Every now and then a movie comes along that challenges the limits of what violent content can be shown on the big screen. Somehow, many of these movies often come from Asia. Make of that what you will, but the fact is in the year 2000 the Japanese film Battle Royale went where no American movie would ever dare go. The concept of school children killing each other on an island is of course a demented satire, full of exaggerated violence and gallons of blood spilled by an arsenal of weapons, but for 11 years it was never released in the United States or Canada. Controversial? That was actually a selling point.
It took me a while to get to this movie, but I definitely heard about it for years. I first saw the trailer at a cinema while living in South America, but since I was around 13 years old at the time I was way too young to see it. Given the brief glimpses of violence of what I saw in the trailer I am not sure I wanted to anyway. By that time I was in college in Quebec City in 2004 the film had of course gained a cult audience. Some of my fellow students were playing clips of the movie in a classroom when there were no teachers around and laughed at the violence, even if the characters on screen weren’t much older than them. Finally, in the year 2012 after my brother gave me an iTunes card for my birthday I decided it was about time to see what all the fuss was about when Battle Royale was available to rent for 99 cents. This was the same year The Hunger Games movie came out, and although there are thematic similarities I quickly realized we are talking about two different beasts here.
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku and written by his son, Battle Royale is set in a dystopian world where chaos in schools has reached an alarming level. They say kids today have no respect and teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) truly believes this after a student randomly stabs him in a hallway. One year later Kitano’s class are on their way to a very special field trip. Their bus is gassed and when the students wake up they are surprised to find themselves in a class with their former teacher and with collars around their necks. Kitano explains they have been chosen to participate in a special government-sponsored game in which they have three days to kill each other, much to their disbeliefs. To drive the point home, he throws a knife to a student’s head because she wouldn’t stop talking.
To explain the rules of the game, Kitano plays a surprisingly cheerful video. As if this was just a game of laser tag, a Japanese girl instructs with a smile that the students are on an island divided in different danger zones, they each have one weapon of varying efficiency, and whoever is left standing after three days wins the game. Break the rules, and the collar around their necks explodes. Realizing the nightmare is real, the students take their weapons and make a run for it.
The first deaths happen just the way you think they would. Some students shoot each other by accidents, a few decide to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff, and quite a few get killed by the ones who actually know what they are doing. Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando) actually asked to be transferred to the island because he enjoys this game and is frighteningly good at killing people. When he shows up, you better pray you can run faster than the guy next to you.
As time goes by, the surviving students spread out into different groups. Old grudges and petty jealousies suddenly become motives for murder. A girl who was a bitch in middle school is now a psychotic who will stab you in the crotch with a machete. Alliances are formed only to be broken when a shot is fired by accident. Luckily there are a few smart ones who decide to be smart and try to game the system by hacking the island’s mainframe and possibly getting those damn collars off.
So what is the whole point of this madness? Is it an extreme version of the conflict between students and authority figures? Is it a satire of reality television? Perhaps the filmmakers, and the author of the original manga on which it is based, merely wanted to shock people with what human beings could be capable of when pushed beyond the breaking point.
Either way, Battle Royale certainly deserves its cult status. The acting varies in quality with each actor, but the story and unapologetic violence takes viewers on one hell of a ride. It leaves you bruised, battered, and yes, even laughing.