Battle Royale (2001*) Review (R)
I haven’t seen Battle Royale in about a decade and since it was available on a certain streaming site, I figured I’d re-watch it and write a review. It was originally released in Japan in 2000, made it to some film festivals in the US in 2001 and was obtainable on DVD (for the west) maybe a year or two after that . I probably saw it for the first time in 2003. My memory of the film was that I was expecting something ‘shocking’ and then discovering that the promise of ultra-violence was hollow. Film reviewers were over-selling the film in their desires to be on the film’s bandwagon. There’s a little snottiness to some movie critics (and some fans) in feeling superior when they’ve seen a foreign film (in this case Japanese) that’s supposed to be ‘cutting edge’ (generally meaning that the film contains ‘shocking’ violence or sexuality). There’s that feeling that they’re in some special club for having seen the film and that you and the general populace of earth are artistically deprived for having not seen it. You may even be a bad person. These types of films are elevated not because of their quality, but because the people get to remain in that select club of those who HAVE seen it, and remain in that club they shall, because mainstream America is never going to see this. It’s one of those films that had (has) a certain bit of notoriety, and comes with the prerequisite tag of “it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before”. And you know what that means… Well, if you don’t know what that means; it means you’re going to be disappointed to some capacity.
The premise of juveniles forced by adults to kill one another sounds more brutal than the film is actually able to achieve in tone. It is dark with its exploding collars and kids forced to kill for survival on a desert island retreat, but overall it’s a bit of a letdown in terms of quality and I don’t just mean that it’s not as shocking as it’s supposed to be. It’s all over the place where story is concerned. It has far too many characters and far too many deaths of incidental characters. Many of the characters you’re supposed to care about are killed so quickly that their deaths have little impact other than it’s just another generic Japanese school kid buying the farm. You never get to know them. And combine that with the fact that this IS a subtitled Japanese film where you’re going to have to keep track of no less than 44 Japanese teenagers (dressed in school uniforms) with names like Shuya Nanahara, Noriko Nakagawa, Shibori Nakanatsubishi, Fumiyo Fujiyôshi, Shinji Mimura, Takako Chigusa (and I made up one of those. Can you tell which one?)… Well, most Americans aren’t going to get through this, even without the elements of the ‘graphic’ subject matter… But if you’re a big time movie fan like myself, then you might. That’s probably why you’re reading this (hi, how are you?). So far, this ‘review’ probably sounds like I was severely disappointed in this and that’s partially true, BUT…
Battle Royale IS a film with interesting ideas (and nerdy ‘kewl’ factor). Director Kinji Fukasaku had a long, successful career with films like ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ on his resume (he took over directing the Japanese POV from Akira Kurosawa, no less). This was one of his last films (the very last being the BR sequel, I think). There are notable actors in this, my favorite being Takeshi Kitano who was in the great 2003 remake of Zatoichi. Tarantino fans will recognize Chiaki Kuriyama. But, despite a somewhat interesting premise, at least adequate acting and a veteran director, the movie flounders for a variety of reasons. I remember reading about the manga(!) that inspired this (with the central character opening his backpack to find that his weapon was a pair of scissors), but it sounded much darker than what the movie turned out to be. The idea that you’re a mostly upstanding citizen/teenager that is placed on an island with an exploding collar around my neck, with other much less upstanding teens that are heavily armed with submachine guns and all that you have is a pair of scissors to defend yourself with? Crap. That’s a frightening predicament. Forget about being shot at, could you really be given something as domestic as a pair of scissors and told ” kill or be killed?” I can’t imagine the horror of the REALITY of that. But maybe, that’s why the film let me down a little. I don’t think they could have come up with situations more horrible than I already had in my head. I’m no gorehound, but for this story to work for ME, I think I needed at least ‘Scanners’ style brutality. I needed genuine exploding collars, not just fake blood squibs, but maybe that’s just me…. And maybe, I’m ahead of myself.
The story has a helping dose of absurdity to get across its ideas. The setup is that in future Japan, the adult population has become so frustrated with the behavior of young adults that there is a law passed where each year a class of unruly students are selected to be an example of sorts. They are gassed, whisked away to a desert island, have explosive collars placed around their necks, given bags of survival gear, thrown into the wilderness, and forced to engage in murder against one another until only survivor remains… Mmmmm… okay. The ideas behind it (I think) center on the trepidation of adults that they are losing the new generation and the enormous (sometimes unreasonable) pressure that those same adults place upon the young. You know, the “Darn kids. We’d LIKE to kill ’em, but I suppose we shouldn’t” kind of mentality.
The movie begins with a typical teen named Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) who comes home one day to find his dad has committed suicide. He is naturally crushed by this and sent away to the care of the state. At school, a friend named Noriko (Aki Maeda) arrives late to her class, which is empty. There are no other students attending, only her dejected teacher Kitano. He walks out only to be stabbed by Koninobu… Still with me? I know; the names… I guess if you’re Japanese it’s like remembering ‘Bob’ and ‘Tom’ and ‘Heather’, but I’m not Japanese, so it’s difficult. Anyway, Noriko picks up the knife that Koninobu stabbed the teacher with (and hides it). Kitano regards her and leaves the school for good, now a broken man.
One year later, Noriko, Shuya and Koninobu and 39 of their classmates are on a field trip bus ride. Guess who’s going to be this year’s lucky Battle Royale selection? They wake up to find they are on a desert island with explosive collars around their necks. Kitano (played by Takeshi Kitano oddly enough) is now somehow in charge of the Battle Royale program. The kids are a little unruly at first until he kills one of his former students with a knife. He also demonstrates the exploding collar on his old friend Koninobu (at this point I again have to point out : no exploding heads a la Scanners. Just a bloody neck. Rats). After Kitano has their full attention, he introduces them to an ‘X-factor’ of 2 added juvenile delinquents, one especially deranged. Then they’re given their bags of survival gear (one of which has a random ‘weapon’) and released into the killing fields.
Shuya is reluctant to participate, with Noriko outright rejecting any part of it. There is also some that choose to commit suicide at just the idea of what their situation is. Then there are those that fully embrace it using submachine guns, assorted blades and handguns to dole out death, both apathetically and (in many cases) with relish. Shuya (running for his life), meanwhile, checks his bag to find that his weapon is a soup pot lid (obviously a change from the manga!). From there you get all of the alliances, double crosses and misunderstandings that lead to violence as you would probably expect , with Shuya, Noriko and a handful of others trying to find an alternative to the ‘game’s inevitable conclusion. That there are so many participants and that the writer and director feel the need to shoe EACH and EVERY one of them is one of the biggest flaws of the movie. Fukasaku may have claimed that he was trying to show how we get numbed by the increasing amount of onscreen violence or something, but that doesn’t wash with me. The deaths are mostly of faceless extras and story-wise, it’s just repetitive (And there’s like 40 of ’em. 40.). I think fewer characters would have placed a little more emphasis on what’s being lost.
There are also some puzzling episodes in the film that don’t seem logical, especially in what the characters are concerned with much of the time. The story is like typical manga in the respect that it dwells upon not the violence, but who thinks who is ‘cute’. They’re wearing exploding collars, forced to kill one another, but every time a group of girls appeared together onscreen they were more concerned about their various crushes and envies. Guys, too, I guess. There were moments, also, where it didn’t seem very well thought out. There is one particular moment where Kitano shows up with an umbrella and a girl with a loaded weapon simply runs away. At the very least there should have been a hostage situation at that point, because if that had been me, it’s game over because Kitano, the orchestrator of all the insanity, takes a bullet… But I digress.
And then there’s that goofy middle school level painting…. Geez. From that point the film gets a little goofy… No, it gets a LOT more goofy than it already is, especially when it comes to the character of Kitano. THEN, when the film finds a place to end naturally, the director instead decides to offer up, not one, but multiple dream sequences involving a number of the main characters. It just goes on and on and on, refusing to go quietly (kind of like my reviews). It seems Fukasaku wanted to reminisce about the film before the credits roll and he lets the audience move on. None of this completely derails the film, though. Battle Royale IS an interesting Japanese export, even if it IS a little overrated. The themes of the pressures, expectations and frustrations of adults on the young is a story worth exploring, it’s just too bad the movie is all over the place. Supposedly, it had no influence on the American young adult series (or the recent movie) ‘The Hunger Games‘, which is a little hard to believe since there are so many similarities. That one corrected a lot of the problems that this had, but it has its own shortcomings. This is worth seeing if you’re a fan of films that aren’t exactly mainstream. It has science fiction elements with satire and social commentary. Beneath all of the bloodspilling it does have a little to say, even if what it’s saying is a bit scrambled.