The Taboo Thrills of Battle Royale (2000 film)

Battle Royale (2000 film)
Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

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Growing up in the anime fandom of the 2000s, one of the most bootlegged movies was Battle Royale (2000). It was one of those films where you felt like the cool kid for finally being able to see it in America, where a North American distribution seemed off the table. It’s not that the film itself was any more immoral or gross than the likes of Takashi Miike’s filmography, considering I was able to legally watch the grotesquely uncut version of Ichi The Killer (2001) during this time.

The real issue was with the controversial choice of showcasing a violence spree involving junior high school students slaughtering each other. That very premise led to the film being banned from several countries. Yet it was also one of the highest-grossing films in Japan upon its 2000 release. So there must’ve been some appeal to this picture beyond just watching 15-year-olds shoot, slash, and stab their way to survival.

The Loss of Innocence

The film takes place in a dystopian future where the Japanese government has passed the Battle Royale Act as a means of combating juvenile delinquency. The act itself basically forces a random junior high school class to engage in battle for the right to survive. They are all drugged on a bus and awakened on the island, given random weapons, and sent into the wild to kill their fellow classmates.

We get to know a handful of students and their backstories. The central character of Shuya has the most pathos, having endured his father committing suicide. Soon after the games are described, his friend Kuninobu perishes in a showcase of what happens when the rules are not followed. Knowing that Kuninobu was in love with Noriko, Shuya makes it his mission to protect her.

Some students take to the games easily and some just commit suicide. Some form alliances while others become lone wolves killing. Some are even veterans of the games who return with some goal, as with Mitsuko Souma and Kazuo Kiriyama. They all react differently, with some longing for the simpler days of classroom issues while others are excited at finally being able to be more of a bully.

Kitano’s Brilliance

In addition to JSDF soldiers, the central figure running the games is the retired teacher Kitano, fittingly played by Takeshi Kitano. Kitano is one of the most unique actors who went from being a comical character to a violent protagonist in such films as Violent Cop and Sonatine. He walks a great line of low-key humor and terror in this film, right from the moment he walks into the classroom on the island to instruct the teens on their murder adventure.

Given that Kitano stopped teaching after he was injured by Kuninobu, there’s some revenge on his mind for this operation, considering how he uses Kuninobu as an example of the exploding collars all the teens wear. He continues this bitterness with the rest of the students. Prior to Kuninobu’s death, Kitano abruptly kills an interrupting student with a knife to the head. He kills with stern anger but then looks on with dry amusement at the chaos that breaks out in the classroom after they realize they’re not being pranked.

Kitano is a master of playing things straight while taking a dark glee in his sinister actions. His finest scene features his final showdown with the students and trying to find some joy in his bitter life. He takes glee in cookies and tries to shoot the students with a water pistol, leading to his demise. Well, almost. He still gets up to answer the phone, chew out his family, and have one last cookie before finally dying. What a way to go out!

Takeshi Kitano mentioned in an interview how director Kinji Fukasaku told him to play it naturally: “Mr. Fukasaku told me to play myself. I did not really understand, but he told me to play myself, as I ordinarily would be! I’m just trying to do what he tells me.”

The Generational War

As you may have noticed from the teacher being posed against the students, there’s certainly a battle of adolescence versus adulthood. Living in a world with the BR Act is much harder for the teens than the adults who didn’t have such a government program which justifies killing at such a young age. To the adults, they think this act will strengthen kids and teach them some manners, turning them into the adults they are today.

Of course, the adults can’t recognize the inhumanity of this action because they’ve never lived through it. That’s certainly the view Kitano takes, looking over all the students as ungrateful brats that need to take value in their lives. To men like Kitano, they figure that this is what this generation deserves. If they can’t prove themselves to be more than delinquents, maybe they don’t deserve to live.

It’s a very poignant staging for how the older generation always looks down on the one that comes after them. There seems to be a very common divide between generations with how boomers call millennials lazy and entitled while millennials frown upon the social media engrossed zoomers.

Battle Royale acts almost like a warning for the brutal end of the older generations trying to fix the younger ones. Older people, with far more power than teenagers politically, may often use that power to subjugate those younger than them. They may even use the younger generation as an excuse for their cruel actions of societal totalitarianism, using the old cry of “think of the children.” For the adults who approved of the BR Act, they really believe they are saving the future with such viciousness.

Juxtaposed Horror

Battle Royale is a brutal mixture of action and horror that goes beyond just the bullets and the blood. The creepiest elements are when the characters pine for the innocence of school. Down moments or tragic deaths often come bundled with a flashback to simpler days and dreamlike states of not having to worry about which classmate will come for you next. Towards the end of the game, Kitano takes an interest in the old-fashioned school exercises of gym class, listening to a classical music recording to motivate him. Much like the students, it’s a simpler time he longs for, a mild bit of connection amid his “Make Japan Great Again” commitment to the BR Act.

The soundtrack also creates juxtaposed creepiness with the music choices. After the first night of killings, Kitano greets the students over the island’s speakers with the classical music track “Radetzky March (Strauss).” It sounds jolly and lively but also carries an unease for the motivation it implies. Other classic choices include “Blue Danube Waltz (Strauss)” and “Auf dem Wasser zu singen.” The most notable piece of original music is the haunting choir that echoes a somberly hopeful theme throughout.

The Manga With Easy Answers

I was intrigued enough with Battle Royale that I decided to check out the manga adaptation. Aside from the artwork just looking…odd, there’s a much different message present within the story. This aspect of what made Battle Royale appealing as a government disciplinary measure was instead replaced with the free-for-all island war being televised entertainment.

This is perhaps a more believable route for how something like the Battle Royale act would be passed. The concept draws a lot more from such inhumane competition pictures of Death Race 2000 (1975) and The Running Man (1987), where death is treated as a sporting event. Considering the manga came about in the age of reality television rising to the ranks of the highest ratings on network television, this type of staging seemed exceptionally poignant.

That being said, this staging removes an urgency and gut-punch from the original narrative. It shifts the blameless so on higher governmental authorities that approve it and more on the media that promotes it. Even worse, it may even suggest that we are to blame for craving real blood in our entertainment.

The Greater Controversy

The issue with Battle Royale being banned for so long that it was a case of being released at the wrong time. A film all about junior high school students murdering their class wouldn’t exactly play well so soon after the Columbine High School massacre.

This was brought up in the book Japanese Horror Cinema, which went into how test audiences reacted to the film with this in mind, calling the violent picture mindless with its carnage. There had also been talk by American distributors after test screenings where they remarked that they’d probably go to jail if they gave such a film a wide distribution. Another issue addressed was the film would most likely have to be majorly edited to even get an R rating from the MPAA.

Since that time, the film has been released in several countries, including North America with an official release in 2010. Some countries were slower to release it than others. Some countries even released the film but then banned it again, as with Germany in 2013, despite how brief a time it was considered a controversial film before being approved for another video release.

Video Games

These days, the term Battle Royale carries a different meaning. It’s not referred to as a form of online gaming. Such games as Playerunknown Battlegrounds and Fortnite carry the same concept as the movie. Players are thrown onto an island with restrictions and weapons, forced to battle to the death.

If you were to say Battle Royale to a teenager today, they’d most likely think of these games. While the games are not played with some greater theme of combatting higher powers, it does speak to a competitive edge that is posed on a generation.

Battle Royale used to be looked upon as a brutal narrative of young people struggling to live in a totalitarian world of adults. Now it’s looked upon as a literal sport considering how these games are covered. There’s something a bit disheartening about how the concept has become more indicative of the manga than the book or movie, even just as a video game.

A Somewhat Hopeful Ending

The film ends with three students having broken the rules of the game and escaping to live their own lives. They are able to conquer over the ruling adults and live outside the world they’ve been forced into. They can forge their own destiny beyond such cruelty, with some of that rebellion carrying over in the sequel.

The final text of the film displays the word “run” and director Fukasaku intended for this to be a hopeful final note. He briefly described this choice as being words for the next generation. Keep moving and keep running.

The older generation is hoping you’ll slow down and won’t deserve a future. Play by the rules if you have to but break the unjust ones when you can and make this the world you want when the other generation leaves.