You could describe Battle Royale in many ways. You could call it satirical and disturbing, poignant and depraved, tragic and horrible. You could acclaim it for being a brilliant look at society’s disregard for its youth, or a critique on violence. You could vilify it for being monstrous and sickening. You could do all of these things, and you’d be right. All the while watching Battle Royale, I went through phases. I was shocked by the film’s premise, horrified at the violence, and sickened by the film’s implications. But perhaps most shocking of all, I found myself deeply moved by the characters and their tragic situation.
What kind of film could cause such varying reactions? Well, to start off, Battle Royale is not a film for every taste. In fact, I’m surprised the film has even been shown outside of Japan, or even made for that matter. Lord knows that certain special interests and political groups would go out of their way to kill this movie if an American studio conceived it. In light of tragedies like Columbine, and even current events, it’s no wonder that American distributors won’t even touch this movie.
Describe the concept of the film to most people, and you’ll immediately see shock that a movie like this even exists. Based upon Koshun Takami’s novel, Battle Royale is set in a future where Japan has become a boiling pot of unrest. The unemployment rate’s up, the economy is horrible, and students around the nation are boycotting school. Hoping to put some discipline and fear back into the youth, the government passes the “Battle Royale Act.” At random, a 9th grade class is chosen from among the nation’s schools and sent to a deserted island. There, they must fight it out amongst themselves until one remains.
The 42 students of the latest class wake up in an abandoned classroom, mysterious collars around their necks. Their old teacher, Kitano, walks in and explains the situation. Their first reaction is disbelief. That disbelief turns to horror when Kitano wheels out the bloody corpse of their teacher. It gets even worse as a video — which, in spite of the circumstances, is darkly humorous — explains the game’s simple rules.
The students have 3 days to hunt eachother down. If there is more than one survivor after 3 days, everyone dies. Each student is given a survival pack and a weapon. In order to even the odds, some students are given guns and knives, while others are given less deadly items such as potlids. After the video, Kitano shows the deadly purpose of the collars. Not only do they track the students, they also contain explosives, which Kitano demonstrates when he detonates one, with predictably messy results. And then, the game begins.
Some students go along with game, figuring that it’s “survival of the fittest” or just desperate to return to their previous lives. Some, in a noble act, refuse to take any part in the game; some refuse weapons, whereas one young couple jumps into the sea. Still others band together, determined to survive and take the fight to the adults who have forced them into this. Some kill because they’ve been called losers their whole lives and they finally found a way to stick out. Some students are transfers, survivors of previous years who come back under mysterious reasons or for a cheap thrill.
In the midst of this madness, the normal pitfalls of high school still exist. Kids develop crushes, cliques are just as prevalent, and normal rivalries suddenly have deadly consequences. It’s the attention to these characters — all bloodshed aside, they’re just your normal, average teenagers with normal, average teenage experiences — that give this film a surprising emotional power. There are moments when these teens, essentially discarded by their society, react with moments of love, friendship and mercy. In other words, the very qualities the government claims they lack. This is especially true of the movie’s main characters, a cute-as-buttons couple of teenagers named Nanahara and Noriko. Watching them try to survive while falling for eachother… well, it gives you hope that something good might come out of this madness.
On the other hand, many scenes are just as startling and brutal.
Two in particular tore me apart. In the first scene, two girls attempt to gather the students together, calling everyone from a hilltop with a megaphone. In one sense, it’s almost silly and even a bit hopeful. But that’s shot to hell when Kiriyama, one of the transfers, follows their voices and guns them down. Before finishing them off, he holds the megaphone to one of the dying girls, allowing everyone in the surrounding countryside to hear her dying moans.
The second finds a group of girls holed up in a lighthouse. When one of the girls accidentally poisons another, fears lying just below the surface surge to the top. The girls turn on eachother, killing everyone except the poisoner. Horrified at what she’s done, she throws herself from the lighthouse onto the rocks below.
And those are just two.
As you can see, it’s impossible not to talk about the film’s violence, some of it very bloody. 9th graders get shot, impaled, decapitated, and castrated… by other 9th graders. It’s not comfortable to watch, and making it even more difficult is how uncertain it all is. The movie never takes sides, which means that you never know who’s next. Even the closest of friends could turn on eachother at any moment.
I know many that would probably find this movie repugnant, and yet have no problem watching any of Schwarzeneggar’s movies, or teen slashers like Scream and Final Destination. However, those movies let you off the hook. They never force you to invest in the characters, in their dilemmas. Battle Royale is not a mindless action movie (even though I listed it as “Action/Adventure”). It is not an adrenaline rush. You care about these characters. You might even see yourself in some of them. And watching their innocence taken away in the name of society’s benefit is perhaps the most difficult thing of all.
It’s interesting (and perhaps necessary) to understand the director’s vision with a film like this. Kinji Fukasaku was in 9th grade himself during World War II. His class was assigned to work in a munitions factory, and in the war’s final days, to dispose of corpses. In the midst of that wretched duty, he came to realize that everything adults had told him concerning the war had been a lie, a lie he had no part of and yet was forced to accept guilt for. That sentiment, that sense of betrayal resonates throughout the film.
After I watch a film like this, I try to figure out its value, whether or not it was worth my time. Whether or not it was worth subjecting myself to rather, um, extreme filmmaking. Yes, I do that so I can defend it against friends and family, but also so that I can hopefully spread the word to other who might find it valuable as well. Whatever the case, the struggle is there. But I’ve come to believe that the very existence of that struggle implies value. If a film (or any work of art) forces you to wrestle with it, if it sticks with you for any extended period of time, there must be something there. And in that regard, I think Battle Royale has value.
But what if, at the same time, the movie also hits you on a deep, emotional level? What if, in the midst of a movie that most would gladly ban, you saw something that moves you, almost to the point of tears? Something that redeems whatever controversial contents the movie might have? What then? Well, my friend, then you’ve got a truly great film on your hands.