and blinks an eye. Her middle-aged owner Hideo (Itsuji Itao) works an emotionally – and financially unrewarding job as a waiter in a restaurant. Disenfranchised and suffering from anxiety and depression Hideo seeks consolation and warmth in Nozumi’s arms and bosom every night. As she gains sentience she observes the raindrops on her window. Wide-eyed and innocent as a newborn the only thing she’s able to utter is, "Utsu-ku-shii" (or "beautiful") mesmerized by the pearls of light. After trying a variety of clothes (mermaid, nurse, schoolgirl) she eventually settles on a French chambermaid uniform. Woodingly she hobbles around the room before scrounging up enough courage to venture outside. As she wobbles down the busy streets of Tokyo Nozumi picks up patterns of speech and enough of a facsimile of humanity to hide her artificial origins. Dutifully Nozumi returns to the apartment every night to cradle Hideo in her arms. Increasingly aware that she has become a prisoner of her own desire she wants nothing but to be free.

On one of her daily excursions into the city Nozumi is able to parlay her newfound humanity into a job at the Cinema Circus video rental store. There she enlivens the uneventful life of despondent clerk Junichi (Arata Iura, as Arata) and soon the two become inseperatable. Hanging decorations one day Nozumi punctures herself, falls down and starts to deflate. Junichi (who is not in the slightest moved by the fact that his co-worker is an inflatable doll) nonchalantly repairs her injuries and sees to it that she’s reinflated and fully functioning again. All of this, of course, greatly arouses Nozumi. During one of their dates Nozumi meets little Moe (Miu Naraki) (Moe, of course, being an opaque otaku term meaning, amongst other things, "cute", "huggable", or "endearing") who’s celebrating her birthday in a restaurant with her father (Tomomi Maruyama). One day a greatly distracted Hideo visits the store but fails to recognize his Air Doll. Store owner Samezu (Ryô Iwamatsu) accuses Nozumi of having an affair behind poor Junichi’s back. Back at the apartment Nozumi confronts Hideo with her blossoming humanity but he coldly rejects her. Not only has Hideo rejected her, she also finds out that she was callously replaced with a younger model.

All this heartbreak is enough to send Nozumi on a quest to find her maker (Joe Odagiri). On her trails to find her maker Nozumi interacts with people from all walks of life. Sitting on a bench in a park she encounters wise old man Keiichi (Masaya Takahashi) who dispenses bumpersticker wisdoms and milquetoast platitudes free of charge, delighted to have an attractive young woman interested in his life’s story. Then there’s middle-aged receptionist Yoshiko (Kimiko Yo) who wishes nothing more than to be young and desirable again. At one point Nozumi even hears the Yoshino Hiroshi poem “Life Is”. In a bit of near-magical serendipity Nozumi (in)directly touches the lovelorn life of depressed young hermit Miki (Mari Hoshino) who’s estranged from her mother and whose life is as much of a mess as her studio apartment. Finally, she runs into Shinji (Ryosuke Takei), a strange and sexually frustrated young man who’s terminally afraid of women. All of them are longing for something, anything, to fill that gaping black hole and soul-eating void they harness inside. It’s here that our Air Doll learns that the human experience entails far more than just “having a heart.

The Air Doll in question is South Korean actress Bae Doo-Na (배두나) who in the past several years has acted as something of a muse for Lana and Lily Wachowski. In that capacity she could be seen in Cloud Atlas (2012) and Jupiter Ascending (2014). Doo-na rose to prominence thanks to her role as Sadako Yamamura in Koji Suzuki’s Ring Virus (1999) and her appearance in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002). Before Air Doll Doo-na was in the fuwa fuwa musical comedy Linda Linda Linda (2005) with Aki Maeda (前田亜季), or little Noriko from Battle Royale (2000). It’s a perfect little bit of casting as it gleefully plays up Doo-Na’s porcelain doll-like features and milky white complexion to maximum effect.

How we would have loved to see Ko Sung-Hee (고성희), Chae Soo-Bin (채수빈), and Shin Min-A (신민아) here, or alternatively Japanese starlets as Nicole Ishida (石田ニコル), Megumi Sato (佐藤めぐみ), Anna Nagata (永田 杏奈), Chiaki Kuriyama (栗山千明), Eriko Sato (佐藤江梨子), Yuriko Yoshitaka (吉高由里子), Mirei Kiritani (桐谷美玲), or even Eihi Shiina (しいなえいひ) in such part. The remainder of the cast is primarily known for their work in their native Japan, but a few will stand out to the average cinephile. Tomomi Maruyama (丸山智己) was in Audition (1999), Joe Odagiri (オダギリジョー) could be seen in Azumi (2003), and Itsuji Itao (板尾創路) was in Tokyo Gore Police (2008).

Central to Air Doll is the divide between hon'ne (本音) and tatemae (建前) as well as the growing problem of hikikomori. Of paramount importance in Japanese culture is the delicate balancing act between honne and tatemae. Hon'ne (“true sound”) is a person’s true feelings and desires. Tatemae ("built in front", "façade") are the imposed societal expectations coming with one’s position and background. Honne and tatemae might frequently stand in direct opposition to each other and frequently are the direct cause of inner turmoil. The pressure of balancing the complexities between one’s own needs and what society expects of said person has led to a generation of hikikomori ("acute social withdrawal") who share a feeling of alienation and mistrust. They are a demographic of reclusive adolescents that have withdrawn from social life due to their inability to deal with honne–tatemae. The problem is not unique to Japan, but the earliest reported cases and clinical studies surrounding the phenomenon happened there.

Mainland China especially in the decade-plus since has taken to imitating Air Doll and Jae-young Kwak’s My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) with an almost religious zeal. If you were to be cynical, it seems that the entire "robot girlfriend" subgenre (and its adjacent permutations) seems to built to learn 'the lost generation' the required social etiquette and how to interact with non-digital members of the opposite sex in a contemporary setting. Air Doll has a few stylistic overlaps with My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) although the two couldn’t be any different otherwise. While that one told a heartwarming South Korean romance within a Japanese setting (helmed by a South Korean director/screenwriter no less) Air Doll has the benefit of a South Korean lead actress but is oh so very, very Japanese otherwise.

Air Doll is beautifully photographed and wonderfully minimalistic companion piece to My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008). Never does the comedy or the occasional gander at Bae Doo-na’s exposed form diminish from the more serious subjects that it touches upon. It might be a tad too much style over substance for those familiar with the Hirokazu Kore’eda oeuvre, but it largely deals with his typical themes. While the later imitations took the Pinnochio and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz influences farther and made the allusions more obvious Air Doll got there first. Its quirkier moments are typically Japanese yet never are they strong enough to actively make this inaccessible to Western eyes and sensibilities. The kind of magic realism that Air Doll indulges in is universal, after all. It probably won’t appeal to fans of the more grounded and serious romances from, say, Kar-Wai Wong but there’s enough relevant subtext and social commentary in Air Doll to not be written off as just another weird Japanese movie. It might not be a Japanese Amélie (2001), but it certainly comes close.