Reviewed by 1. Vinita Ramani 2. Yoshi Yukino 3. Soh Yun-Huei
Japanese Title: Batoru Rowaiaru
Director: Fukasaku Kinji
Writing Credits: Fukasaku Kenta, Takami Koushun (novel)
Cast: Fujiwara Tatsuya, Kitano Takeshi (Beat), Maeda Aki, Yamamoto Taro, Ando Masanobu, Shibasaki Kou
Genre: Action Thriller
Year Released: 2000
Runtime: 114 min (Director's cut 122 min)
1. Review by Vinita Ramani
Rating: ***½ (out of four stars)
Sex and violence in Asian cinema is no anomaly and film goers should not need festival specials or the praise of European and North American filmmakers to be reminded of how Asian cinema has walked uncharted territory. Maybe the problem has to do with issues of distribution and what gains credibility as an original work as a result. Perhaps long before it was tenable, Japanese director Oshima Nagisa made 'Empire of the Senses' - an engaging and visually arresting film exploring the connections between sex, eroticism and death. Though released in 1976, the film remained banned for a significant length of time. Veteran Japanese director Fukasaku Kinji similarly, is no stranger to violence of the most extreme nature. An incredibly prolific director who can count 'Battle Royale' as his 60th film in a career that spans over thirty years, Fukasaku is better known for his nihilistic yakuza films which sit somewhere between art-house and B-grade genre distinctions. The comparisons to Sam Fuller may not be unfounded - a director whose post World War II work was packed to the brim with sexual ambiguity, self-serving capitalists and fears of communism.
The war analogy and Fukasaku's own insistence on reading 'Battle Royale' as a parable or a fairy tale are undeniable frames of reference in watching the film. The premise is utterly simple especially for anyone more recently weaned on reality T.V. A Japan of the near future is in post-depression slumps and kids in elementary schools are violently responding to the state of affairs imposed upon them by their supposed superiors. The solution is so simple it seems banal: in conjunction with the military the school system enforces the Millennial Reform School Act, a.k.a. Battle Royale Act. By this law, a class is randomly selected from junior high schools and sent to an evacuated island devised just for the purpose. Armed with army kits with varying degrees of weaponry and supplies, the kids must kill each other off in three days until only one is left to survive - the winner. Any more left alive, and the explosive device collars they are all attached with will explode.
Beat Takeshi plays morose teacher Kitano who is in charge of the class he taught not long ago. Pummeled along with the military band-like score of Masamichi Amano, Battle Royale relentlessly forges ahead from death after death where incredibly contrived but entirely believable adolescent declarations of loyalty and love are suddenly replaced by mistrust, vengeance and death. From the onset, our sentiments are clearly directed. For example, an instant attachment is formed with Shuya - played by Fijiwara Tatsuya - and Maeda Aki's Noriko. The other students are played out more as clique cliches - the bitch who sleeps with other people's boyfriends, the geek, the reject and loner, the sweet girl, the tough girl, the anarchist activists who are determined to beat the newest device of the system. But it is Shuya and Noriko along with the mysterious "transfer" student Kawada played by Yamamoto Taro, who are given greater depth and whose emotions reflect the pained struggle between sticking to what is ethical, whilst fighting to survive a brutal game.
Many critics have labeled 'Battle Royale' a nihilistic film which reveals a dystopic world where trust is a hard-won virtue. That seems unlikely if one considers the fact that Fukasaku has always maintained a tendency to pull back from the brink of nihilistic doom with explicitly redemptive moments in his previous works. 'Battle Royale' is no different and its redemption almost seems sentimental, which somehow manages to sit snugly with all the brutality preceding it. It is less a cynical examination of how morally bankrupt Japanese society - particularly its youth - has become, and more a means to push the simmering tensions over the edge in order to ask: then what happens? The film is as much a pensive examination of how war forces the reality of death and national loss upon the psyches of its younger population, as it is a mocking dark parody of an education system that has long lost its thread of common sense. This is why the ridiculously over-the-top score sits in contradiction to images of blood, death and murder and even leads to moments of uncomfortable laughter. In an immediate sense, Fukasaku is parodying those old war propaganda films with their glorious music, images of the national flag inter-cut with coffins and guns. Equally, the film opens with an instructional video in which an irritatingly energetic woman decked out in glitter, glossy lip stick and trendy teen wear explains the rules of the game. It deliberately over-accentuates the blurred distinctions between "reality T.V./real warfare pointing to how the latter is more and more an extended television experience. That Fukasaku chose junior high school teens heightens the sense of urgency because it draws open attention to how the same forces that drive competitive education systems and capitalist economies, also drive the desire for warfare.
More important, as film critic Peter Bradshaw has pointed out, 'Battle Royale' articulates a particularly Japanese malaise - the rise and fall of what he calls an "imperial destiny," hints of which could even be found in the nameless, wandering samurai of Kurosawa's films. To try to align this with a Tarantino or similarly American film would be to miss the particular nuances of the social context to which Fukasaku is pointing.
2. Review by Yoshi Yukino
Rating: *1½ stars (out of four stars)
They say life is cheap in a war. Battle Royal's certainly no armed conflict, despite its name, but life's cheap anyway in last year's most controversial film in Japan that had critics rattling their sabers all the way to Parliament to have this movie--about high school kids pitted against each other in a deadly game of Survivor, Japanese-style--banned.
Based on Takami Koushun's best-selling novel, Battle Royale is set in the near future, in a dystopian Japan that won World War II and is now on the brink of both economical and social collapse. Unemployment is at an all-time high and high school students are showing revolt, boycotting school and turning violent toward adults. To rein their youth in, the government passes the Millennial Reform School Act--known as the BR Act. Under this Act, a Battle Royale is held yearly, in which a class of junior high school students is randomly selected to compete. Armed with weapons, they are forced to turn on each other in a game where there is only one survivor (and winner).
The film industry in Japan isn't new to graphic violence. Whether it's Tsukamoto Shinya's Tetsuo, Otomo Katsuhiro's Akira, or Kitano Takeshi's Hanabi, cult films have always relied on an excess of violence to drive their message through--which, perhaps, seasoned director Fukasaku Kinji tried doing with Battle Royale. (NB: Fukasaku Kinji co-directed the Japanese segments in Tora! Tora! Tora!, but is more well-known in Japan as the cult director of gritty and violent yakuza films such as Jingi no Hakaba and Okami to Buta to Ningen during the 60's and 70's, as well as trashy sci-fi and erotic fantasy like Message from Space and Kurotokage. Battle Royale is his comeback film after a long hiatus).
What Battle Royale has is over 100 minutes of carnage that can even get seasoned viewers a little sick in the stomach. What the film hasn't got is a clear message to drive through.
Sadly, not much background about the dysfunctional society which the book portrays ends up in the film, and precious little screen time goes into explaining how the draconian solution to juvenile delinquency came about, or why the 42 students of Zentsuji Middle School 's Class B whom are whisked away from their field trip to do battle on a deserted island were chosen.
What gives Battle Royale its controversy is its gratuitous violence, and it isn't just the blood and gore, but the way the violence is portrayed. In one scene, a girl's throat is cruelly slit by a sickle-wielding classmate, while in another, a sadistic participant puts a megaphone to the lips of a girl he had just maimed, before riddling her with bullets.
If Battle Royale has a statement to make, that certainly is muddled amidst all this blood and gore. At times the killing becomes so routine, and the body count goes up at such an alarming rate, you just wish the film would pause to reflect on the proceedings. And when it finally does during the last few scenes involving Kitano and the students, it doesn't quite matter any more because viewers won't be able to make much sense out of it.
To make matters worse, little screen time is given to help the characters develop. Other than Kitano Takeshi (of Brother and Hanabi fame), who competently plays the enigmatic and ill-tempered referee in this deadly game, the others like protagonists Shuya (Fujiwara Tatsuya) and Noriko (Maeda Aki), whom he has a crush on, are only glossed over. At least they're lucky; many of the other cast are there only as cannon fodder, it seems.
What got critics up in arms over Battle Royale's violence is the lacks that sense of purpose behind it, and unfortunately, they have a point. There is little plot and character development to speak of, the violence's blatant and sickening, and the fact that this is mainstream entertainment (rather than some cult film) makes it even more worrying.
For those who argue that the film shows how fragile friendships are in the face of animosity, I'd suggest picking up William Golding's Lord of the Files for a more profound and disturbing experience (and hey, it's got a far lower death count!)
At a time when Japan is grappling with a rise in violent crimes involving juveniles, and intimidated teachers are reportedly afraid to attend class, you'd expect people who are old enough to know better-and that includes directors like Kinji Fukasaku-to tread this subject with far more sensitivity than they've shown.
Battle Royale could have been as thought-provoking as it is controversial. It could have been an excellent look at institutionalized violence and a society that fuels it. But the film doesn't bother to carefully tread the fine line that separates exploration from exploitation, and what we have is instead a gore-fest that does neither good for the Japanese film industry nor for its young audiences.
Good: Kitano Takeshi's brilliant as the film's enigmatic and hot-tempered teacher-turned-referee; if only the film deserved this kind of acting.
Bad: A film that exploits teen violence more than putting it into any form of perspective.
Verdict: Lots of senseless and blatant violence, and very little else that might have exonerated this film from the condemnation it got from critics. Cult-film director Fukasaku Kinji already has a reputation for ultra-violent films during the 60's and 70's, but with Japan plagued by violent teen-related crimes of late, a film as mainstream as this one isn't just ill-advised, but insensitive too.
3. Review by Soh Yun-Huei
Rating: * * * (out of four stars)
Battle Royale has created much furor in its home country of Japan, and similarly in several countries around the world, due largely to its graphic depiction of violence on and by teenagers. However, the film has been unfairly condemned by many to be a mindless exploitation of gratuitous violence. Battle Royale may be a bit on the exploitative and melodramatic side, but it is also a commentary on the current (and possibly future) state of Japan. Battle Royale is a film whose images will stay with the audience a long time, and can easily become good fodder for "deep" conversations.
Set in Japan sometime in the future, where adolescent and teenage Japanese are spiraling out of control (we see a young schoolboy stabbing a teacher for no real reason), the government chooses a class of high school students to participate in Battle Royale every year. Basically, Battle Royale entails sending the students of the chosen class to a deserted island, where the students are given supplies and weapons to try and kill each other over a three-day period. The students are forced to wear tamper-proof collars filled with explosives, and if they enter certain restricted zones, their collars will explode, thereby killing them. The aim of the game? To have only one survivor at the end of three days of battle if there is more than one survivor, all collars will be triggered to explode, and no one will survive the years Battle Royale.
This year, the class selected is the forty students in Class B of Zentsuji Middle School. Led by headmaster Kitano (the famous Takeshi Kitano), the class is spread out over the island, with Kitano announcing new restricted zones and deaths every six hours. Joining the forty students are two veteran players/survivors of Battle Royale, Kawada (Taro Yamamoto) and Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), who chose to attend Battle Royale again for mysterious reasons. Although almost all 42 students are featured in the film, the focus is on Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda), who are determined to make it out of Battle Royale alive, but is unwilling to kill any of their classmates. Some other students share their point of view, and try to devise methods of overriding the system. Other students decide that they would rather end their own lives rather than kill anyone, whilst several decide to play according to the rules and start on rampages to kill as many students as possible. Who will survive in the end?
Viewers of Battle Royale will immediately find links to the rage on TV these days reality TV. The rules of Battle Royale are rather similar to those of Survivor and related programs, but are of course taken to an extreme. The first third of Battle Royale is filled with delicious pitch-black humor, for example the impossibly cheerful female narrator (replete with "cutesy" costume) of the video clip shown to the students before the game begins, or the discovery that "weapons" can mean anything from a submachine gun to a pot lid or a paper fan. The second section of the film is also the most controversial, which sees many of Class Bs students offed in various gruesome ways. The audience gets to see an ax firmly lodged in one of the participants heads, a girl calmly pressing a sickle against another girls throat, and another girl repeatedly stabbing a would-be rapist in his nether regions. These are not the only graphic sequences, and moviegoers with a weak stomach for violence may feel very unsettled.
This section also allows director Kinji Fukasaku (director of the dogfights in Tora! Tora! Tora!) to portray a gamut of human emotions, showing how different youths behave under duress. The audience observes alliances being formed and broken, friends being made and then quickly lost, and various scenes that reflect the uncertainty and fears that teenagers face. Fukasaku does go overboard in many of these sequences, segueing cheesy flashback scenes and banal title cards ("God, please give me one more breath") with the death throes of the students. There are also a bit too many proclamations of love and respect with the students dying breaths, which makes the deaths almost farcical.
However, there are equally well thought out segments that provoke the audience to think deeper about the violence shown onscreen. Two examples come to mind: a scene where a couple of girls are advocating peace on a megaphone are promptly shot from the back with a machine gun, and the assailant calmly uses said megaphone to amplify the dying murmurs of the girls; and another scene where a group of girls who takes over a lighthouse battle to the death, after distrust and paranoia rises to the surface. These scenes seem to hint at the cutthroat nature of youths in Japan today, which are heightened with the unforgiving education system of the country, where only the best can make it to university.
Over the course of Battle Royale, the audience sees an alliance being formed between Kawada, Shuya and Noriko, and events come to a head in the final section of the film. The trio is one of the last few survivors on the island, and are the only characters given some fleshing out in the movie. However, this final segment is also the most disappointing, involving a half-baked story of Kitanos failures with his family, and a tenuous link thats formed between Kitano and Noriko. The film then ends without giving closure or due explanation to several plot threads, and seems to be rather rushed in execution, taking the easiest way out of the sticky situation. This and several rather obvious plot holes detract from the experience of Battle Royale, but it is still a film that is truly a shock to watch, and is definitely based on subject matter that Western filmmakers will never touch. And that alone merits a trip to the cinemas.
Final Word: Visceral, thought-provoking film that is distinctly different from typical Western fare.