If the popularity of The Hunger Games (2012) has sparked thousands of socially-networked Gen-X grumblings about the film just being a sappy version of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (as in the “do you know what they call Hunger Games in France/Japan” meme or just superficial nit-picking), there’s at least the consolation that a new fascination with teenage death games has led to Battle Royale re-entering the cultural consciousness, even if only as a point of comparison. This isn’t such a bad thing; it’s pleasing to imagine schoolyard whispers circulating about a more violent, brutal version of the beloved Hunger Games.
Intense adolescent brand loyalty might keep most of these kids clinging to their dog-eared Suzanne Collins paperbacks, but the lure of sacrilegious transgression can only add to Battle Royale’s mystique. As pointed out in Heroic Cinema’s earlier review of Battle Royale, it’s a visceral experience perfectly designed for an emotional and receptive teenage audience and Fukasaku (apparently) compelled children everywhere to see it any way they could, even if it meant sneaking into the cinema due to the film’s restrictive censorship rating.
Battle Royale is exactly the kind of film that reaches its full impact by having to be watched surreptitiously or hidden from oblivious parents. Where Hunger Games’ message is ultimately the kind of benign statement about political oppression, media control, social responsibility and personal development that can be safely taught in the classroom (which is in no way a bad thing), Battle Royale is an anarchic, borderline-nihilistic provocation, more about tearing down traditional order, values and inter-generational trust than fighting to restore them.
The storyline doesn’t need much detail: with society crumbling and youth rebelling, there’s an attempt to restore some sense of order by sending classes of school children (a group of 42 in this case) to a deserted island, where they’re left to kill each other until only one remains (or all be killed if they fail or refuse). Narrative twists and turns don’t play much of a part: Fukasaku is wise enough to let the brutality of the concept alone drive most of the drama.
Viewers may be mildly amused at Battle Royale’s opening statement that 15% unemployment and youth rebellion were major factors in the rapid social descent that led to government-mandated death games, but Fukasaku isn’t interested in the context-heavy, uber-dystopian future that Collins summons. “Futuristic” or alternate-reality decay provides only the most basic foundation to kick off the storyline, but otherwise the students in Battle Royale could be taken from any present-day classroom. It’s not hard to see why many have taken the film to be a literal manifestation of the underlying logic of education systems, where students suddenly reach a point where they’re made to understand that their entire lives will be defined by their performance in a series of fairly meaningless tests, and where the carefree environment of childhood will transition into a world governed by ultra-competitive careerism and status anxiety. “Stop being kids and go kill each other” is an exaggerated, but far from illogical or entirely misleading, fantasy manifestation of adulthood-entry and capitalist drive. It’s probably best for the uninformed (ie. me) not to generalise about how this may or may not relate to Japanese culture and education, but certainly we see the same logic in the stories of law students starting first year as the best of friends but hiding books or tearing out key pages by the time they hit their final year.
Bubbling inter-generational anxieties also emerge through the always intriguing figure of Takeshi Kitano (as “Kitano-sensei”), who heads the command centre behind the battle and is the only real adult authority figure we actually see. Kitano’s drowsily edgy demeanour is a perfect summary of the adult world Fukasaku summons: authoritative and mostly-controlled, but also clearly riddled with personal neuroses, self-destructive desires, and an underlying hatred for the world he’s found himself in and those who will inherit it from him. This targeting of the young as the cause of the world’s problems is really the primary motivator for the battle – a kind of instinctive punishment of the young for the ills of society. Criticism of the battle’s flimsy and somewhat unconvincing setup and function, as such, completely misses the point: it’s the kind of fabricated moral panic that we continue to witness any time youth or a minority group is targeted as the cause of all ills, displacing rather than addressing root causes of social problems.
It’s this primal summoning of social tensions and neuroses combined with adolescent emotional turmoil and confusion that gives Battle Royale its real resonance and lifts it above what might seem to be just a gratuitous teen-hating bloodbath.
Though the students quickly split into various groups (whether physically or just in terms of philosophy), we’re never completely manipulated to truly favour one over another until the film is drawing to a close. Sure, there are hardcore badasses and sappy incompetents, but all seem to represent fairly reasonable and identifiable choices given the far-from-reasonable circumstances; we might admire the students who attempt to negotiate a pacifist alliance or even those who commit suicide rather then engaging in the fight, but can hardly condemn those who quickly adapt to the necessities of circumstance or safely assume that we wouldn’t do the same. Even the stoic killers have an inevitable lure: borderline psychopathy starts to seem like a useful quality, just as it sometimes can in real (corporate) life.
Because we’re not firmly tied to a single lead character (unlike Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, who — in the film, at least — gets to conveniently sit out most of the killing and emerge stronger and more or less unsullied), creating mental allegiances with characters becomes an uncomfortable experience, and the inevitability of doom is emphasised by the ongoing death count calmly listed after each killing, reminding us just how many students are left to go. It’s a primal, visceral, and sometimes miserable experience, proving that Fukasaku was still able to deliver a solid kick to the gut, even at the age of seventy.
Madman/Eastern Eye’s Blu-ray release of Battle Royale is the “director’s cut”, although it’s actually a version that was altered after filming completed rather than a “restored” or “original” version. Individual reactions to the changes will likely vary; the addition of flashbacks may dilute the sense of enclosure and deliver some possibly unnecessary exposition, and adding new CGI to a film is problematic when not clearly announced, but the alterations don’t really change the film substantially, amounting to approximately 8 minutes of new content.
The most notable change is probably the ending, which no longer finishes with the original release’s final suggestion of subversive resistance (something apparently taken to extremes in 2003’s Battle Royale II, directed by Fukasaku’s son), instead revisiting a scene with Kitano, allowing the film to restate one final time its underlying theme of the irreconcilable gulf between the battered world of adults and the transitory world of children.
Fukasaku has taken on cult status as a director in the West, and the lack of availability of most of his films in this region may suggest that, aside from general reputation, Battle Royale is probably 95% responsible for this. Before the stylised student deaths of Battle Royale, the memory I most attached to Fukasaku was the monster centipede from the enjoyable adventure romp Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983) with regular collaborator Sonny Chiba. Hopefully Battle Royale will lead to some more of Fukasaku’s films appearing on Blu-ray or high-quality DVD releases.