Made Overseas: Battle Royale (2000)

In 2000, Kinji Fukasaku directed a movie called Battle Royale and fulfilled the every old person fantasy of teenagers murdering each other in the name of bloodsport.  The movie was based on a popular Japanese dystopian novel which was also adapted into a manga.

It’s easy to dismiss such things with a handwave and the exasperated refrain of “Japan!”, as if — upon viewing so much anime and reading so much manga — we can dismiss such pandering to base instincts as part of the free-wheeling morality-challenged creativity that we Westerners associate with Japanese pop culture. However, Battle Royale was condemned by the Congress (called the National Diet) as you might expect a movie about child killing would be. Nevertheless, the movie was a huge hit, making the equivalent of $25 million in Japan on a $4.5 million budget.

Why the controversy? We’ve had stories about human beings being hunted for sport since Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game became a bestseller.  Typically, though, the body count is low or, like in The Running Man, the bloodshed is played as cartoony as possible.  In Battle Royale, the victims aren’t even old enough to drink, the killing is unflinching, and for the most part the kids are personalities and not cartoon cliches.

The National Diet were not the only killjoys. The film was banned everywhere around the world. Let’s not forget, 2000 was not that far off from the Columbine massacre, and a movie that glorified violence in a school setting was a big no-no. Battle Royale would not be available in the United States and Canada for 11 years after its release. As recently as 2013, Battle Royale was banned in Germany due to its glorification of violence.

Now, though, we live in a post-Hunger Games world.  Not only is it OK to kill younglings, you can do it in family friendly PG-13 fashion!

There’s an allegorical component inherent to the entire “killing humans for sport” sub-genre.  In both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, the populous blindly accepts an obviously heinous practice from the perspective of the movie-goers.  We can all agree that child-killing is not a good look! So it’s pretty mindboggling that there would be a society that would condone and celebrate it. While the premise may come off as ludicrous, we can be apply the same thing to so many real life situations: slavery, Imperialism, what have you. Shoot… one day, we may condemn football as an ignorant practice. Can you believe there was a time when we encouraged disadvantaged minorities to sacrifice their physical well-being and mental health for the entertainment of rich people?

The moral, though, gets a little muddled — or perhaps its gets more resonant? — when, rather than being disgusted by the kills, we start to giddily anticipate which grisly death will visit the next poor soul. On the one hand, we have become the sick voyeurs of the movie’s society, and we should be ashamed. On the other hand… maybe the powers-that-be had a point.  Watching kids kill each other is kinda fun!  The last two Hunger Games movies had the lowest box office take.  They also had the lowest amount of child killing.  Coincidence?  I think not!

In the dystopian future presented by Battle Royale, one school class is selected every year for an all-expense paid trip on a scenic island.  The catch: they have to kill each other until there’s only one student left standing.  Or, failing that within the defined time limit, all the collars (resembling the ones seen in Running Man) explode and everyone dies.

Running the entire shebang is none other than the great Takeshi Kitano (who is conveniently named “Kitano” in this move).  Kitano is sort of a Renaissance man involved in many projects — movies, TV, video games — but in Japan he’s best known as a game show host.  Takeshi’s Castle is Ground Zero for all those notions we have for crazy Japanese game shows.  With Battle Royale, Kitano takes the game show concept to its most extreme elimination endgame.  He’s initially seen with a sad, hang-dog expression. We sympathize with him: a teacher who’s at a loss as to how to get his class under control.  Once the Battle Royale starts, though, any lingering sympathy pretty much dissipates once he hurls a knife through a defenseless student’s forehead.

Does the presence of Takeshi Kitano help dull the impact of many of the grislier scenes? In one part of the movie, we see are a girl in a schoolgirl uniform dying on the rocks after falling six stories, her blood mingling with the crashing waves. In other part, two kids who refuse to participate in the fighting hang from nooses in what is an apparent suicide. Taken on their own, this movie is depressing and nihilistic, and it would be hard to watch. But when the conductor of their misery is a well known game show host, and one who does have goofy moments like munching on a bag of cookies that one student had prepared as a gift, it takes a lot of the edge off. Also keeping things from becoming too morose: Masamichi Amano’s thrilling score, which have touches of Bernard Herrmann. At times it sounds like an Alfred Hitchcock film. I feel comfortable in giving the score full credit on why Battle Royale feels less depressing than Hunger Games.

The high school characters can be hard to tell apart from these other… and I don’t mean that in a racist “all Asians look the same to me” way. (Mostly.) It’s because there are forty-two of them. If I’m correct, the movie has a moment for each of them — even if it is primarily to show how they die. The easiest way to tell them apart is what they carry. Each of the students is assigned a bag, and each one contains a special item. Not all of them get weapons. Thus, we spend time mostly with a select group, and most do not carry anything lethal. They are the good guys after all. They’re above the killing! Nanahara (played by Tatsuya Fujiwara) is armed with a pot lid. He’s decided to protect Noriko (played by Aki Maeda), who only has a pair of binoculars. Fortunately, they run into Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), a transfer student who has been through Battle Royale before and is kitted up like Rambo.

Then there are the students who embrace their inner psycho, and they get some of the movie’s most brutal weapons. Most prominent is Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki), who stalks her fellow students armed with a brutal scythe. Mitsuko is vicious, uncaring, and duplicitous. Her only goal is to be the last one standing. And yet… we do sympathize with her. It’s not her fault that she’s in this contest. Who can blame her for pursing the only path that guarantees survival? I should point out that while this is a movie where one guy is a psycho return contestant who at times indistinguishable from a zombie… and yet a lot of the female combatants are much, much scarier.

The movie does a great job with reversing your original prejudices, and that may, in fact, be the theme of the entire move. When the movie starts, Kitano gets stabbed by a student that’s running out of a classroom. You just want to throttle that little kid, right? How dare he treat an authority figure this way? Just murder him and make the world a better place.

Yet, as the movie progresses, you learn more about this kid. He has mental issues that were never addressed by anyone in the system. He had people who cared for him and wanted to see him get better. He was a person who hurt. Yet the government decided that it was better that he be killed off than to see if he could be treated in some way. It wasn’t the adult’s role to act as an executioner. It was the adult’s role to act like an adult and find a better way.

Of course, a sound policy on mental health means we don’t get to see kids murder each other. I’m not entirely unclear how many people view the Battle Royale itself. The movie opens with the news descending on the previous year’s champion. Parents are informed that their kid is in the class for this year’s Battle Royale. However, its seems only Kitano and his crew watch the mayhem unfold. I guess in this world, the violence is condoned but the execution is still a delicate thing to watch.

Unsurprisingly, the movie gets more intense as the numbers get whittled down. Remaining students become increasingly more iconic, transitioning from scared victims to legendary heroes and villains. The movie begins with small scale conflict. like a student trying to snipe another while hidden behind long grass. By the end, we’re treated to massive action sequences where students trade shots against a blazing fiery background as if they were gladiators fighting in Hell itself. Despite the set-up, that only one student or zero students will survive, the ending isn’t foregone. There is a chance that a substantial amount of students can escape completely scot-free. So what are we going to see? One kid standing as the champion, or a joyful resolution where they manage to break the system?

Despite not being available in America for a while due to censorship reasons, Battle Royale still remains quite influential.  In addition to the one film franchise I’ve been mentioning several times in this review already, Battle Royale unsurprisingly caught the eye of Quentin Tarantino.  Chiaki Kuriyama, who plays a cold-blooded, ruthless killer in a banana yellow track suit, basically reprises her role when she plays Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Beyond that, films like The Condemned and The Belko Experiment also get compared to Battle Royale… though, like I mentioned, the whole “most dangerous game” scenario has been in play even decades before. It’s just that Battle Royale cuts such an impressive figure that it dares comparison.

Although we live in a world where The Purge franchise imagines a scenario where the government condones national battle royales for one night a year, Battle Royale manages to hold on its alluring mix of action and shock value even eighteen years after its release. Real world stigmas, though, seem to be destined to keep Battle Royale as a cult movie. An American remake had been in the works, but it had been shelved partially due to the Virginia Tech shootings. There’s also been some talk of a CW series adaptation… and yeah, that’s going to happen. With the sad state our country has been in for the last couple of decades, I doubt a day will come when combining a school setting with murder will ever become a comfortable scenario.

Battle Royale is currently available for streaming on Netflix and Xfinity Streampix.

NEXT: We’re going super old school as we battle evil in The Super Infra-Man.