Release Date: December 16th, 2000
Duration: 109 mins.
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writer: Kenta Fukasaku (Script), Koushun Takami (Original Novel)
Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Takeshi Kitano, Chiaki Kuriyama, Kou Shibasaki, Taro Yamamoto, Masanobu Ando,
Some time in the near future, Japan has suffered a major economic collapse that has resulted in an explosion in unemployment and the attendant fraying of society as increasing numbers of kids cease to respect adults, classrooms are abandoned and teachers face escalating violence. The Japanese government decide that the only way to control this new generation of disruptive teenagers is to punish them and so they issue the Battle Royale act, an ultra-violent attempt to stop juvenile delinquency whereby, every year, a random class of 15 year olds is kidnapped and dumped in a remote area with nothing but a stockpile of weapons and they are forced to fight until only one survivor is left.
The film follows the 42 students and two transfers of class 3-B of Shiroiwa Junior High as they go through the Battle Royale challenge on an abandoned island just off Shikoku.
Our hero is Shuya Nanahara (Tetsuya Fujiwara in his breakout role), a bit of an everyman protag as a good-natured kid who, along with 41 of his classmates, is forced to fight to the death. While he focuses on protecting his love interest Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) and resists killing until the very last few scenes of the film, others in the class take to murder and mayhem with varying degrees of aplomb, from flame-haired uzi-toting demon Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando) and the laconic sneering shotgun-wielding Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), to the class deviant Mitsuko Souma (Kou Shibasaki really going dark) and her bloody scythe. With their movements affected by explosive neck collars, a shocking bloodbath unfolds.
Battle Royale is a film from the year 2000. It was the 60th title directed by Kinji Fukasaku but his first to feature teenage protagonists. Approaching his 70s, Fukasaku was introduced to the same-named novel by his son Kenta (director of X-Cross (2007)) and immediately identified with the story’s characters who are stuck in an impossible situation by adults due to his own wartime experience as a teenager at a munitions factory in Hitachinaka city. While there, he and his classmates were trapped in the midst of death and destruction and he developed a hatred for adults who created that situation. At the age of 70 and with prostate cancer, he would go on to direct this movie, arguably the last big entertainment film to challenge Japanese society and a work that would revolutionise the world of entertainment.
The film has its basis in the conroversial 1999 novel by Koushoun Takami but Kenta Fukasaku’s script differs from its source in various ways, dropping its alternate history setting of a fascist government winning World War II and terrorising its populace into compliance through a death game and rooting the film in our reality of Japan’s decade-long economic depression, the resulting loss of confidence felt by adults and the seemingly inexplicable spikes in youth crime that rocked the country in the late 90s. These real-world problems and anxieties are glimpsed in snatches of flashbacks such as Shuya’s recollections of his depressed unemployed father to shocking acts of delinquency done by various classmates and while these real-world influences are big deviations tha serve to make the film hit harder and feel more relevant, the kill list and the characters remain mostly unchanged and we watch as a group of what are near enough children fight to the death.
Hunting humans wasn’t necessarily a new cinematic concept at the time this was made. There are antecedents like the old RKO film The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and The Running Man (1987), but the idea of a death game this raw and full-on and, again, I cannot stress this enough, so rooted in our reality and not sci-fi, had never been seen before, especially with teens who we can identify with and with a bodycount this high and with our real-world concerns.
While the novel has the benefit of lengthy backstories to set up characters and internal monologues to add extra weight to each kid’s choice on whether to trust their classmates or not, the film streamlines a lot of this so the theme of trust is played down a little in favour of amping up the action but nearly all of the teens are humanised and feel real, not like the stereotypes in this film’s sequel, and we constantly sympathise with them and feel the losses more as we watch the tragedy of youth being destroyed due to an unfair system.
As the kids fight and die, they are being monitored by their teacher, Kitano. This is a bravura performance from Takeshi Kitano who was clearly hired for his work as a gameshow host and takes to his role with a puckish delight that flips to ruthless violence as his character lets seep out his deep-seated resentment and fear of the teens who had mocked and harassed him in the past. The film’s depiction of his character is more entertaining and empathetic than the book’s cartoonish sadist and the dream on the riverside he shares with Noriko and the snatches of his family problems really humanise him and make him tragic as well.
As is Fukasaku’s style, this is a pure action experience that is exciting, efficient and fast-flowing. From the moment the Toei ocean logo with crashing waves hits the screen while Verdi’s Requiem Dies Irae bombards the viewer from the speakers with its epic sound to the last minute where characters urge audiences to run, the film is a relentless barrage of incidents and conflict and constant development that goes at a breakneck pace.
Within the opening 20 minutes, through on-screen text, and a few quick sequences (including the infamous video introduction), we are transported into a nightmarish death game, given its rules and then we dash off into the fray. For the remainder of the film, we run with the kids, we try to make sense of things at the same time that they do, and we share their horror as they commit and experience acts of violence. We are embedded in this class thanks to Fukusaku’s camerawork, contemplative and still in thoughtful moments of moralising or constantly active and swirling in each chaotic action scene. It really plants us in the Battle Royale experience as we view a variety of high school archetypes from the rich kids and nerds to the sports guys and queen bees play out their little dramas and see the moments each child chooses to either run, hide, kill or be killed. This is often times devastating stuff as members of the class profess their indignation over their situation and kill themselves, others cling to friendships and try to unite and escape and some let themselves loose in a killing frenzy fuelled by fears brought to the island from the classroom and public life, all of which audiences will be able to relate to.
For all of the heightened action, there is a neat juxtaposition with the blackly comic as Kitano playfully doles our news of deaths and issues instructions with a cracked smile. The aforementioned briefing video is an exercise is corporate cute and character deaths can sometimes by played for laughs and irony. This constant mixing of tones prevents the film from sliding into the purely ugly and there is a lot of beauty on display in the island as rugged beaches, rain soaked forests and dams bathed in the glow of a sunset provide the backdrop for dramatic deaths of kids we get attached to.
Battle Royale is one of my key Japanese films. After buying the Tartan release in 2002, I watched it multiple times and, a year later, I went to see the extended cut when it had a limited theatrical run. I felt the movie spoke to me. I was around the age of the film’s protags and learning to distrust those in authority and I found its artistic and brutal telling of its a story really thrilling and even moving as it spoke to me as it utilised melodrama to tap into the teenage emotions that get dismissed as mere melodrama by so many films. Its exhortation to the audience to live life to the full moved me to tears each time I watched it and it still works to this day as its righteous anger lingers.
I recently took part in a podcast about this film which you can listen to here.