For one of them British people like me it’s kind of insane for me to consider the idea that Battle Royale was not available in a home release form in the U.S. until 2012. It is entirely understandable though what with the alarming frequency of school shootings that have happened over the years, something that is, thankfully, very rare in the UK. We don’t have a history of violent gun crime amongst teenagers and maybe the thought of Battle Royale, a film that revolves around teenagers forced to kill each other off, struck too much of a nerve with U.S. distributors and the mess of an organisation that is the MPAA. So I understand that, as most of my views come from the U.S. there is a good chance that whoever reads this may not have seen Battle Royale. There may be some spoilers ahead, but please do read on, because Battle Royale is a film that needs to be seen as it is one of the most important works of cinema since the turn of the century. Click the link below.
The future of Battle Royale is a bleak one. Youth crime and delinquency is at an all time high and it appears that adults are powerless to do much about it. So a law was drafted whereby, once a year, a class of students is drawn at random to take part in an event called Battle Royale, where friends are forced to fight each over to the death over the course of 3 days. If there are no winners at the end of those 3 days all students will be killed by the explosive collars around their neck. Class 3-B are nominated by their teacher Kitano (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) and are selected for the program. Over the course of the 3 days two of the students, Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa (Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda respectively) decide they don’t want to be part of the games and strive to find a way out whilst also confronting the horrors of how easily friends can turn on each other. Cue lots of melodrama and violent murders.
The film’s director, Kinji Fukasaku, from an early age held a great dislike of adults. This was due to an incident in a factory, where he worked, during World War 2 coming under attack leading to himself and his classmates having to dispose of the bodies of their friends. At this point he realised that the Japanese Government was lying to them about the war. At the age of 70, when he made Battle Royale, you can tell that that aspect of his life has not fully passed, as it probably shouldn’t. Throughout the film there is an element of distrust between the adults and the children brought on by Kitano’s decision to nominate the class for the Battle Royale. But this distrust exists before that event. Part of the reason Kitano nominated them is due to all but one of the children skipping his classes and an incident where he is slashed by a student named Nobu (Yukihiro Kotani), an act he couldn’t take any action against the student for. There is a cycle of adults failing students, students failing the adults and a system failing both at play. An impotent society of adults which has in turn created a delinquent society of children for which both groups blame the other.
This leads to a powerful message that it is the responsibility of adults and the governing bodies they form to ensure that they do not fail the younger generation. And just like in real life the adults will often find anything to blame rather than themselves. Think about how a teenager can shoot a number of classmates at a school and the media jumps on the idea of videogames being to blame rather than anything their parents may have done to foster a mentally unstable child. As a result of the actions of adults the children of class 3-B become the sadistic and insane murderers the adults had pictured them as being. The adults create the violence.
Through this you’re constantly reminded that the majority of the children are not that bad. Only 2 of them actively hunt to kill, with the rest killing out of paranoia or self defence. One of these students is Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando) had volunteered for the Battle Royale purely for the thrills of killing as many people as he can. He is the actual product of the sort of broken youth the adults fear most of all. The other student is Mitsuko (Ko Shibasaki) who takes on a predatory role by using her looks to entice the male teenagers to their deaths. As a small child her mother had attempted to sell her to a paedophile which led to Mitsuko pushing him down some stairs to his death. As a teenager, we learn in flashbacks, she is considered one of the popular students but is aware that she is too damaged to fit in. Another corrupted youth who becomes a determined killer to rid herself of the students she has secretly despised.
On the flip-side of those two characters is Shuya and Noriko. Shuya has been recovering from the suicide of his father prior to the Battle Royale. He was a popular student at the school, so much so that it seems half the girls had a crush on him. Whilst he is represented as the film’s hero character, alongside another volunteer named Kawada (Taro Yamamoto) who was the winner of a previous game, Shuya isn’t the representation of goodness and hope. That falls to Noriko. She is the only student Kitano liked, he treated her as a surrogate daughter for his own that has nothing but hatred for him. She is an incorruptible and constantly hopeful girl. I kind of have to wonder if she was named Noriko on purpose as a reference to Ozu’s Noriko trilogy of films where the Noriko character is very similar to this film’s Noriko. Her continual belief in the good in everyone is a very specific trait for two characters of the same name to have. Probably not though.
Whilst criticism has been laid at The Hunger Games for effectively having the same formula, albeit very Westernised, you could easily label similar criticism at Battle Royale. It is, after all, one part Lord of the Flies and one part Running Man after all. The idea of people being forced to fight to the death is hardly new, as is the imagery of children being corrupted by the actions of adults and being driven to violence. These are themes that should be explored often though. Not enough is made of the responsibility we have to future generations in film. Everything is very much of the now without thinking of consequence. Battle Royale is about negative consequence but is also about the hope that eventually the victims of negative actions will be able to stand up and fight back for a better way of life. The last image of the film is the word “Run!”, a word that could have positive or negative connotations, but is certainly mean tin a positive manner here.
You could write essays regarding the influence and effect that Battle Royale has had on modern culture. It has a level of iconography that not many films get to share. You can see it’s influence in the many violence amongst youth films that have sprung up over the last 13 years, such as Kick-Ass. The resurgence of arena deathmatch films such as The Condemned and Smoking Aces. Marvel even did a comic series called Avengers Arena which was essentially a Marvel Universe remake of Battle Royale. Quentin Tarantino has described it as his favourite film made since he started making films. He almost had a cameo in the second Battle Royale as the U.S. President. There’s even small nods and winks to Battle Royale in Shaun of the Dead and Juno, of all places. The film has been ingrained on the minds of many directors coming through in the last decade and will likely influence more to come.
So, if you found Hunger Games to be lacking teeth, which is a fair argument, maybe you should see Battle Royale. In doing so you may find yourself a little shaken as this film pulls no punches. It will fill your head with imagery you won’t soon, or maybe ever, forget. It’ll make you ask yourself how you would react in such a situation more so than The Hunger Games ever could. Best of all though, it’ll stay with you for years and leave you feeling strongly that you have just seen an actual cinematic work of art that just so happens to feature the violent deaths of a full classroom of children. That’s a horror that should always be avoided, but happens all to often around the world. Maybe it’ll make you question why these things happen. Which is good, because that’s what art does.