Last to Live, First to Die

Battle Royale (2000)     5/5

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku (Toei Company)

For those of you who love the The Hunger Games, I regrettably announce that I have yet to see the film. But after viewing Kinji Fukasaku’s pulpy masterpiece of over a decade ago, I now fail to realize how the latest young adult novel-turned Hollywood blockbuster has even the slightest chance to measure up. Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, also based on a novel (by Koushun Takami), was as successful as it was controversial in Japan, and naturally, is the type of film that would never get past the MPAA. It’s like A Clockwork Orange combined with Lord of the Flies, an ultraviolent shoot-em-up with literary pretense, and as darkly hilarious as it is socially relevant.

Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is a ninth-grade student still coping with his father’s death, a suicide by hanging that occurred two years ago. The past comes rushing back as Shuya’s class is chosen randomly to compete in the Battle Royale program, a killing competition held on a remote island, this “game” being headed by none other than the class’s seventh-grade teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano). As we are told, Japanese society has now collapsed, resulting in widespread youth violence and thousands of dropouts. The intent of the “BR Act” is to reduce that trend, the absurdity of such logic lending itself to satiric brilliance.

The students must kill each other until only one remains. If not, they all die, via explosive collars on their necks. There are also “danger zones,” meaning that if a student remains in one such zone during an allotted time period, the collar will also explode. If more than one student remains after three days, once again, everyone dies. As for how the killing is done? Well, each student is given two bags, one for food and water, one containing a weapon. The weapons are completely random, just as the class’s selection was. One may get a crossbow, a semi-automatic rifle, an axe, or a trashcan lid. It all depends. Yet weaponry is not the only factor in this violent competition, especially when the players have known each other, and grown with one another, over several years.

Some students confess their love, others beg for peace, some rediscover or abandon cliques, and horrifically enough, some find that killing is the best option. Some may even enjoy it. Whatever choice these kids make, each seems like a realistic possibility, especially considering the detailed character profiles that the film provides us. We are therefore given interesting perspectives of how both children and adults view friendship, love, innocence, violence, life, and death.

Children are new to this world, their perceptions and developments somewhat biological, yet clearly influenced by their surrounding environment. In Battle Royale, adults force these children to sacrifice their innocence, and by doing so, bring out the worst in human nature, applicable to both themselves and the children they force to murder each other. Yet some refuse to give in, the motif being that if these kids hope to succeed, they must “run.” Whether advice or warning, the point is that there is hope for escaping both the game and this society, through nothing other than the youth which it has condemned.

Battle Royale beautifully executes the romance between Shuya, and the crush of his best friend, Noriko (Aki Maeda), yet retains the most power through Noriko’s relationship with an adult – Kitano. This man has been deeply hurt by his own family, disrespected by children, and lastly, been coaxed by the government into sending his former pupils to the slaughterhouse. Of course, there is also the desire for revenge. When all else is lost, it is possibly the easiest source of fulfillment to pursue. Meanwhile, Noriko, who was the only student Kitano had truly been able connect with, is his only link to something he can no longer understand. These character relationships are what drive Battle Royale in unexpected directions, providing it with thorough developments that do nothing but enhance the violent narrative.

In this fictional period, adults have destroyed the present, abandoning hope for the future by losing control of their next generation. Yet they feel as though they must regain control. They do so not by repairing themselves, which would arguably lead children back to their homes and schools, but by further destroying the future. Even though they may regain the upper hand, exerting some control over present circumstances, the Battle Royale Act only further destroys the country’s chances for a future run by today’s children, those we hope to inspire throughout our short lives. It is the equivalent of suicide, something Shuya knows all too much about.

In the film’s Director’s Cut, a release containing about eight extra minutes (mostly consisting of dream sequences and flashbacks), Battle Royale concludes with the line – “What do you think a grown-up should say to a kid now?” The ambivalent sadness in Battle Royale arises from this very disconnection, the concept that societal issues will preoccupy adults to the extent that they will forget about the future, and therefore, forget about their children. In the most tragic sense, they may even forget to love them. It is important to note that Fukasaku’s son, Kenta, wrote the film’s screenplay. Here is a pair who vowed to not make the same mistake.

Stylistically, Battle Royale is a combination of various sensibilities, the violence and humor straight outta Tarantino, yet use of framing and classical music more along the lines of Kubrick. The profound emotional, however, is Fukasaku’s own. The action sequences are also brilliantly choreographed and edited, exerting energy at every possible opportunity. And while the narrative of Battle Royale is not without flaw, there are seamless jumps between past, present, and dream, all while projecting titlecards onscreen that would make Tennessee Williams proud. So much inspiration went into Fukasaku’s ambitious project, and whether intentional or not, it has exerted more influence than almost any film of the past 15 years. Pretty cool.

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1 Comment

  1. Agree so fucking much, it’s the only film I can think of that questions the violence it portrays.


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