In the near future, Japan’s economy has collapsed with unemployment soaring to 15 percent and gangs of youths acting in open defiance of authority figures- a particular ‘no no’ in Japanese culture. Although it is never specified whether this is a global issue, Japan has responded to the impending social catastrophe by passing the Battle Royale (or ‘BR’) Law, requiring that each year a ninth grade class be randomly selected and sent to a remote island where they’ll be forced to kill one another with a variety of weapons until only one student remains. Any student refusing to participate will be killed.
It’s a premise that promises a subversive smashing of taboos as children are killed on screen. But… it’s a fairly standard dystopian conceit beefed up by including children. The death of a child on screen is a social pressure point that retains its shock value despite repetition.
The film aroused both domestic and international controversy and was either banned outright or deliberately excluded from distribution in many countries. However, it was a mainstream domestic blockbuster and became one of the ten highest grossing films in Japan.
As tasteless as the premise is, it also has potential for satire, especially when it comes to technologically savvy children and how scary they can be for adults. Parents often respond to that fear by condescending to them: short-changing a child’s capacity for understanding as well as for cruelty.
The notion of children running around a creepy island gunning each other down can certainly resonate with a world that’s haunted by problematic gun-control laws, as well as the school shootings that periodically disturb our illusions of stability and sanity.
Battle Royale squanders its considerable potential with a harsh juxtaposition between the smugly leering opening scene- involving last year’s smirking bloodsoaked winner- and a temporary trip into a moony, melodramatic mood that’s meant, one assumes, to reflect the dreams and fears of your typical moony, melodramatic 15 year old.
But the romanticism doesn’t mesh with the show-off nihilism of the opening and both distract from the ultimate story, which is of the current class that’s subjected to the Battle Royale.
This poor class is let into the bad news by a grave former teacher who explains the rules of the game to the new contestants while casually killing a few of them for insubordination— death staged here as a punchline. Each child must then snatch up a backpack containing food, a map, and a weapon of choice. And then flee into the wilds of the island! … and slaughter each other!
Unlike The Hunger Games, the ruthless opportunism of TV doesn’t appear to be the subject of the film’s satire, as the battle itself doesn’t appear to be televised. The last 30 minutes are awful, inexplicably morphing into an inspirational tale of transcending abuse. We’re supposed to suddenly feel empathy for the monstrous teacher previously shown as all too willing to kill his former students in the name of bureaucratic nonsense.
The film’s director, Kinji Fukasaku, decided to direct the film after connecting with the novel it is based upon. 15-year-old Fukasaku was made to work in a munitions factory during World War 2. When the factory came under artillery fire in July 1945 the children were unable to escape and dived under each other for cover. The survivors were forced to dispose of the corpses and at that point realised their government was lying to them.
THAT is the film I want to see. I enjoy the stylisation of Battle Royale- it’s just missing a beating heart.