Dir. Kinji Fukasaku – 113 minutes
Starring: Takeshi Kitano, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Kou Shibasaki
Set in a future Japan, the government has implemented the ‘Battle Royale’ initiative to curb the growing problem of youth rebellion. Class 3-B are the latest group to be a part of the act, a brutal game of survival on an island for three days where the 42 students will fight to the death and only one will survive.
We live in a worrying state of affairs where films and novels centred around the notion of young children killing each other in a dystopian future appear to be all the rage and you can’t move for children actively stating just how well they think they would cope if placed in the situation where they might have to kill their friends. All this makes it hard for this generation to fully understand the magnitude of the impact that heralded the arrival of the cinematic adaptation of Koushun Takami’s controversy-baiting novel of the same name. Lambasted by the Japanese government, not officially released in the USA for eleven years and banned outright in Germany, ‘Battle Royale’s graphic violence and disturbing ‘What if…’ ethos is a far cry from Katniss and her block-busting adaptation buddies.
To those who are yet to see this masterpiece of cult cinema (seriously have you been in a cave?), you may question that, given the current trend of kiddie-killing films, does ‘Battle Royale’ still have the power to shock 13 years on? Yes, absolutely and it is a perfect example of a film that stays with you permanently.
After believing that they are going on a school trip, Class 3-B wake up in an army barracks and are confronted by their old teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano). No sooner are the children informed of why they are at the barracks than two are instantly killed, all bets are off as to the dark places this film will go to and the first black comic title card detailing the names of those killed is flashed up, alongside how many number students are ‘Left To Go’.
The film’s main focus is on a boy called Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda) who end up teaming together with an older ‘exchange student’, Shogo (Taro Yamamoto) in an attempt to make it to the end. Some may argue that the two have ‘final couple’ status that may as well be tattooed on their foreheads, but the film cleverly presents us with multiple perspectives on the ‘game’ from different students, making a first time viewing an exciting guessing game as to who will be the victor.
Asian horror’s reputation of its love of as much gore as possible goes before it and those expecting a blood-fest will certainly not be disappointed, nor have to wait long to get it. The start of the ‘game’ itself is an all out assault on the viewer’s senses and nerves, alliances are forged and destroyed, bodies pile up faster than you could count and most were helped along the way by the film’s two ‘anti-heroes’ and fan favourites Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki) and Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando).
Where the film earns its reputation in brutality is not only through the extremely direct and in full view violence but also in using a cast of predominantly 15 year olds, as in the novel. As this is a group of complete unknowns and they are the appropriate age, the film almost pulls of the trick in making you believe that these are genuinely real people in a horrifying situation you are watching, a high appraisal of the acting as well as supporting the notion that the film is satirising the reality TV trend before it had even properly started. If the actors had been too old or big name stars as the American remake would have been, the wonderful illusion would have failed and the ‘winners’ obvious to all to see without any semblance of tension.
The fact that the violence takes place on a seemingly idyllic island adds even further to the sense of total disorientation and fear that the film so expertly captures.The dining room in the lighthouse remains one of my all time most disturbing moments of any film I have ever seen, absolutely unflinching in its hauntingly horrible levels of violence.Aside from the violence, the most disturbing scene in ‘BR’ is the instructional video detailing the students on the hell they are about to go through delivered in a terrifyingly cheerful smile by Yuko Miyamura.
We as an audience are forced to gaze in shock as she gleefully talks about luck of the draw brutal weapons, danger zones and collars that will explode should someone try to remove them. The film uses a brilliant piece of satire of the often painful Japanese game shows to devastating effect, making it come across as though it’s all a fun exercise. This is coupled by the film’s opening scene of a television crew reporting on the winner of a previous game, where we see a young girl covered in blood and flashing a chill-inducing grin. The film establishes the notion of an already lived-in alternative earth which has the disquieting effect of making the audience feel as though they have been thrown in at the deep end with the children, just as confused and scared.
The main and often over-looked aspect that sets ‘BR’ apart from being just graphic underage violence is the layers of subtext to almost every key character’s story. Examples of this can be seen in unobtrusive flashback sequences, such as Noriko being bullied at school and finding her only friend in the teacher, Kitano which adds an intriguing spin on the relationship between the two characters. Kitano himself, is also seen to be talking to his seemingly estranged family on the phone and whilst he is the overseeing angel of death in this game, the fact that the film is able to elicit sympathy for his character is at once both surprising and slightly alarming.
Shuya is given the most tragic of back stories, we see him with his alcoholic father and then later when Shuya returns home to find his father had hung himself. It is frustrating that certain people could watch this film and see nothing but violence and lashings of the red red kroovy, when elements such as this, as well as the intermittently touched upon classroom dynamics affecting relationships in the group proves the film has brains as well as blood and a keen eye on proper character development. When the film slows down, without multiple deaths left right and centre, it is no less engaging as the complexity of the characters still keep you on the edge with no idea of what to expect next.
The area which has always divided opinion from both the film’s harshest critics and biggest fans alike is whether or not the film can be classed as actually being a very black comedy. Personally, I would argue that several scenes and lines of dialogue, whilst not taking away from the raw horror of the events, make it impossible not to classify the film as being very funny on occasions. The final confrontation with Kitano is both hilariously over the top but also filled with an overwhelming sense of melancholy which can almost be said to be representative of the film as a whole, we laugh at it but are then quickly reminded of the hell we see portrayed before us.
Very few films could ever claim to cover the bases of being philosophically fascinating, carrying serious emotional weight, having moments of hilarious black comedy and some of the most hard-hitting extreme violence of man’s propensity for brutality to man for self-preservation. ‘Battle Royale’ has all these qualities turned up to 11 and despite all these current pretenders to the throne, it will outlast them all.