Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the Big Deal?
Battle Royale is a Japanese action thriller film released in 2000, and it is based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Koushun Takami. The final completed film by director Kinji Fukasaku, the film depicts a class of school children who are selected to compete in a deadly game for survival as part of a dystopian government program. The film stars Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Chiaki Kuriyama, Taro Yamamoto, Masanobu Ando and Takeshi Kitano. Like the book, the film generated enormous controversy when it was released, including a number of countries where the film was banned outright or was withheld from distribution for a number of years. Hugely successful at the box office, the film gradually became a cult hit around the world and influenced a number of filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino, who later declared the film one of his favourites. The film also received critical acclaim when it was initially released, and its stature has only grown in the years since, with some calling it one of the best films of the 2000s. It would be followed in 2003 by a sequel, Battle Royale 2: Requiem, which was completed by Kinji's son Kenta Fukasaku.
What's It About?
Following an economic collapse and a sharp rise in youth crime, the Japanese Government introduce the B R Act in order to curb delinquency and spiralling crime rates. Every year, a random class of school children is selected to take part in the Battle Royale - a deadly, three-day tournament where the last survivor is declared the winner. No rules, no escape and nothing off limits. Amidst this backdrop, 7th grade student Shuya Nanahara is devastated to return home to find his father has committed suicide after losing his job. Now an orphan, Nanahara throws himself into his school work along with his best friend Kuninobu and his secret crush Noriko Nakagawa.
A year after Kuninobu stabs their teacher Kitano and flees from school, Nanahara's class are on a field trip but halfway on the journey, the students are all gassed and pass out. Wakening up, they find themselves on a deserted island being marshalled by members of the armed forces. Kitano then arrives and informs them that they have been selected at random to participate in this year's Battle Royale and have just three days in which to kill each other or be killed by remote-controlled collars they have been forced to wear. Distraught at their situation, each student is given a bag with supplies and a random weapon and are forced out into the wilderness. In the face of various gangs, romantic entanglements and fleeting alliances, Nanahara and Noriko soon realise that their classmates are the least of their worries as two "transfer" students appear far more proficient at the game than they ever suspected...
Trailer (remastered edition)
What's to Like?
I'm fairly confident that most western audiences won't be too familiar with the prior work of director Kinji Fukasaku before the release of Battle Royale. The man had created a legacy of yakuza films such as Battles Without Honour And Humanity within Japan and that influence can be seen here within the levels of extreme violence shown. Multiple shootings, stabbings, suicides and even decapitation are all here, signalling a wave of extreme cinema that came from Japan around the turn of the Millennium. Unless you're a seasoned gore hound, you'll need a strong stomach for this one because this is not an easy film to watch. But it isn't this violent for the sake of controversy. The high stakes being fought over heighten the already fragile emotional state of the combatants so even minor slights and snubs can be reason for a sudden, deadly outburst while the power of one's first love can seem overwhelming. This makes the film more than just a simple splatter flick.
The film's atmosphere is bleak and nihilistic but enriched by some stellar performances from the young cast. Fujiwara (making his big screen debut) and Maeda are worryingly believable as the young couple driven by loyalty to their mutual friend and their growing attraction to one another. Kuriyama and Shibasaki are memorable as two of the more dangerous students (Kuriyama caught the attention of Tarantino who then cast her in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 in a similar role) but for me, Masanobu Ando's silent killer Kiriyama is an almost demonic presence and should be remembered as a baddie for the ages. His relentless pursuit of other students and sick sense of humour truly make him every bit the bad guy as Kitano's teacher. Speaking of Kitano (arguably the most recognisable star in the film), his own performance is worthy of praise too - he turns a cruel and sadistic character into a sympathetic one over the course of the film and offers a glimpse of how older Japanese people are often intimidated by the youth of today, a core theme behind the film and novel.
- Takeshi Kitano's casting as the teacher served a dual purpose. His international standing brought more attention to the film overseas while in Japan, he was mostly known as a TV game show host on shows like Takeshi's Castle which made the reality TV side of the Battle Royale even more plausible.
- An American remake had been on the cards since the film's release, despite the controversial subject matter. The film's initial release in the US was delayed by almost a decade as it came so soon after the Columbine High School shooting and no distributor would touch it. After the release of The Hunger Games in 2012 (a film with a similar premise), the project was ultimately cancelled.
- Like the original novel, the Japanese Government attempted to ban it but ultimately failed. Paradoxically, this caused a surge of interest in both the film and book so people can see what the fuss was all about. Fukasaku was openly critical on the film's restrictive age rating and even encouraged under-age viewers (specifically the teenage audience the film is about) to sneak into cinemas and watch it.
What's Not to Like?
I dare say that part of the impact of Battle Royale will be lost on overseas audiences who might not understand the key theme behind the story - a fear and mistrust of the youth by older Japanese citizens. It's also frustrating that the film leaves some aspects of the story obscure - the film hints at a relationship between one of the students and Kitano the teacher but never quite explains the significance or what it means. Maybe something is lost in translation - I'll always pick the subtitled version of any foreign language film over a dubbed version - but I can honestly claim to understand about 95% of the overall narrative.
I've already mentioned the queasy levels of violence, which is more troubling given that it involves young children killing each other or dying in graphic detail. I would have liked the film to explain more of the back story such as how and why the B R Act came to be as well as a more satisfying ending which leaves some questions unanswered. I don't know if they are during the sequel - which was not based on a book and ultimately underwhelmed - but in the immediate aftermath, I was left wanting some sort of epilogue, something to help me make sense of what I'd just seen as well as something to cleanse the palette. This is not a film for everyone as some people will watch this and feel like it's just mindless, bloody violence generating controversy for the sheer sake of it. It's much deeper and more emotive than that, able to generate real sympathy for these kids despite many of them only really having one or two scenes.
Should I Watch It?
Even today, this film is well worth viewing. It might feel a little passé these days due to the proliferation of battle royale in online gaming but this is where the trend started. It's a difficult and disturbing watch but an incendiary experience that will test audiences with its subject matter as well as the excessive levels of violence. It's tragic that Kinji Fukasaku's last film would be the one to bring him international recognition but it's a fabulous final effort from one of the unsung heroes of Japanese cinema.
Great For: online video gaming, shocking conservative viewers, generating controversy, making you think
Not So Great For: anyone luck enough to have read the original book (which are always better, let's be honest), squeamish viewers, encouraging actual violence in schools
What Else Should I Watch?
Glossing over the failure of Battle Royale II: Requiem, Japanese cinema was growing increasingly extreme at the time thanks to directors like Takashi Miike. Ichi The Killer is probably Miike's most extreme picture, featuring some truly disgusting visuals and levels of violence that would make this film look like Bambi. Takashi Miike is also responsible for one of Japan's most twisted psychological horror films, the spine chilling Audition which is a bit like Fatal Attraction but after seventeen pints of Stella Artois.
For the uninitiated, Japanese high schools can sometimes seem like the focal point of all evil in the world - at least if the number of films set there is anything to go by. From animated romantic fantasy Your Name to bizarre musical comedy Swing Girls, schools can be a place of romantic whimsy or a chilling environment where your very life could be at risk. It's also not a stretch to say just how influential Battle Royale proved in the years since - look at the success of Korean TV show Squid Game or other films like The Condemned, the aforementioned Hunger Games and the recent comedy horror Ready Or Not and it's easy to see how these films took the concept and ran with it.
Boy #15, Shuya Nanahara
Girl #15, Noriko Nakagawa
Boy #5, Shogo Kawada
Boy #6, Kazou Kiyirama
Girl #11, Mitsuko Sama
Girl #13, Takako Chigusa
Boy #19, Shinji Mimura
Release Date (UK)
14th September, 2001
Action, Drama, Thriller
© 2022 Benjamin Cox