"Life is a game. So fight for survival and see if you're worth it."
At its most basic level, Battle Royale is a combination of Lord of the Flies and The Running Man; utilising the time-worn concept of a group of people who are conscripted, equipped with weapons and forced to kill or be killed until only one contestant remains. It's an idea which dates back to the days of the Roman empire, and has become so beloved by filmmakers that it has been employed for various movies of various genres (from historical epic to futuristic fantasy).
Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale (aka Batoru rowaiaru) offers a new twist on this premise. The story is set in the near future when the economy of Japan is on the verge of collapse. Unemployment rates are up, children are boycotting school, and juvenile delinquency is at an all-time high. Fed up with the unruly and disobedient student population, the Japanese government passes the Battle Royale act. In accordance with this act, a school class is selected at random every year and shipped to a remote island to play the game. The rules are simple, as explained on a video by an exuberant Japanese girl: the contest lasts 3 days, and each student has been fitted with an explosive tracking collar that will explode if removed, or if they stray into a "danger zone", or if there's more than one contestant left standing after the 3 days. Each contestant is provided with a bag containing food, water, a compass, a map and a random weapon. Logically, the film focuses on a particular class of teens who are kidnapped and forced to participate. Friendship, love and pacifism all fall by the wayside as the students are presented with the choice of kill or be killed.
One of the greatest strengths of Battle Royale is the realistic portrayal of the adolescent characters who, when placed in a life-threatening situation, still obsess over unrequited love and are unable to let go of their old attachments. The characters serve as a microcosm of any high school class - there's the fat kid, the shy kid, the misfit, the clique of girls, the techno geeks, the young lovers, the kid with a secret, etc - and they all react in varying ways. Some immediately go on a killing rampage (either out of fear or because they are innate assassins). Meanwhile some take the weekend as an opportunity to dish out some payback, and have no scruples about killing those who've bullied them. The protagonists of the film, on the other hand, decide to stick together and avoid killing if possible. Added into the mix are two recent transfer students, who naturally turn out to be the biggest badasses of the bunch. Each death is documented on-screen like a scorecard during a sport event; providing the deceased player's number and name, along with the number of students remaining. However the Battle Royale Act concept is flawed, mainly because there are no spectators. No-one is filming or watching the action, so what's the point of being so elaborate?
Battle Royale is based on the popular novel of the same name by Koushun Takami, and acts as a terrific allegory about the Japanese school system. Japan is well known for its Study-Work-and-Die ethics with rigorous demands within the education and business system. Battle Royale takes this climate and amplifies it, placing the children in a far more desperate situation than working to receive an A-Plus. The targets of satire are numerous, such as the cruel over-expectations of achievements at school (as previously mentioned), as well as the Japanese obsession with authority and obedience, and the obsession with violent anime. The film's soundtrack (largely consisting of booming classical music) affords an epic, Kubrickian scale to the proceedings. However there's one considerable flaw with Battle Royale: the dialogue borders on banal. For instance, there's the overused cliché of characters pledging their undying love to a classmate right before kicking the bucket without a sound or a gurgle...
Veteran director Kinji Fukasaku was 70 years old when he crafted this fine motion picture. Fukasaku previously directed the Japanese scenes in Tora, Tora, Tora on top of a number of Sonny Chiba films, and the rough and tumble series The Yakuza Papers. Battle Royale is proof the director still had a deft hand in the late years of his career. While the violence is over-the-top in its amusing cartoonishness, it's also viscerally disturbing. After all, the only thing more unsettling than watching adolescents die is watching them kill each other. The bar for Battle Royale is set early into the runtime; pulling no punches and keeping the violence coming in a steady flurry. There are two key things that set this film apart from other blood-drenched action offerings: the girls are offed as badly as the boys (action films generally reserve the most horrific death scenes for the males), and the characters are undeniably girls and boys. While Hollywood films try to pass off 30-year-old actors as teenagers, the performers in Battle Royale actually look like adolescents.
Chief among the film's most compelling moments is the closing credits. As the final theme music plays, we are shown a black & white school photograph of the class which has just fought to the death. The various faces of the doomed contestants are focused on; providing a subtle but powerful reminder that these characters weren't mere statistics for an entertaining bloodbath, but in fact normal children who should have had their entire lives ahead of them. This gives the movie a crowning, humanistic touch.
To date, Battle Royale has never received an official U.S. release, but it has become a deserved cult classic on DVD, and the Japanese Academy nominated the film for seven awards (including Best Picture). Quentin Tarantino is an enormous fan of the movie as well (even labelling it as his favourite film released since 1992), and paid tribute by casting Chiaki Kuriyama in Kill Bill: Vol 1. With the great production values, a savvy script and gut-wrenching action sequences that'll leave you in a state of breathless disbelief, Battle Royale is a terrific release, though repeated viewings may highlight the lack of substantial depth.