Battle Royale [retro review]

“Today’s lesson is – you kill each other off till there’s only one left.”

The Scoop: 2000 NR, directed by Kinji Fukasaku and starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto, and Masanobu Ando

Tagline: One Dead. 41 To Go.

Summary Capsule: A post-millennium Japanese school class fight each other to the death in a government sanctioned survival game.

Rich’s Rating: This review is SUPER LUCKY!

Rich’s Review: OK class, please be seated, and you can all stop that whispering right now. We’re going to be watching an educational video today; you may not understand it, but one thing I guarantee – after you’ve finished watching it, you’ll not be sassing your teacher any time soon.

Battle Royale is a film which really tempts my pompous movie intellectual persona to try and take over this review, rather than my fun loving Mutant side which watches films for entertainment value rather than understanding. One the one hand, I think a lot of people who see this film will be quite happy to tell you it was entertaining – I mean, with a premise which is something of a cross between The Running Man, Lord of the Flies, and Saved by the Bell, you’d have to look pretty far for a more entertaining concept for a film. However, this film practically screams “I have a deep and subtle subtext about society! Look at me!”. Unfortunately for my age-addled brain, despite watching it twice this weekend, and about a grand total of 5 times in two years, I still can’t for the life of me figure out what the message this film is trying to get across is. Perhaps I’ll have figured it out by the end of writing this review, in which case I’ll probably come across as a lot more incisive and intellectual than I actually am. Don’t be fooled, people.

Anyway, Battle Royale then. It’s the dawn of the new millennium in Japan, and things are looking a bit bleak. Rising unemployment and economic recession are causing the breakdown of Japanese society, illustrated plainly by the state of the countries schools – students bring weapons to school, skip classes when they feel like it, and are abusive and threatening to the teaching staff. Hogwarts, this ain’t. The Japanese government, desperate for a solution, passes a new law, the BR Act. What this means is once per year, a Year 9 class is chosen by random lottery of all the schools in Japan to participate in the Battle Royale programme, where they are promptly shipped off to a small 10km square island, fitted with transceiver collars with an explosive surprise on the inside, furnished with a variety of weaponry and invited to kill each other until there’s only one left standing.

Now, herein lies the first of my problems with this film – why would such a programme be seen as a way of dealing with the problems in the county’s schools? It’s stated specifically that the class chosen is selected at random by lottery; so even if you are the best, most well behaved 9th grade class in Japan, there’s still a chance you could all end up on an island being hunted down by your chainsaw-wielding Hall Monitor intent on making sure you never run in the corridors again.

Regardless of the somewhat tenuous reasons behind the law, I’m quite happy they decided to pass it, because it, in turn, leads to the fun part of this film. After a small introductory scene supposing to show the aftermath of the previous Battle Royale (which bizarrely seems to bear no actual relation to the rest of the film – just another thing I don’t even pretend to understand), we begin by being introduced to Shuya, one of the many students in Class B, 9th Grade. Shuya hasn’t had an easy time of it. His mother left his father when Shuya was five, and by the time he’d reached 12, his dad had decided to end it all by hanging himself with an electrical cord; however he was kind enough to leave an encouraging “Go Shuya; You Can Do It!” suicide note for his son. Now that’s what I call parental support.

Understandably upset by this turn of events, Shuya is shuffled around foster homes before joining Class B, which seems to be populated by the same groups you would expect in any teen high school – the jocks, the computer nerds, the prom queen types, and so on. Class B are on a field trip on their last day of compulsory education, horsing around on the coach, and during this we learn a little of a relationship between the school kids – notably, that young girl Noriko has the hots for Shuya, and that Shuya’s old foster home buddy Nobu, has the hots for Noriko in turn.

Typical high school kids, always making life complicated.

Unfortunately for everyone in Class B, the field trip takes an unexpected detour thanks to some knockout gas, and the class soon find themselves on…the mystery island of death. Yep, poor old Shuya’s class just happens to have been picked as this years BR Programme class. Poor kid can’t catch a break. Now, in a particularly twisted slant on the rules, it seems the classes teacher gets to co-ordinate their mass killing spree. However, the original teacher protests at the selection of his kids (which really doesn’t get him very far), and so Class B’s old 7th Grade teacher, Kitano, is called in to do the honours.

To say Kitano is bitter is like saying the sun is a little warm on occasion – he’s got a genuine hatred for the kids in Class B, and takes perverse delight in scaring the confused kids to death by telling them why they’re on the island in the first place.

After Kitano explains the rules of the Battle Royale Programme, the kids are released onto the island with a pack containing food, water, and a random weapon, and told that only one of them is allowed to survive. To get everyone in a murderous mood, there’s also a time limit: unless there is only one survivor within the 3 days of the games allotted time, everyone’s radio-necklaces goes pop, leaving no winner at all. Oh, and just to make things a bit more fun, every 6 hours or so, certain portions of the island become ‘Danger Zones’, meaning if you happen to be in them, you’ve got about 2 minutes to get clear before your head makes a bid for autonomy from your body, with predictably unfortunate results.

So, with the rules out of the way, the kids are ready for 3 days of murder and mayhem. It’s at this point that Battle Royale really comes into its own, both cinematically and in entertainment value. Setting up backstories for 40 different characters as they fight for survival would seem impossible – and yet, through clever flashbacks intercut with the actual action on the island, and through the dialogue between the characters, we learn what they mean to each other, and we see how they deal with the situation they find themselves thrust into. Surprisingly, rather than have the kids just immediately begin a killing rampage, many of the characters in Battle Royale act exactly as you would expect them to; many try to avoid killing, find somewhere to hide, stay with their friends. However, trust soon begins to fray, and combined with a couple of trigger-happy transfer students and a few genuine psychopaths in the class, the body count begins to mount quite spectacularly.

Battle Royale has a number of wonderful sequences; the use of familiar classical musical pieces such as ‘The Blue Danube’ over scenes of either extreme quiet or intense violent struggle recalls Apocalypse Now, and Kitano is played with extreme dry wit and black humour, stealing most of the film, including the most hilarious showing of a class video of all time. For a film where you have characters thrust at you right and left, Battle Royale does an excellent job of teaching you about each character, even though there’s a pretty good chance they might end up peppered with bullet holes about 30 seconds after you figure out who they’re supposed to be.

It’s pretty gruesome, occasionally graphic, but a compelling and unique film (at least until Battle Royale II comes out later this year) which seems to have something to say, while providing an interesting look at what people will do in desperate situations.

As to the deeper meaning of the film, here I am at the end of the review, and still at a loss. Perhaps it’s the subtitles – translation can be a tricky business, and while there are no glaring Engrish translations, perhaps some of the nuances are lost unless watched in the original Japanese. However, regardless of understanding this film’s subtext or not, it’s a brave cinematic release, the kind of envelope-pushing film we’ve come to expect from Japanese cinema, and certainly well worth two hours of your time.

Class dismissed.


Justin’s Rating: Can I go to the school nurse now? My arm’s kinda… missing.

Justin’s Review: Personally, I think this America-versus-Europe feud is getting silly, mainly when it comes to the back and forth accusations about depraved acts in movies. Topless Europeans denounce America’s love of violence (Germans foremost among them, as a mild stroke of irony), blood squibs and random decapitations in their cinemas, even during so-called “safe” romantic comedies. Americans, hands soaking in the gore of their vanquished foes, point right on back at Europe’s extreme love of sex, nudity and bestiality, even in children’s animated films. Neither side really wants to come to a rational middle ground that, maybe, we should both tame it down a tad.

So with that in mind, I’d like to redirect the naked, sensual and blood-splattered faces of both parties to Japanese film. “Hey Europe,” I’d say. “The Japanese can’t STAND to go more than ten minutes without a body being ruptured like an overripe watermelon meeting pavement!” And then, “Hey America, check out these tentacle penises. Stop screaming in horror, you ninnies!”

Some call me the Peacemaker.

I’ve just about given up trying to understand exactly what blend of drugs Japanese filmmakers partake of when they approach their movies. The only connection I can make is that the more conserved and inflexible their visible society is, the more they want to just let loose inside and spring tentacle penises on everyone while spouting gibberish and slicing off appendages. Nutty country. I so love them.

Battle Royale is, as Rich said, interesting, imaginative and insane. While enjoying the misspellings and grammatical impossibilities of the subtitles that my DVD provided, I could never really tell whether the filmmakers were being serious or satirical, funny or deadly, driving toward an insightful point or merely ratcheting up a body count. The more you pick at the scab of the premise, the more it cracks open to reveal Nothingness underneath.

Okay, so the country is ticked at kids being bad (the worst examples they gave were (1) a kid cutting the back of a teacher’s leg so badly that the teacher merely hobbled over to the drinking fountain to quench his thirst, and (2) students cutting class one day) and decided to choose a 9th grade class at random to kill off by forcing the kids into a game show deathmatch. This law has the following problems, as illustrated by hereforeto:

  1. If the 9th grade class is chosen at RANDOM, what incentive is that for all of the other teens in the country to shape up and fly right? They could be the best teens in the world or the worst and have equal chances of being chosen.
  2. What about 10th graders being bad? Do they just get detention?
  3. Why the entire effort of gassing kids, arming them, slapping explosives to their necks and running a three day effort costing millions of dollars… if they’re mostly going to die anyway? Why not just kill them on the bus and be done with it?
  4. Although the opening scene with news reporters covering the end of the last game rabidly, there’s never any mention of media again. This suggests that the country is not privy to the ongoing events on the island, so the reason for this macabre event can’t be for public entertainment.
  5. Wouldn’t the parents riot if an act like this was passed?
  6. The survivor of each game is the most bloodthirsty, ruthless person of each 9th grade class — and you want to keep them alive WHY?

So, if this story is taken seriously — and chunks of the film suggest that you’re meant to do so — then the point of this whole exercise is lost to me. It’s just a sadistic situation forced on these kids for no reason other than that the adults can do so. But if the story is taken satirically, perhaps as a commentary on the extreme struggle of the Japanese educational system, then why try so hard in places to make it seem so deadly earnest, and in other places, make complete jokes out of the events occurring?

This major hole in the plot kept me from really liking Battle Royale as much as I was prepared to do so. Without a greater reason for the bloodshed, my understanding of the movie deteriorated into watching snippets of kid’s lives and relationships as they’re thrust into a horrible situation. If it was given a better backstory, the battle royale itself would become completely fascinating. It is really interesting to see what the kids do — some suicide, some keep friendships, some turn on each other quickly, some try to fight back against the adults, some kill for the sheer joy of it — and to guess how it’ll all turn out.

Some of the 9th graders captivate you as they go all Lord of the Flies on everyone. My eyes were on a murderous girl who you first hate as she kills and kills and kills without remorse… but slowly you begin to discover her past relationships at the school that paint her in a sympathetic (if not pure) light. There’s a repeated flashback scene to a school basketball match, and in one of the iterations, everyone’s running together to celebrate the win. Friends hugging friends, shouting in victory… everyone except this girl, who’s on the fringe, alone, looking around sadly, and finally leaving through the side door. That alone was the moment in the movie that plucked at my withered heartstrings.

In many ways, it reminded me of Suicide Club, as the tone of the film would switch between drama, horror and comedy in such a way to keep the viewer unsteady in their expectations. It’s a tough way to have to watch a film, but it does have the result of making it unforgettable. Now, if only it made sense.

Adding a sickle to school uniforms was not the schoolboard's brightest idea.

Intermission!

  • Shuya’s luck really is terrible – witness the random weapon he ends up with.
  • Kitano’s desire for cookies is truly, truly powerful.
  • What’s the deal with Kawada’s Dad? It seems his father taught him every skill imaginable.
  • It’s amazing what some people will do just to get back on the Internet.
  • Watch for the references to Independence Day and Evangelion
  • The computer code listing shown on the laptop during the hacking scenes is from Fyodor’s nmap, a popular network auditing/hacking tool.
  • This film is based on Koshun Takami’s popular novel of the same name.

Groovy Quotes

Lady on Video: We have randomly selected weapons to put in your kits, so you might get lucky, and you might not.
[Picks up axe]
Lady on Video: This one is SUPER lucky!

Niida: I’m in love with you, for real, from before.
Chigusa: Wow, great! Wash your face and try again, if you survive.
Niida: Wait, you’re a virgin, right?
Chigusa: Piss…me…off. God, did I just hear this idiot right?

Mitsuko: Nobody’ll rescue you. That’s just life.

[Shuya, to a friend with an axe in his head]
Shuya: Hey, I’m sorry. Are you OK?
Friend: Sure, I’m fine.

Kitano: Here’s your list of friends in the order they died.

Kitano: So today’s lesson is…you kill each other off ’til there’s only one left. Nothing’s against the rules.

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9 Comments

  1. I’ve got one almost-sorta-semi-plausible-maybe explanation for the “random selection” aspect of the Battle Royale program (keep in mind, I know absolutely nothing of BR except what I read on this page). The goal is to get ALL the Japanese teenagers to shape up. Therefore, putting ALL classes at risk of selection encourages the teens to keep each other in line (I’m assuming that there’s a threshold, say N incidents of disobedience, below which there is no Battle Royale that year). Of course, it would just take a few malcontents to go over that threshold, secure in the knowledge that they have little chance of being in the chosen class. Guess the adults didn’t think that one through too well.

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