From the outset, it needs to be pointed out that this film was never banned in the US – a factor that has doubtless caused the production company to shift a shedload of copies. The actual reasons are far more mundane – the distribution deal fell through and the film (and you’ll like this) “failed to meet MPAA standards”. The same MPAA who approve M. Night Shyamalan movies. Anyway, the point is that while this is a movie chock-a-block with visual and imagined violence, it is actually a very neatly observed satire and a coming-of-age movie all in one. It would be easy to assume it was the subject matter and the heightened level of violence that prevented Battle Royale (2000) from being seen legally in the States, but let’s never let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh?
Kinji Fukasaku took the reins as director of the adaptation of the book by Koushun Takami so it’s my guess that with a Japanese director this twisted cautionary tale of control and reaction is pretty much as Takami would have intended it to be portrayed on screen. The date is some time in the 22nd century, and things are rotten in the state of Japan. The students are revolting – and not in the usual, hygiene-related department.
Oppressed by authority and out of control, they are becoming something of a thorn in the side of the ruling party. An emergency act is passed in parliament called the Educational Reform (BR) act. The act makes it legal to remove students from Japan to a heavily guarded island. It was two years before Guantánamo Bay and Fukasuku couldn’t possibly have known, but it’s very prescient.
Once on the island, there are a few ground rules laid down to the newcomers. They are there to fight to the death in typical battle royale style, with the last man (or woman) standing declared the victor and presumed to have earned the right to rejoin civilized society. They are given a bag of essential items and sent off into the jungle to see who makes it out. Naturally, the whole thing is televised for the enjoyment of the overseer and ‘teacher’ (our old friend Takeshi Kitano) and the baying public. Oh yes – and if they decide not to participate, the collar around their neck will blow their head off.
Battle Royale has been heavily criticized by some as being simplistic, voyeuristic or just too violent. It is all of these things and a lot more besides, but that’s pretty much the point of it. If you want subtle intonations of mood and depth of character, read Camus or Proust. If you want a pacey tale with a lot to say, Battle Royale is for you. It’s not only an exercise in flipping the bird at the voyeurism of the public and the shows that feed their addiction to human misery (although it is very much about that), it’s a direct analogy to the difficulty of leaving a school environment where you more or less know your place and having to enter the dog-eat-dog world of business.
Maybe it is more relevant to the Japanese youth put under extreme pressure to succeed, but I think it translates adequately to any first-world society. When you’re at school, you’re worth nothing – expendable, almost – but to succeed, you have to be prepared to go the extra mile, even if it means shooting your best friend in the face.
All the kids hijacked into this gore-fest are unwitting and unwilling, and all have personalities, allegiances and something very human and redeeming about them. It’s chilling and yet strangely normal to see how quickly some of them turn from innocents to murderers, and how easy the transition seems for some.
The camera work seems very 1980s – almost technicolor, with great gobs of crimson blood all over the place and the soundtrack is unmemorable (perhaps you need to be Japanese) so I can’t really dwell too much on the pretty bits – there are few to be had, to be honest. If you don’t mind the violence, Battle Royale really is a film worth investing your time in. To be perfectly honest, I’ve seen worse violence and I’ve seen better-made films, but that’s not the heart of this movie. If you watch it and only see violent teenagers, perhaps you’re part of the problem.
122 mins. In Japanese.