Posted: 02/29/2004

 

Battle Royale [Batoru rowaiaru]

(1999)

by Del Harvey



This DVD is available for purchase at HKFlix.com.


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Japan is in a time of turmoil. The economy on the decline and the crime rate is at an all-time high. In these desperate times desperate measures seem appropriate. In order to deter youth crime and gain their attention, Parliament has enacted the “Battle Royale Act,” which empowers the Japanese government to randomly choose a class in any given school once a month and abduct them to a deserted island where they are given a bag full of food and weapons. The rules are simple—the last person standing on the island after three days will return to society. If more than one person from the class is still alive, then the whole class will be killed. It’s a brutal premise and what follows is inevitably a brutal film, but regardless of the criticism on violence, its opponents and proponents will largely agree that Battle Royale is one of the best movies to come out of Japan in the last decade.

Director Kinji Fukasaku (Black Rose Mansion, The Green Slime), pairs Japanese auteur Takeshi “Beat” Kitano (Fireworks, Zaitoichi, Gonin) with a number of young actors who have the unenviable challenge of maintaining the elder master’s level of intensity.

There has been much made of this film, which seems callous in the extreme toward teens and youth in general. But if you’re Japanese and you’re fifteen years old, the world is a very different place. Just like teens all over the world you probably are experiencing your first rush of adolescent hormones, you’re learning all about the world as it relates to peer pressure and grappling with this so-called difference between elders and your ilk. But societal differences in Japan are far more remote than anything we can imagine. It’s not so much that life is cheap in Asian countries; it’s more that the training to become a productive adult is enforced at a very early age. And living in this manner can be quite debilitating.

For the teens in Battle Royale, school’s not so bad. We are introduced to Class 3B, which is quite large. In 3B, there’s a psycho named Nobu who once stabbed class teacher Mr. Kitano in the ass. Another student, Nanahara, is struggling with his father’s suicide. Mitsuko, commonly known as the “class slut,” is hated by just about every one in school. And Utsumi and her mates have a nasty habit of locking Noriko in the toilets just for being who she is. All in all, not an uncommon sort of existence for most teens everywhere.

Unfortunately for our class, only a few years ago the Japanese parliament passed a law which led to the annual “Battle Royale” in which one class must engage in a bizarre survivalist exercise on a deserted island which consists of the class blowing away one another until there is one survivor. This law was enacted because the adults were “fearful of the youth.” Oh, yeah, the last survivor gets to go home only if the “game” lasts less than three days. Any longer than that and even they are hunted down and killed by their watchers.

Here is where the societal differences are most notable; instead of the teenagers lashing back against the system, they buy into the idea and begin to take their petty and immature rivalries to extremes with a gusto they have probably never realized themselves capable. Their watchers have provided Class 3B with a couple of wild-eyed transfer students noone seems to know but who seem to have a fairly good idea of how to use an AK-47.

What follows is an intriguing breakdown of class structure, friendships realized and stripped bare to their base reality, and individuals forced to choose between loyalty and friendship over their own inner survival instinct. This is what makes Battle Royale far superior to its many imitations, including Suicide Club, and is at the heart of its appeal across cultures.

Battle Royale is one of the bloodiest films you may see, but I did not find the action or violence gratuitous in context of the plot. If you have a weak stomach for such things, you may think twice before renting the film. However, I recommend Battle Royale for everyone above the age of 15, and cite stylistic similarities to films such as Pulp Fiction and Boiling Point. Just finding distribution on DVD here in the States, it’s worth tracking down.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, and teaches screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.



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