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Bullying is a powerful subject for a film.  It draws an emotional response from the audience, gives the filmmaker a chance to explore the dark side of our psychology and offers thematic room to show how social forces can shape an innocent person’s life for the worse.  However, it is all too easy for filmmakers to exploit in a cheap, crassly manipulative way.  It’s also a very loaded subject, one that has caused a lot of pain for people who didn’t deserve that pain.  Thus, it has to be handled with the greatest care to do justice to its potential while avoiding its numerous pitfalls.

It would be nice to say X-Game is the kind of film that pulls that balancing act off but it’s not.  Like the Saw films, it gives feeble lip service to a serious message but actually goes for a tackily gruesome, often mean-spirited approach that is guaranteed to leave viewers feeling either bleak or angry.

The premise of the film begins with a teacher being driven into a phony “suicide” by unseen tormentors.  Said victim was the former 6th grade teacher of Hideaki (Hirofumi Araki), who knows this suicide is suspicious and begins to investigate the man’s death.  As he does this, he begins to see a mysterious woman – one whose long hair conceals her face in the style of J-horror ghost villains.  He confronts the woman one night, only to be electrocuted until he loses consciousness.

When he awakens, he finds himself trapped in his old sixth-grade classroom with a trio of former classmates: a bully, the bully’s henchman and the “nice girl” of the class.  A television informs them they are to participate in an x-game, a punishment-themed children’s game that the bully used to use to torment his less-popular classmates and a pair of masked tormentors with cattle prods are there to enforce the rules.  The foursome soon realizes that it all has to do with a little girl who was everyone’s whipping girl back in the day and they try to figure a way out of this nightmare as the bloody games begin.

X-Game isn’t afraid to go all-out in portraying the visceral horrors of bullying, which is both a strength and a weakness.  If you’re looking to squirm, there is plenty of material here that will elicit that reaction: the titular game is portrayed in all its gruesome extremes and the cast does a convincing job of enacting the pain and suffering it brings.

However, presenting a cavalcade of cruelty is ultimately a meaningless exercise if you don’t show any value to the humanity that is being attacked.  Sadly, X-Game is suffused with the kind of cheap nihilism that most people give up on sometime after high school.  It takes a hopelessly dark view of the world and doubles down on it as it goes along.  The story proposes a world in which people fall into three categories: thoughtlessly cruel tormentors, simpering victims and single-mindedly vengeful (and hopelessly insane) victims.  Oversimplifying the world so radically is an intellectual copout, basically a way to create an easy backdrop for its straw-man arguments about bullying (in short: all bullies must die, those who bully to avoid being bullied deserve to die even harder).

To make matters worse, no one, not even the apparent hero Hideaki, is portrayed a sympathetic or even dimensional fashion.  In fact, Hideaki may be the worst of the lot: he’s portrayed as a gutless simp from the get-go and never really develops beyond that.  To make things worse, the latter stages of the film includes some dramatic “reveals” that manage to make this so-called protagonist even less likeable than he is at the beginning.

Finally, X-Game falls down when it isn’t leaning on shock value because its rather long-winded from a narrative standpoint.  It was adapted from a novel so it has plot to burn: the story goes on for an entire act after the classroom death-games are finished and the final half hour is full of plot twists.  Unfortunately, it takes a long time to get going, subjecting the viewer to a half-hour of draggy exposition before Hideaki finally gets kidnapped and doesn’t get the life-or-death title game going until nearly an hour in.

Yohei Fukuda’s direction is competent visually but he can’t do much on the dramatic side with the storyline due to its black-or-white views on the world and its cardboard characters.  He does have a bad habit of letting his actors play into their limited characterizations by overacting cartoonishly: Araki fares the worst, acting like a slapstick goon for the first 30 minutes then spending the rest of the time screaming, cowering and looking slackjawed at the horrors going on around him.

In short, X-Game packs some visceral thrills (and spills) that will get a rise out of viewers… but it achieves them in a clumsy, poorly written manner that cheapens its potentially meaningful subject by using it as grist for a numbing torture-show.  The fact that it also dresses up this enterprise with phony morality only intensifies the bad taste that it will leave most viewers with.  There’s a great horror movie or thriller to be made about the costs of bullying but X-Games isn’t it.