Looking back at Battle Royale

Battle Royale is ten years old this year, and has just been re-released on DVD and Blu-ray. We look back at director Kinji Fukusaku’s violent classic...

Even a decade on, Battle Royale is still a shockingly brutal film. A savage satire on a cruelly competitive Japanese education system, it’s unsurprising that the country’s government hated its depiction of school kids on the rampage.

Set in a near future Japan in the grip of an economic and social crisis, high school students are sent to a remote island and forced to stalk and kill one another until only one remains. Directed with stunning urgency by director Kinji Fukasaku, Battle Royale went on to become a huge success in Japan, perhaps hastened by the angry reaction of the Japanese government.

While Battle Royale’s premise might suggest an exploitative, mindless action movie, violence is by no means its main focus, even though the threat of it is seldom far away. Instead, Fukasaku explores how the 40 students react in the face of almost certain death. Some refuse to fight, choosing instead to fling themselves off the nearest cliff. Others group together, and attempt to use their knowledge of computers and explosives to smash the system that has ensnared them.

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Still others take to killing with psychotic relish. Kazuo, a Terminator-like older student with a broad sadistic streak and a love for automatic firearms, roams the island like death incarnate, while school girl Mitsuko uses the game as an opportunity to settle old scores.

In the midst all this chaos, troubled youth Shuya Nanahara, armed with little more than a pot lid, attempts to protect his sweetheart, Noriko. But with only hours until the explosive collars locked around the students’ necks detonate, survival seems all but impossible.

That a director of Fukasaku’s age and reputation should choose to direct a film as controversial and potentially risky as Battle Royale seems, at first glance, rather odd. 71-years-old and the maker of such films as Battles Without Honor And Humanity and Tora! Tora! Tora!, Battle Royale could have had a similar damaging effect on Fukusaku’s latter-day career as Peeping Tom had on Michael Powell’s in the early 60s.

When viewed in the context of Fukusaku’s early life, however, the reasons for his directing Battle Royale become rather more clear. While working in a munitions factory in World War II, the young Fukusaku was bombed by Allied aircraft. Forced to bury several of his co-workers killed in the blast, the incident left lasting psychological scars, and he harboured deep-seated resentment and distrust of the Japanese government and adults in general for many years afterwards.

This urgency and resentment manifests itself in every frame of Battle Royale. And watching the behind-the-scenes footage on Arrow’s latest DVD and Blu-ray release, it’s clear that Fukusaku went to considerable lengths to get the performances he wanted from his cast. Takeshi Kitano – who, incidentally, is remarkable as the film’s lone figure of cruel, grown-up authority – notes more than once that crewmembers were fainting from sheer exhaustion.

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Irrespective of Fukusa’s methods, the resulting Battle Royale is a startling film in all respects. On a human level, its characters spring to life, making their deaths all the more gut-wrenching when they inevitably occur. From a satirical standpoint, it’s the most bile-ridden and pointed indictment of not only the Japanese education system, but governments everywhere, and human nature in general.

Just as the World Wars of the 20th century brutalised and tore apart entire generations of youths, so the cruel game of Battle Royale forces friends to turn on one another, shatters relationships, and tears open old wounds.

It’s a weird fact of storytelling that some of the greatest narratives occur on islands – from the genius of Jonathan Swift’s satire, Gulliver’s Travels, via HG Wells’ grim social commentary The Island Of Doctor Moreau, to the schoolboy savagery of William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies.

Like those classic novels, Battle Royale uses the island as a petri dish for its horrible experiments, and the result is one of the most spectacular, thought-provoking films to come out of Japan in the last ten years.

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It’s understandable, therefore, that when news broke of a western remake of Battle Royale in 2006, the reaction from fans of the original was less than charitable. Certainly, there are vital aspects of Battle Royale that simply couldn’t be replicated in the US – the social dynamic among Japanese high school students is one obvious aspect, but the most vital one is the absence of director Fukusaku.

Over and above the excellence of the film’s acting and script, and the lean brilliance of its premise, courtesy of Koushun Takami’s original novel, Battle Royale is undoubtedly Fukusaku’s film. The weight of his personal experience is all over the movie, lending it an air of anger and sense of barely-suppressed outrage that, I would argue, couldn’t be replicated anywhere else.

Fukusaku sadly died from cancer in 2003, having shot only one scene of Battle Royale’s sequel, Requiem. Fusukau’s son, Kenta, stepped in to complete it, but the absence of the elder director is painfully apparent, and the resulting film contained none of the original’s edginess or pathos.

Battle Royale was therefore Fukusaku’s final film, and one of the most remarkable swan songs in filmmaking history. Few directors could still evoke such a youthful air of rebelliousness over 40 years and almost 60 films, but somehow, Fukusaku did. The result is an absolute masterpiece of action, drama and satire.

Battle Royale is out on Blu-ray now.

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