Japan's Wild Ones

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A switchblade slices through the air and into the forehead of a combative teenage girl. The next to die is a whiny boy whose head is blown off by a bomb strapped around his neck. Within the first 15 minutes of the controversial new Japanese film Battle Royale, other petulant teens are killed by bow and arrow, pick axe and machete. The putty-toned uniform blazers worn by the 42 high-schoolers are a neat touch; they make a striking canvas for all the splattering blood. Life is a game, their nightmare of a teacher tells them. Only the clever survive. Then he sends them off armed with every manner of weapon imaginable, which they employ, with alarming relish, against one another. The bleak landscape in Battle Royale has struck a raw nerve in Japan and provoked protests from grandstanding politicians eager to ban the film. This is what happens when fiction brushes up a little too closely against reality. In the movie, which opened to packed theaters last month, juvenile delinquents, all classmates, are rounded up and deposited on a deserted island and forced into a sinister version of the reality TV show Survivor. This futuristic society—which looks and feels like, say, Japan 2002—has deteriorated so much that the adults can't figure out what to do with their wayward youth. Their solution? Let them kill each other. ALSO IN TIMECOVER: Lowdown on the SlowdownAmerica braces for a downturn as policymakers try to smooth the road ahead • Fallout: If the U.S. sneezes, does Asia have to catch a cold?• Viewpoint: America's woes spell opportunity for AsiaTHAILAND: Rules of EngagementThe latest election pageant has exposed a familiar underbelly of guns, gangsters and political deception• Nowhere to Hide: The watchdogs try to clean things upCAMBODIA: The Taxman ComethAn American citizen leads a violent effort to topple Phnom Penh's government, sparking a moral dilemma for the U.S.CHINA: Rockabye BabyIn far-western Yunnan province, women are making ends meet by producing infants for sale to wealthier ChineseJAPAN: Youth Gone Wild A disturbing film is prompting citizens—and opportunistic politicians—to reopen the debate on violent kidsTRAVEL WATCHKilling Time: A Guide to Asia's AirportsThe social conditions that led to such a drastic denouement are eerily familiar. During the country's lost decade of economic stagnation, real-life youth have been on a steady, descending spiral of listlessness, disenchantment and rebellion. For a while, it was kind of cute, the way they dyed their hair a rainbow of hues and dressed in strange clothes. But then, with increasing frequency, young Japanese began erupting in unexplained fits of rage. Violent crime rates among youths are way up (increasing by nearly 25% in the first 11 months of 2000 from a year earlier), as are student dropouts and crimes committed at schools. A recent government survey found that about one-quarter of junior-high students admitted they sometimes explode with anger or resort to violence. Last year alone, Japanese teenagers were responsible for: a bus hijacking in which a passenger had her throat slit; the baseball-bat murder by a young man of his own mother; the fatal stabbings of a family of three. And just last month, a 17-year-old boy fashioned a bomb out of nails, screws, gunpowder and a coffee cup and set it off in a Tokyo video store. He was carrying a shotgun and told police, according to the local papers: I wanted to destroy people. Then, while hundreds of moviegoers were lining up for the opening of Battle Royale in Tokyo theaters, another 17-year-old boy began bludgeoning commuters outside the busy Shibuya railway station with a baseball bat, injuring eight. The convergence of real-life headlines with the distressing film gave Japan's leaders a chance to curry favor with the masses at little political cost. With the country's economy in low gear and its social contract fraying, several spoke up loudly against the movie, even though it's no more violent than dozens of others. Battle Royale was adapted from the eponymous novel that was a cult hit among Japanese kids in 1999 and, more recently, published as a two-part manga (comic book). The breezy, fast-paced novel was a natural for Japan's disaffected, attention-span-challenged youth. Reading it was like playing a video game, says 24-year-old college student Hidehiko Ikemiya. I usually don't finish books. I finished this one. Even before the film's release in December, however, then-Education Minister Tadamori Oshima asked theaters not to show it, and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, not known for his squeamishness on such matters, embarked on an anti-violence crusade in a transparent attempt to find some issue—any issue—to boost his popularity. In 2000, lawmakers passed tough legislation aimed at juvenile offenders; this year, some politicians want to sanitize the media. I hope people in the country try to kick out violent and obscene programs, the grotesque and nonsense from the airwaves, Mori said recently. During a parliamentary debate, opposition lawmaker Koki Ishii slammed his fist on a table and shouted, Do you think it's O.K. to let children see brutal scenes one after another? Never mind that Ishii hadn't seen the movie when he spoke, or that the film had already been slapped with a rating keeping out children younger than 16. The blustering may be backfiring. The more politicians rant, the more people want to view the film. It wouldn't have been a hit otherwise, says movie critic Tadao Sato. Seeing the film is becoming a sort of resistance against politicians. Indeed, two days before its opening, people started lining up for tickets outside Tokyo's theaters. Most of the moviegoers are as young as the film's protagonists. It's certainly violent: blood practically drips off the celluloid frames. Whether malleable teens are likely to copy the acts they see is debatable. That Japanese youth are inured to cinematic violence is all-but-indisputable, however. Motoi Itoh, a 19-year-old college student, left the film disappointed because it wasn't bloody enough. The comic book was more grotesque, he says. The film is just a whole bunch of minor killings. They just show kids getting killed, but they don't show their bodies very long or show them really suffering. Experts don't seem especially concerned. Youth may be desensitized to violence, says psychiatrist Hidehiko Kuramoto. But only a small percentage who are already psychotic are going to be influenced to mimic what they see. Yet, something clearly is happening to Japanese youth. If animation, video games and movies aren't to blame, what is? Perhaps a combined accident of birth, history and demographics. This young generation was born into a country on the ascendancy, but it has come of age in a country in decline. They don't know what to work for or what to aim for, says sociologist Mariko Fujiwara. Although she hadn't seen Battle Royale, she says the war imagery is apropos. Education in Japan is a series of competitions. It has become disastrous in the last decade as people discover that graduating from a good university doesn't guarantee success anymore. The implicit deal so many Japanese kids made—study hard, get good grades, go to a top university, land a job—has been broken. And in place of this comfortable, if somewhat boring, life they face a moribund economy and diminishing prospects. It is this sense of loss that the film's director wanted to portray. This isn't the work of an avant-garde, bad-boy filmmaker, but rather the product of one of Japan's modern masters, 70-year-old Kinji Fukasaku. That Battle Royale is violent shouldn't surprise anyone; mayhem is Fukasaku's oeuvre. The director sees parallels between his youth and today's young generation. He was 15 as World War II was coming to an end, working in an armaments factory in Ibaraki and diving for cover as Allied bombers showered the plant with explosives. Every day, I had to clean up the corpses, he says. When the war ended, Japan had collapsed and the assurances teens had been given turned out to be a sham. Sound familiar? After the bubble burst, adults, especially salarymen, lost confidence, says Fukasaku. That affected the kids. They face the same inability to communicate with adults that we had when we were kids. There is at least one big difference: today's youth haven't experienced that kind of hardship. They are like water spiders, says Fujiwara, the sociologist. They flit along the surface of the water, too light to drown, not particularly disturbed by anything. Their parents and grandparents amassed such wealth that, despite a sluggish economy and the difficulty in finding work, kids just out of high school and college don't really need to find a job. They live at home, off their parents, buying designer clothes and racking up huge mobile phone bills, without any sense of impending doom or urgency. Theirs is a gold-plated depression. Youthful malaise is hardly an original affliction. Except in Japan, a nation defined by its gambare spirit, aimlessness is something new. Last week, judges determined that two teen offenders, a 17-year-old accused of bludgeoning to death a woman with a hammer and the 15-year-old accused of stabbing to death three neighbors, are mentally ill and assigned them to medical detention centers. Two more high-school students were arrested on suspicion of murdering a taxi driver. Perhaps, then, it's not so surprising that after watching the cold-blooded teen killers of Battle Royale, some young audience members actually leave the theaters feeling uplifted. In the film, two love-sick characters survive because they learn to have faith in a stranger, and each other. By the end, one of the boys did trust the others, says moviegoer Akiji Wada, 17. That's good. Things should be like that. Imagine: Japan's youth have become so alienated that they find a positive message in such a harrowing film. With reporting by Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo