Battle Royale is notorious for a reason: content warnings include repeat depictions of suicide, constant, spontaneous violence, extreme emotional duress, emotional manipulation and on-screen deaths of dozens of fictional teens. It’s a breathtakingly violent film – Hunger Games this is not.
Every image of BR is distressing, but screenshots for this review won’t feature explicit violence. I also believe that Battle Royale isn’t as sadistic as critics from the year 2000 would have you believe. Nevertheless, extreme viewer discretion is advised.
In hindsight, it’s wild that people were so quick to call The Hunger Games derivative of Battle Royale on release.
Not because those books weren’t derivative – they definitely were, though maybe more of The Prisoner and Lord of the Flies than anything else. A premise that bonkers doesn’t just spring out of thin-air, there’s a tradition of these kinds of stories. Heck, The Great Outdoor Fight becomes one of those stories. Suzanne Collins insists that even though her books are about a group of teens sentenced by lottery to a mysterious killing field and handed bags of weaponry which they then use to re-enact a grim, metaphorical version of Capitalism, Adolescence and the Generation Gap, that she’d never even heard of a film called Battle Royale before her that first book came out in 2008. She’d innocently conceived of all that sci-fi, allegory violence on her own. Can you imagine?
It makes a lot more sense when you remember that Battle Royale, the original 1999 novel, didn’t release in the West until 2003 – three years after the cult film debuted in Japan. And speaking of the film, the reason Suzanne Collins (and everyone else!) didn’t see it on release was because no one had the rights to distribute it outside festivals in the U.S. until 2010, a full decade after release. The reason was, allegedly, because early U.S. test-screeners too closely followed the Columbine Massacre, and American distribution companies were (correctly) concerned about the message a film like Battle Royale might send. In 2000 it was too much, too soon. So they shadow-banned it, refusing to distribute for ten years – the same period of time during which groups in other countries expressed concern over its extremely teenage violence. The sequel would later run into similar problems in Japan itself, where Battle Royale II’s DVD release was pushed back after it was learned that the perpetrator of the Sasebo Slashing had been a Battle Royale fan.
The more you know. Controversial movies have interesting stories!
So unless Suzanne Collins was reading manga bootlegs for five years without telling anyone, it’s actually pretty likely she’d never heard of Battle Royale until that first book dropped and the dorks of the world showed up to remind her of the weird, ultraviolent Japanese thriller she’d unwittingly ripped-off. It’s entirely possible that we have the popularity of The Hunger Games to thank for the western distribution of Battle Royale in the first place. And without Battle Royale there’s definitely no Danganronpa, Alice in Borderland or Squid Game.
So thanks, Hunger Games. You legitimized your subgenre by accident.
Anyways, the year is 2021 and I have a festival cut of Battle Royale on my hard drive, a special edition of the novel on my book shelf, a digital version of the manga on an old laptop somewhere, and a definitely-bootlegged copy of the terrible Battle Royale II: Requiem in my movie shelf. But then, I’m not Suzanne Collins.
The Murder Game Renaissance continues. You think Suzanne Collins has seen Squid Game?
Battle Royale moves fast.
We open to voiceover: Japan has collapsed following the turn of the millennium. A hundred million are out of jobs, the country is in a free fall. With no prospects for their future, Japan’s youth generation has given up: 800,000 students boycott school entirely in an act of mass social unrest that threatens to further destabilize the nation. Abandoning the future they now know is unlikely to ever exist, youth crime skyrockets. In open retaliation, the Japanese government passes the Millennium Education Reform Act. The ‘BR’ act.
One grade-nine classroom, of the forty-three thousand in Japan, is chosen to play a game.
The first thing that strikes most viewers of Battle Royale is the immediacy of the violence. There’s no safety railing here, no cozy introductory lead-up of school life to ease you into the murder-game. We go from everyday school life – in which a teacher is stabbed by a student in the hallway outside his own classroom – to the opening of the game in one motion. The connective tissue is a bus ride in which the students believe they’re headed on a routine field trip with their new teacher. The girls take Polaroids and share cookies while the boys discuss secret crushes; we’ll flash-back to these innocent moments later. The scene is over in a minute, just long enough to remind us that these are normal, goofy teens. The bus is lit in lively greens and reds before it passes through a tunnel and the lights go out.
They wake up in a new classroom. This one is lit like a morgue.
Within fives minutes Nanahara Shuya and his Class-B schoolmates have been abducted, collared and delivered to the island where most of them will spend the rest of their lives. Within ten, their former teacher ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano (playing himself, in an incredible turn) has killed the student that slashed him and unleashed the rest on the countryside with only their wits, maps and a randomly chosen weapon. Some get guns, some get knives, some get paper fans, binoculars or a tin pot lid. All of them are scared and many are crying. The violence is immediate, it comes in flashes of rage and desperation. Several die to their friends within steps of the entry door. The rest scatter into the night, clutching their maps and each other. To this point, the audience still isn’t sure who their protagonist is going to be.
Kitano’s final warning is delivered in the same perfect, deadpan growl as all his other lines:
“Life is a game. So fight and see if you’re worth it.”
It’s easy to see why Battle Royale was so shocking on release and how it continues to disquiet audiences 20 year later. The teens look like kids. They’re 14-15 in plot terms, and even though they’re played by slightly older actors there’s no escaping the intensity of the violence. Everything outside of a flashback is shot in a leering, shrill color palette that makes Battle Royale seem far older than it is – I had to check to make sure I wasn’t watching the rerelease of some 70’s indie slasher. Blood is tomato red against white school clothes, it’s loud and obscene in a way we’re not used to seeing in more recent films. Kills are often shot in smash-cuts that sometimes scan like jump scares, complete with pounding pianos and freeze-frames. Guns go off like popping balloons while knives shriek through the air at maximum volume. I didn’t realize until after watching that the director, Kinji Fukusaku, was also responsible for the equally-kinetic Battles Without Honour or Humanity series. There’s a similarly intense, sometimes-queasy sense of motion. When things go bad, they go bad: characters die fast, and they die constantly. The massacres look like massacres, and it isn’t uncommon for panning shots to wander across a landscape of carefully-arranged corpses, lain out like sculptures against the panorama.
What I’m saying is that Battle Royale will turn your stomach, but it’s also an artful, considered film. Against all odds.
But yes. It’s also very distressing. Battle Royale is the murder-game thriller in its original form, at cask-strength. It’s definitely not for everyone.
I can’t imagine how audiences would have reacted twenty years ago. Not all the students are equipped with efficient weapons like guns and explosives (although some certainly are): there’s a great deal of stabbing in this movie, and stranger ways to die besides. When death comes, it comes fast. Most characters die in the same scene in which they’re introduced, with their name and numbers splashed across the screen like sports statistics. There’s no way off the island for most, no hope of ‘winning’ the game, so many of the most upsetting scenes come at the expense of the students realizing the extent of their situation. There’s a lot of suicide in Battle Royale, enough that it becomes a dominant theme of the story. Characters of all stripes are constantly tasked with life-or-death decisions regarding people they’d regarded as friends, bullies or lovers just the day before. They make all of those decisions on the fly, at maximum intensity.
None of them end well, and the writing ensures that you feel every hit.
Despite all of the actors being young and many of them relatively inexperienced, these scenes feel real and lived-in. The cast trained for six intense months before shooting and it shows: these are characters with relationships and histories – even if all we’re often shown is a single conversation or a line of flashback dialogue. The teens react in the exact extreme, impractical ways you’d expect them to react: lovers fall to their death together, bullies become ghoulish murderers, petty jealousy bubbles to the surface and becomes a motive for murder. Everything about their school lives becomes motivation for murder in the bleakest terms. Panic is constant and desperation is perpetual: Battle Royale isn’t a movie about empowerment in any form.
Maybe that’s what makes it so disturbing. Murder Game movies like this always leave the audience asking “Well, what would I do?”, it’s a part of their sick charm. Battle Royale dares us to answer the question honestly.
It can be hard to watch. It’s meant to be.
Setting aside the violence for a second (if possible!), is Battle Royale worth your time in 2021, when twenty years of streamlined, sanitized and watchable versions of the same format exist?
Yes, because it has heart. Much of the reason is Beat Takeshi.
Like all of the adults in Battle Royale, Kitano has a vicious grudge against the younger generation, and jumps on the opportunity to host the games. Getting into quite why he does it is a spoiler, but his slashed leg in the opening scene is reason enough. Dressed like a mean gym teacher, he approaches his job with equal parts grim resignation and a crooked, private glee that only comes out in flashes of violence. Director Fukusaku reportedly told Kitano to just “be himself” on set, which he wasn’t quite sure how to interpret, and it results in one of his most endearingly bizarre performances. In the opening scene he claps along like a kid to a cheery educational video as it describes the rules of the ‘game’ – until someone has the gall to interrupt him. In another, silent scene a guard tries to steal one of his cookies and he pulls them away slowly and deliberately, like a terrifying-looking toddler, then goes back to munching. He’s definitely there for a reason, but we never see him take joy in his work either. Kitano never cries and he never fully smiles, not out of joy. Mostly he just seems lonely.
Since he’s such a stiff, terrifying-looking man already, there’s an inherent comedy to nearly everything Kitano does in Battle Royale. Whenever he isn’t busy murdering someone, look for his comedic timing – the man is literally one of Japan’s best-known comedians. Even though he’s meant to play the film’s villain, Kitano is just the coordinator of the game; he isn’t the one doing the killing. His character slowly arcs from out-and-out villain to three-dimensional human tragedy.
Beat Takeshi, in his very weird way, brings depth to a role that might otherwise scan as cheap fluff – and definitely does in the sequel when Riki Takeuchi takes over. In most scenes he paces or stands silently, like a golem. It’s to his credit as an actor that he doesn’t need anything else to own the role.
So what do we do with Battle Royale: notorious shock classic?
Well for starters you watch it.
For one thing, it’s smarter than anyone’s giving it credit for. On top of being a killer action film (and it is an action film, despite the Horror conceit), there’s so much at work thematically that it deserves a whole other column. As a film, it’s saying several different things about Japan’s youth and the future owed to them by the older generation. It’s a commentary, amongst other things, on the vicious nature of adolescence and the relentless cruelty of children. It’s an exploration of Capitalism and the ways human beings will destroy one another for a shot at survival. It’s a meditation on retaliation, and what it means to destroy the world in order to see revenge and a love letter to youth and to loneliness, in the strangest terms.
Most of all, Battle Royale is the originator of the Murder Game genre, and it remains its finest, purest entry. If what you want is to carry the thought-experiment of the Murder Game through to its unthinkable conclusion, track down Battle Royale immediately. There are moments in this film that we haven’t managed to match even 21 years later with an entire subgenre behind us.
When asked to explain the message of his film, Kinji Fukusaku said that it was a “set of instructions for the coming generation,” but never explained what he meant by it. We’re never going to find out: Battle Royale was his final film.
There’s still nothing quite like it.
This has been day 6/31 of The Long Hallowe’en 2021!
If you’ve read this far, you’ve unlocked a real treat: here’s Beat Takeshi innocently dancing tap.