What makes a society violent? Are humans by nature prone to harm each other, or does the situation determine our fate? Would any of us resort to brutal killings if forced to do so? These questions have risen frequently in this country after prominent recent examples of gun-related violence. The debate centers on whether we’re truly safer to have so many guns inside our homes. My opinions fall strongly in favor of gun control, but I’ve leave that discussion for another time. What I’m getting at is the concept of what makes a community kill each other. If inner-city schools had better funding and provided a stronger environment, teens might stop fighting and do better. However, that’s far from a sure thing. The world of Battle Royale shows us an extreme version of this type of dire scenario. Students have given up on civilized education and walked out of school. In a sense, they’ve proven that adults don’t have control if enough of them revolt. Most parents recognize this fact, but few expect 800,000 students to leave. In this film, the government decides to fight back and show the students who’s really in control. They’ve responded to their gesture by taking it a step further and enacting a new severe type of authority. It doesn’t matter whether the victims are innocent of this crime. All high-school students must pay for that insolence, and only one from the selected class will survive this ordeal.
Battle Royale is a fantasy but has roots in Director Kinji Fukasaku’s traumatic experiences during World War II. His distrust of adults and their authority sits at the heart of this film. The tricky part is that he seems to enjoy presenting the grisly deaths. It’s hardly a clinical look at violence and functions as a survivalist action film. The subversive entertainment of watching 9th-grade students kill each other takes the story into murky territory. It relishes in showing the inventive kills and functions similar to a slasher film. While identifying with the leads who are trying to survive, we’re seeing brutal deaths constantly. Tarantino loves this film, and it’s easy to see the connection between the violence and his latest movie Django Unchained. It showed the ugly nature of slavery, but it also entertained as a revenge fantasy with outlandish deaths. These contradictions make the films intriguing but also put them in shaky moral territory. If we enjoy watching teenagers kill each other, does that indict us as an inhumane society? This is the challenge in evaluating this movie, which uses a novel premise and sharp direction to deliver a thrilling experience. It’s only when the carnage goes away that the questions appear about what makes this so enjoyable.
Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda star as Shuya and Noriko, friends who vow to stick together. There’s a possible romantic link between them, and they try to avoid conflict if they can. They’re set up as the heroes who won’t resort to brutality once the fight begins. Their entire class of 42 students was knocked out by gas and sent to a remote island. After watching a ridiculous video where an upbeat presenter talks happily after killing, they’re sent packing with a random weapon. The army leader is their former teacher Kitano (Director Takeshi Kitano), who’s still smarting after being stabbed by a former student. When a girl whispers too much, he throws a knife and kills her. This removes any thought that he’s a spineless teacher. This guy means business. Adding to the challenge are collars that will cause a bloody death if anyone gets out of line. The brazen Yoshitoki (Yukihiro Kotani) learns this the hard way and faces Kitano’s wrath for the stabbing. The frightened students rush out into the wilderness, and chaos quickly takes over for even the least imposing teens.
Much has been written about the connections between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, and it’s hard to know how much Suzanne Collins was inspired by this film and the Koushun Takami novel. She claims to have had no knowledge when she wrote it, but there are many similarities. The movies feel very different, however. Gary Ross focused on the lead and used quick cuts to avoid the violence. Fukasaku revels in the killings and doesn’t try to develop the combatants. There are deaths by a sickle, guns, knives, and poison, plus multiple suicides. They aren’t playing to the same audience, despite having similar themes. The cynical feeling about the government resounds strongly in both works. Ross is taking a commercial approach, and he succeeds in creating an entertaining blockbuster. This film works more for a cult audience yet has strong moments. The acting is mostly forgettable and filled with stock characters when you go beyond the leads. Kô Shibasaki makes an impression as Mitsuko, a cruel girl who definitely enjoys this environment. She kills without remorse and takes delight in tormenting her classmates.
Right from the start, it's pretty clear which students are most likely to survive. Fukasaku isn't setting up a mystery and focuses instead on ratcheting up the intensity with each kill. Text on the screen describes who's perished in clinical fashion and treats the deaths like a sports game. The eliminations can happen quickly and without warning. One group of girls seems to be having a great time in a lighthouse, and minutes later they're all dead. The "transfer student" Kiriyama (Masanobu Andô) takes out a lot of students without saying a word. He's an extra factor that should make it difficult for groups to skip the violence. The challenge is to avoid numbing the audience as the body count rises. We receive a thin back story that explains Mistuko's reasons for being crazy, but it feels too obvious. The lack of character development puts us at a distance from many of the killings. Even so, there's still plenty to like with Battle Royale. It's a gutsy film that's sure to turn off many yet still provides a visceral experience. It remains a striking movie that can surprise even the most hardened viewer. It's not going to change your views, but there's enough material to leave us considering the complicated role of violence in cinema.