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Battle Royale

Entry updated 3 May 2021. Tagged: Film.

Japanese film (2000). Toei Company presents a GAGA, Kobi Co, MF Pictures, Nippon Shuppan Hanbai (Nippan) K K and WOWOW production in association with AM Associates and Fukasaku-gumi. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku. Written by Kenta Fukasaku from the novel Battle Royale by Kōshun Takami. Cast includes Masanobu Ando, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Takeshi Kitano, Chiaki Kuriyama, Aki Maeda and Tarō Yamamoto. 114 minutes. Colour.

Forty-two teenagers are dumped on an abandoned island at the instigation of a vengeful teacher (Kitano) previously stabbed by one of his pupils. They are forced to participate in an annual fight to the death televised to instruct the populace of an Alternate-History totalitarian Japan. Each is given basic supplies, a Weapon – anything from a dustbin lid to a submachine gun – and a collar designed to monitor and destroy the disobedient. Regular broadcasts inform the students of prohibited areas and of who has been killed since the last update: all collars detonate if no-one has been killed in a 24-hour period.

The film was immediately popular in Japan but suffered a chequered release schedule comparable to that of the novel from which it was adapted (see the entry on Kōshun Takami for more). This was ostensibly due to its orgiastic violence and the youth of its cast – most were under the age of sixteen – but Battle Royale is clearly intended to be as humane as it is Satiric.

Director Kinji Fukasaku – the father of screenwriter Kenta Fukasaku – said Kōshun's novel reminded him of his time working as a teenager in a munitions factory in World War Two: he and his fellow survivors were forced to dispose of the corpses of their classmates in secret after coming under artillery fire in July 1945. He knew then that the society in which he was living was lying about the war and developed a hatred of adults that lasted many years.

Quentin Tarantino liked the film so much he cast the actor portraying Takako Chigusa (Kuriyama) as Gogo Yubari in his Kill Bill duology (2003, 2004), complete with school uniform. Already popular in Japanese Manga and Anime – not to mention Britney Spears' pop music video for (Hit Me Baby) One More Time (1999) – the Japanese schoolgirl Meme spread rapidly to other forms of media, becoming a mainstay in Videogames. A form of adult manga known as "Kimoi Girls", in which girls mock the virginity of teenage boys, is directly referenced in Battle Royale, and the juxtaposition of the vicious interpersonal politics of the playground with the needy militarism of the police state works to compelling effect. Cliques form, entire factions are wiped out by poisoning and machine gun fire, individuals are picked off by psychopaths. There is no degree of dishonesty about the relationship between sexual politics and violence.

The plot redounds to a climactic confrontation between three survivors – couple Shuya Nanahara (Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Maeda) and former winner Shogo Kawada (Yamamoto) – and sociopathic killing machine Kazuo Kiriyama (Ando). After killing Kiriyama, Kawada hacks into the program controlling the collars and fakes the deaths of Nanahara and Nakagawa to portray himself as the sole winner of the game. Kitano – depressed both by his continuing estrangement from his own daughter and the apparent death of daughter-substitute Nakagawa – lowers his guard, allowing Nanahara and Nakagawa to storm into the command centre. Kitano threatens Nakagawa with a gun and Nanahara shoots Kitano, whereupon the gun Kitano is holding is revealed as a water pistol, spurting uselessly along with the gore from his wounds. Kitano angrily takes a call from his daughter as he dies: "If you hate someone then you have to live with the consequences," he tells her. The daughter who has come to despise her father clearly corresponds to a society no longer able to bear the weight of its patriarchal control systems. Kawada – there to avenge the death of his own girlfriend in the game he won – dies on the boat ride to the mainland, and Nanahara and Nakagawa escape as fugitives into Japan's interior.

Metaphorical interpretations of Battle Royale range from the Darwinian – "Life is a game," says an embittered Kitano to his kids (see Social Darwinism) – to the Political or Religious: the generational divide in Japanese society is often portrayed as uneasy as the country's ongoing relationship with the state religion of Shintō. It is regularly cited as one of Japan's most important films. The premise – somewhat reminiscent of the Media Landscape portrayed in the work of Robert Sheckley – clearly influenced that of the Hunger Games film franchise, though author Suzanne Collins denies that it in any way predisposed the books on which the Hunger Games films (2008-2015) are based. Director Kinji Fukasaku died during the filming of the sequel Battle Royale II: Requiem (2004) and his son Kenta completed the film. Sugie Makkoi wrote the novelization. [MD]


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