THE BLEEDING EDGE of the millennial “Asian Extreme” boomlet, Battle Royale (2000) cleaned up at the Japanese box office and taught the local film industry that offbeat, gleefully violent exploitation pics could reap unexpectedly blockbuster returns. Released at the end of a year in which Japan had recorded a startling 25% rise in violent juvenile crime, it arrived at a cultural moment when the most routine kids-these-days fist shaking packed major topical punch. Ironically, Battle Royale was able find a sizeable audience in the depths of Japan’s lost-decade theatrical slump thanks to its hysterically outraged reception by grandstanding culture-warriors and table-pounding parliamentary conservatives. A pop-culture perfect storm made a likely cult favourite into an inescapable succès de scandale.
The film soon surfaced at a few North American festivals, like BAMcinématek’s 2001 retrospective of director Kinji Fukasaku, but Battle Royale has never been theatrically released in the States. Perhaps because the film—in which several dozen schoolchildren systematically kill each other off with sickles, machine guns and homemade fertilizer bombs—came out the year after Columbine. Perhaps (as one rumor has it) because the Toei studio heads were all too convinced by a foreign distributor who intimated, purely as a negotiating gambit, that they might be financially liable in the event of copycat violence. In the inevitable event of copycat violence.
Whatever the reason, Battle Royale‘s cult cache has only been enhanced by its limited availability (the film is widely and erroneously described as being “banned” in the U.S.). In the early aughts, the title went into heavy-rotation as a reference point for any undergraduate name-dropper hoping to drunkenly impress a fellow student. The weekend edition of NYU’s student paper, the Washington Square News, used to run a cinematic mixtape feature called “The Screening Room,” and I distinctly recall multiple BR blurbs in fall of 2003 alone. Then Quentin Tarantino chose it as his number-one favourite film of the last 20 years, and its cult canonical status was enshrined for the ages.
BASED ON A best-selling novel by Koshun Takami (a former news reporter who has published nothing before or since), Battle Royale has a pretty irresistable hook: in some dystopic near-future beset by uncontrollable youth violence, a class of recently graduated ninth graders are abducted by the government, secreted away to an uncharted desert isle, and given 72 hours to kill or be killed until only one is left standing.
Supposedly, the students have been selected to fulfill the annual requirements of the “B.R. Act,” a desperate deterrent to a climate of violent delinquency—but one that doesn’t seem to be very effective, given that no one in the class has heard of it. There’s a frisson of society-of-the-spectacle satire in the opening scenes, with their breathless media coverage of a prior year’s competition—which, again, no one in this class seems to have seen. Conjuring a plot justification for your awesomely contrived, generically self-contained ecosystem is always tricky. Like The Running Man, Battle Royale frames the gimmick as a satire of a sadistic society that would take pleasure in watching such a thing—a more PoMo version of the ubermench-ian puppet-masters of The Most Dangerous Game, And Then There Were None, and Predators.
Before we meet any of the individual members of Shiroiwa Junior High School Class 3-B, we see a yearbook-style class photo, all of the forty-strong student ensemble present and presentable in identical starched white shirts. (Khakis for the boys, pleated skirts for the girls.) Seen in flashback, they’re all truants or worse, brutally abusing their former teacher Kitano (a namesake of the actor, Takeshi Kitano, a superstar Japanese hyphenate and avowed acolyte of Fukasaku’s antic, knowing style). Now back in the present, the students are taking a bus trip to celebrate their graduation from ninth grade. They horse around and snap Polaroids (BR was released just as a newer memory machine, the cell-phone camera, was becoming ubiquitous) when their haven is unexpectedly hijacked, the whole class drugged and dumped in an abandoned schoolhouse. There sad-eyed Kitano, like many beaten-down public educators before him, pops in a video.
The rules of the game are explained by a videogenic host with weathergirl pep. The conscripted contestants have 72 hours to wipe out all of the other students in a gladiatorial death match. Each entrant has been outfitted with an electronic collar, and should more than one student remain alive at the end of the game, all of the devices will automtically explode—which is also what happens should anyone try to remove said collar. Each student shall receive three days of provisions and one randomly chosen, variably lethal weapon: a pistol, a machete, a bow and arrow, a garbage pail lid….The students are then called out one by one in order of class ranking, handed weapons instead of diplomas, and released into the wilds of an isolated jungle island. Some raise their arms in gestures of triumph and farewell; two teary girls pledge enduring friendship; a young boy named (Tatsuya Fujiwara) turns to his beloved Noriko (Aki Maeda) and whispers, “I’ll wait for you.”
Talk about blood and guts in high school. Cliques break up: a tight-knit circle of girls sleepover’ing in a lighthouse fall out over a boy, and the simmering mistrust boils over in an Uzi shootout. The class weirdo (played by singer-actress Kou Shibasaki) crimps her eyelashes, turns heads with her newly revealed beauty, then lures two boys to a Heathers-like nude demise, settling old grade-school grudges with a sickle. One student crisscrosses the island to say goodbye to his friends and then boldly declares his undying love to a long-time crush; she promptly shoots him, then stops to watch him bleed out. (“You’re so cute” he rasps with his last breath.) Another boy, like the protagonists of Porky’s or American Pie, just wants to get laid once before it’s all over. “Don’t you want to do it once before you go?”, he implores Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama) who, resplendent in a yellow tracksuit, stabs her would-be deflowerer in the groin. (Quentin Tarantino dutifully snapped up both Kuriyama and the wardrobe selection for Kill Bill.)
To survive, the young lovers Shuya and Noriko make friends with the older kid, Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), one of the two “transfer students” who joins the game—he knows how to cook, fix things, and offers a drink from his flask. Kawada and the other J-Pop coiffured transfer Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando) are actually more like alumni, former winners of the game. Kawada has come back to figure out why his high school relationship didn’t work out. The glassy-eyed, speechless, almost feral Kiriyama, who stumbles around machine-gunning computer geeks and frightened girls, signed up again “just for fun.”
DIRECTOR KENJI FUKUSAKU is best known for the trilogy of yakuza pictures initiated by his 1973 entry Battles Without Honor and Humanity (released in the United States as The Yakuza Papers and regularly referred to as “the Japanese Godfather“). Amped up on pointedly pointless violence, Fukasaku made a pretty decent career out of hysteric, slightly self-undermining social critique. Fukasaku’s direction in Battle Royale is about as emphatic as you’d expect from a movie that depicts teens killing each other with panicked hatchets to the skull, cool shotgun blasts to the gut, and hand grenades stuffed into the mouth of a decapitated head—it’s equal parts visceral and sappy. Every single death is shown; they’re also all announced to us with on-screen text and to the students via the island’s intercom system. Blood spurts in bright, CGI-enhanced red, as the score aches with the crescendo-straining music of Verdi, Strauss, Schubert and Bach; Fukasaku builds slo-motion montages of extreme low and high angles for the sustained shootouts; and zooms dramatically out to represent the souls leaving the body and diffusing into the fading sunlight. In inserts, the sincerest wishes of the dying are printed in white letters on a black background—Chigusa prays that she can live long enough to tell her crush how cool he looks.
In Battle Royale—Fukusaku’s last film, made at the end of Japan’s Lost Decade—the director fully empathized with adolescents stepping out into an untrustworthy world. (Like the BR kids, Fukasaku was a fifteen-year-old conscriptee, drafted into a munitions factory in summer of 1945.) It’s not just in its videogame set-up that Battle Royale feels attuned to the mindset of its subjects—it’s the way Fukasaku’s sentimental, grandiose direction treats high school relationships as the most consequential bonds imaginable. Most high school movies identify with the characters, who’ve only ever known high school, not with the middle-aged filmmakers behind the camera. The genius of Battle Royale is the devilish way it pushes this dynamic to baroque heights, staging the teenage milestones in the most elevated, cinematic terms possible—as a spectacular action film. Here, as in the Season 3 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, graduation really is the end of the world.
The version of Battle Royale screening at Japan Society this week is the theatrical release (the first public NYC screening in perhaps a decade, now that a new distributor has acquired the film as part of a package deal). In the director’s cut, long available on DVD, Fukasaku also includes regular flashbacks a basketball game; many of the boys of Class 3-B are playing some other school, the girls are cheerleaders, and the rest are watching in the stands (Mitsuko stands off by the gymnasium door). The game ends, near the climax of the film, with a buzzer-beating victory, the whole class storming the court in joyous slow motion. The whole, happy unit is restored—and the nostalgia makes sense, given what Fukasaku does throughout. To the extent that narrative helps arrange life experience in a satisfying way, it does so not just by making life-stories valid—by bending ears with violent, romantic, mythologies—but by making it cohesive, by threading up all the through-lines and editing out loose threads, missed connections and go-nowhere subplots. Battle Royale doesn’t just tell a ripping yarn— it kills off all the supporting characters before they can be recast.
[Author’s Note: This piece draws from my undergraduate thesis, written about five years ago at NYU’s Cinema Studies department in a seminar led by Robert Sklar, who—as the half-dozen of us spent the semester working out what, exactly, the requirements of the class and final paper ought to be—told us stories about his early postwar jobs as a rewrite man, sighed when I asked him whether it was true that he invented fantasy baseball, and was a bemused, encouraging observer of our senior-year academic scrambling. It was a thrill to engage him. Professor Sklar died quite unexpectedly over the holiday weekend; though this piece is hardly a suitable tribute to his memory and his work, it couldn’t have been written without him, and I’m very grateful.]
Mark Asch is the Film Editor of The L Magazine.
Battle Royale (2000) is playing at Japan Society on Friday, July 8. Co-presented by Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film and the New York Asian Film Festival.