Masanobu AndoAki MaedaTatsuya FujiwaraChiaki Kuriyama
Battle Royale
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writer: Koushun Takami, Kenta Fukasaku
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Keywords: reality with a dark twist
Actor: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Chiaki Kuriyama, Yuko Miyamura, Ko Shibasaki, Masanobu Ando
Format: 114 minutes
Website category: Japanese SF
Review date: 24 October 2011
One of the best-known Japanese films of all time. Hugely controversial, nihilistic, violent... oh, and also awesome. I'm assuming you've seen it already, of course.
The selling point is the central idea. A group of 42 schoolkids think they're going on a day trip, but in fact they're about to be gassed, shipped to an uninhabited island and fitted with explosive collars. They're the players in Battle Royale. The rules are as follows:
(a) the object of the game is to be the last person left alive in three days' time.
(b) your collar will explode and kill you if you try to leave the island or enter a prohibited area. Everyone's collars will detonate in three days if there isn't exactly one survivor.
(c) you get assigned random weapons and can do what you like with them.
That's it. Off you go. Oh, and there are also a couple of "transfer students", with whom you absolutely don't want to mess. One of them volunteered to take part, for fun.
This is violent, bloody, angry and sometimes sad. What happens in the lighthouse, for instance, is almost heartbreaking. These are normal kids, reacting as anyone would in this situation. Some turn out to be psychos. Some commit suicide rather than kill. Some shut their eyes to what's going to happen and instead work together, even when it's against their best interests. You couldn't call this a feel-good film, but it's almost unique in having one of those rare ideas so simple and game-changing that it's almost guaranteed to sink its fangs into your imagination. If that was you on the island, what would you do? Death Note pulls off the same trick... and they're both Japanese, I note.
Anyway, I have a friend who didn't really watch foreign-language films and who instead enjoys things like 24 and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I lent him Battle Royale and it immediately became one of his top ten movies of all time. Quentin Tarantino has called the film his favorite to be released since he began directing in 1992. On the other hand it was (accurately) called "crude and tasteless" by members of the Japanese government.
What's interesting (and flawed) about it is a change made by the director. The original was a 1999 novel by Koushun Takami and in that, Japan is part of a totalitarian state known as the Republic of Greater East Asia. There, Battle Royale is officially a military research project but in practice a way of terrorising the population and keeping them cowed. That makes sense. I haven't read the novel, but it sounds plausible. The film though has a different backstory and before getting into that, I'm going to discuss Kinji Fukasaku for a bit.
Fukasaku was a Japanese actor, screenwriter and director, known for abrasive and often violent films. Battle Royale was his last movie before his death from prostate cancer, although he since made a survival horror video game (Clock Tower 3) and managed to shoot one scene of Battle Royale II. (His son took over, as they'd planned.) Anyway, he was a schoolboy during World War Two and was drafted as a munitions worker at the age of fifteen. In July 1945, the class was caught in artillery fire and the only way to survive was to dive under each other, i.e. use your friends as human shields. For a long time afterwards, Fukusaku had a burning hatred of adults. On becoming a director, he overturned the yakuza genre with his Battles Without Honour and Humanity films... and I'm sure you can see the relevance of all this to Battle Royale.
In the film, the Japanese government is simply afraid of youth. It passes the Millennium Educational Reform Act (i.e. Battle Royale) because schools are lawless and young people are becoming ever more violent. Admittedly the situation they're addressing really is the case, with teachers getting stabbed in the corridor and so on, but this solution is pointless, cruel and counter-productive. It's obviously not having any effect on society in general, because the children hadn't heard of it before. (Is it secret?) However as for those who actually play it, it's turning normal kids into terrorists, building explosives and hacking into military computer systems. You couldn't find two nicer kids than Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda, but look what's happened to them by the end of the film... and it's entirely the fault of society.
All the adults here are appalling. Fujiwara's dad is an unbalanced, bitter failure, who then commits suicide. The military are thugs. Takeshi Kitano is enjoying himself as he throws knives in foreheads and blows up explosive neck collars, while his family hates him. Unsurprisingly Fujiwara says that even before this he'd never trusted adults, while if he gets off the island he's not going to stop fighting. Furthermore Battle Royale II: Requiem is basically an Al-Quaeda recruitment video, with our heroes going to Afghanistan and fighting the good fight of flying planes into the Twin Towers. I barely exaggerate. I don't like the film, since it's both offensive and not very good, but the one thing you can't do is pretend that it's subverting its late original director's intentions. They'd planned all along for his son, Kenta, to take over when he died (which he did), while furthermore Kenta was also the scriptwriter for both of them.
I believe I called this movie angry. "Furious" might be a better word. That's why it has that confusing ending, with Kitano's creepy Maeda-worship, the boat and the official charges of murder. Fukasaku's point is that the government is simply reaping what it sowed, although in fairness he's equally aware that the kids can be self-destructive shits as well. Note what happens to the would-be terrorists.
So there's plenty of meat here. However you've got to squint for it to make sense. The Battle Royale Act achieves nothing and can only be understood as characterisation of the government as terrified and evil. There's no rational basis for the law. Meanwhile the results of Battle Royale competitions even get shown on TV and people can volunteer for it, so it seems unbelievable that these children haven't heard of it. Presumably there's been a near-complete breakdown of trust and communication between young people and society, but even so that plot point demands a lot of audience goodwill. I even know people who've assumed that the Battle Royale program was being kept secret.
The cast's strong too. Takeshi Kitano is obviously the most famous, but you'll probably recognise Chiaki Kuriyama, especially if you've seen Kill Bill. She's not playing the serial-killing psycho, to my surprise, but you still won't forget her. Meanwhile Maeda and Fujiwara are likeable protagonists, with the latter in particular being a much better fit than he was for Light in Death Note.
It's possible to dig deep into this film's themes, but just as importantly it's also blown away people who don't care about any of that. It's blackly funny. "Are you okay?" "Isn't this yours?" It's got a horrifyingly perky girl on TV explaining the rules on how to murder your classmates. It's got a would-be rapist getting stabbed repeatedly in the penis. It's got scary psychos, but also nice kids who never deserved this. It's got an on-screen countdown that shows us every single death and tells us how many are left alive, sometimes along with a quote from the deceased to remind us of what had made them do what they did. It's powerful, it's bleak and the rules of the game are solid enough to let the scenario linger in your imagination long after you've finished watching. Wow.
"If you hate someone, you've got to face the consequences of that."