Paranoia, trust and terror dominate one of Japan’s most iconic pieces of dystopian cinema.
“Life is a game, so fight for survival and find out if you’re worth it.”
If you take part in any conversation about Japanese cinema and its presence in the West, there’s no doubt that at some point the topic will turn to a few films: seminal J-Horror Ringu, the unparalleled classic Seven Samurai and, of course, the controversial but massively influential Battle Royale. Based on the book by Koushun Takami (still his only novel to date), Battle Royale has become a franchise, spinning off into 3 manga series (also written by Takami) and two films.
The story has something of a troubled release history, with each incarnation running into problems at some point in its life. The film, directed by legendary yakuza-genre filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku, has seen worldwide bans for its supposed gratuitous violence and imagery of children getting absolutely owned by people who are more skilled at using guns. And yes, it would be difficult to argue against the point, but Battle Royale strives to be more than violence for the sake of it.
First, a quick rundown: in the near future, as society crumbles around them, lawmakers in Japan have decided that the best way to combat increasingly hard-to-deal-with kids is to subject one random class of high schoolers to the Battle Royale – where they must kill one another and only one may survive. This year, the program is run by ex-teacher Kitano (Beat Takeshi), whose stoic attitude barely betrays what he thinks of his old pupils. Our central characters are two friends Shuya (Tatsyu Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda), who are certain they can find a way out. They befriend transfer student Shogo Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), who claims he knows how to beat the system. But first, they have to find allies, all while avoiding the killer instincts of students such as Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando) and Mitsuko (Ko Shibasaki).
It was always going to be difficult to adapt the monster-sized novel into a two-hour film: the set-up is told through on-screen text and one quick flashback to a previous game winner (although Ai Iwamura’s bloodied, distant grin is so striking it paints a hell of a picture of the in-movie society). One of the very first shots of the movie is a still of the class as well as its numerous students. Fukasaku smartly uses this time to establish a few of the key players but that moment mostly serves to show just how many characters have speaking roles. To expect the same level of detail that we see in the manga – which eclipses even the source material for depth – is completely out of the realm of possibility, but it does feel kind of like a tease when we’re introduced to so many interesting characters (played by some future megastars, to boot) only to have them killed in the same scene.
This is possibly because Shuya and Noriko are just so damn bland compared to everyone else. A good portion of the side characters have defined, if somewhat boilerplate, personalities and to have most of the screentime dedicated to two people whose entire job is to react feels like a waste. There is one exception to this rule: Kiriyama, whose sadistic grins are a far cry from the emotionless Terminator he is in the book but whose complete lack of motivation and dialogue makes him intimidating as all hell whenever he’s on screen.
But for all its faults – many of which don’t really matter in the grand scheme, really, and are mostly just nitpicks – Battle Royale is an immensely entertaining piece of entertainment and manages to get one thing over any of its other incarnations. That is that it is able to get past its shock value and present itself as a viable piece of art. The manga might expand on each character ad infinatum but also goes full exploitation mode with wonderfully over-the-top graphic deaths and the source novel is good but often reads like a screenplay than fully-realised prose. (Note: this is possibly something to do with the translation than the original novel, but I have not researched it enough.)
Each version of the story has its own reason for the Battle Royale act, and therefore comes across with a slightly different message. The movie has probably the least expanded-upon lore but it definitely knows what it’s doing with its central message – and this is the key difference between this film and the exploitation cheap thrills censorship boards assumed it offered. Fukasaku struggled immensely to establish the right balance of violent content while keeping it accessible to younger viewers because this film was – in his words – for them. The story starts with the point of view of the grown-up characters and shows the children as little monsters but as things progress it becomes apparent that it’s the adults who simply never bothered to address and issue, and enact a law to let the problem take care of itself. “It’s your own damn fault,” Kitano says, when asked why the BR Act was established, all the while ignoring his own daughter in favour of exploding his students’ necks. The opening text in contrast to the final word on-screen is a perfect summation and is proof the movie is able to bypass the weak world-building to still tell an affecting, very understandable tale.
And on a technical level, there’s so much to love and so many aspects that separate it from its extreme cinema brethren. Fukasaku brings decades of experience to the production, and it shows as every scene of Battle Royale is drenched in atmosphere. The use of lighting, grainy film stock and muted colours all work wonders to make the titular battle all that more exciting, tragic and terrifying. There’s no sight more intimidating then Kiriyama, lit by flames, wielding his machine gun with his trademark casual glee. Throw in a perfect score by Masamichi Amano, top-notch performances from a host of extremely talented youths (many of which we’ll see in larger roles as their careers balloon) and a subdued but low-key terrific Kitano and you have the makings of a film that is just as much of a thrill to watch the tenth time as it is the first.
The script might be a bit of a mess, juggling so many things at once, but I’ll be damned if the rest of the production isn’t a near perfect blend of schlocky B-cinema gore, with top quality production value and cast. It was also the last film released by Fukasaku, who was only able to film a single scene for the sequel. I suppose it’s fitting that his final project be a piece that tells the younger generation to take a stand, and carve their own future. There’s an entire essay to be written about the influence of both Battle Royale and Fukasaku’s legacy on Japanese cinema, but that one will have to wait. This film’s sequel might have the subtitle, but for Fukasaku Battle Royale was his requiem, and it’s a bloody fine one to go out on.
Verdict: Wildly entertaining and consistently thrilling Battle Royale is a perfect film for those both new to and seasoned in Japan’s diverse film industry.
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Sex: Angsty teens/10
Iconic moments: 10/10
Underrated MVP: Sugimura
Cookies: Come on, Kitano, you didn’t even eat that last one
Photos: Who brings all their photos and uncle’s manifestos on school trips?
Quentin Tarantino: Yes, we all know you’ve seen this movie. Well done.
Battle Royale (2000)
Also known as: バトル・ロワイアル
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writer: Koushun Takami (novel), Kenta Fukusaku (screenplay)
Tatsuya Fujiwara – Shuya Nanahara
Aki Maeda – Noriko Nakagawa
Tarō Yamamoto – Shogo Kawada
Masanobu Andō – Kazuo Kiriyama
Kou Shibasaki – Mitsuko Souma
Chiaki Kuriyama – Takako Chigusa
Takashi Tsukamoto – Shinji Mimura
Sousuke Takaoka – Hiroki Sugimura
Eri Ishikawa – Yukie Utsumi
Hitomi Hyuga – Yuko Sakaki
Takeshi Kitano – Kitano
Yukihiro Kotani – Yoshitoki Kuninobu
Sayaka Ikeda – Megumi Eto
Takayo Mimura – Kayoko Kotohiki
Minami – Keiko Onuki
Yūko Miyamura – Training Video Girl