Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform you that the theater has been locked and barricaded. You will note that the numerous armed guards in the balcony overwatching this week's screenings are heavily armed. I'm afraid recent far-seeing modifications to the constitution have determined that the best way to reduce crime, hunger, and carbon footprints is by reducing the movie-going public to a more manageable number. If you look under your seats, you will each find one of a number of items for use in self defense. (Those of you with no items must rely on your kung-fu.) I suggest that you all begin your proactive self-defense. If more than one of you is alive by the end of tonight's films, we'll just have to gas everyone. So sit back, and enjoy this week's pairing of Asian Thunderdomes.
The Explosive Collar: Battle Royale (2000, 122 minutes) When Koushun Takami's book was published, certain members of Japan's parliament attempted to get the film banned. When the film was released a year later, they tried to ban that as well. Predictably, both the book and the film were spectacular runaway hits. The final directoral work of the legendary Kinji Fukasaku (he is listed as the director of the sequel, but died very early in the process), on the surface this is a blood-soaked sadistic slaughterfest of amplified and caricatured high-school students kidnapped by the government and stranded on an island with instructions to kill one another until only one is left. Nastiness and high melodrama for its own sake. Scratch the surface, however, and you find a scathing indictment of Japanese culture, society, and government, the authorities in power forcing the younger generation to scratch and claw at one another like animals for advancement and survival. This attack on authority and tradition is a theme running throughout Fukasaku's work (arising from his youth in wartime Japan), especially in his efforts to demystify and deglamorize the Yakuza society in several violent and morbid gangster films. Casting actual teens as the students acted as a springboard for many young careers (even those a little too over-the-top), but the real standout performance here is the subdued and darkly comic work of the students' teacher, played by famously eclectic and prolific manzai comedian "Beat" Takeshi Kitano. Set in an alternate-history 1997, it's a considerably bleaker and a more pointed critique than the hyperbolized far-flung future of the similarly conceived Hunger Games.
The Intestinal Garrote: Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991, 91 minutes) Dead Alive is to Horror as Riki-Oh is to Kung-Fu. Need I say more? A Hong-Kong film based on a downright absurdly manly Gekiga manga by Masahiko Takajo, it's essentially HBO's "Oz" if Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star were locked up with them. Nominally set in a dystopian future where prisons have been privatized, leading to horrible conditions and gang-like structures among the prisoners, the film follows Ricky, the oddest Christ figure you've ever seen, from admission, through conflict with the boss prisoners, the guards... an odd ogre who wanders in, a psychopath with knitting needles, an assistant warden who keeps mints in his glass eye... a jail cell that fills with cement, the garbage compactors from Star Wars, you know, the usual. Spectacularly campy, deriving both from the film treatment and the essential camp in the original manga, this particular work is probably better known through the anime adaptation which made the rounds with almost as much regularity as Urotsukodoji. Colossally giant men square off, villains laugh evilly, manly tears are shed, tragic, ridiculous backstories are revealed, jaw-dropping gore is blunted by the low-budget makeup, honor is upheld, field surgeons are put to shame, and kung-fu punches through men, chains, concrete walls, steel bars, faces, and other fists. And the film's finale actually gives Dead Alive's lawnmower scene a run for its money.