This one ruffled some feathers. Back in 2000, a little more than a year after the shootings at Columbine, a trailer emerged from Japan and excited as many people as it offended. In the trailer, the Japanese military bullies a bunch of kids in a school room, Takeshi Kitano throws a knife which plants itself in the forehead of a mouthy girl and the only discernable english in the trailer is when Kitanosan points to the blackboard and proclaims in heavily accented English, “Battle royal!” What does any of this mean? At the time I had no idea but such a decadent movie captured my imagination immediately. As soon as it was available with subtitles, I was all over it.
Try as you might here in the states, but you’re not going to find this movie easily. Despite what you may have heard, Battle Royale isn’t banned here, there just isn’t a distributor in their right mind who will touch it. Toho’s contract for American distribution calls for a very high profile thetrical run of the movie and given the fact that kids in high school still pack heat routinely, it doesn’t look like the American condition is ever going to ease up so that this movie could infiltrate our culture without a massive parent group boycott and protest. Despite what it looks like, this isn’t a movie about school shootings as we have come to understand it. If you’re looking for that, you’ll want to see Duck! The Carbine High Massacre.
In near-future Japan, the unemployment rate skyrockets leaving thousands out of work and a major economic crisis. The country’s youth respond with epidemic levels of deviant behavior and what the movie calls school boycotts. Essentially, entire classes give up on education and do their own thing. To stem this problem, the Japanese government passes the Millennium Educational Reform Act which will be outlined in the following passages. As the movie begins, this year’s Battle Royale is at an end and the winner of the game is being taken out of the warzone; a little girl, covered in blood, clutching a doll, smiling wickedly.
Our story begins as a seemingly innocent busload of schoolkids is gassed out of consciousness only to awaken in a schoolroom, surrounded by soldiers and collars fastened around their necks. Out comes Kitano, a teacher from their past, forced into retirement after one of them stabbed him in the hallway. He explains what they’re doing there and points out the aforementioned Battle Royale, a three day long game on an island where they have no choice but to kill each other until only one student remains. This student is free to go after the game is up. If they don’t pull it off in three days, each of the collars explodes and they all die anyway. Also, throughout each day, certain parts of the island become off-limits. Students who wander into these areas will die by exploding collar as well. It acts as a means of forcing the students to fight each other. As an example, Kitano demonstrates the collar’s operation on Nobu, the student who stabbed him. The collar explodes and in typical samurai movie fashion, a shower of blood erupts from the wound, killing Nobu where he stands. The class freaks out and the soldiers get them under control. Kitano plays a video featuring a chirpy woman who explains the rules.
You get a bag containing some food, water, a map and some kind of weapon. Sometimes it’s a sweet one, like a shotgun, but other times it’s a pot lid. No lie. How would you like to be that kid?
Battle Royale wastes no time getting to the point. Back stories are filled in as we go but right off the bat, you’re thrust into the confusion and terror as these kids are forced to confront the truth that only one of them is getting off the island alive. Friends will have to turn on each other and terror mixes with suspicion. Battle Royale’s writing sometimes stumbles and pulls you out of the tense, frightening situation, but I chalk that up to the subtitles which actually lose a lot in translation. The subs are hardly a deal breaker, but it’s something worth keeping in mind if the dialog ever feels a little strange. Often times the way the Japanese language is spoken has as much bearing on the meaning of the words as the words themselves. This often comes across stunted since the written word can’t properly convey these ideas.
It would seem pretty simple and many of the students begrudgingly accept their fate, even going so far as to kick off the mayhem right outside of the school room, but there are two wildcards in play. Two “transfer students”. An option of the BR Act allows other students to volunteer for the program, no matter what their motivations. In this case a brooding quiet guy named Shogo and a grinning psychopath named Kazuo. The main characters of the story, however, are Shuya and Noriko, the girl he likes. Shuya’s story involves a mother who abandoned him and his father’s suicide. Throughout the movie, many backgrounds are revealed which show kids predisposed to murder, victims of abuse and so on. Many of them seem to be ordinary kids thrust into a fucked up situation created by their elders. Noriko, however, seems to be the living embodyment of hope and purity.
This is the overall message of the movie. I don’t pretend to understand Japanese society. It’s a culture deeply rooted in ancient traditions. Even today. It’s also sometimes evident that the adults fear the kids. Much more open to new, foreign ideas, it may feel as if they threaten to undo hundreds of years of established convention if they’re not controlled and siphoned into acceptable social roles. Battle Royale takes this to obvious extremes and the presentation is very exploitative but the idea is there and seemed to be the most alarming thing about the movie upon its release. Never mind the scenes of teenagers killing each other, the movie’s central concept hit a little too close for comfort. Still, it was a pretty succesful movie and generated a shitload of buzz overseas.
While Shuya and Noriko are the main characters, the story swings wildly to other subplots and some students resign to their fate and fight while others band together and plot against the organization running the show. Meanwhile, Kazuo is making short work of the other students and Shogo hooks up with Shuya and Noriko, explaining that he’s in it for revenge. A surviving player of the game, he’s back for revenge on Kitano for the death of his girlfriend. As the battle rages on, Kitano periodically announces the body count and off-limits areas of the island over the loudspeaker, glibly declaring that they’re not killing each other fast enough, seemingly taking joy in the carnage. Meanwhile, he occasionally reveals a stange affection for Noriko and a subplot involving the break-up of his family. At the bottom line, Battle Royale is a jumble of subplots which somehow never manage to step on each other. It may seem confusing and with so many characters each with their own story to tell but the central plot is firmly intact given only briefly to plot holes.
At its heart, Battle Royale is an action movie, but unlike many other actioners from Japan, it does away with ideas of style. These kids have no experience fighting and so their fight scenes are sloppy and chaotic, often resulting in unintentional injury. It creates situations where it may appear that the kids are getting a leg up on the establishment but something always goes wrong and everyone dies. When you think that some have banded together out of friendship, suspicion sneaks in and ruins everything. Director Kinji Fukasaku injected the movie with his own experiences of youth and it should come as no surprise as to why, exactly, the movie harbors such a negative sentiment toward adults.
As a teen, Fukasaku’s class was drafted into service in 1945 in a munitions factory. When the factory was shelled by American artillery, the only was to survive was by ducking under the bodies of other students. Just a bit of morbid context for you.
Battle Royale is loaded with shocking scenes and excitement. Out of context, that is to say, viewed by someone unfamiliar with Japanese society, it serves as a thrilling if dreary action movie. It’s tense, it’s exciting and well deserving of its reputation. Bootlegs are widely available, however, I recommend the Tartan tin box edition which is labelled as a Region 2 DVD but will play in American players.