Battle Royale
review by Gregory Avery, 5 October 2001

At the beginning of "Battle Royale", we see a group of Japanese schoolchildren, numbering just over forty, ranging in age from eleven to fourteen, on a bus that is taking them on a class outing. The students, in their crisp gray and white school uniforms, talk amongst themselves, joke, take snapshots, and share a bag of cookies that one of them has brought along for the trip.

The trip is evidently taking longer than expected, because when we next see them, they are asleep in their seats on the bus. Then, they awaken in what looks like their old school room back in the city, only there are armed soldiers about. The lights come on, and their schoolteacher, Kitano, appears, and in no uncertain terms he underscores the gravity of the situation they're in and what is to be expected of them. Their class has been chosen, at random, to participate in the government-mandated "Millennium Education Reform Program", created in response to the massive unemployment and rampant boycotting of schools that has occurred in the wake of the collapse of the Japanese government. The students are on an isolated, deserted island, and over the next three days, they will have to kill each other off, until only one of them is left alive. If more than two are alive, they will be killed anyway. The electronic collars fastened on their necks will keep track of their every movement, and, if they try to leave the island or step into one of the constantly-shifting "danger zones", they will explode. Whether the students are unhappy with what is being done to them is of no consequence: when a female student is caught whispering while Kitano is speaking, he silences her with a knife planted in her forehead. One down, forty to go. Each of the students is then given a kit bag containing such essentials as a map, compass, and a weapon (a "lucky" weapon, chosen completely at random), and sent outdoors. Kitano ends up with the bag of cookies.

The schoolteacher Kitano is played by the (possibly great) comedian-turned-action hero-turned-actor and filmmaker Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, who has turned the act of getting back up on his feet after taking a beating, literally or otherwise, into an art. He is the pivot around which the action in Battle Royale turns, observing the progress of the "game" as it unfolds, issuing regular reports over a loudspeaker system on the number of students that have been eliminated, and, when necessary, urging them to do better. (The film is not without its share of mordant humor.) Battle Royale has been compared to Lord of the Flies, which showed what would happen if a group of young boys were left to their own devices without the presence of adults, but it's actually closer to Peter Watkins' 1971 film, Punishment Park, in which counterculture youths were dumped in a closed-off area of the southwestern U.S. and forced to defend themselves against their will.

In Battle Royale we see the students, after overcoming their initial shock and dismay, trying to participate in "the game" as best they can (with varying results); opting out of it altogether (sometimes to a desperate degree); fighting back only in order to protect themselves; or taking to playing "the game" all too readily, both proving themselves to their classmates while seeking to win in the same intensely competitive way as if they were taking an important examination or applying to a university (which has caused some to see the film as a commentary on Japan's demanding academic system). But there are also acts of nobility and courage. Friends try to stick together, form new alliances, and retain some bits of humanity against a situation that is trying all too vigorously to remove it from them.

The director of Battle Royale is Kinji Fukasaku, who is not one of the new furyo school of young Japanese filmmakers but has been working in films for forty years, making everything from a series of yakuza films set in postwar Japan, to the psychedelic crime drama Black Lizard and the wonderfully campy (in the very best sense) science-fiction thriller The Green Slime (Fukasaku also took over directing the sequences depicting the Japanese military in the lumbering Tora! Tora! Tora!, after 20th Century-Fox fired the initial director, Akira Kurosawa.) Fukasaku was no older that the youths in Battle Royale when, in real life, he was assigned to work in an armaments factory that was continually bombed during the Second World War, and I suspect he was mostly  responsible for keeping the focus of Battle Royale on recognizably  human aspects, thus enabling us to become more emotionally involved with the picture than we ever would have expected. And if you're looking for gruesome kicks, forget it: the outbursts of violence in the film are made terrifying right from the start, without throwing us completely out of the film, while further underscoring the palpable sense of  disruption of normality. The violent acts carry  full weight and consequence. But one of the most haunting aspects of the film (and one that probably hooked many audience members when the film became a success in Japan) is an almost paean-like strain of melancholy and loss that weaves through the action and carries well on into the closing credits. That the filmmakers chose to go with a determinedly optimistic ending which doesn't quite seem to work---an exhortation to do better, to do right, and to be strong to your beliefs---is nonetheless understandable.

Battle Royale became a huge success when it premiered on its home ground in December, 1999 (where it also generated a huge amount of controversy), and has since gone on to open in the U.K. (where it was, predictably, condemned by conservative film critics); it will open in October in France. Except for a few North American festival showings, it has yet to acquire distribution in the U.S., which is unfortunate, because Battle Royale is one of the most fervently anti-violence films to come along in years. Recent events have probably made seeing the film in theaters in the U.S. even more unlikely, although it would very well serve the purposes of the so-called "new civility" that has come into being. The "game" in Battle Royale could be any situation where young people are called upon to test their mettle and prove their worth, and the film asks its audience to consider what their own responses to forced aggression and violence would be, and what triggers such violence, whether it be ideological, political, or something as objectively simple but emotionally tangible as being casually hurt by a thoughtless act committed by some schoolmates.

Directed by:
Kinji Fukasaku

Starring:
Tatsuya Fujiwara
Aki Maeda
Taro Yamamoto
Kou Shibusak
Takeshi "Beat" Kitano

Written by:
Kenta Fukasaku

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
yet been rated.

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