“Hunger Games was ok,” I tweeted back in 2013. “I enjoyed it a lot more when it was Japanese, released 13 years ago and called ‘Battle Royale’”.
Over time I’ve changed my position on this flippant summary – unlike the latter’s collectivistic oppression, The Hunger Games explored a very western dystopia couched in the symbolism of individual and personal battles – but Battle Royale remains a seminal piece of work.
Not only seminal but highly influential. Quentin Tarantino cited Battle Royale as a movie he wished he had made. It sparked a goldrush of violent Asian cinema that were buoyed up by its notoriety.
It tapped into a new nihilism and cynicism whilst also capturing the confusing terror of a youth without power but blamed for all.
Kinji Fukasaku’s last movie, based on the novel by Koushun Takami, begs to be watched as much now as it did upon release in 2000.
What Is Battle Royale About?
The premise in of itself is simple, and is relayed succinctly through scant few opening title cards.
Japan is in disarray. The younger generation’s perceived lack of respect is blamed. In order to cement adult authority, a law is passed which mandates that one random class of schoolchildren per year will be kidnapped and forced to battle to the death until only one survives.
To aid in the slaughter, each student is given a randomly assigned backpack that contains, among other survival tools, a weapon. These range from the deadly (grenades) to laughable (a paper fan).
Also, each student awakens from being gassed to discover they are wearing a locked metal collar lined with explosives; a remotely triggered detonation will burst open the neck of anyone who fails to comply.
Battle Royale successfully compresses the book’s approach of going through each student one by one: with 21 boys and 21 girls to cover this is no easy feat.
Clearly the characterisation is going to be paper thin for many (nerd, pervert, coward, fantasist) but what the movie portrays so well is the baffling intensity of the teenage condition.
Battle Royale Trailer
Is Battle Royale Worth Watching?
Amongst the geysers of blood are flashbacks to school life. The hyper violence of their current predicament is only a gory extension to the crushes and vendettas of a time of already heightened emotion.
Battle Royale’s chief success is to layer up its messages. You can read it as a metaphor for the hormonal chaos of youth (where adults still hold all the power over you), or as a fault in society where empathy is lacking to the extent that deplorable violence against perceived ‘enemies’ is perfectly justifiable.
Our central character is Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) who is quite possibly the most likeable and pure character ever brought to life. Fujiwara is excellent. He is humble and kind yet all the guys like him and, it seems, all the girls have a crush on him.
After an early death shakes his core, he strives to protect friend Noriko (Aki Maeda) and tries to advocate peace. His efforts to avoid violence are almost always doomed, considering how many of his fellow students unleash hell in an effort to survive.
Other key characters bring a satisfying mixture of approaches. The psychotic Mitsuko is ruthless and vicious. The iconic Kazuo Kiriyama is deadly and gleeful. Shogo Kawada displays bitter hatred towards the adults that abandoned them.
Takako Chigusa is resolute yet saddened (Chiaki Kuriyama would later appear as Gogo in Tarantino’s Kill Bill). Shinji Mimura is intelligent and subversive. Although Shuya and Noriko are our leads, director Fukasaku makes sure that everyone we spend time with feels as real as the danger they face.
The movie also features an iconic performance from veteran comedian turned actor “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. As the former teacher for our doomed class he delivers the impromptu lesson after their kidnap with all due gusto. He brings a comedic tinge to his performance that adds more colour than just claret to the movie; the super kawaii training video sequence being a particular highlight.
Battle Royale has a strong legacy but has arguably never been matched. It manages to bake a hopefulness into its generational despair thanks to Shuya’s quiet heroism. Blood fans are well served as sliced arteries and exploding collars shower the screen with the stuff of life.
Teenage melodrama taken to the extreme keeps your emotions engaged with what is essentially vignette after vignette of individual tragedies or vengeance. And to top it all off the knowingly OTT use of classical composition Dies Irea from Verdi’s Requiem makes the movie feel like the end of times is upon us.
The clash of honne (true feelings) and tatemae (public face) within Battle Royale is a universal one that still rings true now. The movie has stood the test of time by being far more bloody than those who have copied it, yet far more human than those who misunderstood it.
Pick up your compass, check out your inventory, go find your friends, and fight the oppressor at every turn.
Words by Mike Record
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