Cert: 18 Runtime: 114 mins Director: Kinji Fukasaku Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda and Tarô Yamamoto
Life is a game. So fight for survival and see if you’re worth it
After watching the epic Hunger Games, many magazines were saying it was similar to a Japanese film called Battle Royale. After tracking a copy down I gave it a watch.Forty-two students, three days, one deserted Island: welcome to Battle Royale. A group of ninth-grade students from a Japanese high school have been forced by legislation to compete in a Battle Royale. The students are each given a bag with a randomly selected weapon and a few rations of food and water and sent off to kill each other in a no-holds-barred (with a few minor rules) game to the death, which means that the students have three days to kill each other until one survives–or they all die. The movie focuses on a few of the students and how they cope. Some decide to play the game like the psychotic Kiriyama or the sexual Mistuko, while others like the heroes of the movie–Shuya, Noriko, and Kawada–are trying to find a way to get off the Island without violence. However, as the numbers dwell down lower and lower on an hourly basis, is there any way for Shuya and his classmates to survive?The reasoning behind this bizarre piece of legislation is perhaps the weakest part of the plot – but the Director deftly causes us to suspend disbelief by drawing us surely and touchingly into the feelings of the young cast. Unlike many western movies which trot out a body count of simplistic characters who are only there to die horribly for our entertainment, Battle Royale somehow manages to rapidly introduce us to the story’s potential victims and make us care about them.
You will read reviews that describe this film as excessively violent. I believe that this is a gross overstatement. Though there are many deaths and not a little blood, the main emphasis is upon simple human values – issues such as trust, friendship, love and hate – which the competition tests to their very limits. Children who have little genuine experience of living are forced to evaluate their relationships with each other if they want to stay alive. Alliances are formed and broken; long suppressed crushes and barely buried antagonisms influence their decisions.There are no easy or mindless deaths in Battle Royale. The violent scenes make the point that violence and death are not cool or funny. This is not Kill Bill; every character in Battle Royale has value as a living, breathing human being. It may sound corny to say that the movie is an emotional roller-coaster ride, but it truly is – having dared to give us three dimensional people who bleed when they are cut, the Director sometimes further dares to cruelly follow scenes of tragedy with jarring moments of biting, dark and sarcastic wit.If this was an American movie, the class would be played by people in their twenties and thirties. Two or three of the students would be given a lot of screen time and the rest would be faceless cannon fodder. Five seconds after the opening titles, you would know who was going to survive. Despite its odd premise, Battle Royale seems closer to reality because its teenagers really are teenagers and it allows no comforting certainties about who lives or dies.
The true genius of Battle Royale lies in the talented playing of the entire cast. Although young, not one of them strikes a dud note and the script gives almost all of the students a chance to shine at some point. The fight scenes are not staged in the style of ‘Enter The Dragon’ – the kids are not weapons experts or Karate champions. We see them kill each other but we are not invited to hate them – they are, after all, children and they are scared and desperate. Even a student who takes to killing with apparent relish deserves our sympathy.Some reviewers have criticised aspects of the dialogue as unrealistic. There are certainly times when the script seems stagy – but it is important to remember that these Japanese children are products of a national culture which often finds the expression of passionate emotions problematical. If anything, the formal phrasing and awkwardness of their most heartfelt expressions only serves to make them more meaningful.The Special Edition ends (quite literally) with a question. You will find yourself going back to this movie time and time again to answer it. Each viewing is rewarded with details that you probably missed previously – the depth of characterisation and the layers of hidden-in-plain-sight clues continually allow you to understand the story from fresh perspectives.