Battle Royale

Battle Royale (2000) movie poster

(2000) director Kinji Fukasaku
viewed: 02/23/11

Wow.  Really,  I can’t believe that I didn’t get around to seeing this movie for a decade.

Released in 2000, Kinji Fukasaku’s film Battle Royale was a sensation from the onset.  Adapted from a novel written by Koushun Takami, the film’s premise seemed both shocking and yet also familiar.  Set in an alternate reality, under a fascist state, a class of teenagers is selected to be set on an island, handed weapons, and is instructed that by the end of three days, they have to kill each other.  Only one can survive by that time or they will all die.  They have bands around their necks that will explode is they tamper with them or try to break any rules.

With the onslaught of reality television (2000 was the year that the television show Survivor became a hit), I think I had assumed that this played out along the lines of a reality show.  That is not the angle of this film, unlike Death Race 2000 (1975) or its re-make Death Race (2008), or many others in which characters are selected to do battle for the entertainment of an audience, Battle Royale focuses less on voyeurism and more on the totalitarian control and manipulation, as well as social interactions, cliques, and the ruthlessness of humanity.  There are hints of Lord of the Flies, but this is a system set to dehumanize the students, otherwise a normal group of teenagers, ranging from loners and wallflowers to athletes, outsiders, and popular kids.

They are instructed by their former teacher, the inimitable Takeshi Kitano, as well as a poppy, psychotic television hostess on the schema of the game.  The randomness of the brutality, the perpetuity of the violence, and the mixture of irony and dead seriousness, keeps the film’s edge razor sharp.  It’s social satire and it’s not.

Interestingly, Fukasaku imbued his film with his experience as a youth during World War II.  The state which drafted teenagers to fight, to kill, to betray to survive perhaps carries its gravitas from this subtle sensibility.  It really is quite close to a masterpiece.

I actually watched the “Special Edition” version of the film, and from what I’ve read about how it differs from the original, the additions may be the elements that were the most off-putting, including some sentimental “Requiems” tacked on to the ending.  This film, however, is not purely exploitative, though there have been many who reacted to the film’s subject matter as if that was its primary intent.  It’s a dark film, not lacking in humor, but whose more constrained tone elevates and blackens the material.

Fukasaku made a number of films in his career, but Battle Royale is doubtlessly a powerful, significant film.  And like I said, I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to seeing it.

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