What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say the word Japan? Do you think of technology, manga, or extreme politeness? Do you perhaps think of WWII, kamikaze, or the horrific crimes of Unit 731? Whatever your answer is, Japan remains a mysterious and fascinating country and its cinema is no different. Battle Royale AKA Batoru Rowaiaru is a bizarre, violent, and stylish action movie about a bunch of high schoolers forced to fight each other on an island. Hollywood high schoolers fought aliens, zombies, vampires, and even parents so why can’t Japanese ones fight themselves?
Of course, the reason why they have to fight themselves is the government that’s forcing them to do that. The social commentary is as subtle as a really careful elephant in a china shop. Meanwhile, in real life, members of the Japanese parliament tried to have the movie banned. This move backfired spectacularly and Battle Royale went on to become one of the highest-grossing Japanese movies ever. It’s actually based on a 1999 novel of the same name by Koushun Takami. The director of the movie Kinji Fukasaku was seventy years old at the time of the filming. What he accomplished here is nothing short of a miracle.
Before we go any further though I just want to comment on the plausibility of the whole thing. Just consider the fact that not 100 years ago teenagers were not only working but also fighting in wars. Eight-year-old Momcilo Gavric was the youngest soldier in WWI and, strangely enough, he survived it and lived to a ripe old age of 86. So, the idea that in a dystopian world, a totalitarian government would do such a thing is not so outside of the realm of possibility as we might think it is. With all of this being said, it still feels surreal and bizarre to watch some of the scenes in this movie. This bloody, vicious, and highly graphic movie.
No matter how you cut it, kids killing kids or adults killing kids still feels jarringly wrong. This is the reason why Battle Royale was banned in so many countries. Moving on, the story will go back and forth between the events on the island of death and the ordinary lives of students before. The action starts pretty much right away making this movie feel much shorter than it actually is. It reminds me a lot of an eighties classic The Running Man starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Another good example is No Escape, a post-apocalyptic action thriller set on an island where prisoners have to fight each other.
One of the main themes in Battle Royale is the eternal clash between the young and the old. This highly emotional battle has been going on since the dawn of time. Japan in particular has this strange perception of youth where almost every facet of life is geared toward people under 40. And not just under 40, I think that under 20 would be a more appropriate assessment. And I’m not even going to try to untangle the sexual themes and how they tie into all of this. Along with violence, of course. It’s no wonder it’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorites. All it needed was one good feet scene and it be his number one.
I also cannot help the feeling that the movie explores the inherent cruelty in young people, especially in high school. What makes bullying and hazing so much worse is the lack of compassion and utter commitment to these cruel acts. It’s so surreal to watch teenagers be so ruthlessly evil to each other and to others. If the parents are fucking with them they will try to say the most outrageous and hurtful things to get back at them. Finally, just want to mention the young cast of this movie that did a terrific job. Takeshi Kitano whom you might remember from the 2003 sleeper hit Zatoichi is also here. And if you’re looking for more Japanese oddities check out Audition. Kiri kiri kiri…
Fun Fact: The casting process was long, methodical and ruthless, much like the movie itself. Initially, over 6000 actors auditioned for the movie with that number going down in time. First it was cut to 800 and to the 42 actors and actresses that would go on to appear in the movie. All of them went through intense physical training to prepare for their roles.