Contemporary Japanese films are often extremely violent; the lives of ordinary Japanese, much less so. According to a multinational study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Japan’s homicide rate in 2009 was 0.4 per 100,000 population, for a total of 506 deaths. Similar figures for the United States were 5.0 and 15,399, respectively.
Also, guns account for only a tiny proportion of killings here: eight in 2008, compared with more than 12,000 for the U.S. the same year.
The many Japanese films that show cops and gangsters spraying bullets with lethal abandon, including those by such acclaimed auteurs as Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike, have about as much relationship to Japanese reality as a zombie holocaust.
This sort of fantasy violence is no recent phenomenon. In the 1960s, students and salarymen would swagger out of the theater after watching Ken Takakura’s virtuous yakuza hero slice up dozens of rival hoods with a swift Japanese sword. The one-killing-many trope, repeated over and over in the era’s ninkyō eiga (traditional yakuza films), was a total fiction, but fans loved the catharsis, while the industry censorship body, Eirin, voiced no objections to the on-screen carnage.
Quite a different reception awaited “Batoru Rowaiaru (Battle Royale),” Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 film about teenagers forced to kill each other in a survival game by a repressive state. Diet members publicly denounced it, while Eirin slapped it with an R-15 rating, which meant that kids the same age as its characters could not see it. Gangsters cutting down gangsters was one thing, but to Eirin censors, kids killing kids with guns, knives and bombs was something else.
Even so, “Battle Royale” became a huge hit in Japan, earning ¥3.11 billion at the box office, while being widely screened abroad to mostly enthusiastic audiences. Also, its story was later reflected in (or some claim, was copied by) “The Hunger Games,” the 2012 Gary Ross film based on the Suzanne Collins best seller about youthful warriors in a near-future society fighting life-or-death battles for reality-show audiences.
This does not mean, however, that Japan and the West are now equal in their attitudes toward violence, especially when kids are its victims or perpetrators. In reaction to the fatal shootings of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last December, Hollywood studios delayed the release of several films, including Quentin Tarantino’s bloody “Django Unchained” and the Tom Cruise thriller “Jack Reacher.” “Django” star Jamie Foxx told the BBC that “we cannot turn our back and say that violence in films or anything that we do doesn’t have a sort of influence.”
(This came just months after a shooter killed 12 and wounded 58 during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado, leading distributor Warner Bros. to cancel the film’s gala premieres in Japan, Paris and Mexico.)
In Japan, meanwhile, distributor Toho saw no reason to halt the box-office bonanza it was reaping at the time of Sandy Hook from “Aku no Kyoten (Lesson of the Evil),” Miike’s thriller about a psycho teacher who turns killer, slaughtering his class of junior-high students with a shotgun in a lengthy sequence that leaves little to the imagination. Released on Nov. 10 with an R-15 rating, the film was still packing them in when the Sandy Hook shootings occurred on Dec. 14 — and ended its uninterrupted run with a solid ¥2.34 billion.
Not all of its viewers were enthused by its graphic bloodshed, however. Following a special screening in November attended by the girl pop group AKB48, member Yuko Oshima told an interviewer that she hated the film and left the theater rather than appear on stage with star Hideaki Ito (who jokingly pointed a prop shotgun at the audience). “That sort of movie just wants to kill people,” she said.
Oshima won support on message boards and blogs for her anti-screen-violence stance, but industry self-reflection has been harder to find. On March 20, Toho will release “Kodomo Keisatsu” (“Kiddy Cops”), a parody of local 1970s cop shows based on a TBS late-night series that ran from April to June of last year.
Pudgy-faced charmer Fuku Suzuki, 8, and other popular child actors/TV personalities play members of an elite detective squad who have been turned into kids by a mysterious gas — and vow to hunt down the so-called Red Venus gang that released it. Reminiscent of a 1930s “Our Gang” short in its wheezy kids-as-adults premise, the film has a far lower body count than “Lesson of the Evil.” Even so, Suzuki’s character, a gruff squad leader with a quiff resembling that of late action megastar Yujiro Ishihara, uses a sawed-off shotgun to blast a particularly obnoxious baddie. Other under-sized squad members flourish pistols both on screen and for the film’s retro poster.
Harmless fun? Perhaps to local fans who regard gun violence as a manga-esque fantasy, but Americans who endured the endless, heartrending coverage of the Sandy Hook shootings, or similar mass slaughters of the young, might not find its pistol-packing-kiddie humor so risible. (Though kids in the local audience may find the well-armed under-12 heroes cool.)
And Miike’s film? Though it has screened at the Dubai, Rome and Rotterdam festivals, it has not yet received its U.S. theatrical premiere, just as “Battle Royale,” made the year after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, had to wait 11 years for its first U.S. theatrical screening (though it has long been available on English-subbed DVD). Some culture gaps are harder to bridge than others.