When a number of Hollywood studios tried to license Battle Royale for distribution in the States, they were all rejected. Maybe it was for their own good: This is easily the most violent and disturbing “mainstream” movie made in any country. I doubt any American studio would ever consider financing this film — no, not even the Hollywood that created films as challenging as Fight Club and Requiem for a Dream. Battle Royale, directed by veteran Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku, goes much further than either of those movies. But somehow it never does so without wholly alienating its audience — in fact, the film's smash-hit status in Japan blind-sided both audiences and critics.
The film’s premise, drawn from an equally controversial best-selling novel (and, later, manga) of the same name, is fairly simple. Sometime in the future, Japan teeters on the brink of collapse. Kids boycott school with appalling regularity; teachers are stabbed in classrooms; adult resentment of teenagers is skyrocketing. To counter this, the government passes the Battle Royale Act. Under the Act, a class of 42 kids is chosen at random once a year, abducted, and placed on a deserted island. Each student is given rations, a map, and a variety of weapon (also randomly selected). The goal: Kill everyone else.
The fun doesn’t end there. Everyone’s also been outfitted with an electronic collar, which can be detonated by remote-control (blowing off the victim’s head a la Deadlock). At the end of three days, if more than one person is left alive, everyone dies — giving the students that much more of an incentive to destroy each other.
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? How is inciting a random population of students to kill each other supposed to do anything for the larger problem of social disintegration? People have argued this premise makes no sense, and called that a flaw in the film. My argument, and I think Fukasaku’s as well, is that it’s not supposed to make sense; this is the movie’s whole point. If this plan did make sense, that would confer upon it a legitimacy it does not deserve. The movie is designed to satirize the way adults scapegoat children for societal ills, and how their overreactions to the way kids behave is often worse than anything the kids could come up with. Of course, most adults — most American adults — will have trouble getting past their memories of Columbine to see the movie for what it is. They will probably condemn it as irresponsible and sickening, and the very people who would benefit best from the film’s message will most likely never see it.
Battle Royale opens with a typical class of kids being selected. The class’s teacher, Kitano (played by Beat Takeshi, who seems to be in just about every movie I pick up these days), greets them as they are herded by soldiers into a ramshackle classroom somewhere on the island. The kids are of course appalled, and Kitano’s hard-nosed response to their angry insubordination is to murder one of them right there. “Oops,” he says, “that’s against the rules, isn’t it?” The rules are explained to them via a hilariously inappropriate training video, featuring a perky young announcerette who acts like she’s selling car insurance.
Many of the kids are as you would expect them to be: cliquish, self-absorbed, and scared to death. Some of them band together — the girls have one clique, the boys another — and try to arrange truces. Some of them, like a kill-crazy transfer student, are simply out to gun everyone else down by any means possible. The movie has an excellent sense of how kids turn on each other, viciously: there’s a scene where an outsider’s meddling causes a group of girls to slaughter each other in the course of mere seconds.
Eventually a couple of faces emerge from the chaos: a boy (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and girl, (Aki Maeda) enamored of each other, who form a tentative alliance with a third student. Does he know more about the game than the others? If so, why? There are many surprises that develop through the second half of the film, some of them concerning the characters themselves and some of them about the game. Without spoiling anything, I will let on that the game is definitely not what it seems, and that there are not one but several possible angles to what is going on. The movie wisely lets us choose the angles that we find the most credible.
And yes, it probably goes without saying that the movie is violent. The kids shoot, stab, strangle, decapitate, immolate, drown, beat, electrocute and poison each other. There’s no cutting away from any of the violence; we see each killing in full, brutal detail. Anything less than that would be a sham on the movie’s intentions. The movie’s jet-black sense of humor is underscored by title cards after each massacre that tells us who just died and how many are left. You may laugh at it, but you’d feel bad for laughing — and that would be exactly the point. There are not many movies that can pull this sort of thing off without feeling hypocritical — in fact, the sequel to Battle Royale made this exact mistake, and ended up being everything the first movie neatly avoided.
Then there is the question of the film’s ending. I will not reveal it here, of course; that would be criminal. But they’ve found exactly the ending they needed to comment on the rest of the movie’s intentions, and make it more than just a spectacle where the right people all get gunned down. If anything, the movie is a refutation of the very idea that the way to fix social problems is to line the right bastards up against the wall and shoot them dead, because eventually you run out of bastards but not bullets, and soon you go looking for some more.