Great Films You Need To See – Battle Royale (2000)

Teenagers are forced by a paranoid, dystopian government to compete in all-or-nothing game where they must use whatever weapons are at their disposal to kill each other in order to win.

You’d be forgiven for thinking a review of The Hunger Games would be forthcoming off the back of that premise. However, more than a decade before that acclaimed blockbuster made it to the big screen, director Kinji Fukasaku unleashed this ultra-violent black comedy.

Battle Royale

The ultra-violent black comedy Battle Royale

Subsequently re-released in 3D (in 2010 in Japan and this year in the United States, presumably to cash-in on the hysteria surrounding The Hunger Games), Battle Royale was as successful in its native Japan as it was controversial (there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ news when it comes to drumming up box office receipts, after all).

Adapted from Koushon Takami’s novel of the same name, the film begins with a prologue explaining how high unemployment, mass truancy, escalating juvenile crime and peadophobia led to the adoption of The Battle Royale Act, wherein a class of ninth grade kids are selected at random to participate in an epic bloodletting against their will. Ferried to a deserted island, the 40-plus friends and classmates are fitted with explosive neck braces and told they have three days to ensure they are the last one standing or face certain death.

They are given this unwelcome news by their former teacher Kitano (played by Japanese actor/director ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), who casually informs his ex-students that “today’s lesson is you kill each other off till there’s only one of you left; nothing is against the rules”. Kitano is a metaphor for the system; an implacable tyrant who stamps his authority by killing two of the terrified teens before the game has even started, one for whispering and the other for talking back. “You don’t respect adults”, he states, by way of explanation.

Some of the students choose to commit suicide rather than play along, while others either go it alone or fall back on the friendships they had in school and team up. Although class heart-throb Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) emerges as the hero and Noriko (Aki Maeda) the plucky heroine, the film gives ample screen time to the other students to work together, turn on each other or die tragically (often all three).

Battle Royale

Kitano (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano) gives his former pupils a lesson they won’t forget in Battle Royale

Fukasaku displays a clever understanding both of the overtly emotional, naive rebelliousness of many teens and the Dawson’s Creek-esque soap operas that have embellished these traits with lashings of post-modernist melodrama.

Scenes of eye-popping gore are followed by characters declaring their love as they lie dying in each other’s arms, punctuated by Masamichi Amano’s knowingly over-the-top score. Others wallow in reductive woe-is-me angst, usually just before killing or being killed.

Battle Royale definitely has plenty of fun with its subject matter. One girl’s amusing last words to the boy she loves are “you look really cool”, while another boy unsuccessfully attempts to convince the girl he likes to have sex with him, shortly before he’s stabbed to death by her. Classroom rivalries are also allowed to reach their natural conclusion when the characters concerned each have a weapon in hand.

The class in happier, less-deadly times in Battle Royale

The class in happier, less-deadly times in Battle Royale

That being said, there’s no winking at the audience by the young cast, who equip themselves admirably and play it straight. Only the psychopathic Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando) feels a little out-of-place, his killer-who-just-won’t-die routine more suited for slasher films.

Although the events taking place on the island aren’t screened on television for mass consumption, the media is seen scrambling over itself to cover the story – the ultimate example of the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ axiom.

Sequels to dystopian dramas such as this tend to switch focus to the resistance that is born in its wake.Ā  Battle Royale II: Requiem adheres to this formula, but does so to full effect with a daring, post-9/11 narrative that courts controversy even more gleefully than its predecessor and should also be sought out.

Battle Royale is ultimately a story about the loss of innocence and its young cast can be seen as a microcosm of where Fukasaku possibly felt society was headed. Adults are presented here as a different species, afraid and confused in equal measure of a generation they have spectacularly failed to understand and engage with. Like all those who live in fear, the walls go up and the consequences be damned.

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9 comments

  1. Tyson Carter · December 11, 2012

    One of my favourite films, I even enjoyed the sequel. Nice write up dude šŸ™‚

    • threerowsback · December 12, 2012

      Thanks Tyson. Yeah, the sequel was pretty balls out as I remember. The 9/11 allegory was brave for the time.

  2. filmdrivel · December 12, 2012

    Such a great film, Kitano is one of my all-time favourite characters. Didn’t think a lot of ‘Requiem’ though to be honest, started taking itself a bit too seriously.

    Saw your review of ‘Life Of Brian’ on Head In A Vice as well, loved it. There’s a comment there for you if you’re interested!

    • threerowsback · December 12, 2012

      I love Kitano too, but then I love ‘Beat’ Takeshi – Sonatine and Boiling Point are two of my favourite Asian films. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Requiem to be honest; I remember being impressed with it when I first saw it. Thanks for the Life of Brian feedback; tried to get across just how much I adore that film.

  3. Tim The Film Guy · December 28, 2012

    This is so amazing and vastly better than its copy cat sister Hunger Games šŸ˜€

    • Three Rows Back · December 28, 2012

      I remember being blown away by it the first time I saw and it still stands up. That being saidI did kinda enjoy The Hunger Games.

      • Tim The Film Guy · December 29, 2012

        Hunger games was alright, not particularly interested in seeing sequels but as long as my cousin chooses it over twilight šŸ˜€

      • Three Rows Back · December 30, 2012

        Never seen any of the Twilight films and can’t say as I have any inclination to either. Was surprised by how much I enjoyed Hunger Games, however.

      • Tim The Film Guy · December 30, 2012

        Glad you liked them šŸ˜€

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