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.
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).
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.
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. 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.