I’ve always have had a soft spot for “Battle Royale.”
Growing up, I was never all that fascinated with Japan’s entertainment exports (with the exception of PlayStation and Nintendo). It all seemed so fluffy and cutesy; art devoid of any meaning or message. What was a 17 year-old supposed to take away from seeing yellow stuffed animals hurling lightning bolts at turtles (Pokemon) and masked, rainbow-colored martial artists exchanging punches and kicks with monsters whose customs were made of foam and rubber (Power Rangers)?
My ignorant disdain towards Japanese entertainment came to an abrupt end my senior year of high school. Bedridden with hellacious bouts of both strep throat and the flu, my mother asked if there were a couple of books I’d like her to pick up for me at Barnes and Noble. I immediately requested “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick, which began a long love affair with the late author (I’ll save that for another blog, another time), and then proceeded to rack my brain over the choice for a second book.
Then it hit me like a bolt of lightning thrown by that obnoxious yellow Pokemon: wasn’t there some Japanese film I kept reading about online that couldn’t land an American distribution deal due to its graphic subject matter? High school kids running around an island with an array of weapons killing each other? And wasn’t it based on a novel? One quick search on a laptop yielded the results I was hoping for: yes, there was such a book and, yes, there was an English translation version and, yes, it was in stock at Barnes and Noble.
“Mom, I’d like you to also grab me ‘Battle Royale’ by Koushun Takami,” I said. I can’t remember how my mother responded to that request, I’m sure her head almost exploded at the daunting task of having to remember the name “Koushun Takami.” Somehow someway, god love her, my mother was able to obtain me a copy of the book that would change my life.
I fondly recall being sick as a dog, plowing through the 666 pages of death, maiming and acts of heroism that were contained within Takami’s book. Reading and enjoying a story about student-on-student murder seemed taboo to me in a post-Columbine world and I was struck by the realization that such a work could never be spawned within the 50 states of America. A country, my country, that continues to find itself plagued by random acts of violence throughout its school systems. No, it’s safe to say if “Battle Royale” were to have been created in the States it would have been cripplingly self-conscious and unsuccessful or if it were successful it’d be a watered-down, bloodless soap-opera *cough*The Hunger Games*cough*.
Soon enough my illnesses abated but my adoration for this quirky Japanese novel stayed. I began the arduous task of procuring a DVD copy of “Battle Royale.” Eventually, I was able to obtain a burned copy of the film, a Chinatown knock off – complete with not so great subtitles and poor picture quality.
“Battle Royale” the film, directed by legendary Japanese film director Kinji Fukasaku in 2000, was released a full year after the novel was published and never quite reaches the heights of its source material. However, it does a superb job of juggling a large cast of, at its time, Japan’s finest young actors and actresses. The movie only falters when it begins to deviate from the storyline of the book which, thankfully, does not happen too frequently.
The movie still has the same dystopian setting, where Japan is a member of the fictitious totalitarian regime The Republic of Greater East Asia. The alternate reality Japan has seen its economy plummet. 15% of the nation are unemployed leading to students boycotting school. Over 800,000 students walk out of their classes, we’re told at the beginning of the film. When crime rates involving children and teenagers begin to skyrocket the government enacts the Millennium Educational Reform Act (a.k.a. The Battle Royale Act) due to the growing fear and distrust the adult population has for its youth. The BR Act is meant to terrorize Japan’s children and teens, to arouse suspicion in one another thus making it impossible for the youth to galvanize and thwart the corrupt government.
Every year, one classroom (in the novel 50 classes participated every year) is chosen to partake in the Battle Royale event located on an abandoned island. In the film, it’s the forty unlucky students from Class 3-B that have been chosen at random to compete. It’s horrifying to watch a class of students be informed that they will have to slaughter every last one of their fellow students if they hope to leave the island with their life.
Legendary Japanese actor and director Takeshi “Beat” Kitano is sublime as the evil ex-teacher who is running the Battle Royale event. He wastes no time in letting his former students know how seriously he is taking the BR act when he presents to the class the dead body of their teacher and later plunges a knife into the forehead of female student, Fujiyoshi.
As the movie continues we see 37 out of the 40 students killed, some off camera, in the most grotesque ways possible. What saves this movie from becoming nauseating to watch is the decision by scriptwriter Kenta Fukasaku (the son of the director) to instill black humor into the story. Clearly defined heroes and villains (those that try to fight back against the government and those who mercilessly execute their fellow students) also prevent the movie from becoming too soul-upsetting.
Kinji Fukasaku’s expert handling of the actions scenes, and gore they result in, should be applauded. One never thinks of cartoonish, over-the-top arterial blood spray as tasteful, and yet it was the least gratuitous of options for this film. Had Fukasaku gone the other way, and tried to make each death as realistic as possible, well, this would have been an entirely different movie and far too unsettling. Similar bloodshed can be seen in the movies “Kill Bill,” “The Inglorious Bastards,” and “Django Unchained.” Is it any surprise that director Quentin Tarantino has gone on record saying “Battle Royale” is his favorite movie since 1992?
Those who have not seen “Battle Royale,” I implore you to do so. It is much easier today to find a copy of the movie than when I first did in 2005. It’s available on Netflix and available for purchase at Amazon. I would however, recommend you read the book before viewing the movie but I understand most people will be unwilling to do this.
“Battle Royale” opened the Japanese cinema and entertainment floodgates for me. Had I not read the book and seen the film I doubt I’d would ever have discovered the cinematic works of Akira Kurosawa, Takashii Miike, Sion Sono, Katsuhito Ishii and Hayao Miyazaki. I’d perhaps never have discovered Japanese authors such as Haruki Murakami, Kenzaburo Oe and Ryu Murakami. I probably would never have discovered the great films South Korea is putting out, such as Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy or Kim Ji-Woon’s films.
I found “Battle Royale” at the right place at the right time and it redirected my taste in film, literature and foreign cultures. No easy feat, right?