Release date: 5th April 2010
Running time: 109 mins
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Starring: Beat Takeshi, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Chiaki Kuriyama, Aki Maeda, Noriko Nakagawa, Tarô Yamamoto
Could you kill your best friend? For anyone who is not familiar with Battle Royale, the tagline printed along the top of the DVD case says it all. 42 students let loose on an island with an assortment of weapons and the promise of death can mean only one thing.
Having wasted no time in spotting the potential in Koushan Takami’s graphic novel published in 1999, Kinju Fukasaku promptly presented the film viewing public with his adaptation in 2000. The crux of the plot is basic enough. At the turn of the millennium, Japan is in chaos. Unemployment is rife, with 15% of its population left jobless; this means a total of ten million people trying to live on no income. Given our own present economic climate, this very detail hits a nerve and drives the problem home with a sledgehammer. Especially when we see what a society in such turmoil has turned to in order to conquer its demons.
Youth runs riot and school children skip school “‘cos we felt it”, as they write on Kitano’s (Beat Takeshi) blackboard. When they do choose to turn up, anarchy ensues, and Kitano is literally stabbed in the back. In an effort to control the new generations, the Battle Royale act is passed: every year a randomly selected class is subjected to three nights of pure survival; not that many see the third night. School children are told to kill or be killed and it isn’t long before they begin to realise just how serious their situation is, and begin to play the lawless game…
The plot’s simplicity leaves plenty of room for character profiles. The viewer is introduced to several students and allowed glimpses of their personal lives. Kitano is also given his own plight; initially, the defiant teenagers that he has to deal with beg the viewer to sympathise with and even pity him. But his participation in the barbaric regime awards him a dose of smug arrogance, and he finally appears to have some control over his tormentors. Finally, a reminder of his home life humbles him once more before his surreal finale that combines both sides of his story. Kitano isn’t the only one with a history; whilst Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is the hero of the piece, and it is actually his tragic story that audiences are most familiar with - each pupil has their own string to add to the story’s bow, their own priorities and their own interests at heart. Fukasaku falls back onto teenage stereotypes that make Battle Royale more of a high school drama than the speculative science fiction film that its premise may imply.
There are the geeks, who take their hands to science and technology with a view of crashing the Big Brother-esque system that controls their fate. There are the stunningly attractive girls on the edge of womanhood who are superficial and unstoppable in their quest for self-fulfillment. Then there is the dark and mysterious loner, the enigmatic outcast. But these cliques work, for what are stereotypes if not short-hand versions of real personalities? In a film that discloses so many character-driven subplots, a cast of complex individuals would confuse and busy the story to an unbearable degree.
Despite the severity of their circumstances, true to that high school genre of film, characters are largely hormone driven. Between doing battle with cross-bows and embedding exes in each other’s heads, they manage to find chance to squabble over who feels what for whom, which ones are the virgins, and who stood who up. Such trivial tribulations of adolescent life enhance the violence, which is motivated by grudges and vendettas. At its most rudimentary level, Battle Royale is a whirlwind of blood and hormones.
It’s not all about fast-paced fight scenes, though. Of course, this is what the film is famed for, and no doubt always will be - there is certainly no denying the delightful excess of gore, but Fukasaku brings more to the story. He builds an omnipresence of distrust and paranoia that persistently bubbles beneath the bloody surface. In rare scenes where fighting has subdued to dialogue, nerves tighten in anticipation of the next revelation that will subsequently lead to renewed aggression. Similarly, in Kitano’s scenes, Beat Takeshi exudes a black aura of tongue-in-cheek humour, and the novelty of severed heads and torn flesh gives way to the novelty of Kitano’s dry quips.
Inevitably, Battle Royale’s reputation will always precede the film itself, but this is the curse of the niche being absorbed into the mainstream. Potential viewers must not let this hype deter them, for Battle Royale truly is a classic of the future. Already a decade since its production, it feels as contemporary as the latest blockbusters and even more poignant. RS