BATTLE ROYALE (2000)

Synopsis:  At the turn of the Millennium, Japanese society is crumbling. In the face of record unemployment and open revolt by the young, the government panics, passing the Millennium Education Reform – or “Battle Royale” – Act…. The Japanese media swarms towards a military vehicle carrying a blood-drenched young girl, who is proclaimed “the winner”. She smiles for the cameras…. The 7th Grade begins badly for everyone connected with Class B at Zentsuji Middle School. The father of Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) hangs himself on the first day of term. Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) turns up late for class, only to find that she is the only one to turn up at all; while as the teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), walks away in disgust, he is stabbed in the thigh by a rebellious student, Yoshitoki Kuninobu (Yukihiro Kotani). Two years later, the now 9th Grade Class B has completed its compulsory education, and takes its end of year field trip. Although he boycotted school following the stabbing incident, Kuninobu – or “Nobu” – is with his old class, having been coaxed back by Noriko. For the past two years, Nobu and Nanahara have been roommates in a foster home. As the class’s bus travels along the highway, Nanahara notices large numbers of soldiers along the roadside. Noriko’s friend, Megumi (Sayaka Ikeda), encourages the shy girl to give the cookies she has baked to Nanahara and Nobu. Noriko offers them to Nanahara, on whom she has a crush, but Nobu pounces on them. Megumi takes a photograph of the other three, and Nobu complains laughingly that she has cut his head off. Later – much later – Nanahara jerks awake to find everyone else on the bus sprawled out motionless, sound asleep – or unconscious. To his bewilderment, Nanahara sees that the bus driver and a female attendant are wearing gas masks. Seeing him awake, the latter strikes him a vicious blow, knocking him out…. The students regain consciousness in a darkened classroom. All of them have metal collars locked around their necks. There are also two strangers among them – “transfer students”: Kawada (Taro Yamamoto) and Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando). A helicopter lands outside the school. From it, to the children’s dismay, emerges Kitano, who is escorted into the building by some of the many soldiers that surround the building. They enter the classroom together, and the students are roughly ordered to sit. Kitano then proceeds to explain what is happening: that Class B has been chosen by lottery under the Battle Royale Act; and that, armed with weapons provided, the students will be forced to fight each other, kill each other, until only one of them is left alive – “the winner”. If, after three days, more than one of them is still alive, everyone dies…. As the students listen in petrified disbelief, Kitano tells them that it is their own fault; that their whole generation is rotten; that they are what is wrong with Japan. He then shows them a training video intended to explain the rules of the Battle Royale – and demonstrates his exception to the whispering of one of the girls by hurling a knife into her head. After the ensuing panic is quelled, the video resumes. The students learn that they are on an island. They learn also that the collars around their necks are explosive, and can be remotely detonated if anyone is caught in one of the designated “danger zones”, if they try to remove the collars – or if more than one of them is still alive at the end of the game…. At this, Nobu loses control and tries to attack Kitano, who takes the opportunity to illustrate graphically just how the collars work…. The students are each given a kit containing food and water, a map and a compass, and a randomly assigned weapon, and sent out into the night….

Comments:  Kinji, we hardly knew ye…. This particular Roundtable finds the B-Masters on somewhat unfamiliar ground, inasmuch as it gives us the task of – for once – examining the achievements of a film-maker whose work, for the most part, we sincerely admire and/or like. In what can only be considered a particularly cruel cosmic joke, when Kinji Fukasaku died two years ago at the age of seventy-two, it was at the moment when, after a genre-spanning career of forty years and sixty-odd films, the veteran writer-director had finally achieved a deserved measure of international fame. (And just to add insult to my sense of personal injury, he died of prostate cancer.) Yet the injustices of the past are only slowly being corrected. My choice of film to review for this Roundtable was dictated not only by choice, but by necessity: other than The Green Slime, which I have already reviewed, and the non-qualifying Tora! Tora! Tora!, Battle Royale was the only one of Fukasaku’s movies readily available in this country. The situation is little better overseas – or was, until very recently. It took the controversy surrounding the production of Battle Royale finally to provoke a worldwide interest in the man’s entire body of work. Prior to that, it was a sad fact that it was generally only his more conventional works – the less personal, more commercial productions – that managed to secure distribution outside of Japan. Thus, if Kinji Fukasaku’s name is associated with anything in particular in the minds of Western movie-watchers – and let’s face it, with the majority it probably still isn’t – it is not with the brutal honesty of his yakuza films, or the near neo-realism of his social dramas, or even the sheer outrageousness of his occasional pop-art experiments, but most likely with….endearingly ridiculous rubber slime critters.

Still – perhaps one does get the best sense of the true breadth and depth of Kinji Fukasaku’s career by book-ending those two of his films that are best known in the West; by allowing audiences to squeal with delight at the rampaging Slime Guys, to giggle at the alpha-male antics of Robert Horton and Richard Jaeckel, and boogie on down to filmdom’s second most fabulous theme song, before confronting them with Battle Royale: a film that is a steel-capped boot to the head, a knee to the groin, and a sucker punch to the solar plexus. If Kinji never received the recognition that was his due in his lifetime, at least he went out in a blaze of controversial glory – or rather, with the swing of a sickle, the flash of a switchblade, and in a near-ceaseless hail of machine-gun fire. Much misunderstanding exists as to the alleged censorship of Battle Royale in Japan. The film was indeed held up to opprobrium in parliament, and a call was made for its banning, but in the end it was released without cuts. It was, however, and unusually, slapped with an R-15 rating, meaning that no-one under sixteen – the very people, according to Fukasaku himself, whom the film was both about and for – was permitted to see it. It nevertheless did big business; and when subsequently re-released, trimmed and with a lower rating, it did even better. Battle Royale then did the rounds of the international festival circuit and, delighted or outraged, the word began to spread. Cut or uncut, the film finally secured cinema distribution in most major world markets. Unsurprisingly, it failed to do so in the US, although contrary to popular belief the film was never banned there. Rather, there simply wasn’t a major company game enough to touch this film, with its graphic violence and its shocking images of schoolchildren enthusiastically massacring one another, with the proverbial ten-foot pole; and for the minors, Toei’s asking price was just too high.

In adapting Koushun Takami’s novel, Kinji Fukasaku and his son Kenta made the radical decision to alter the story’s background and setting. The novel is a fantasy, taking place in an alternative time-stream in which Japan was not defeated in World War II. The Fukasakus chose to ignore this aspect of the tale, instead setting their film in their own society, but just slightly in the future. This re-staging of the film’s action is at once its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The transference of the story from the never-was to the almost-here-and-now is precisely what gives it its bite. Battle Royale manages to have its cake and eat it too here, playing upon contemporary Japanese society’s growing fear of a rebelling and increasingly violent youth, while simultaneously presenting its young characters as the victims of a cruel and manipulative older generation intent upon taking bloody revenge for its own failures and inadequacies. Many of the blows of this vicious satire land squarely where they were intended to, on a culture obsessed with success at all costs, and of the system that not merely spawns but celebrates this attitude. It is no coincidence that it is a class of 9th graders that is chosen to compete in the Battle Royale. In Japan, compulsory public education ceases at the end of the 9th grade. Beyond that, the students who wish to continue are pressured into bitter competition with one another, fighting and striving for places in the best schools, the best colleges. It is a dog-eat-dog arrangement that sees the few succeed at the price of the many; one that, ironically enough, often leads to the very violence that the adults so fear; to breakdown, physical and mental, and frequently to suicide. These outcomes are reflected very clearly in the actions of the students, once the rules of the Battle Royale are made plain to them. Some, terrifyingly, take to killing like ducks to water. Others are victims of the most helpless kind. Some play only defensively. Some refuse to play at all, killing themselves rather than killing others; while a few search frantically for a way to beat the odds, to take the battle to their tormentors, to win the game without killing. The overall attitude of the film itself is neatly encapsulated in the fate of one of the students, a boy called Motobuchi. Battle Royale is for the most past an intensely grim experience, but there is also a scattering of the blackest of humour, most particularly in the horrifyingly hilarious orientation video that explains to the kids the rules of the game. The video features a thoroughly charming and cheerful young lady who cannot possibly be described by any word other than “perky” – although I guarantee that you’ll never see perkiness put to more utterly perverse use. The sick comedy of our hostess’s brightly encouraging spiel is underscored all the more by its being interrupted by two shocking acts of violence, the first when Kitano hurls a knife into the head of a girl who has the temerity to ignore his interdiction against whispering, the second when the effectiveness of the exploding collars is graphically demonstrated. The general hysteria of the students following these incidents is interrupted by an outcry by Motobuchi, who yells at his distraught fellow students to shut up, so that he can hear the video. Later, the game well under way, Motobuchi suddenly erupts from some bushes, blazing away with a gun and shouting, “I’m going to survive – and get into a good school!” It is perhaps needless to say that….he does neither one nor the other….

Successful as this satire undoubtedly is, it must be confessed that the decision to set Battle Royale in a recognisable reality rather than in an imaginary future means that there are parts of the story that simply don’t make sense. In the world of the novel, the staging of this bloody contest can be rationalised in terms of a fascist administration finding a selection of sufficiently ruthless young people to become the next generation of leaders. In the world of the film, however, where the affirmed problems are a crumbling social fabric, skyrocketing unemployment, and youth in rebellion, it is hard – oh, let’s face it, impossible – to figure out what the slaughter is supposed to achieve. On the contrary. The problem children of this society are declared to be those who have boycotted school….so why pick on those who haven’t? Moreover, the selection of victims is, supposedly, random – meaning that the good are ultimately punished right along with, and to the same degree as, the bad; hardly a way of encouraging correct behaviour.

The other major flaw in Battle Royale as it stands is that no-one in Class B seems to be aware of the existence, let alone the implications, of the “Millennium Education Reform Act”. The film more or less opens on a profoundly disturbing note, with the media frenzy surrounding the winner of a previous year’s combat. The shot zooms in on a girl who is literally covered in blood. She does not look fifteen, or anywhere near it. She clutches a doll, emphasising her extreme youth, and as the cameras move in she smiles – showing us her braces. As an attack on the viewer’s sensibilities, this sequence is a masterpiece; as a piece of drama, it is wrong from beginning to end. How can the members of Class B be at the outset so blankly ignorant of what confronts them, if each year the Battle Royale is reported, dissected – perhaps even broadcast? And this raises perhaps the most unsettling question of all: just who is the audience for the Battle Royale? Were it not for that media frenzy, were the children not specifically told, “Your parents have been notified”, it would be possible to speculate that this is some kind of desperately sick underground event, a live snuff film, if you will, intended for the secret gratification of the older generation, with the eventual victims written off as just more of society’s drop-outs and criminals and runaways. But even in that event, it seems impossible to believe that the teenagers wouldn’t know of it, particularly given the screenplay’s emphasis upon the technological savvy of several of their number. (In any case, the orientation video alerts us to the existence of an official website, http://www.BR.com.jp.) We are therefore forced to accept that the Battle Royale is a legally sanctioned event staged for the entertainment of the public – which perhaps best explains why a school class is chosen as the combatants, rather than a random selection of young rebels. After all – what fun is there in watching strangers in battle, compared to that of watching close friends forced to betray one another, turn on one another, kill one another….?

Plot holes there are in Battle Royale, plenty of them; but alongside them are what are certainly deliberate ambiguities. From very early on the proceedings, it becomes apparent that there is a great deal more going on than we, or the kids themselves, are ever told. That the game is to some extent a fix is apparent from its early moments, when Class B recovers consciousness to find two “transfer students” in its midst, both of whom are several years older than the other combatants, and who display no surprise or shock at anything that transpires during the orientation. (That these two are later declared to have volunteered to participate also supports the notion of the Battle Royale as a public event.) During the supposedly random assignment of weapons, one of the ringers, Kawada, suddenly strides back into the room complaining that he has been given the wrong kit; he is promptly re-equipped. The other interloper, Kiriyama – who never speaks – is a psychopath pure and simple, cutting a bloody swathe through the unskilled and unprepared teenagers around him. Kawada later voices the opinion that he is there “for fun”, and Kiriyama’s unwavering grin supports this. Officially, we can only assume that he is there to ensure that the game is played out within its official timeframe, and to force those who are up to the challenge to take up their weapons and fight back. Kawada’s motives and status are harder to pin down. As the game progresses, the outsider chooses to enter into a kind of defensive alliance with Nanahara and Noriko, who are amongst those trying to find a way of beating the game without playing it. To them Kawada reveals that he is a previous winner of the Battle Royale, and also confesses his reason for playing again. However, given Kawada’s habit of contradicting everything else that he says about himself, the audience is wary of trusting him – and realises, too, that it might well behove Nanahara and Noriko to be a little less trusting of him themselves….

But the puzzle of Kiriyama and Kawada fades to near irrelevance beside the central mystery of Battle Royale, a mystery greater than even the game itself: the character of Kitano. It is impossible to get a grip on the exact role played in the story by the students’ former teacher. We can, however, recognise in him the very symbol of the elder generation, they who designed this most cruel of punishments. Kitano is, to put it mildly, one messed-up individual. His former students loathe him, and he returns the sentiment with interest. (Not entirely without cause, perhaps. Let me put it this way: I was a little mealy-mouthed up above, when I said that Kuninobu stabbed Kitano in the thigh….) His marriage is falling apart, and his own kid hates him as much as his students do. This much we know. What we do not know, is how he became involved in the Battle Royale in the first place, and what part he may have played in the supposedly chance selection of Class B. We are told nothing about the machinations surrounding the choosing and kidnapping of the yearly victims. The official stance is that it is entirely random, done by lottery, but there is certainly room to doubt this. As the children set out on their “field trip”, their current teacher, like Nanahara, notices with some disquiet the high number of soldiers along the roadside. Whether he is already aware of his students’ true destination we cannot know. That he objects to their selection we later learn, as we do the consequences of his act of defiance: his bloody and mutilated body is shown to the children as a means of terrifying them into compliance. Kitano’s arrival on the island is just a little too prompt, given that his locating, recruitment and transfer to the island takes only the period of time for which the children are unconscious. His authority over the military element involved in the staging of the game – who he treats with a brusqueness that borders on contempt – is also revealing. The impression we gain is that Kitano has been all along somehow involved behind the scenes of the Battle Royale; a suggestion strengthened towards the end of the film, with the intimation that he and the former winner, Kawada, if not know, at least know of each other. It is not difficult to imagine that, after his experiences with Class B as a group of 7th graders, Kitano quit teaching to pursue his revenge upon the younger generation by joining the administrators of the Battle Royale. Whether or not he actually arranged for the selection of his hostile former students as this year’s victims is moot, but by the end it is apparent that Kitano has been instrumental, not just in broadly fixing the game, but in fixing it in a manner that favours the survival of one particular participant. (There is a hint to this effect this early on, but no first time viewer would recognise its significance.) The ending of Battle Royale, as with much in this film, is darkly ambiguous. The final interpretation of Kitano’s behaviour, and of his choice of a worthy survivor, and indeed of that survivor’s ultimate fate, is left very much to the individual viewer.

The early scenes of Kitano and the students play out like every teacher’s deepest, darkest, sickest wish-fulfilment fantasy: his verbal abuse of them escalates swiftly into physical chastisement, and from there into fatal violence – and that for the heinous crime of whispering. That the character of Kitano comes across as mysterious rather than confusing; that he is by turns terrifying, appalling, and blackly funny; that by the end we might find him---well, a little sad, frankly, even a little sympathetic, is due entirely to the casting of Takeshi Kitano, who may well be the coolest human being on the planet. At any rate, he’s one of the few who can come across as limitlessly cool while wearing a tracksuit and stuffing cookies into his face. As the single significant adult in Battle Royale, Kitano is simply marvellous. He sells the concept of the Battle Royale – but he is not alone in selling the film itself. The young actors who play Class B are distressingly convincing. With forty-two students involved in the Battle Royale – however briefly that may be true for some of them – not every member of the young cast has a chance to make a lasting impression, but the screenplay is careful to give nearly all of them at least a moment to shine, and there is not one who lets the film down. In addition, the script does an excellent job in sketching character. While many of the teens are admittedly “types”, there is a dash of individuality about most of them, and the actors do a first rate job in conveying it. Battle Royale is unavoidably episodic, but a few of the students, or groups of students, do come into focus. Most of the emphasis is upon Nanahara and Noriko, first as a partnership, then in collaboration with Kawada; Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda and Taro Yamamoto, respectively, are solid and sympathetic as the three main young protagonists. Amongst the supporting cast, the stand-outs are Masanobu Ando, who plays the psychotic Kiriyama, and, in particular, Kou Shibasaki and Chiaki Kuriyama. (It’s an interesting psychological point, isn’t it, how often in a truly violent film, it is the women you remember?) In a few brief scenes, Chiaki Kuriyama gives real dimension to the character of Chigusa: an over-achiever, a prima donna, yet for all that a thwarted personality, in that the boy she has a crush on cares for someone else. In the midst of battle, Chigusa is confronted by the boy who has a thing for her. He foolishly tries the “Don’t you want to do it once before you die?” line on her, then still more foolishly threatens rape. The athletic Chigusa starts out promising to kick his ass; she ends by pulling a knife and going straight for the groin…. (Apart from Takeshi Kitano, Chiaki Kuriyama is probably the most recognisable face in Battle Royale: based on her performance here, Quentin Tarantino cast her as Go-Go Yubari in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Watching this scene, you can understand what he saw in her.) But effective as Kuriyama is in this sequence, her contribution pales before that of Kou Shibasaki, who as the malignant Mitsuko Souma is nothing short of terrifying. The girl’s bloody rampage, her enthusiastic slaughtering of her classmates, is not only the most disturbing aspect of the film as a whole, but she also is the focus of perhaps its single most disturbing moment – and all the more so, for its being so brief, so essentially thrown away – as we see Mitsuko shrugging herself back into her clothes, as she strolls away from the naked, mutilated bodies of two dead boys….

One of the reasons that Battle Royale is so very controversial is that it entirely avoided the standard American trick of casting twenty-somethings as teenagers: its children are children, on and off screen. Despite the extreme and terrifying nature of the situation in which they find themselves, the young characters cannot help but behave like the teenagers they are. (Most of what happens in Battle Royale is universally recognisable, but there are still a few touches that are entirely Japanese – such as Noriko’s fretting, in the midst of all the carnage, over whether or not it is proper for her to call Nanahara by his first name. Answer: it isn’t; and after a single slip she refrains from doing so again until late in the story, when the boy collapses under the weight of his accumulated injuries.) As they are handed their weapon kits and sent out into the night, the boys of Class B tend to make gestures of defiance; the girls, gestures of friendship. Ultimately, neither stance will last very long, nor do anyone very much good. Out in the open, loners remain loners; cliques form alliances – at least temporarily. With weapons in their hands, with all restraints removed, with a deadline on their very lives, all the passions and tempers, loves and hates, that simmer within any given group of fifteen-year-olds suddenly erupt with deadly force. Almost instantaneously, I hate you becomes I hate you, I wish you were dead, and then I hate you, I’m going to kill you. Some of the teenagers revel in the chance for some bloody score-settling. Others try everything to avoid it, only to succumb in the end to fear or to panic. Where Battle Royale truly terrifies is in the fact that there is nothing here that is not psychologically convincing – nor, for that matter, anything that your average teenager doesn’t know already: that you can’t trust anybody; that being cool is worth dying for; and that love exists purely to get you killed…. A number of the more important characters, as they die, are grated a kind of epitaph, their lives summed up in their own words. In this, even Mitsuko achieves a measure of pathos, as she speaks not merely for herself, but for life’s eternal runners-up everywhere: “I just didn’t want to be a loser any more….”

Which brings us to the issue of the violence in Battle Royale, one of the few films of recent years to draw fire on that basis alone, rather than for its sexual content, or for a combination of both. Violent the film certainly is: graphically, confrontingly, unapologetically; but whether it should be condemned on that score is another matter. The violence alone is not the problem, of course: it is the age of the people committing it that bothers people. It is hardly surprising that a film about schoolchildren murdering one another provoked a reaction; nor that the reaction was knee-jerk rather than considered. The question is the eternal, and possibly unanswerable, one of whether dealing with subject matter like this automatically qualifies a film as “exploitation”. My own feeling is that the issue is not one of content, but of tone and intention. The violence in Battle Royale is never other than entirely serious. There is a measure of black humour in the film, certainly, but it is never at the expense of its victims. On the contrary, the deaths of its frightened, bewildered young characters are, as they should be, painful and upsetting. It’s a sad commentary on our society that a film that treats violence, youth violence, as a matter of the utmost gravity should attract so much more condemnation than those that treat it as a form of cheap entertainment. Consider, after all, a particular kind of popular horror film: body count film, dead teen pic, spam in a cabin--- Whichever term you prefer, the inference is clear: that most, if not all, of the so-called “characters” in these films exist merely to be butchered. This is never the case with Battle Royale. There is, literally, a “body count” in this film: each time a death occurs it is noted in graphics across the screen; total killings are announced periodically; but in every case, the victim is identified by name. The violence is never casual, never faceless, never painless, never fun. There is no moment when the viewer, no matter how beer-soaked he or she may be, might be expected to react with a fist in the air and a cry of, “Yeah!” This is not to say that there might not be a sub-set of viewers who get off on the sight of school-uniformed young Japanese girls blazing away with machine-guns; but that’s their problem, not the film’s. Battle Royale is a serious film with a serious point to make; only those who haven’t bothered to look past its admittedly gore-drenched surface could dismiss it as mere exploitation.

A viewing of Battle Royale makes for an interesting kind of personality test, particularly in terms of the individual choosing an identification figure. The audience is certainly encouraged to identify with various of the characters – but given that the film adheres with absolute ruthlessness to the principle of anyone can die at any time, doing so can be an unsettling experience. For myself, I found that philosophically I was most in sympathy with Utsumi, one of the girls who falls victim to the lighthouse panic massacre, who dies wailing, “Why were we so stupid? Stupid!” In practical terms, however, I suspect that my fate in a Battle Royale would be very much like that of Tendo, the game’s very first victim, who gets an arrow through the throat before she’s even begun to grasp what’s happening to her. Ultimately, of course, the issue is not who you or I might identify with, but who the film itself considers worthy to survive. As soon as the game begins, the teens divide up according to attitude, some playing offensively, some defensively, and some refusing to play at all. Which of these choices will allow someone to make it out alive? If this was an American film, we’d probably know from the beginning who the winner would be; here--- Here we may hope, but can never be certain. And in this respect, another thought occurs to me: wouldn’t it be fascinating if every country in the world made its own version of Battle Royale; if each nation were made to declare who it considered had earned the right to survive? If, that is, they were honest about it…. I am afraid, very much afraid, that the winner, or winners, under these circumstances, would not be the pacifistic Nanahara and Noriko, or the intelligent and resourceful Mimura, who uses his technological skills to attack those staging the Battle Royale, or the level-headed and courageous Kawada, who is willing to kill when it is necessary, but rather – Kiriyama and Mitsuko. I can picture all too clearly an ending in which these two young psychopaths walk off into the sunset together, blood-soaked and triumphant – and take the first opportunity that presents itself to cut each other’s throats…. The fact that Battle Royale raises questions such as these lifts it, to my mind, well out of the realm of the pure exploitation movie. It may not be a great film – there are a few too many holes in its fabric for that – but it is an unforgettable one: a film that gets deep inside your head and does some serious mischief to the psyche. It is outrageous, confronting, and thoughtful all at once; and as such, a fitting coda to the equally outrageous, confronting and thoughtful career of Kinji Fukasaku.