Battle Royale (2000)

Made with a cast of thirty-five-year-old cowboys, soldiers or gangsters, Battle Royale would be no more shocking than any other post-Peckinpah action bloodbath, and many violent dystopian satires, from Peter Watkins's Punishment Park (1970) through Turkey Shoot (1982) and No Escape (1994) to Series 7: The Contenders (2001), have covered roughly the same ground. However, making most of the killers and victims schoolchildren in their mid-teens demonstrates that it is still possible to be transgressive, as roughly forty uniformed, apparently ordinary kids are murdered in familiar, blood-bursting action picture manner: riddled with bullets from automatic weapons, throats slashed or blasted out, stabbed, shot with arrows, jumping from great heights, decapitated with a samurai sword, blown up, gruesomely poisoned. As in Lord of the Flies, an obvious precedent, we are in the territory of allegory rather than a study of real-world child violence. This class does not represent the real-world likes of the Littleton, Colorado trenchcoat mafia, the killers of Jamie Bulger or genocidal teenage Khmer Rouge soldiers but are ordinary kids, representing people we are or might be, and their actions under extraordinary circumstances are supposed to expose the range of human behaviour on the edge of societal madness. The film balances its minx-cum-sociopath and hacker-terrorist with kids who refuse to accept what is going on or simply hide out and hope it'll all go away. An American movie like The Hills Have Eyes (1978) posits that we would all become murderers if threatened with murder, but this Japanese film insists that sometimes we would choose to die rather than kill.

The Koshun Takami novel on which the film is based isn't set in the future, but an alternative present (like Stephen King's somewhat similar book The Long Walk and the often-misinterpreted Series 7), predicated on a Japanese victory in World War II that has created a society where Battle Royale seems to make sense. The film skips over the set-up, with some statistics about unemployment and kid crime that don't sink in, and then delivers a few preliminary jabs as narrator Shuya comes home to find his unemployed father has committed suicide and soon-killed tearaway Nobu stabs apparently sympathetic teacher Kitano in the school hallway. Then, on the bus as they are supposedly taken on a school trip, we meet the class who have been selected for this cruel contest, and it is established that they are neither particularly innocent nor especially deserving of this punishment. Nobu, the only guilty party, is killed off quickly, and the chill sets in. Most other films in this sub-genre are primarily satires at the expense of crass media, and early on we do get a hideous moment as a bloodied little girl with braces and a Norma Bates smile is hailed a celebrity for surviving the last BR and a hilariously perky instructional video for mass murder by a pouting Japanese MTV-type hostess, but this is not an avenue the film chooses to explore. Though monitored by the game officials, and a sad-eyed but brutalised Takeshi Kitano, the kids are on their own, with no rules and only their own characters. An especially horrific aspect of the premise is that the point of BR is not to entertain sadistic mobs, but to teach children a lesson.

The film has to keep a count of who has died, with print-outs on screen and regular announcements, and with so many characters it can't get close to them all. The obvious central figures, meek Noriko and numb Shuya, are less vivid than some of the shorter-lived characters, and the most effective moments in the film are vignettes: the take-charge head girl type cheerfully organising her clique to survive, but everything going wrong as girls with ordinary grievances ('why do you have to be the leader all the time?') reach for guns; contrasting moments as boys approach girls upon whom they have crushes, with one trying to bully a girl into liking him through death threats and another being shot dead by the girl he has just confessed his love to ('but you never even spoke to me'); the revelation that Kiriyama, who sports a sharp suit and Johnny Rotten hair, has entered the contest for fun; sickle-wielding teen bitch Mitsuko's assumption of the role of serial murderess, paying back all the real and imaginary sleights she has suffered in school ('I didn't want to be a loser any more'). Perhaps because it's impossible to rationalise the situation as credible and perhaps because taking it deadly seriously would make the film unwatchably grim, veteran director Kinji Fukasaku plays a vein of very black humour, with the wry, impassive, hard-to-fathom Kitano acting as if this were a normal school activity, as classical music is played over the tannoy and updates on the class's progress read out. As the scrambling of character name and actor suggests, Kitano is our anchor in this picture, a familiar presence with an inimitable stance, and his poised, perfect death scene tells us we must take Battle Royale seriously but not literally.

First Published In: Sight and Sound vol.11 no.9 (September 2001) pp.37-38 (UK)

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