Battle Royale (2000)
I often feel that many of the best films these days are found not in Hollywood but in the diverse area of world cinema. I have watched films from across the globe over the last decade or so but, for me, the ultimate masterpiece comes from Japan in the form of Battle Royale. Based on Koushun Takami’s debut novel, Battle Royale tackles a controversial subject but still emerges as a great film in its own right. It would be easy to imagine many audiences being alienated by this film. The idea of a class of students, chosen at random, being left on an island and given three days to kill each other was not something I initially felt would appeal to me. Asian cinema can be extreme, in some cases too much for me, but there is much more to Battle Royale than the difficult premise.
Kinji Fukasaku’s film retains the essence of the controversial book. The film is set in the 21st century when Japanese society is in disarray, unemployment is rising and students at schools are worse than they have ever been. As a last resort the government passes the BR Act (Battle Royale) which ordains that each year a random class from a random school is abducted by the military and forced to partake of a cruel game. Each student is permitted to take their school bag, food supplies and also a second bag containing a random item which may be useful – a gun, a samurai sword – or something useless – a fan, a pot lid or binoculars. The class of students are released on a remote island and given three days to kill each other. If after three days more than one student is alive then they are all killed. For tracking purposes and to ensure everyone abides by the rules, the students each have collars with an explosive inside. To prevent anyone taking cover on the island, there are designated zones with a teacher back at headquarters announcing via speakers which zones are the danger ones at specific times of day. Should a student be in a zone during this time then their collars will detonate! The same fate awaits them if they try to leave the island.
The film keeps a counter of how many students are left as the story progresses and it becomes ever more gripping as only a handful remain. Not all students’ fates are accounted for but the film does impressively reveal the majority of endings for the classmates. Some refuse to partake of the game and choose suicide, others form groups and try to evade other students, but many quite worryingly have no issue with resorting to murder to ensure their own survival. The film is violent but what is intriguing about it is although the content is controversial I find it fascinating how these many individuals respond to their predicaments. In the Roman amphitheatres slaves were forced to fight to the death for entertainment and here we have a similar scenario. A class of loyal friends, bullies, couples and love struck teenagers are each able to face up to their separate grievances. Some students have the chance to get back at the bullies, while others decide they can now tell a fellow student that they have longed to be with them. Friendships are also ruined as suspicion and paranoia take over individual groups.
Although the film reveals the fates of many students the primary focus is on two of the classmates, Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda). Shuya sees his best friend killed before the game has even begun by former teacher, Kitano (Beat Takeshi Kitano), but he doesn’t resort to violence himself, instead choosing to protect Noriko. Shuya and Noriko join with the rest of the class in a fight for survival but have the added complication of two other participants – Shogo (Taro Yamamoto) and Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando). Shogo is something of a mystery but Kiriyama is in the game purely for bloodshed and is a relentless killing machine.
Battle Royale is fast-paced and action-packed once the students have been released on the island. No sooner has Shuya left the army headquarters than he comes under attack. There are some brilliant exchanges particularly where the ruthless Kiriyama is involved and although many of the students are self-serving in trying to survive, others sacrifice themselves to save others. As the number of students is gradually whittled down over the designated three days the audience will be intrigued how the film turns out in the end. There can be only one winner.
The arrival of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy caused some dispute amongst ardent Battle Royale fans who saw the struggle of Katniss in the arena as a blatant copy of Takami’s novel. I have read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire but am yet to read Mockingjay or see the films but still feel comfortable enough to weigh in on this discussion. In all honesty I believe that Suzanne Collins’ books are her own concept and that there are enough differences between her work and Battle Royale to suggest this. Others have gone so far as to say that Battle Royale and The Hunger Games owe a lot to Stephen King’s The Running Man. Maybe so, but you could argue that 70s cult classic Death Race 2000 could also be something of an influence depicting millions tuning in to watch slaughter as a group of drivers race across America and mow down pedestrians for game points. I’m sure there are other examples out there too.
As much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games, I do have a far greater preference for Battle Royale. It is a shame that the majority of film fans will know The Hunger Games but many will never have heard of Battle Royale. This is often the way with many wonderful films from world cinema. They are remade in Hollywood, very often poorly, and some people believe them to be original concepts. I’ve always found it particularly sad that Scorsese’s The Departed bagged the Oscar glory while Infernal Affairs, the film it is a remake of, is often overlooked. If you watched them side by side, you’d struggle to find many differences!
I can’t end an appraisal of Battle Royale on such a negative note though. Both the book and the film are classics of their medium. Battle Royale may be controversial in its depiction of senseless violence and a modern society brought to its knees, but it remains an undoubted masterpiece of world cinema with a large but memorable cast all contributing to the film’s countless moments of excellence. The Hunger Games wins out in the popularity stakes, no question, but Battle Royale is the hidden gem waiting to be discovered by many more film fans across the globe.
Latest posts by Dave Brown (see all)
- Guest Post: 5 Great TV Series to Binge Watch this Summer - July 13, 2016
- The Bleaklisted Movies: V for Vendetta - December 1, 2015
- DigiWriMo (Day 30): DIGIWRIMO #digiwrimo - November 30, 2015