When I was around 15 or 16, I had a friend who was obsessed with (what were then) obscure movies. This was before anyone I knew had their shit figured out over torrents and free access to “culture”, or piracy, whatever you wanted to call it. This friend had a pretty extensive film collection, and an obsession with Takashi Miike, and everything else in the genre of jaded Japanese men fetishizing violence and framing it within overtly-simplistic social situations, in the hopes of getting a better look at the complexity of human relationships–especially within the context of highly-advanced post-industrial Japan. None of it ever sat well with me, but I can’t say these weren’t memorable films. Most of them, at least. I remember Battle Royale being one of the movies we saw together. The thing is I don’t remember Battle Royale at all.
It’s not that I was or am easily traumatized, nor was I the type who’d block out the things that I found particularly gruesome or violent, I just did not remember anything about it aside from the basic premise, which by far is still the most brilliant thing about Battle Royale – the first in a trilogy (and arguably the only one that counts) of dystopian measures wherein Japan is imagined to go so far as to institute it as policy to isolate a seemingly random group of high schoolers, and force them to pick each other off, one by one. The thing about these films in the same genre is that they tend to be big on concept, and extremely thin in terms of all the other things that make a film compelling–things like plot or character development. You kind of already know what’s going to happen next, but you’re stuck there waiting who it’s going to happen to. So yeah, “the basic premise” is all there is, and you usually end up exhausting the fuck out of that.
And this is what gives Sipat Lawin Ensemble’s live-action staging of Kinji Fukasaku’s (2000) film so much meat and so much potential. Staged in no less than an abandoned school in the heart of what was once referred to as “The Projects” (Cubao, QC, reprezent), Battalia Royale should easily compensate for whatever was lost (or just never really established) in the film. Watching the action up close would make it easier to literally commune with the actors–heck, total success would mean forgetting they were actors. And given that I don’t really remember the film, I could enter the abandoned schoolyard, in which our story takes place, with a fresh and open mind. Right?
However, even if Sipat Lawin (credited as Sipat Lawin and Friends) did provide a compelling and well-executed theater experiment, full of notable performances, tasteful production values blablablah, even the immersive quality of 2012’s Battalia Royale barely left off from where the 2000 film ended. Sure, you can argue that the film and the play aren’t one and the same thing; but even as two separate entities, neither one is telling me anything new, aside from the world being a terrible place, where even “love” and sex won’t numb the pain that comes with the inevitability of death. Thinly veiling this statement with an overly simplistic metaphor such as, oh I don’t know, high school (because don’t we all want to kill at least one person from High School?) feels like little more than an affront on my intelligence. Because at the end of the day, I just end up questioning the extent to which I need that message pounded any further into any part of my brain.
And if I can only respond with a smirk or a giggle, or by registering nothing, it’s because of this. It’s not because I’m too cool to be appalled by anything in the 3++ hours of my life that was being in (the audience for) Battalia Royale. It was appalling, and cynical, and no number of Catholic schoolgirls bumping, grinding, and making-out, is going to change that violence is violence, no matter how we sugarcoat or sensationalize it.
If anything, seeing violence play out like a game in a social situation like that of the theater (makeshift or otherwise) was the most interesting part of Sipat Lawin’s experiment. At its best, Battalia could serve as a gauge for these “socially acceptable” ways to react to violence. It is at this point that we stop watching and become observers, creating a voyeuristic element that shifts the success of a theatrical performance, and thus the whole burden of responsibility, from the performer to the audience. Heck, just having “socially acceptable” and “violence” in the same sentence always raises interesting arguments–especially in the context of a paying audience–and it is by asking the harder questions that you can say any creative endeavor has succeeded.