CAPSULE: BATTLE ROYALE [BATORU ROWAIARU] (2000)

 

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:  Kinji Fukasaku

FEATURINGTakeshi “Beat” Kitano, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Chiaki Kuriyama

PLOT:  Intergenerational relations in Japan have broken down to such an extent that

Still from Battle Royale [Batoru Rotaiaru] (2000)

youngsters are rebelling by committing acts of violence and mass truancy.  The situation has deteriorated so badly that the government reacts by passing the “Battle Royale Act”: each year a randomly selected high school class is sent to an isolated, uninhabited island, fitted with remotely detonated explosive collars, given meager supplies and told to fight to the death.  One must emerge a victor or three days later everyone will die.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Although I consider Battle Royale to be a “must see” film, it really can’t go on the list.  It’s just not weird.  It’s funny, violent, overblown, disturbing, both operatic and banal, but not weird.

COMMENTS:  My first review of the film was a little flippant and then, quite randomly, I overheard a man say it was the “sickest” film he had ever seen.  He appeared to be quite sincere and I was driven to go back and watch it again, and again, to try and see what he had seen, what had disturbed him so much.

I don’t think that there’s anything in Battle Royale which will upset “366-ers.”  Yes, it is a film filled with images of youngsters killing each other and it would not be unnatural to find that disturbing.  The violence is so over the top, however, that it’s difficult not to be amused at times.  Who would have thought that a saucepan lid could prove to be such an effective weapon in the right hands?  It’s not even a very good saucepan lid.

The controversy surrounding Battle Royale on its release centered on the graphic violence and the age of the participants, but there is no connection between the violence in the film and real life violence involving teenagers.  The high school class that we follow are being forced against their will to participate in a life or death game, and they have been forced to do so by adults: adults who have stooped so far as to rig the game.  Despite having their backs against the wall, some of teenagers behave quite nobly; pleading for peace, setting up co-operative groups despite knowing only one can survive, committing suicide rather than participate in the game.

With every viewing of the film more and more contradictions appear.  The results of the battle appear to be televised during the opening scenes but the class chosen show astonishment that such a thing exists.  I would expect teenagers to talk about the Battle Royale Act incessantly.  The existence of such a grim piece of legislation would surely provoke further anger and violence amongst the younger generation, and hero worship of the victors.  There are indications throughout that the Act is counter-productive, that underground rebellion is growing.  A moment’s consideration would surely tell the adults that not only is this going to happen, but that there’s every chance the survivors of previous Battles are going to be eager rebels.  There’s nothing like training the best of the best to fight against you in the future, after all.

The more I think about this aspect of Battle Royale, the more impressed I am by how relevant it still is.  In the UK, at least, I can’t remember a time when the adult population was more terrified of their children, but who raised these children?  This generation of teenagers will go on to raise the next generation.  Will they in turn grow to fear their own children?

There’s certainly a deep and troubling message at the heart of Battle Royale.  You do have to dig through a wild and crazy cartoon ride of glorious, gory violence and hilarious teenage angst to get there, but it’s really worth it.  If you have a teenager, or can remember being one, then it is possible to laugh at the dialogue, all delivered in an appropriately earnest fashion.  In real life teenagers tend to flounce upstairs to their room, announcing that no-one understands them and they hate everyone, before terminating their soliloquy by slamming the bedroom door as hard as is humanly possible.  In Battle Royale they do the same thing, except they cap their tantrum by stabbing someone in the head.

I didn’t have the chance to ask the man I overheard just what it was that so upset him about this film.  I tend to think it was the depiction of youngsters stabbing, shooting and decapitating each other.  I could be wrong though.  The underlying message is one of fear and lack of communication between adults and their children, and this is far more disturbing than any number of bouncing heads with grenades in their mouths.

Is it possible to be disturbed and amused at the same time?  I find it is; in fact, real life does it to me all the time.  Battle Royale is both amusing and disturbing, and better than real life in that it has a fantastic, deadpan performance from the wonderful “Beat” Takeshi; watch with joy his possessiveness over the bag of cookies.  The only thing that puzzles me is why there isn’t a computer game version of BR yet.

366weirdmovies addsBattle Royale is just weird enough to deserve mention here, but not strange enough to vie for a spot on the List.  The “Battle Royale Act” itself is the weirdest thing about the film: randomly selected teenagers slaughtering each other in an un-televised death match mitigates the social problem of juvenile violence… how?  The Japanese people overwhelmingly vote to send their own children, innocent and guilty alike, off to be massacred… why?  The premise is absurd, and just in case we couldn’t see that on our own, the instructional video with the perky female commando describing to the students how their collars they’re wearing will blow their heads off if they disobey the games rules makes it crystal clear.  Something funny happens after this surrealistically satirical set up, though; the movie plays it straight the rest of the way, turning into a highly effective actioner with unexpected depth of characterization.  The fun is in watching the student’s varied and generally believable reactions to the bizarre situation, and in watching the field get winnowed down to the finalists in some very grim ways. The film’s midsection is invigorating—packed with juicy, bloody surprises—and the thrills you get block out the horror of the “Lord of the Flies” scenario.  Despite the perversity of the premise, the movie basically shows a good heart: it’s firmly on the side of the misunderstood kids, who aren’t just blood squibs waiting to be exploded for their splat value.  “Beat” Kitano unexpectedly makes for one of the slimiest, yet most haunted sadists since Norman Bates took out his mommy issues on random vacationers.   And although the movie does indeed prey on adult fears about the coming generation, it equally addresses teenage anxieties about cutthroat academic competition: the whole thing can be seen as a metaphor for the Japanese education system, where the pressure on kids to get into a prestigious junior high school can be overwhelming and feel like a life and death struggle.  Overall, Battle Royale is a very well-made film that’s unlikely to seriously disturb or offend anyone but the most squeamish; it’s not very weird, but it’s definitely in the ballpark, and worthy of a strong recommendation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a stunningly proficient piece of action film-making, plunging us into a world of delirium and fear… this is a film put together with remarkable confidence and flair. Its steely candour, and weird, passionate urgency make it compelling.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

5 thoughts on “CAPSULE: BATTLE ROYALE [BATORU ROWAIARU] (2000)”

  1. “sickest” can often be used to mean “coolest,” “raddest,” or “most awesome.” could this have been what he meant?

  2. I think attempting to approach this movie from the “adult” point of view doesn’t work. I saw this a few years back, but I think if I watched this movie when I was actually a teenager, I would to this day argue it as a great movie. I didn’t, so I don’t.

    There’s a sort of arbitrary anger at the world that is specific to being a teenager. A sort of flailing against authority, when you realize that the hard and fast rules your parents, or any sort of authority, have made you abide by are only an approximation of the harsh reality of the world. At the same time, you are forming and losing intense relationships with your friends and enemies, who seem to change places with dizzying regularity.

    In this sense, it’s sort of a perversely violent version of “The Breakfast Club.” If you can step back into that teenage space, the details of the overarching “game show” cease to matter. It’s the sense of betrayal you feel at authority writ large. A perfect cult movie aimed at teenagers. “The Catcher in the Rye” with exploding heads.

    Unfortunately, most of us continue living past our teenage years (I don’t mean that as bleak as it sounds), and we actually have to deal with life and death. That becomes much more difficult than an Us-vs.-Them story of adults attacking their young.

    Still, a good metaphor to play with. Stephen King seems to get a lot of mileage with it. “The Long Walk,” written as Richard Bachman, treads much of the same territory.

  3. Judging by the conversation that was going on with the unknown commentator and his companions he meant “sick” as in disturbing, rather than “rad”, and he seemed perfectly sincere, but as my lad observed everyone has their own flavour of “weird and twisted”.
    I do agree Rob, it is a very “teenage” film. For my part my teens follow me around like something nasty on my shoe that I keep scraping off but the scent just lingers. There are times when the awful, overwrought, tortured, hair trigger sensitive, poetry writing period pops up in my memory and it’s just like yesterday. Maybe that’s why I have a soft spot for BR. In its own way I found it depicted very well the emotions of youngsters, struggling with sexuality, pressured to succeed in a society where they feel like they only have the one chance.
    Folks say youth is wasted on the young, but I wouldn’t be a teenager again for the world.

  4. I watched a year out of high school, and the part I found disturbing was the idea of being thrown into that situation with the kids you’ve grown up with and all the relationships you’ve developed suddenly turning paranoid and violent. The creepy boy being given carte blanche to rape and murder you, the friends you’d do anything for betraying that loyalty… urgh.

  5. I saw this on a bootleg VHS at college and loved it then, but now I think the weirdest thing about it is the multi-millionare dollar Hunger Games franchise that it inspired.

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