Deadline Thriller/Suspense Film and Writing Festival
BATTLE ROYALE, 2000
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku
Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Tarô Yamamoto, Chiaki Kuriyama, Sosuke Takaoka
Review by Keith Huckfield
In the future, the Japanese government captures a class of ninth-grade students and forces them to kill each other under the revolutionary “Battle Royale” act.
In an alternative reality Japan is in a state of near collapse. Unemployment is at an all time high, and violence perpetrated by the nations youth is spiralling out of control. With school children boycotting their classes and attacking teachers, the government introduces a radical new measure; the Battle Royale Act. This act requires a class of school children, randomly chosen by a lottery, to be taken to an island where they will kill each other off until only one student remains, a reminder of what the government will do to protect the nation from youth crime.
Battle Royale was directed by Kinji Fukasaku and adapted from a novel of the same name. Fukasaku chose to adapt the book because it reminded him of his time working in a munitions factory during World War II, a time where he saw many of his school friends killed in artillery fire and the survivors were forced to hide under the bodies of their colleagues. This convinced Fukasaku that the Japanese government had lied about the war and gave him a great distrust of adults and authority in general.
This mistrust and cynicism is resonant throughout Battle Royale, and the film is a gruesome yet beautiful exercise in extremist cinema; tackling the very real issue of crime committed by the youth of Japan and taking the response by the government to an almost cartoonish extreme. While it was made nearly ten years ago its story has never been more relevant to the real world; unemployment continues to rise in a world blighted by economic crisis and teen violence goes seemingly unchecked. The film offers a chilling glimpse into a possible outcome of such a tumultuous time and gives a warning to all about what can happen if the hypocrisy and corruption inherent in all government goes unchecked.
The concept of the movie has echoes of ‘1984’ and ‘Brazil’; in it we see a society incapable of dealing with rebellion or controlling their populace through peaceful measures that turns to fascism and oppression in order to achieve their ‘perfect’ world. In Battle Royale, however, Japan’s own children represent the undesirable element that the government wish to curb. This creates a strange dystopia where the enemy to the state is not an outside force but simply youthful rebellion and delinquent attitudes. Through this brilliantly simple device the film succeeds in highlighting the insanity of oppressive regimes and the objectification of human beings into a problem that needs to be eliminated.
Not only does Battle Royale offer a serious peek into this dystopian world, it also contains a large amount of gallows humour. The instructional video that the official in charge, Kitano-sensei, shows the kids, for example, is absurdly upbeat with a pretty, smiling girl delivering the grim instructions to a class of petrified teenagers. This lampoons Japanese television, in particular shows which will happily exploit members of the public for the entertainment of the viewing masses. More humour comes as the students turn on each other in a parody of playground politics and despite their situation continue to worry about small things such as who fancies who, as if such things are more important than their impending demise.
Kitano-Sensei, played to wonderful effect by Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano, is a fantastic send up of the corruption inherent in such a programme. An ex-teacher of the class now facing the Battle Royale experience, he is completely wrapped up in his own subjective experience of teaching the kids. He even bears a grudge for one particular incident that led to him being stabbed in the backside by a student named Nobu, whom he kills as an example to the others. Far from being the impartial official necessary to police such a game, he has a vested interest in the outcome and a fermented hatred of teenagers that colours his judgement, guiding his actions. He seems uncaring and unmoved by the violence, revelling in the excitement of it all and goading the children about ‘slacking off’ when only a few die during the morning. Through small touches like this, Battle Royale provides a microcosmic indictment of the hypocrisy of adult society as an uncaring bureaucracy that does not recognise people as such until they are adults.
Every death is a work of comic-horrific genius, as heads are thrown through windows with grenades stuffed in their mouths and old childhood rivalries take on a deadly reality. When we first see the children as a group, laughing and joking on a school bus, it is impossible to see how they could turn into killers or saviours, heroes or villains. Soon after they are released in to the wilderness, however, the battle lines are drawn and 15 year old boys and girls are forced to fight for their lives. Perhaps this is part of the warning; if kids want to act violently and take on affectations of adulthood these are the more extreme effects of what these acts can have, namely death.
Even Darwinism and survival of the fittest are not safe from satire, as any students who seek a peaceful resolution are mercilessly gunned down by the main antagonist Kiriyama or turn on each other in a flurry of paranoid accusations and fear induced self-preservation. Through this we see the backbone of the narrative; everyone for themselves.
To analyse Battle Royale is to gaze into an abyss of subtext, every layer removed reveals ten more potential readings that are just as thought provoking as the last. The film offers a chilling glimpse of what the world could be like if all remaining humanity and goodness were drained from society. Some censorious types might say that the film could encourage teen violence with its scenes of death and destruction, however a more apt interpretation may be that it is a warning to all teenagers that ultimately the adults that they disrespect and abuse on a day to day basis hold a lot of power over their lives. A gruelling thrill-ride with a solid message at its core, the pace will leave you breathless but the plot will give you pause for thought. To focus on the violence of the film is to miss the point. When watching this film try to see past the blood coated surface and stare into the depths of political satire and tragedy at its heart, it will be hard work but ultimately worth the effort.
Deadline Thriller/Suspense Film and Writing Festival