Monday, November 12, 2012

Battle Royale

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku.
2000. Rated R, 122 minutes.
Tatsuya Fujiwara
Aki Maeda
Taro Yamamoto
Masanobu Ando
Kou Shibasaki
Chiaki Kuriyama
Takeshi Kitano

The youth of Japan have gotten so unruly that drastic measures have to be taken. Each year, one class of ninth graders is randomly chosen and forced to compete in “Battle Royale.” If you’re at all familiar with professional wrestling you’ll have a vague idea of what’s going on here. The difference is the stakes are considerably higher. The “lucky” class, 43 students in this case, is taken to a classroom on a deserted island where they learn that all but one of them will die over the course of the next three days. They are sent out of the classroom, one at a time. Each is given a bag that includes food, water and a weapon. What each gets for a weapon is completely random, ranging from automatic assault rifles to a pot lid. Their objective is to be the last survivor within the allotted time frame. To ensure there’ll be lots of killing going on each kid is fitted with a necklace that can be remotely triggered to explode. If a sole survivor hasn’t been identified at the end of 72 hours then all of the necklaces will be detonated. A few of the regular cliques from school stay together, each trying to figure a way out of this mess. Some go it alone, trying to avoid the others as much as possible. Of course, several of them become hunters of their classmates.

As you might imagine, this is a graphically violent movie. Though there are geysers of blood spraying from the unfortunate it’s still not as gory as some other Japanese horror and/or manga style flicks. That’s logical since the focus isn’t on violence as much as it is on adolescence. We concentrate more on how the kids react in an extreme situation. It is remarkable to see how some attack their predicament head on while others withdraw from conflict and some try to detach themselves from their reality all together. From time to time flashbacks give us tidbits about why some of them behave the way they do and/or why they’re viewed in a certain light by their classmates. Many of the performances are very good and the script deciphers for us who the heroes and villains are. Expectedly, there are even some twists to that dynamic. When the picture is complete it reveals itself to be a serious parable about growing up and the survival of the fittest mentality that governs most student bodies.

However, Battle Royale does fall short in some areas. We’re never given a clear indicator as to why this program was started. There is only the vague blanket statement that the youth no longer respects adults. I understand respect is huge in Japanese culture, but I need a little more to go on. We’re never shown or really told about any rash of heinous acts by teenagers. We see what seems to be an isolated incident of the sort that occasionally happens in schools. Still, it’s nothing that would come close to justifying these means. With very few exceptions, none of the kids here seem to be the type you’d cross the street to avoid. Another concern is how the flashbacks are used. They don’t have the effect they’re intended to. It seems the director knew this and tacked on a few more at the very end that work better and should’ve been shown earlier in the movie.

BR combines it’s thrills with some sharp commentary. As noted, the whole thing functions as a metaphor for growing up. In that vein, it works brilliantly as a steroid enhanced, weaponized version of high school. On the other hand, some interesting concepts are brought up but rendered irrelevant by the plot’s execution. There are others, but mainly I’m referring to the “Danger Zones”. They’re set up and explained but nothing ever comes of them. Still, the human drama is intriguing and the camera doesn’t flinch in the face of violence. I’ve seen this on a number of lists of the best movies of the decade (2000-2009). I wouldn’t go that far, but it is an ambitious effort well worth your time as it predates similarly themed best-selling novel The Hunger Games by eight years and the movie that followed it by twelve. Be warned though, this is most certainly not PG-13’d for mass consumption.


  1. I think the scene where they're explaining the rules of the game to those horrified kids and start throwing backpacks at them is truly one of the most intense things I've ever seen on film. I really liked this one, you can tell The Hunger Games borrowed a lot from it, but I'm glad it did because I don't think I would've known about it without THG connection.

    1. That last point is perfect. Alerting me to the existence of Battle Royale is the greatest thing The Hunger Games series has done.