Kinji Fukasaku, “Battle Royale (Director’s Cut)” (2000)
For all its extreme violence and other liberties it takes, for me this film reads like a satire of modern Japanese culture. In a future Japan, beset by supposed economic, political and social downfall and chaos, a class of Year 9 students is taken hostage and sent to a remote island where, under the watchful surveillance of their old Year 7 teacher Mr Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), the kids are forced to enact the current season of reality TV show “Battle Royale”. The rules are too, too simple: the game lasts 3 days, each player starts with a bag of food, water and a randomly chosen weapon (and girl players may take personal items like tampons) and all children must fight one another to the death until there is only one survivor. The catch is that at the end of three days, if there are more than one survivor, then all the kids die, courtesy of a self-detonating steel necklace each child competitor is forced to wear. After a wacky training video instructs the youngsters in all the rules, the children are released into the island wilderness and must set upon one another. To liven up things, Mr Kitano unleashes two transfer students, of whom one is completely psychotic, upon the class; and each half-day the teacher broadcasts via megaphones installed on the island the times of danger zones arbitarily set by the game’s controllers.
The film can be read as a maximalist criticism of the competitive schooling system in which all children are driven to compete against one another from preschool up to and including matriculation exams so that some selected students can enter the most prestigious universities in Japan. The ways in which the students react to the paramaters of the Battle Royale game underline the education system’s warping of the character of young Japanese students and its effects on them as adults and citizens, and their ability to become full human beings. That some children take advantage of the Battle Royale game merely to settle grudges and scores among themselves or to replay past childhood abuses illustrates the way in the Japanese education system subtly encourages bullying among children.
The film can also be seen as a critique of past Japanese militarism and the way in which school-children were exploited by the militaristic governments of the 1930s – 1940s. In the film, Mr Kitano is attended by various soldiers who might have come straight out of old World War II movies. Another interpretation of the film is that it criticises modern Japan’s obsession with conformity: because young people are rebelling against the social strictures imposed on them by society, the government tries to find ways of weeding out those who will not obey and the Battle Royale game is one such way. Of course, such a critique ends up being a critique of Japanese culture and society generally as the modern society is a product not just of Tokugawa-era authoritarianism, Meiji-era modernisation and the fascist / nationalist period from the 1920s to 1945, but also of the post-war years in which Japan was used by the United States as a frontline bulwark against Communism. During this period, the US allowed certain aspects of nationalistic Japanese culture to revive in exchange for military and scientific secrets (such as knowledge of chemical and biological weapons warfare) among other things
Various sub-plots play out among the students during the course of the film: three boys try to hack into the control centre and disarm the computer programs that control the necklaces everyone must wear; a lone girl, Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki), must confront and fight hidden personal demons from her childhood; the sane transfer student, Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), wants to know why his friend Keiko acted strangely towards him before dying in a previous season of Battle Royale; groups of girls play peacemakers; and a few students refuse to play the game by committing suicide. The inclusion of suicide as a method of defying the game adds an interesting existential dimension to the film and perhaps comments on the role of suicide in Japanese society as a way in which people confront personal crises that arise because the society demands far more of them than they are willing or able to give without sacrificing their humanity.
Needless to say, there isn’t much room for character development, all the characters are stereotypes; but the teenaged actors throw themselves into their roles with surprising gusto and energy, and really do make their stereotypes come to life. Improvisation on the youngsters’ part may have played a large role along with the general attention the director and script-writers gave to the plot and sub-plots into making what could have been a ho-hum film with too many one-dimensional flashbacks, some saccharine and some rather sinister, spring to life. Plenty of black humour, splatter gore and Kitano’s own laconic and perhaps self-deprecating style of acting as Mr Kitano (ha!) add zest to the film. Much of the film takes place from the viewpoint of two students, Shunya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda), who band together for survival and become firm comrades-in-arms.
For all these reasons, “Battle Royale” deservedly enjoys a reputation as a cult classic that has become the standard by which other similar teen flicks like “The Hunger Games” are measured … and often found wanting.