Almost exactly a decade ago, I submitted a 4,000 word treatise on Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale for publication in the Wallflower Press book 24 Frames - The Cinema of Japan and Korea. That book has now been out-of-print for some time. I occasionally stumble upon a stray copy in a bookshop, and a trawl around the internet indicates that copies of the book are now swapping hands for around double the cover price. As I've mentioned on the blog before, most of the book is available online thanks to Google Books (including another chapter written by me - an essay on Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill). But my piece on Battle Royale hasn't been readily available for a while. Until now...
When Battle Royale was first unleashed theatrically outside it’s native Japan, film journalists in the west reached for the same handful of pop cultural touchstones as a kind of comparative critical shorthand to describe it: the reality TV show Survivor; two novellas written by Stephen King (under his pseudonym Richard Bachman), The Long Walk and The Running Man, the
latter adapted as a 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle directed by Paul Michael Glaser; and, cited as the most obvious antecedent and frequent comparison, William Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies.
The fact that comparisons are so easy to reel off says something about the “high concept” of Battle Royale, based on Takami Koushun’s successful 1999 novel of the same name. The Hollywood “high concept” approach of pitching a story in less than thirty seconds, in a way that an audience can grasp without having to even think about it, was popularised by the powerhouse partnership of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer in the 1980s. But “high concept” was an approach so simple (and, arguably, simplistic) that it was never destined to be restricted to the North American continent. The plot of Battle Royale can be pitched in a sentence: “A class of junior-high school students are taken to a deserted island to take part in a game where they must kill one another until only one survivor remains.”
Although this is a hook that can irresistibly reel in potential cinemagoers with ease, it doesn't even begin to encompass the myriad levels the film encapsulates and Fukasaku Kinji’s 2000 film is a far richer, deeper and more rewarding piece of work than its cultural predecessors listed above. In addition to being an exhilarating piece of action cinema in its own right, it takes in satire, allegory, social comment, love story and paranoid thriller, whilst acting as a cautionary tale, with small personal tales of tragedy and friendship buried amidst the gore and entrails.
The opening scenes of Battle Royale immediately introduce both the tone and the themes of the film. Following the brief image of raging waters slamming against rocks off the coast of an island, with a bombastic classical score thundering in the foreground, Fukasaku swiftly cuts to some expository text that informs the viewer that this story takes place in an alternate present. The text, music and imagery give the film the grand texture of much-loved epic series, like the Star Wars saga. The devoted and fanatical cult following that Battle Royale has gained over time since its release is not dissimilar to the adoration and devotion that has been dedicated to the worlds of George Lucas and J. R. R. Tolkien.
At the dawn of the millennium, Japanese society has suffered a severe economic collapse, leading to widespread youth apathy and 800,000 students boycotting school. Adult society sought to reassert their authority by passing the Millennium Education Reform Act, otherwise known as the BR Act. The brief introduction gives way to manic shots of news crews and army troops converging at the end of the previous year’s Battle Royale, before we see flash cuts of the game’s winner: the demonic smile on the cherubic face of a sweaty and blood-spattered little girl hugging an equally bedraggled toy doll. The image is both comic and horrific in equal measure, in much the same way as the action yet to come.
Next up is a school photograph of Class B of Zentsuji Middle School. The first face the camera focuses upon, significantly, is that of the class teacher Kitano, played by writer, director, painter, actor, comedian and Japanese cinema icon, Kitano Takeshi. The Kitano character is the only major digression from Takami’s source material. In the novel, the character is a stranger to the students of Class B, a government employee called Sakamochi. He is a hateful authority figure with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In Fukasaku’s adaptation, however, Kitano is their embittered and cynical former class teacher, with a fully realised back story: his relationship with his own daughter is rapidly deteriorating; he has suffered at the hands of the students, particularly Kuninobu Yoshitoki who once stabbed him in the buttocks; and he has a soft spot for Nakagawa Noriko, as evidenced by the way he sits chomping away on her home-made cookies, and later shields her with an umbrella in the midst of the game to protect her from the rain. By casting such a recognisable star in the crucial role of Kitano, the audience hangs on his every word at a time when the information is critical for the viewer, as he deftly handles the always tricky task of delivering exposition in a way that doesn’t feel stilted or artificial. It was also a smart move to give the character the name Kitano, bringing us closer to the iconic figure we recognise from numerous other roles.
By fleshing out the personality of the Kitano character, Fukasaku improves on Takami’s one-dimensional comic-book villain, and also extends the idea of father figures and the way they shape their children, either consciously or by omission. The next character introduced in Battle Royale is Nanahara Shuya (Fujiwara Tatsuya), who discovers the corpse of his father after he has committed suicide. Scrawled on toilet paper, he reads the words: “Go Shuya! You can make it Shuya!” These words will carry greater significance once the game is underway. The words of Shuya’s voiceover embody the underlying tension and fear between adults and children that runs throughout the film: “I didn’t have a clue what to do and no-one to show me either.” The students of Class B will have to deal with their own insecurities, egos and inexperience in the world of Battle Royale, because no-one, least of all an adult, is going to help them. The adults need the weakness and helplessness of children to give them the feeling (or the illusion) of control and superiority, whilst the disillusioned children crave the guidance and protection of adults.
At other moments in the film, we hear hacker whiz kid Mimura Shinji talk about his activist uncle who taught him how to make bombs and other explosives, tragic hero Kawada Shogo frequently attributes skills he has learned to his father’s experience, and there is Kitano, whose obsession with revenge on the children of Class B merely serves to perpetuate the idea of the failure of adults in their responsibilities, by neglecting his own daughter.
One of the many reasons that Battle Royale has become a film that can be revisited time and time again lies in the fact that it resonates in a variety of ways. At times, the film feels strikingly original and modern; whilst at other times it seems like a refinement, updating and natural progression of the themes and situations familiar throughout the history of Japanese (and international) film and popular culture, whilst simultaneously reflecting genuine concerns about issues afflicting modern society. With this in mind, it is easy to see the way in which Battle Royale acknowledges the past, crystallises the present and warns of the impending future. Consequently, it is no surprise that the original novel was the work of first-time author Takami Koushun, and the film was the sixtieth feature film of 70-year old veteran Fukasaku Kinji, bridging the gap between the preoccupations of Japanese history, and the genuine fears (and hopes) for the nation’s unwritten future.
Bearing in mind that Takami was a student who dropped out of Nihon University’s liberal arts correspondence course programme, before spending five years between 1991 and 1996 working as a writer for the prefectural news company Shikoku Shinbun, it is interesting that his novel had such a significant impact on Fukasaku, particularly the fact that it brought back memories from his early years.
Fukasaku was fifteen years old as the Second World War was drawing to a close. His class was drafted into the war effort, and they found themselves working in a munitions factory. The carnage of the war was still something abstract, something that the teenagers were only aware of from a distance, due to the fact that they were only exposed to Allied air raids that could be avoided. But that was about to change. In July 1945, the classmates were caught in a barrage of artillery fire. Just like the fictitious world Fukasaku would chronicle fifty-five years later, there was barely any chance of escape from violent and messy death. The survivors of the attack used the corpses of their friends as cover, and, after the violence had passed, Fukasaku and his surviving friends were given the task of disposing of the body parts of their former classmates. The revelations Fukasaku’s impressionable mind was subjected to heavily influenced both his worldview and the films he would make during the course of his career. Virtually overnight, Fukasaku developed a deep-rooted hostility and distrust towards adults and authority figures, and the lies they tell their children to control and mould them, as well as a tender sentimentality towards his friends.
This sentimentality comes through frequently throughout Battle Royale. If the film was little more than a series of gruesome and inventive set pieces, it would function as acceptable entertainment and mindless spectacle, but the clearly exhibited feelings of the characters gives the film another dimension. With the exception of the ruthlessly psychotic Kiriyama Kazuo, the pain, confusion and disappointment the students feel is evident throughout. Even the scythe-wielding Souma Mitsuko, who attacks the game with relish, has moments when she comes across as more than just a heartless killer. As we hear in voiceover more than once “I didn’t want to be a loser anymore.”
Battle Royale is a savage indictment of a failed competitive education system, a nation’s disaffected youth, and a proud martial civilisation coughing up blood, punishing the next generation for its own failings. The children of Class B are initially presented as unreachable rebels. They write the words “Taking the day off ‘cause we want to” on the blackboard, and early casualty Nobu spitefully attacks Kitano for no apparent reason. However, we soon see the classmates on the coach that is transporting them to their destiny, laughing, playing and flirting, just like any other group of teenagers the world over. As the game progresses, we see normal teenage behaviour, albeit magnified by the abnormal circumstances. Students harbour secret crushes or petty grudges on classmates, and, in the case of Sugimura Hiroki, he constantly puts himself in peril to fulfill a naïve romantic whim, to find the girl he has a crush on, just so he can tell her how he feels. It costs him his life, as she riddles his body with bullets in a moment of blind panic.
As the coach journey continues, the brightly lit Japanese landscape quickly disappears as the coach enters a dark tunnel, lit only by grimy strip lighting. Playtime is over, and the game is underway.
The game becomes a heightened microcosm of the behavioural traits of children in inhuman circumstances. Their humanity and emotions are raw and exposed. By turns, we feel their anger, fear, paranoia, regret, denial, panic, terror, helplessness and, occasionally, their malice. Tellingly, by removing the normal restrictions of civilised society, these emotions bubble to the surface rapidly. Battle Royale exposes not only the depths of genuine friendship (the unlikely alliance between Shuya, Noriko, and former winner of BR, Shogo), but also the limits of friendship when tested. Class representative Utsumi Yukie attempts to impose structure on the situation by hiding out in a lighthouse with a handful of girls. It starts like a perverse pyjama party, with guard shifts and cooking rosters, giggling and playfulness, but the smallest signs of jealousy and paranoia easily shatter the fragile tranquillity. Add lethal weapons to the cocktail of high emotions, and that’s all it takes to ensure that they all die horribly.
Battle Royale is far less stylised than a great deal of the rest of Fukasaku’s oeuvre. Arguably, the story is strong enough to stand on its own considerable merits, without the need for viewer distraction as a result of directorial grandstanding. Fukasaku, however, attributed the detailed, controlled and largely static style of Battle Royale as a necessity borne out of his young cast’s inexperience, and his frustration with their manzai (interaction). Nevertheless, it is the naturalism and slight awkwardness of the children that lends the film much of its authenticity, and the performances are uniformly strong and generally convincing.
In particular, Fujiwara Tatsuya in the role of Nanahara Shuya has to carry most of the film’s emotional weight, and he acquits himself well. There is a striking difference between Shuya’s innocence and Kawada Shogo’s experience. The man Shogo has become was forged in the crucible of his previous participation in Battle Royale. Shuya, however, is shaped by his feelings of responsibility for Noriko, and the lesson’s about life’s unfairness and its harsh realities as espoused by Shogo.
It is far too easy to fall into the trap of analysing the very real and important issues at the heart of Battle Royale, at the expense of acknowledging that Fukasaku’s film is also an exceptionally entertaining and often hilarious action movie, with moments like the severed head with a hand grenade stuffed into its shocked mouth flying through the air; Kitano’s dry announcements to the children (“It’s tough when friends die on you, but hang in there!”); and the sight of a student with an axe buried deep in the centre of his forehead assuring Shuya that he’s absolutely fine. Without the bursts of odd humour, Battle Royale could potentially be an unpleasant trudge to the finishing line. Battle Royale has a dynamic energy in it, borne from the fact that Fukasaku clearly believes deeply in the subject matter, and the importance of communicating truthfully with Japan’s youth.
The rules of the game (and the film) are simple, and seductively compelling. After a school class are picked randomly and taken to a secret and secluded location (in this particular instance, an island where all the inhabitants have been forcibly evacuated), the rules are explained in two complementary ways. There is the genuinely amusing training video, all dayglo colours, hyperactive MTV-generation host and flashy graphics, and, by contrast, Kitano’s actual demonstration of the reality of the game, resulting in the gruesome deaths of two students. The rules are: each student is fitted with a collar that will track their location, and can be automatically detonated if the wearer tries to remove it or escape from the island. The game will last for three days. If there is more than one person still alive at the end of three days, all the collars will detonate. Portions of the island will become “forbidden zones” at announced intervals. Any contestant remaining in one of the zones after the allotted time will have their collar detonated. Each contestant is provided with food, water, a map, a compass, a flashlight and a weapon, which as Fukasaku illustrates in one of the film’s many moments of gallows humour, can turn out to be anything from Shuya’s virtually useless kitchen pot lid, to the psychopathic Kiriyama’s lethal automatic rifle. As the game commences, a title card flashes up. “The Game Begins. Day One. 1.40am.”
There is a stark contrast between the training video, with the sterile and seemingly innocuous title ‘The right way to fight a Battle Royale, by the BR Act Committee’, and Kitano’s brutal proclamation that ‘Life is a game. So fight for your survival and find out if you’re worth it.’
In the tradition of countless stalk-and-slash horror movies, such as Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Battle Royale works on the most basic level as a film where the viewer remains genuinely curious to see the creative ways the students will viciously dispose of their classmates, and to find out who will be the last man standing. And as a satire of the public’s terrifying blood lust and appetite for the humiliation and suffering of complete strangers, as well as the way both the media and the government blur the lines between entertainment and propaganda, in order to keep the masses docile and distracted, the film is reminiscent of Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975). Battle Royale shows the way in which the public are complicit in the suffering of these children. Violence as entertainment is condemned, as we watch entertaining violence. As viewers of Fukasaku’s film, we are complicit too. Just like in the novel, Fukasaku regularly puts the current score on the screen, so we can keep track of who is dead, and who is still out there fighting for survival. Battle Royale gives new meaning to the phrase “extreme sports”.
There are other ways that Battle Royale signifies the way the past, present and future dovetail. Towards the turn of the century, a handful of notable filmmakers from the 1950s and 1960s caught their second wind in their twilight years, and returned to prominence after decades of relative anonymity: Suzuki Seijun with Pistol Opera in 2001, Imamura Shohei with 1997’s Palme D’Or winner Unagi (The Eel) and 2001’s Akai hashi no shitano nurui mizu (Warm Water under a Red Bridge), and Oshima Nagisa’s Gohatto in 1998.
Fukasaku’s career was interesting, erratic, wildly successful and spanned five decades, from the ground-breaking auteur of the Jingi naki tatakai (Battles Without Honour and Humanity) series in the early 1970s, to the big-budget sci-fi helmer of 1978’s Uchu kara no messeji (Message from
Space) and 1980’s Fukkatsu no hi (Virus), to jobbing director-for-hire during the 1980s and 1990s. In hindsight, Fukasaku’s career almost looks like a rehearsal for Battle Royale, a distillation of his commercial savvy, his love of youthful and violent storytelling, and a virtually autobiographical representation of his experiences living in post-war Japan.
The political furore that erupted in Japan before the film had even been released ironically echoed many of the ideas bouncing around in Fukasaku’s film. For a country that has a reputation for tolerance with regards to explicit violence and sexual content in the media, and a government that didn’t usually interfere in such matters, the vehement “Ban this Sick Film” lunacy was striking because it was so atypical. Education Minister Machimura Nobutaka tried to convince cinemas not to screen the film. Opposition politician Ishii Koki railed against Battle Royale in a House of Representatives committee meeting the day after its theatrical release, despite the fact that he hadn’t seen the film. He even went so far as to strongly advocate the introduction of new legislation to increase regional and national censorship laws.
The politicians paraded the stock excuses for censorship. There were claims that the film could incite copycat incidents. In 2000, there had been a number of stories in the Japanese press about youth violence: an adolescent had hijacked a bus and killed a passenger; one boy beat his mother to death; another detonated a home-made bomb in a video store; and a 17-year old stabbed and killed three neighbours. There were a lot of terrified adults, both inside and outside of the government, whose feelings were uncomfortably close to the paranoia of the adults trying to control their rebellious youngsters in the film unspooling across cinema screens all over the nation.
Of course, all publicity is good publicity. Despite a few moments where the government looked uncomfortably close to preventing the release of Battle Royale, Fukasaku’s impressive fable was released in Japan on 16 December 2000, and was hugely successful. Youngsters camped outside cinemas overnight to get tickets. Fukasaku’s target audience were turning up in droves, at least the ones who were permitted admission. Unfortunately, Japan’s self-regulating censorship board and ethics committee, Eirin, chose to rate the film R-15, meaning that no one under the age of fifteen could be admitted.
Other countries weren’t so fortunate. The American public were still reeling from the massacre at Columbine High School that took place in Littleton, Colorado on 20 April 1999, which left 13 dead and 25 injured. In the real world, children were dying at the hands of other children, and the film was never widely available in the US. The advent of multi-region DVD players, however, ensured that the curious cineaste could effortlessly secure a copy of the film.
In the UK, Battle Royale was released theatrically just three days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. In a week where carnage and bloodshed on such a huge scale was streaming 24 hours a day on news networks globally, here was a film that in many ways approved of retaliatory violence. The ways in which audiences responded to Battle Royale seemed to have a direct bearing on the prevailing mood of the general populace in any given corner of the world, in particular as the film raises questions about problems and solutions. The solutions in Battle Royale are massively disproportionate to the problems caused by juvenile delinquency.
The legacy and power of Battle Royale continued to attract new fans. In 2003, English translations of Takami’s novel and the manga adaptation by Takami and Taguchi Masayuki were successfully published in the US for the first time. Quentin Tarantino’s valentine to Japanese cinema Kill Bill paid homage to both Fukasaku and Battle Royale. Tarantino cast the striking Kuriyama Chiaki (the actress who played Chigusa Takako in Battle Royale) as Go Go Yubari, going so far as to clothe her in a school uniform.
Battle Royale II Requiem, the film Fukasaku was working on at the time of his death, illustrates the never-ending cycle of the relationship between parents and children. Although he was aware he was dying of cancer, he defiantly threw himself into pre-production with energy and passion. When Fukasaku died on 13 January 2003, the completion of the film, and the continuing development and evolution of the Battle Royale saga, became the responsibility of his son Kenta, who also scripted the first Battle Royale.
At the end of Battle Royale, Fukasaku appears to directly address his young audience, with words that form the true core of the story: “No matter how far, run for all you are worth…RUN!” The words are neither a warning nor a call-to-arms, but rather a positive rallying cry to help guide his nation’s youth. Although the film is filled with a plaintive yearning and sadness, the ending shows that, faced with seemingly unbeatable obstacles, faith in the future can survive. Even at the grand old age of 70, after a lifetime witnessing anguish and despair, and a movie full of death and destruction, Fukasaku ends on a genuinely hopeful note, with a remarkably powerful, important and strangely optimistic film.
This article on Battle Royale by Anthony Antoniou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.