Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Takeshi Kitano, Chiaki Kuriyama
“There’s a way out of this game. Kill yourselves together, here, now. If you can’t do that, then don’t trust anyone. Just run.” (Kawada, Battle Royale)
Teenagers are pricks. That’s what Japan thinks in Battle Royale, and that’s why the film starts with the passing of the Millennium Educational Reform Act. A tricky piece of legislature, it basically sees one class of fifteen year-old pupils (chosen by random lottery) being taken to a remote island each year and made to kill each other. And to think we Brits rioted over tuition fees.
This year it’s the turn of Nanahara Shuya’s class, so as he and the rest of his unwitting fellow students set off on what they think is a class trip they don’t realise the bus is actually heading to Clusterfuck Island (which is unfortunately my name for it, not the film’s). Naturally, they’re a bit shocked to find out they’re all marked for death, and are equally surprised when their old school teacher, Kitano (of Takeshi’s Castle and a million other Japanese films fame) turns up to tell them the rules.
Kitano essentially tells the pupils that because the nation’s teenagers are arseholes they’re being taught a lesson. Each kid will be given a bag with supplies and a random weapon. It could be something really handy (like a crossbow or an Uzi) or it could be a load of pish (a frying pan, which might as well just be a shovel so they can dig their own grave in advance). They have to kill each other until one child remains, at which point that child will get to go back home.
The natural reaction in a situation like this would be to think of ways to get out of having to kill your mates, so Kitano goes on to explain (via an incredibly darkly comic instructional video) that they can’t pull a fast one because of the steel collars around their necks. These collars track the students and monitor their pulse rates (so the organisers can tell if they’re dead). More importantly though, they’re also armed with powerful explosives which can be triggered at any time causing the wearer’s neck to explode, killing them.
These collars are a genius plot device because they explain away all the “what if they do this” questions with the simple answer “their neck will explode”. What if they try to remove the collar? Their neck will explode. What if they try to leave the island? The collar’s tracking them, so their neck will explode. What if everyone decides to call a truce and spend the rest of their lives on the island? Bit pointless, because the game has a time limit of three days, after which point everyone’s neck will explode. Basically, they can’t get out of it.
Considering Battle Royale has the difficult task of introducing a huge cast of 42 characters and trying to make them all interesting, it actually does a very good job of this. While some pupils only get a few seconds of screen time or are already found dead, the vast majority (even the bit-part characters) still feel like individual characters with their own personalities, which keeps things interesting as each pupil tries to play the game their own way.
The classroom slut uses her sexuality to seducing male pupils until they drop their guards and she can kill them, while deep down she just wants attention. The loving couple decide they can’t take it and jump off a cliff hand-in-hand. The virgin, in an act of desperation, threatens to rape the athletic girl (played by Chiyaki Kuriyama who later played GoGo in Kill Bill), but gets what he deserves. The shy girls try to call a truce but only draw attention to themselves from the more dangerous pupils. The geeks try to hack the military network to bring the system down. The constant sideplots and different methods make the film immensely engaging and while you think you know who’s going to survive at the end, you’re never really sure until the film’s conclusion.
Everything about Battle Royale oozes class. The music is a powerful mix of classical music and dramatic “DA DA DA DUM” stings when something shocking happens. The occasional appearances by Kitano keep a vein of dark humour flowing throughout the film. The death scenes are realistic enough to shock, but not too gory to disgust. And the ending, while a little ludicrous (featuring one of the oddest death scenes you’ll ever see), is still fitting.
Battle Royale is a film you really should see. It makes you consider an interesting question (could you kill all your friends if it was the only way to stay alive?) and is handled with a surprising degree of tact given the subject matter. If you’ve never seen it before, watch the trailer below and try to tell me it doesn’t look like a powerful movie.