A sensation in its native Japan and nigh unreleasable in the U.S., Battle Royale is one of the year’s most amazing movies—a vicious take-off on reality TV that turns a high-school milieu dominated by cliques and childish relationships into a war zone. Now, I have no actual way of knowing whether venerable Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku had Survivor or programs like it in mind when making the film, or whether those programs influenced the novel by Koshun Takami upon which it is based. But the film is permeated by a sadism that’s redolent of the voyeuristic pleasure American audiences have taken in Survivor and programs like it, entertainment that involves the humiliation of at least one participant per week on national television.
A pre-title scroll elucidates hard times in what seems to be an alternate-universe Japan (“the nation collapsed … 15 percent unemployment … 800,000 students boycotted school”), and pits adults versus teenagers by explaining that the government passed something called the Millennium Educational Reform Act, which apparently provides for one class of ninth-graders to be chosen each year and set at each other’s throats in a “battle royale” set in a remote locale. Each student is given a weapon, and all are warned that only one shall survive.
The movie tells the story of one such class, which is bused to a deserted island under the supervision of Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), a teacher of theirs from two years before and now, apparently, one of the leaders of the project. “Because of folks like Kuninobu here,” Kitano says, berating one of his former students, “This country’s absolutely no good anymore. So the bigwigs got together and passed this law: Battle Royale. So today’s lesson is you kill each other off ’til there’s only one left. Nothing’s against the rules.”
Kitano’s words echo a line of dialogue from Takashi Miike’s Audition, an equally disturbing nightmare vision of contemporary Japan, in which one middle-aged businessman sums up the economy by saying, “The fittest will survive. Everyone just struggles to keep his business,” and then, more directly, “Japan is over.” The current surge in dark Japanese cinema is a reflection of a darkness felt in that society, where hard work and scholarship are no longer enough to secure a good job and where there’s a perception that violence among young people is on the rise. Audition‘s Aoyama deals with his own feelings of fear and emptiness by duping a pretty young woman into dating him; he soon finds that she’s not exactly what she appeared to be. And Battle Royale‘s Kitano handles a classroom of what he feels to be spoiled children by setting them at each other’s throats. “Life is a game,” he barks. “So fight for survival and find out if you’re worth it.”
Battle Royale is in part wish fulfillment for adults who are fed up with, and maybe a little afraid of, the younger generation. The first 25 minutes of the film are a tour de force, exhilarating and terrifying, shot through with dread and black humor. From there, however, Fukasaku is very generous with his young characters, following them through friendships and failed alliances and emphasizing the sway that emotions hold over their psyches. One couple teams up with a mysterious “transfer student” who seems to have a real grip on the proceedings. A girl, Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki), becomes a ruthless angel of death, knocking off her rivals with a smile on her face. And a group of girls takes over a lighthouse and forms an alliance that goes to hell when doubt and mistrust creep in.
Mostly, Battle Royale is a war movie, with all the violence that hand-to-hand combat suggests and then some. Nowhere is Fukasaku’s worldview more apparent than in a scene where two girls take to a hilltop with a megaphone, pleading in amplified voices for peace. The two are promptly machine-gunned from behind by an assailant who picks up the megaphone and uses it to magnify one girl’s death murmurs for the benefit of the other combatants. This is nasty stuff.
That serrated edge is what carries the film past numerous narrative misdeeds. If, as is suggested in a prologue, the Battle Royale is reported on by the news media almost like a sporting event, it’s unclear how the student participants could be so unaware of the game when Kitano first rounds them up. (OK, maybe it’s because they’re self-involved idiots, but it’s still a stretch.) Moreover, Kitano’s behavior in the final third of the film, when he reveals his fixation on one of the students, doesn’t quite gel. (Kitano, the consummate performer, is generally immune to questions of credibility and motivation, and his performance is unqualifiedly fantastic.) And promising story threads, like the one involving a complicated plan by one subgroup to hack into the central computer system and then destroy the compound with jerry-rigged explosives, sputter out abruptly, leaving us with only more shootings and stabbings to look forward to.
Whatever Fukasaku’s motives in making the film, his sympathies ultimately lie with the teenagers, whom he portrays as sweet, resourceful, and mostly inclined to live together peaceably. Several reviewers have noted that ninth grade is the last year of compulsory education in Japan, and that competition for space in higher-education programs-which supposedly secure future jobs-is fierce, adding a layer to the hapless desperation of the ninth graders seen here. Whatever the subtext, the picture ends with an exhortation to its young protagonists. “No matter how far, run for all you’re worth,” hisses the unseen narrator in the final scene. “RUN!” A-
Written and directed by Kinji Fukasaku
from the novel by Koshun Takami
Edited by Hirohidi Abe
Starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto, and Takeshi Kitano
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Screened at BAM Rose Cinemas, Brooklyn, NY