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From Hollywood to Tokyo: resolving a tension in contemporary narrative cinema.

By the mid to late 1970s hypertrophic B-movies like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) became an economic force in Hollywood. Their skew toward a younger audience, the increased financial stakes associated with their inflated production costs, the enormous success of product tie-ins as additional revenue streams, and the growth of market research as a guiding force in corporate America led to an expanded role of marketing considerations in the Hollywood development process. Subsequent changes in distribution technology encouraged younger audiences to treat film as only one aspect of a multifaceted media stream--including cable television, internet, and interactive entertainment--each tributary of which offered opportunities for user control of content, duration, and pace. One effect of these parallel developments was more and more discretely parsed and high-energy films.

But changes in production and consumption were not the only paradigmatic shifts. New ranks of young filmmakers, whose sensibilities had been shaped by Spielberg's and Lucas' B-movie behemoths, progressively replaced the old guard. Unlike their predecessors, who typically served long apprenticeships on their slow climbs into positions of creative power, these young men and women found an infrastructure of film schools and screenwriting manuals ready to teach them everything instantly.

Syd Field, whose 1979 Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, is still referred to in Hollywood as "the Bible," conveniently collapsed Aristotelian dramatic action into a three-act structure, with prescribed act lengths of thirty, sixty, and thirty pages, respectively, and precisely placed plot points on pages 27 and 85. (1) Robert McKee, who in 1984 took public his story seminar, first taught at the University of Southern California, mythologized and popularized a Fieldian structure and imbued it with third-hand Freudian insights. (2) He condensed the psychological complexity James, Dostoyevsky, and Proust explored into quip-like absolutist mantras ("true character can only be expressed through choice in dilemma") and simplistic dichotomies (loyal/disloyal, loving/cruel, courageous/cowardly). (3) By 1994 story development had become so template-driven that a team of USC alumni wrote a software program, Dramatica, that codified the principles of screenwriting and transformed the creative process into a massive fill-in-the-blank questionnaire.

But if storytelling tools ultimately derived from the theater and the nineteenth-century psychological novel are applicable to the films of Douglas Sirk, Otto Preminger, and David Lean, dramas inhabited by relatively complex characters, they are ill-fitted to the B-movie world. There, the mythic patterns of traditional western, sci-fi, horror, and noir film play on immediately identifiable types. "In the old days," according to the late Jack Elam, supporting actor whose hundred-plus film roles spanned six decades,
 Rory Calhoun was the hero because he was the hero,
 and I was the heavy because I was the heavy--and
 nobody cared what my problem was. And I didn't
 either. I robbed the bank because I wanted the money
 ... I never had a problem--other than the fact I was
 just bad. (4)

Today, on Hollywood's pop-Freudian post-McKee planet, studio pictures--glorified B-movies and genre films--are developed as though they were amped-up equivalents of A Streetcar Named Desire, replete with explanatory backstories and dramatic ironies. Their stories, positing premises and pivoting on main tensions, culminations and resolutions, (5) are still structured according to the objectives of a single, active protagonist. And the scenes of psychological exposition required to provide these films with even superficially developed characters compete for screen time with the elaborate set pieces that are the hallmark of genre movies.

One by-product of these trends in both the corporate creative development process and the modes of media consumption has been the evolution of filmic narrative. Perhaps because the financial success of a blockbuster is perceived to lie in its most memorable set pieces (The Fugitive's train wreck, The Matrix's bullet-time fight sequences), the narrative trajectory of the big-budget Hollywood film has favored those set pieces while confining concerns about character psychology to ever-shrinking interstitial scenes. And while some commentators have noticed substantial changes in the formal patterns of contemporary Hollywood films, they have not associated them with the above outlined or, for that matter, any other narratological developments.

Parsed Pictures, Characters from Concentrate

David Bordwell, for example, sees what he calls an "intensified continuity" system at work in recent American mass audience films. One important hallmark of the new American film, according to Bordwell, is a significant decrease in its average shot length (ASL) compared to those of Hollywood features made prior to 1960. (6) And Bordwell reports the range of ASLs of the more recent American films he measured to have slightly decreased over time, from 6-8 seconds in the 1960s to 5-7 seconds in the 1980s. (7) But, though Bordwell apparently examined 100 films from the 1990s, he does not present an ASL range for that decade, the most relevant to his thesis, and, instead, points to films like Armageddon, South Park, and Dark City, whose cutting speeds are especially quick, and notes that, by 1999 and 2000, "the ASL of a typical film in any genre was likely to run three to six seconds." (8)

What Bordwell's statistics do not show, however, is that this intensification is evidenced in the individual sequences of each film at different rates. In Gladiator (2000) the dialogue-driven confrontation at the end of which Commodus suffocates Marcus Aurelius has an ASL of 6.2. The film's first battle scene between the Romans and the Germanic tribes, however, exhibits an ASL of 1.3. Similarly, even in The Rock (1996) and Dark City (1998), movies whose overall cutting rates are well under the mean for the 1990s, action sequences are cut at least three times as quickly as non-action sequences. (9)

Given, then, that the evolution of ASL ranges between 1960 and 2000 does not seem particularly dramatic until its final few years; that either Oliver Stone or Alex Proyas directed half of the super-quick-cutting films Bordwell mentions; that Bordwell's article does not include the details of his data (titles and ASLs for each film measured), making unclear how his statistics control for changes in, say, the percentages of action and genre films among "the major releases" from which he samples; and especially that evidence of intensification is not uniformly spread out even in the most radically cut films; it may be best to leave open the question of the cause and extent of the increase in cutting rates.

And it is not just with respect to cutting rates that a blockbuster's segments are individuated. Contemporary films are more and more parsed into aesthetically distinct units. Gladiator's battle sequences employ narrow shutter angles, slow-motion, wildly variable camera heights and angles, and a desaturated palette. By contrast, the above mentioned confrontation scene relies on conventional shot-reverse-shot coverage, normal angles, and a warm palette, all shot at 24 frames per second. (10)

The aesthetic individuation of narrative units does not necessarily mean a film becomes tonally disintegrated. While elements of visual design and rhythm may vary from scene to scene in a film like Se7en (1995) or Fight Club (1999), overall tonal consistency is not compromised. Oftentimes, however, a filmmaker's pursuit of each scene's specific narrative identity means that a film's parts exhibit not only their own formal patterns but also distinctive tones. Saving Private Ryan (1998), for example, navigates uneasily between scenes of gritty realism, romanticized elegy, and sitcom-like humor, each with its own configuration of visual tactics. The result is a tonal hodge-podge.

The current popular discourse on movies also reflects the fragmentation of film into discrete, if not always formally coherent, units. The MTV Movie Awards celebrate, among other cinematic achievements, Best Kiss, Best Action Sequence, Best Frightened Performance, and Best Fight. And the American Film Institute has compiled a list of the top 100 Movie Quotes, encouraging, it would seem, the treatment of carefully-structured classical films as piecemeal entities with detachable parts.

Because even against the tidal wave of this ethos of fragmentation the studios' creative executives cling to a paradigm that prioritizes character and story structure, story development becomes akin to puzzle-solving; a screenwriter's task, to connect-the-dots, compacting all the prescribed character beats and plot points into the limited space between ten-minute chase sequences. The screenwriting strategies that are supposed to increase psychological depth are paid lip-service. Backstories shrink to one-liners: Maverick's father didn't love him (Top Gun). Motivations become simplistic even by pop-psychology standards: Ray Ferrier must vanquish an entire alien race to prove he is a responsible father (War of the Worlds). Personality traits are first distilled: Balian is a caring ruler. And then they are neatly packaged into self-contained scenes: he quickly contrives for his subjects an irrigation system (Kingdom of Heaven).

The Hollywood creative chain seems either unable or unwilling to resolve this tension between the genre film's natural tendencies and the dictates of character-driven storytelling, between fragmentation and individuation, on the one hand, and by-the-book narrative development, on the other. Of course, movies like Pulp Fiction (1994) and Memento (2000) try to avoid the stalemate. Tarantino updates the film noir cosmos and Bogey's coolness with an overdose of pop-culture references and one-liners relevant to a new generation. And Nolan unfolds his storywise rather conventional amnesiac's tale, itself a noir subgenre, backwards in an attempt to recreate the labyrinthine feel of many a noir plot. But neither film points to particularly new modes of filmmaking, neither suggests a potentially fruitful new narrative trajectory.

More adventurous films, like those considered below, do indicate alternate, if idiosyncratic, ways of moving past the tension between spectacle and storytelling. To be sure, none of the three Japanese films used as case studies here positioned itself as an overt anti-Hollywood manifesto, or even as a deliberate contribution to an ongoing querelle between the requirements of genre and those of character development. In fact, all three successfully found broad audiences, and, while cultural differences may account for Japanese viewers' willingness to accept these envelope-pushing films as "mainstream," many of the storytelling strategies at play are, it would seem, transnational in nature.

A Dense Narrative

Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, in which 9th-graders massacre each other in an ultra-violent three-day game of survival on a desert island, was classified R-15, a rating rarely used in a country where, for example, The Matrix was released without any age restrictions whatsoever. Fukasaku's film mischievously wears this rating as a badge of honor, trumpeting in its front credits a blood red title card--"R-15: NO ONE UNDER 15 ALLOWED"--to an audience who has presumably already passed (or perhaps eluded) the theater's security. (11) Despite its restrictive rating, and perhaps partly because even Japan's Liberal Democratic Party's leaders condemned it as anti-social, Battle Royale was, after it opened in Tokyo on December 16, 2000, the top-grossing Japanese-language film for six weeks in a row. (12)

Fukasaku's film is the reductio ad absurdum of the trajectory toward streamlined narrative. The first element of traditional storytelling Battle Royale jettisons is premise, which, according to USC screenwriting faculty member David Howard, includes "the entire situation that exists as the protagonist starts moving toward his objective" and "all background material pertinent to the story." (13) Rather than wasting screen time elaborating its (far-fetched) notion of a near-future world in which legislation sanctions the ruthless slaughter of randomly selected school kids, Battle Royale's filmmakers dispense with premise in a short series of title cards:
 At the dawn of the new millennium the nation
 collapsed. 15% unemployment. 10 million out of
 work. 800,000 students boycotted school, and juvenile
 crime rates soared. Adults, fearing the youth, passed
 the Millennium Education Reform Act.

They then open the film with a genre-typical high-energy action stinger: roaring helicopters, frantic reporters, a convoy of stone-faced soldiers, and a bloodied thirteen-year-old girl, winner of this year's battle, who clutches her Raggedy-Ann, also bloodied, and slowly fashions a demonic grin.

By contrast, The Island (2005), a recent big-budget Hollywood action film which shares with Battle Royale a dystopian setting and protagonists pitted against the paramilitary forces of a repressive system, devotes much time to filling the scientific and socio-economic gap between the world of the audience and the world of the story, but succeeds only in spotlighting implausibilities and inconsistencies in the film's premise. First, The Island's screenwriters concoct the Eugenics Laws of 2050 which specify that clones created for organ harvesting must be kept in a persistent vegetative state. This premise forces them then to provide the vague scientific basis for unscrupulous entrepreneur Merrick's obvious decision to break that law: he somehow discovers that "without human experience, emotion, without life, the organs fail." Et cetera ad nauseam. Still, despite all their efforts to establish the credibility of a subterranean commercial enterprise dealing in cloned body parts, The Islands filmmakers can never explain, for example, how Merrick maintains the complete secrecy of a 120-billion-dollar facility with thousands of employees.

Battle Royale does not waste time on the minutiae of either plausibility or consistency. For example, though the audience learns from the action opener that there have been at least two previous and highly-publicized Battle Royales, the kids in the film seem completely unaware of The BRAct and, after being dragged to the island, are treated to a peppy video which lays out for them the rules of the game. These two scenes fulfill dynamic and expositional purposes, respectively: the stinger sets the stage for the film's super-charged aesthetics, and the video tutorial clues the audience in to the mechanics of the imminent carnage. Taken together, however, they point to an inconsistency in the narrative and to an implausibility in the film's premise, the latter especially, since The BR Act has no deterrent value if its targets, the film's kids, are oblivious to it. (14)

Battle Royale's makers do not bother to patch up inconsistencies and buttress the plausibility of their (outrageous) premise because they do not position their film as an overt political treatise or a speculative history but as an amped-up B-movie roller-coaster ride. Unlike The Islands screenwriters, Fukasaku devotes no time to justifying things that arguably matter little to his audience anyway and, instead, fast-forwards to the next spectacular action beat.

Battle Royale also streamlines narrative by collapsing traditional planting and payoff beats--which, according to Howard's rules of dramaturgy, should be separated by as much screen time as possible--into single, compact scenes. (15) If Battle Royale were a mainstream Hollywood feature, Yuko would likely, early in the film, discover that the weapon assigned to her was poison (the plant) and only much later use it (the payoff) to try to kill Shuya, a classmate she considers dangerous. But because Battle Royale privileges narrative ergonomy, the audience sees the poison only seconds before Yuko sprinkles it into the boy's udon.

Battle Royale also combines revelation and recognition moments, ostensibly denying its audience "the anticipation of future events that is at the core of the dramatic experience." (16) When Sugimura, drowning in a pool of his own blood, confesses his crush on Kotohiki, the girl who has just repeatedly shot him, revelation (the audience's discovery of Sugimura's true feelings) and recognition (the girl's finding out what the audience already knows) happen simultaneously. Fukasaku chooses instant melodrama over character arc, shock and surprise over suspense, self-contained quanta of action over narrative development.

Battle Royale features forty-four named characters, and at least half a dozen of them--Shuya, Noriko, Mitsuko, Kawada, Mimura, and Sugimura--become the protagonists of their own mini-adventures, each with his or her own objective and concomitant Fieldian plot points, none of which, though, includes much of the dramatic scaffolding that makes a "good story well told." (17) Sugimura's plotline, for example, is reduced to four core beats: he searches for female classmates Chigusa and Kotohiki; in a flashback, Chigusa teases him; he finds Chigusa dying and reveals to her he loves someone else; and, finally, he locates Kotohiki, who panics and fatally wounds him before he can profess his love. These four scenes look like the set-up, backstory, culmination, and resolution of a feature-length film. In Battle Royale, they take up six minutes.

Battle Royale reduces its protagonists' characterizations, too, to an absolute minimum of powerful affective units. A single flashback to her childhood encounter with a pervert justifies sexy killing machine Mitsuko's psychotic behavior. Kawada's remorse for having killed his girlfriend, Keiko, in a first Battle Royale "explains" his self-destructively volunteering for a second. A one word description ("loner") is all the audience learns about Sugimura. He and others become compelling characters only because the film's audience projects onto them additional (stereotypical) personality traits. Since the audience knows how these characters traditionally develop, Fukasaku sees, it seems, no need to go through the motions. His film is a sensorial rather than expositional experience.

A Stream of Dionysian Content

Riding the wave of Battle Royale's commercial success, Shion Sono's Suicide Club (2002) opens with a shocking, but formally conventional scene. (18) Fifty-two perky uniform-clad schoolgirls chat on a subway platform, join hands, count to three, then throw themselves onto the tracks of an oncoming bullet-train. The train's wheels slice through the girls' heads and rivers of blood wash onto the subway platform.

This kind of baffling opener normally sets up the entrance of a central character charged with solving the mystery. In Suicide Club three individuals independently pursue the investigation. Each, however, fails to rise to the status of protagonist. The first to appear is Kuroda, the lead detective on the team assigned to determine the cause of an ongoing rash of suicides. He sorts through clues, visits crime scenes, follows leads, and interacts with his loving family--all routine beats in a character-driven detective movie.

Seventy minutes into the film Kuroda arrives home to find his wife and children dead, apparent victims of the increasingly incomprehensible suicide craze. This kind of tragic turn of events is customarily used to "raise the stakes" for a protagonist who first questions his or her earlier efforts, then makes one final desperate push in pursuit of the villain, often crossing ethical and moral boundaries in order to obtain a now much more personal closure. At this point in Suicide Club, however, Kuroda blows his head off, effectively precluding his functioning as protagonist for the remaining twenty-five minutes of the film.

Two other characters emerge as possible protagonists during the course of the film: a computer hacker called "The Bat" and Mitsuko, girlfriend of a suicide victim. The Bat pursues a line of clues that leads to an eccentric serial killer--the self-proclaimed "Charlie Manson of the Information Age" and Frank-N-Furter-wannabe--called Genesis. And Mitsuko tracks down and infiltrates the backstage headquarters of a Jpop girl band's odd pre-pubescent groupies, whose puzzling Sartrean phone calls to the police appear to implicate them in the suicides. But neither of these young women fulfills the screenwriting manuals' requirements for a conventional protagonist. The Bat's thin story line ends with Genesis' arrest twenty minutes before the film does. And her discoveries, while bizarrely compelling, are shown to be tangential to the film's main tension when, after Genesis is arrested, the suicides continue. Mitsuko makes her first (brief) appearance late, thirty-five minutes into the film, and reappears only after Kuroda's death. And though she is the only one to close in on the strange children who may be behind the unexplained deaths, Mitsuko fails to bring closure to the film's narrative and instead seems inexplicably to join their ranks.

Even more than these character-specific narrative anomalies, the fact that Suicide Club never reaches the culmination of its second act prevents Kuroda, The Bat, Mitsuko, or anyone else, from functioning as its protagonist. Instead of dismissing, pro forma dramatica, dead-end leads and focusing on fewer and fewer lines of investigation, Kuroda et al. are buried under an avalanche of outlandish and outright contradictory clues: bloodied sports bags filled with huge rolls of stitched-together human skin; multiple phone calls from a boy whose strange intermittent grunting contrasts with the existentialist tone of his questions; a ubiquitous girl band, variously named Dessert, Desert, Dessart, Desret, and Desarto, that may (or may not) be sending subliminal messages inciting teens to suicide; competing websites, one of which,, tracks the death count even in advance of the actual suicides, while the other, ruins. corn, requires visitors "spread the message" if they want the suicides to end; butterfly tattoos; phantomatic bunnies; and a masked man in a red room filled with baby chickens who flays the skin off apparently willing subjects.

Each of these incredibly bizarre narrative units might be a legitimate beat in a more conventionally structured film. That film, however, would likely confine itself to a single breach of plausibility. (19) It might center on a murderous cult-like group of children (Village of the Damned). It might feature a masked villain who skins his victims (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). It might involve a creepy website linked to mysterious deaths (FearDotCom). But any attempt to combine all three would require accounting for not only each scenario's separate plausibility but also the plausibility of the connections among them. That Sono rejects apriori the notion of plausibility is indicated by the fact that nothing in his movie is ever explained. A warning that "fifty more will jump from the same platform" never pays off. Even the opening's mass suicide remains unsolved. To be sure, viewers who engage Suicide Club as a labyrinthine connect-the-dots game may invent links between Dessert, their kid groupies, the masked man,, and hundreds of suicides, but repeated viewings confirm that no tenable connections in fact exist.

The film's missing protagonist, contradictory clues, and lack of resolution, not to mention its mixed genres and styles--Suicide Club employs, one by one, pseudo-verite handheld camera and eerily smooth unmotivated dollies, naturalistic and surreal sets, and flat, dramatic, and expressionist lighting, as it navigates its cop drama, horror film, ghost story, TV documentary, and even glam-rock biopic segments--make it clear that Sono is not trying (and failing) to deliver a traditional detective mystery, but instead is hurling at his audience a series of discrete, often shocking scenes that rely not on reciprocal consistency but on each individual scene's inherent impact to maintain interest. Unlike the Hollywood film, which develops a minimum of plot points, each of which, ideally, is paid off, Suicide Club piles one outrageous narrative beat on top of another without concern for paying any of them off or otherwise tying up loose ends. Unlike Battle Royale, which assumes its audience will fill in the gaps between stereotypical narrative beats, Suicide Club postulates an audience that will forego closure for a complex, open-ended Dionysian stream of content. Dissipating Genre, Unknowable Character

Yoshimitsu Morita's psychological thriller Mohou han [Copycat Killers] (2002), in contrast to Battle Royale and Suicide Club, exhibits a clear tripartite structure. Its three parts, however, counter to genre conventions, evidence a complex narrative strategy by which the film spirals away from its genre core. Still, Mohou han was the top-grossing Japanese-language film five weeks in a row, eclipsed at the domestic box office by only Spider-Man, Shaolin Soccer, and Men in Black II.

Morita packs part one of Mohou han with hallmark thriller moments: the sole survivor of a family massacre discovers a severed arm in a Tokyo park; the killer, his voice electronically scrambled, taunts the hosts of a call-in TV talk show; someone posts snapshots of torture victims online; etc. But Morita refuses to link these beats to an empathetic central character. Rather, as in Suicide Club, several individuals and groups (Arima, a victim's grandfather; Shigeko, a journalist; Shinichi, the massacre survivor; TV hosts; and the police), none of whom fulfills the requirements of a conventional protagonist, in turn tackle, along with the audience, the overall objective of piecing together the clues the film dishes out to find the murderer.

In part two, one of the heretofore faceless killers, Peace, becomes not just the focus of attention but the narrative's causal agent. He manipulates police and media, targets and kills Shigeko's husband, frames old schoolmate Kazuaki for that murder, and contrives the auto accident that eliminates his accomplice. By transforming the antagonist into a protagonist-of-sorts, Morita is not, however, playing a Rashomon-like game in which the introduction of multiple points-of-view furthers the audience's understanding of characters' motivations, but is presenting the first in a series of arguments against the very notion of knowable character motivation.

Part three evidences a more radical shift, not of point-of-view, but of genre. Instead of redirecting attention to a manhunt for Peace, who the audience now knows is the true mastermind behind the killing spree, Mohou han's last third offers a thrill-reduced psychological conversation-piece with philosophical undertones. There the film challenges the traditional notion of character psychology as a simple composite of genetics and upbringing. This nature-nurture debate is explicitly introduced when Arima and Peace meet in a park. Arima, who is unaware of his discussion partner's involvement in his granddaughter's murder, speculates about both her demise and the nature of evil:
 As time passes I begin to wonder how the killer could
 have become someone who could kill Mariko. What
 were his father and mother like? Did something
 terrible happen in his childhood? Surely no one is
 born evil Something changed him.

Arima yearns for meaning and seeks it in the conventions of narrative storytelling. But his speculation about the mechanics of the killer's backstory leads Arima to wonder out loud whether some character flaw contributed to his own granddaughter's death: "Maybe she took a wrong turn."

When Peace replies, "I can't imagine that happening in your family," the old man takes offense: "What do you know about my family?!" Arima correctly intuits that neither Peace, whose judgment of his character hinges on their two-minute chat, nor, more importantly, the audience, privy to a mere thirty screen minutes of Arima's life, is entitled to reduce him to a psychological monosyllable. Peace's reply to Arima's question--"As little as you know about mine"--mocks the general notion of backstory and preempts as inevitably inadequate any speculation about the motivations of the film's antagonist. (20) Later then, when a police profiler maps out Peace's cliched family history--parents divorced, mother remarried--he engages in an exercise in futility. Morita's stylistic choices in that scene mock backstory and motivation as philosophically untenable filmic cliches. The cops who listen to the profiler's lecture act bored, puzzled, or distracted. Morita here employs the same quirky non-diegetic music he uses throughout the film to ridicule the media. And his camera performs aimless looping pans over the profiler's map.

Arima, nonetheless, in his final exchange with Peace, tries to encapsulate the killer in a backstory one-liner: Peace kills because he "never had a family that loved [him]." But before Peace explodes, literally, on national television, his penetrating response--"Do you feel better now?"--exposes the emotional pandering endemic to mainstream films that simplistically feed their audiences conveniently pre-packaged characters. (21)

These three recent Japanese films treat, each in its own way, the tension identified in contemporary Hollywood blockbusters between content fragmentation (which stems from evolving consumption modes) and the unity demanded by screenwriting dogma, between the ballooning screen time devoted to high-energy set pieces and the dramatic "needs" of psychological development. Battle Royale runs a plethora of plot points and character beats through the trash compactor, maximizing action beats and minimizing character development, relying instead on its audience to import onto its paper-thin dramatis personae personality cliches derived from a long history of hackneyed literature and film. Suicide Club drapes individual swathes of outrageous content over the collapsing scaffolding of post-Field story structure and privileges, even more so than Battle Royale, an overindulgence in each quantum of entertainment. And Mohou han gradually spirals away from its thriller core, multiplying point-of-view and subverting genre conventions. The film rejects as intellectually untenable both the solace derived from any supposed psychological insight, and, as a consequence, conventional narrative closure.

Works Cited

Bankston, Douglas. "Death or Glory" American Cinematographer 81.5 (2000): 46-53.

Bordwell, David. "Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film" Film Quarterly 55.3 (2002): 16-28.

Davis, Bob. "Yoshimitsu Morita" Senses of Cinema 38 (January 2006):

Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. New York: Dell Publishing, 1979.

Herskovitz, Jon. "The Battle Rattle" Variety 20 December 2000:

Howard, David. The Tools of Screenwriting. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.

Salt, Barry. Film Style & Technology: History & Analysis, 2nd ed. London: Starwood, 1992.

Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

"Veteran Cowboy Villain Jack Elam Dies." Toronto Sun 23 Entertainment/2003/10/23/pf-233863.html


(1) Thompson (22-25) summarizes Field's system and assesses its influence.

(2) McKee (193, 213). Examples of Freud-inspired terminology include the (redundantly named) inciting incident, a function of conscious and/or subconscious desires, and the (vague) stream of consciousness, a form of inner conflict.

(3) McKee (375).

(4) "Veteran Cowboy Villain" (emphasis added).

(5) According to Howard (52-54), the main tension is the specific conflict of a film's second act; the culmination, the resolution of that specific tension. This culmination creates a new tension--"What will happen?"--that leads to the film's overall resolution. Howard's main tension is the question that arises from Field's first plot point. His culmination is roughly equivalent to Field's second plot point.

(6) Bordwell (16) claims that the ASL for all movies from 1930 to 1960 "hovered around eight to eleven seconds." Salt (249), however, claims that, during the 1950s, the most common ASL "fell from 9 seconds, where it had stayed for the past 25 years, to 6 seconds."

(7) These results are similar to those of Salt (266, 283, 296) who finds the mean ASL in each of the three decades to be 6 seconds.

(8) Bordwell (17).

(9) By contrast, the ASL ratios of non-action scenes to action scenes of all the pre-1960 films we measured were under 2 to 1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre's action scenes (ASL, 5.1), for example, were cut in a way virtually indistinguishable from its dialogue scenes (ASL, 6.2).

(10) Gladiator's cinematographer, John Mathieson, details the technical and aesthetic choices he made which contribute to stylistic differences among the film's segments in Bankston (46-53).

(11) A similarly playful title card--"SPECIAL EDITION"--treats the theatrical feature as if it were a DVD or a videogame.

(12) International Nielsen EDI tracking figures can be had at www. And see Herskovitz on the flap surrounding the film's release.

(13) Howard (50).

(14) Perhaps the teacher's reply to a student's question--"Why are you doing this?"--belies the split impulse behind Fukasaku's film. The teacher's initial response--"You mock grown-ups"--indicates an element of revenge is at play. Battle Royale, the competition, is old age's ironic answer to youth.

But the teacher continues: "So, go ahead. But remember: Life is a game. Fight for survival and see if you're worth it." This rather enigmatic, elliptical tag both suggests an ethics and reveals the film's form. Like most interactive entertainment, the film is explicitly structured as a game, with mounting body counts and elapsing playing time, rather than as a consequence of plot requirements or character development.

(15) Howard (72f.). A plant is a story item (dialogue, gesture, prop, action) that, when repeated much later in the drama, takes on new meaning. That repetition is the plant's payoff.

(16) Howard (69). He defines revelation as the moment "when the audience learns something that at least one person on screen does not know" and recognition as the moment "when the character finds out what we already know."

(17) Howard (21), quoting Frank Daniel, former USC Dean.

(18) Sono is a poet, performance artist, and director whose films have won prizes at the Berlin and Karlovy Vary International Film Festivals. So far, only Suicide Club, his most mainstream work, has been released (on DVD) in the United States. See for more information.

(19) Howard, in his chapter on plausibility, stipulates that "one critical component of the audience's willing suspension of disbelief is that it can only happen once in a story" (80).

(20) Davis sketches Morita's obsession, evident in Keiho (1999), Black House (1999), and Mohou han, with backstories and the false interpretations of identity to which they often lead.

(21) That Morita is not especially concerned with the time-honored narrative mechanics, like closure, of the genre in which he's playing is also made clear by the fact that some critical story beats are missing from Mohou han. Though, for example, they both converge on the villa where Peace and his accomplice, Hiromi, have chained and tortured their victims, Morita shows neither Shigeko nor the bumbling police enter the building and thus deprives his audience of a conventionally crucial dramatic moment. The viewer also never finds out exactly what happened to Arima's kidnapped granddaughter. And Peace's promise to broadcast a murder, live, on CD Phone, is much-touted but never materializes. In fact, aside from a crime of passion featured in Hiromi's backstory, no killing or, for that matter, dead body or body part is depicted in the film.
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Author:Davis, Robert; de los Rios, Riccardo
Publication:Film Criticism
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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