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Battle Royale

Battle Royale

By Arpad Lukacs • April 15th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Toei Company

Original release: December 16th 2000
Running time: 114 minutes

Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese with English subtitles

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writers: Kinji Fukasaku, Koushun Takami (novel)

Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto, Masanobu Ando, Kou Shibasaki

As a teenager, I often thought of my parents as my enemies. As harsh as it might sound, I don’t consider this particularly unusual. First of all, as a teenage boy, I wanted to show my peers that I’m a tough guy by distancing myself from my parents as much as possible. After all, a ‘real man’ doesn’t need mom and daddy. Besides, my parents had those things called ‘rules’ which I didn’t particularly like.

So began the lying, the deception and other forms of rebellion. I spent my summers leaving home as early as possible and returning as late as possible – I wanted to be anywhere but home. While I occasionally needed something from my parents, which had an inevitable effect on my relationship with them, I had nothing but contempt for my teachers. I was never a good student in primary school; they wanted to change me and I hated them for that.

Battle Royale

Only in high school I started to realise that studying can be interesting and teachers can be friends. But to draw up a scenario where a growing number of students feel contempt and hatred for the older generation which then gradually becomes mutual is most certainly as sinister as it is fascinating.

This conflict between old and young is the dystopian social backdrop for Kinji Fukasaku’s final film Battle Royale which is based on Koushun Takami’s novel. The picture painted in the film is a rather dark one but feels weirdly and increasingly familiar. The ongoing recession, Occupy and Tea Party movements and especially the London Riots in 2011 make Battle Royale feel like this story doesn’t play in an all-that-distant future.

The film starts with a presentation of some facts and figures, showing that Japan is a nation in decline. With 15% unemployment, this fictional Japan is hardly different from the average of western nations today, with several European countries such as Spain and Greece struggling with worse conditions.

Battle Royale

Unlike the sudden surge of misbehaving youth during the London Riots that calmed as quickly as it had emerged in its expression of violence, vandalism and looting, the young people of Battle Royale show a much more organised and consistent approach in their expression of discontent. With 800 000 students boycotting school, the issue now belongs more to the world of politics than to law enforcement. Afraid of its own youth, the Japanese government passes a new law: the Millennium Educational Reform Act AKA the BR Act.

Japanese middle school class 3-B is the one that falls victim to the new law when they are all gassed and kidnapped by the military on a school trip after completing their studies. As they wake up in a briefing room wearing remote-controlled and explosive collars, their former teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) tells them they are to participate in Battle Royale. The rules are simple: They have to kill each other until only one survivor remains. They are all given backpacks with various items and weapons, and off they go – to a weekend of survival on a deserted island.

The story doesn’t focus on any student in particular but Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) get the most screen time as they begin to fall in love, and later encounter mysterious transfer student Shogo Kawada (Taro Yamamoto) who has an agenda on his own, apart from just surviving the game.

Battle Royale

We see students coping with their predicament in different ways; some commit suicide in their hopelessness, others group together to increase their chances while some try to find a way to beat the system and ensure the survival of everyone. Another student, Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), serves as the traditional lone villain gleefully murdering everyone in his way.

While Battle Royale has a thought-provoking premise, it doesn’t do much to explore the concept of social conflict between old and young. Much of the film consists of a long sequence of gruesome murders occasionally interrupted by awkward melodrama. I didn’t really care much for the students as they are either reminiscent of comic book villains – like Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki), the femme fatale of Battle Royale – or are engulfed in exaggerated emotions that made me feel like I was watching a soap opera. Since much of the film is about nothing more than survival on the island, characters we can relate to would be very important and Battle Royale falls short on that.

Battle Royale

The film also has rather obvious plot holes. We first meet class 3-B on a school bus beginning their field trip, having an evidently blissful relationship with their teacher – in a world that had been described to have a grave conflict between school-boycotting students and teachers. The first scene in Battle Royale shows excited media interest in the winner of the previous game, and it is revealed through dialogue that there have been several games prior to the one we are watching. Yet the kidnapped students know nothing about the games or the BR Act. These and other contradictions made it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the film.

Nevertheless, in the year 2012 Battle Royale strikes a chord that goes beyond the universal subject of rebellious youth against the conservative old. Social unrest is often led by the younger generation, and it’s mostly brought about by economic struggle and unemployment.

Seeing how the premise of Battle Royale is actually playing out in several countries throughout the developed world makes Kinji Fukasaku’s last film compelling despite its imperfections. I couldn’t help but wonder how far social unrest has to go to generate an excessive governmental response, and where I would choose to stand in the middle of that.

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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