Battle Royale バトル・ロワイアル Dir: Kinji Fukasaku (2000)

Battle Royale    Battle Royale Film Poster

バトル・ロワイアルBatoru Rowairu

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,

IMDB

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.

Battle Royale Class

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.

5 thoughts on “Battle Royale バトル・ロワイアル Dir: Kinji Fukasaku (2000)

  1. Great analysis of one of my all-time favourite films! I have the extended version on steelbook DVD and while I didn’t get the two additional codas which I felt undermined the thrill of the ending, I liked the basketball match insert to establish the various bonds within the class dynamic, who the loners are, who the cliques were, and how they adhere to the group mentality of the Japanese social system.

    After years of only seeing (dubbed) Godzilla films and hearing about Kurosawa, this was the first Japanese film I saw that exposed to me a different side to their cinema. I felt like I had entered a whole a new world through a magical portal and I haven’t looked back.

    I actually found it by accident – I was visiting a wrestling forum and some had a sig with *that* picture of Kiriyama and the caption “Anyone who hasn’t seen this film should be shot”. I thought that was harsh and maybe this person was being a pseud, but the more I saw it the more intrigued I was and somehow (I don’t recall how) i found out it was from Battle Royale and I found a version of it on Kazaa (remember that?).

    I really should rewatch the blu-ray version one day soon, I always find something new with very viewing which to me is the mark of a great film – that it can grab you, stay with you yet still feel fresh.

    1. Haha, Kazaa, that’s going back…

      I cannot remember with 100% accuracy what made me get this film. I was already watching all sorts of Asian movies/anime and even importing them in high school. I think it might have been Japanorama or Kung-Fu Cult Cinema. That written, I remember watching Japanorama and thinking I have that film…

      But yeah, this is how you do a big entertainment movie with a message. It’s propulsive action but throughout it all are themes of economic hardship and the breakdown in relations between generations, as well as some brilliant character dynamics that are leveraged by the action scenes. That’s what made it compelling upon the first viewing and still makes it compelling.

      With the benefit of hindsight and experience, I have come to respect every performer, creative, and every decision involved in the making of this film even more.

      I bought the first volume of the manga years ago but it’s still in its shrink wrap.

      1. High school? Were you educated in America then?

        The manga is quite the departure from the book and the film in may ways as I might have mentioned before. They create whole new backstories for many of the kids and even adds new characters, whilst the content is extremely graphic and typically lurid for an adult manga (i.e explicit sexual material) so make sure you are alone when you get to those volumes… 😉

        I tell what was amusing. I had the film on download, then it came on TV at Christmas time (I think 2003) and I set my video for it as I was at my sisters that night. Because we didn’t see her before Xmas Day we had to wait until then before she gave us our presents and what did she get me? Yup, the BR steelbook DVD! 😀

      2. Britain! Britain has high schools, too.

        I’m interested in seeing what backstories the kids have although I am cautious about the sex. It was handled well in the novel and the movie.

        You have a good sister!

        Thanks for reading my review and commenting!

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