The following retrospective on the film was published in SFX Magazine, Future Publishing. I also wrote a piece focusing on the Battle Royale novel for the Manga Entertainment blog.
Half asleep, Japanese author Koshun Takimi envisioned a classroom, with a teacher telling the pupils to listen up and pay attention at the back. “Now today…I’m going to have you all kill each other.”
Inspired by this picture, Takimi wrote the 600-page novel Battle Royale, in which a class of forty-two schoolkids (twenty-one boys, twenty-one girls) is kidnapped to a deserted island. Here, the students are told their class has been randomly selected for a government social control “Program.” They must fight each other on the beaches, in the mountains and woods, with weapons ranging from sickles to machine guns. There will be only one survivor. The students are fitted with explosive collars, so if they fight back, BANG.
If you think it sounds like a Stephen King plot, you’re spot on. The novel’s first chapter quotes King’s “The Body,” and the hero’s home town is called Shiroiwa, Japanese for “Castle Rock” (the fictional setting of many King books). Takimi said he was probably influenced by King’s 1979 book, The Long Walk. It imagined one hundred teen boys marching endlessly through America. As each boy tires, he’s shot dead by soldiers, until just one remains.
Takimi also wanted to critique Japan’s conformist culture. “Even if a rule is clearly ridiculous,” he said, “nobody will speak out against it, because people think, If I say something, others will think I’m different.” (There’s a brutal Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”) In Battle Royale, the situation forces the youngsters to act differently. Some turn killer, some fight the system. Some hide away, or devote themselves to protecting the person they care most about.
Some even kill themselves rather than play the game, perhaps reflecting a culture in which suicide (especially romantic “double suicide,” where a couple dies together), is often seen as noble. As the film critic Kim Newman said of the film, “A US movie like The Hills Have Eyes posits that we would all become murderers if threatened with murder, but (Battle Royale) insists that sometimes we would choose to die rather than kill.”
What would you do? is a key question posed by the story. Another is Who would you trust? You may go to school with the same people for years, but how well do you know them? In Battle Royale, affectionate friends, even lovers, become hysterical killers in a blink. Another influence cited by Takimi was John Carpenter’s film, The Thing.
With its eye-catching cover blurb – “42 high-schoolers massacre!” – Battle Royale was a bestseller. Among the youngsters who bought it was a lad called Kenta, who showed it to his dad. That dad was Kinji Fukasaku, who had been using screen violence for anti-establishment causes since before Takimi was born. Some SF fans knew Fukasaku’s genre entries, such as 1968’s The Green Slime (about monsters on a spaceship) and 1980’s Virus (about the end of the world). In Japan, though, Fukasaku was famous for his crime films, especially an eight-film yakuza cycle called Battles Without Honour and Humanity.
Fukasaku read Takimi’s book, which struck a very personal chord with him. Unlike Takimi, or any of the youngsters devouring his book, Fukasaku knew a world where teenagers were thrust into deadly combat situations, seeing horrors remembered for a lifetime. “The words electrified my own memories,” he said. “If (Battle Royale) hadn’t connected with my personal experience of witnessing mass slaughter, I might not even have read it.”
In July 1945, in the last days of the Pacific War, 15 year-old Fukasaku was working in a munitions factory. It was shelled by an American battleship; about twenty of his classmates were killed. Fukasaku was forced to clean up his friends’ severed arms and legs. “Contemporary children don’t encounter situations where their arms and legs can be blown off, right?” he said. “But I have.” The teenage Fukasaku had a revelation. Everything he’d been taught about Japan fighting for “peace” was a fraud, and adults could not be trusted.
Takiami’s book was set in an alternate world, where Japan was replaced by the totalitarian Republic of Greater East Asia. But Fukasaku dismissed this. “Where is this republic, what kind of country is it like?” he asked. For him, Battle Royale was about the real end-of-millennium Japan, where the economy, family and society were crashing into no-future nihilism. And one sign of the breakdown was an epidemic of violent kids.
From the 1990s, Japan’s press reported shocking crimes committed by teenagers. A young boy was killed in 1997 in the city of Kobe, his head cut off. The killer, another boy, was 14. Three years later, a 17 year-old hijacked a bus and murdered a woman. Such horrors led to talk of war between Japan’s generations, echoing the British panic when two boys killed a toddler, James Bulger, in 1993. Then, the British politicians and tabloids had turned on a schlock-horror pic, Child’s Play 3. In Japan, Battle Royale would get a similar treatment.
For Fukasaku, the violence of Battle Royale was his way to talk to the young, taking his own ordeal as a starting point. In interviews, he spoke of the emotions he experienced after the massacre: hatred and hostility towards adults, but also “a gentle sentimentality for my friends.” He played down the suggestion that he was trying to advise his audience with the film, but also said, “The main theme is the restoration of trust” – between old and young, or kids and kids.
Battle Royale was Fukasaku’s sixtieth film. He himself turned seventy during production. Rather than relaxing behind monitors, Fukasaku went at the shoot like a white-haired dynamo, barracking inept kid actors, racing up steep hills, acting everything out himself. In rehearsal footage, he shows a teenage girl how to “die” by lying on the floor and enacting the dying-swan in full. (“Ah, I haven’t even had a boyfriend yet…”)
His young cast was awed. Actor Taro Yamamoto, who played the pivotal character Shogo, said, “(Fukushima) had a walking stick at the audition, but when we began rehearsals, he suddenly started running around… He’s like a superhero!”
Unlike The Hunger Games – which, contra fanboy myths, is a very different work – Battle Royale has no dominant character. The story follows one boy/girl couple in the game, but they’re “everykid” ciphers and Fukasaku himself seemed bored with them. His son Kenta, who wrote the film, claimed Fukasaku enlarged the role of a psycho student, played by Masanobu Ando. The reason? “(Fukasaku) said, I don’t like a decent guy after all!”
But the most memorable student is Chigusa, played by actress Chiaki Kiriyama. She only gets one standout sequence in the film, but what a sequence. We won’t spoil it here, but Chigusa plays a glowering girl jogger, described in the novel as beautiful and fierce. In the film, she’s that and bloody terrifying, in a way to make Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers cross their legs. Her few minutes’ presence struck Quentin Tarantino, who cast her as psycho schoolgirl Gogo in the first Kill Bill. (Kiriyama would be perfect casting as Johanna in the Hunger Games series.)
The best-known actor in Battle Royale, though, is an adult, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. He plays the kids’ scarred, homicidal teacher turned ringmaster, who kills a boy and girl before the game even starts. Kitano is a Japanese star, who began as a comedian before winning acclaim, like Fukasaku, with crime pictures. Unlike Fukasaku, Kitano directed and starred in them. He often plays a rogue yakuza or cop, capable of shocking violence, but also of wry humour and tenderness. His Battle Royale character (who’s also called Kitano, with a different Japanese spelling) keeps to this persona; monstrous, yet possessed of more pathos and sadness than anyone else in the film.
Such nuances didn’t impress the politicians. Censorship controversies are rare in Japan, but several members of Japan’s Parliament called for Battle Royale to be banned, on the grounds it would corrupt teenagers. In Japan, the film was restricted to over-15s, and the education minister warned cinemas to check IDs. For his part, Fukasaku reportedly called for underage viewers to storm cinemas.
Perhaps because of all this, the film was a smash in Japan. In Britain, it was rated 18 and released without controversy, perhaps because reviewers were reeling from a far grislier J-horror, Audition, released a few months earlier. And perhaps it was because Battle Royale opened in Britain in September 2001, five days after the world turned upside down.
The film did not get a proper US release for a decade. The sticking point was less the premise – children fighting to the death – than many of the youngsters using guns. Japan has suffered ghastly youth crimes, but very few Japanese people outside organised crime can get firearms. (In the 2004 anime series Paranoia Agent, Tokyo is terrorised by a demon child wielding a baseball bat.)
In America, though, distributors were all too aware of the shadow of Columbine (the massacre took place in April 1999). They also remembered the trials of Oliver Stone’s film Natural Born Killers, which was charged in court for provoking copycat killings. One indie distributor claimed it offered to give Battle Royale a limited, art-house release. The Japanese studio, though, dreamed of a bigger opening that wouldn’t happen. As of writing, the film is finally playing in select American cinemas, and on home DVD.
Its dynamo director, though, can’t promote it. Kinji Fukasaku died in 2003, having just embarked on Battle Royale’s sequel (see the boxout). His sixtieth and last film, in a four-decade career, would be the one most widely celebrated around the world.
BOXOUT 1: THE SPECIAL EDITION
Battle Royale’s success in Japanese cinemas led to a special edition reissue a few months later. It has some newly-shot footage with the reunited cast, plus jazzed-up gore effects, but it’s mostly spurious. The tweaked splatter adds nothing to the shock of the original. New scenes include an inane flashback that turns child abuse into a cartoon, and the class students in a basketball game. The sole interesting new scene is at the very end, featuring a mellowed-out Tekeshi Kitano (the killer teacher). In 2010, Battle Royale was reissued in Japanese cinemas once more, this time in 3D.
BOXOUT 2: THE SEQUEL
Kinji Fukasaku died of prostate cancer just after starting Battle Royale II: Requiem. His son Kenta made the film. Like the original, its premise is inflammatory; kids battle heroic terrorists who cause 9/11-style carnage. (Kenta said his father reacted to the real 9/11 with applause.) The sequel has chutzpah, pastiching the beach-landing in Saving Private Ryan. But it’s also overlong, pompous, mostly uninvolving and – especially at the end – laughably stupid. One of the better strands involves the Kitano character’s unseen daughter from the first film, now played by Ai Maeda. She’s more memorable than her sister Aki, who was the first film’s heroine.