Directed by Yôhei Fukuda
Written by Mari Asato and Yôichi Minamikawa based on the novel X gêmu by Yûsuke Yamaha
Starring Kazuyuki Aijima, Hirofumi Araki, Shôta Chiyo, Meguru Katô, and Ayaka Kikuchi
The title of the Japanese movie X-Game (originally X gêmu) may need some explanation. There’s a sort of tradition on comedic shows of the loser of a competition having to then accept a punishment. This is something mildly unpleasant that’s played up for laughs. It’s called the batsu game, and the character used to write it means ‘X’ (i.e., “incorrect”) as well as “penalty”. Fans of anime might have seen references to “penalty game” in shows like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, where Suzumiya subjects her brigade members to penalty games for things like being late. It’s well-known enough that it wouldn’t be surprising if school-kids played punishment games just for the heck of it.
And we all know that children are cruel.
In the movie X-Game, four young adults are kidnapped after the apparent suicide of their former grade school teacher. In a replica of their classroom they are each forced to draw punishments from a box, and if the others do not punish the drawer sufficiently within a few minutes one of them will be randomly selected for a special round. All of the torments they drew as children remain, but the executions of them have been horrifically updated. For example, “The Clothespin”, which used to mean pinching the skin with a clothespin, now requires the arm to be pierced by a large pair of metal pincers. The game will end when someone draws “Death Penalty”.
In a way, it’s a little like the Saw movies. People are rounded up for their sins and forced to make impossible choices to try to save their lives. Their accuser remains unseen but is constantly watching. There’s no shortage of gory physical trauma. Where this carves its own identity is in the amount of people involved in making sure the guilty are punished. It’s not just one or two conspirators; an entire organization is involved in connecting victims to help each other receive bloody justice.
In that sense it’s more like Robert Sheckley’s book Hunter/Victim, which revealed that the infamous man-hunting game from The Tenth Victim had begun as a loose confederation of vigilantes seeking revenge on each other’s behalf. It’s terrifying enough that a few people are exacting brutal punishment outside of the law, but a large group of hidden torturers the ups the ante considerably. It’s a full-blown movement, not the actions of just a few, and it threatens to overturn the social order.
Early in the movie we see part of a university lecture on organized vigilante activity in Germany’s past, essentially broadcasting what is to follow. Vigilantes appear where the law doesn’t meet societal needs. Occasionally this is understandable and arguably needed, as in Montana between when it was carved out as it’s own territory and its government was finally established. More frequently it’s bad news, targeting people for race, religion, and “morality”.
Vigilante entertainment tends to side with the administrators of extra-legal justice. In Saw despite what we may think of how far Jigsaw goes, we agree with the premise that some kind of punishment is in order. The same is true in X-Game to some extent. It’s a valid expectation that the authority figures in the classroom — especially the teacher — should have prevented the abuse or at intervened. Here though we’re more inclined to prefer some leniency for the wrong-doers, especially the ones who regret their actions as children.
More than even the scale of the vigilantes’ group, it’s our ability to empathize with Hideaki — paying for wrongs he no longer recalls — that makes this film frightening. He could be any of us, being held accountable for scarring others at a time when he was still learning right from wrong. In the world of X-Game we are all the tormented as well as the tormentors, and in the end we will destroy each other.