Imagine a totalitarian government that, aided by the media, forces randomly selected teenagers to compete in a harrowing fight to the death. Fans of The Hunger Games novels may be disappointed that this is not an early review of the new movie adaptation, but rather of Battle Royale--a controversial Japanese film that came out nearly ten years before book one was published.
I'm not here to argue my belief or non-belief of Suzanne Collins' claims that she'd never heard of Battle Royale before writing her wildly successful kid-lit opus--that will happen tomorrow, after I see The Hunger Games. Regardless, director Kinji Fukasaku and writer Koushun Takami's film (based on Kenta Fuasaku's book) is distinctly powerful and original in its own right. The decade-plus since its release has seen rampant speculation about an American remake--speculation always followed by head-shaking insistence that no mainstream studio would dare to go as far as the original.
At the turn of the century, we're told, Japan experienced a violent outbreak of teenage rebellion that led the government to pass the Millennium Education Reform Act. Under this law,several times a year, a class of high school students is randomly drugged, transported to a remote island, and then revived in order to participate in "Battle Royale".
They are provided backpacks stocked with food, water, a map, and a weapon--the effectiveness of which is not always apparent (a pot lid, for example, might seem pathetic compared to an uzi, until desperation and imagination kick in). At the end of three days, only one person can remain standing. Otherwise, the explosive collars with which everyone in the group has been outfitted will detonate. To keep the action moving, the island has been split into zones that emit signals to the collars during certain times of day. This prevents the children from simply waiting out the action or seeking a means of escape.
Battle Royale features a class comprised of forty-two students, many of whom recognize the man administering their collective torture: Kitano-sensi (Takeshi Kitano), a former teacher who resigned years earlier after having been stabbed outside of class. He watches them with the cool, distant stare of a zoo janitor, while cruelly barking out inspirational phrases over the island's many loudspeakers ("Go for it!").
The film tells many of the kids' stories through vignettes ranging from ten-second flashbacks to several sub-plots peppered throughout the long weekend. Mostly, it centers on Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), two friends who we know will eventually fall in love. Spinning out from there is a web comprised of his crowd and her crowd, plus their mutual enemies and their enemies' enemies--amping up the already magnified world of teenage drama and petty differences to epically lethal proportions.
It's a child-centric story, for sure, but don't mistake Battle Royale for the kind of movie where spunky, resourceful kids band together to defeat the bad guys. No, this film is a brilliant study in human behavior, particularly youth behavior. The movie's deaths are often sudden and shocking because the actors all look like they were picked from a real high school assembly. Many get picked off early on due either to clumsiness or not understanding how high the stakes really are. Others succumb to despair and exit the game early, of their own accord. Still others use Battle Royale as an excuse to get revenge for past wrongs and turn into far-from-expert, wannabe killing machines. If it weren't for the inclusion of two older boys--outsiders who'd survived previous battles--I don't know that anyone would have been left of this lot.
Ah, yes, the older kids. Kawada (Taro Yamamoto) survived a previous challenge and was recruited again to compete against students three years his junior. He befriends Shuya and Noriko as a sort of badass Han Solo; mostly, he helps them stear clear of the other older boy, Kazuo (Masanobu Ando), a psychopath who volunteered for the games so he could execute people. His status as the island's most dangerous hunter is rivaled only by Mitsuko (Ko Shibasaki), though both of them share an appetite for blood that far outmatches their skills--Kazuo never learns to properly fire his machine gun, choosing to let stray bullets do most of the damage.
But I digress, sort of. Battle Royale takes the premise of teens killing each other as a form of discipline and population control to all the great, bleak conclusions the premise implies. Sure, it gets a bit goofy towards the end, as Kitano goes off the rails and professes what may or may not be inappropriate affection for Noriko--but his character stands as a great warning to both teens and adults. His is a tragic story of an educator betrayed by his students who gives up and runs in the totally opposite direction: if you can't beat 'em, give 'em weapons and a deadline. I also love his opening speech, in which he essentially lays out information that any one of the kids could have discovered had they paid attention to the wider world around them.
Battle Royale is the reason I have huge problems with most American movies aimed at teen audiences. Actually, my problem isn't with the teens--they are, after all, who Harry Potter is made for. No, I take issue with the adults who defend such things as entertaining, dark filmmaking. When someone tries to convince me how heavy the drama is in, say, The Deathly Hallows Part Two, I wonder what their reaction would be to seeing Hermione Granger stumble out of the enchanted woods with an arrow through her neck. Now, that's heavy drama!
I'm not suggesting that every film aimed at kids feature dismemberment and betrayal, but there's a big difference between movies made about children and movies made for children. If you're going to suggest that I give a story about pubescents legit consideration, at the very least I'd appreciate some emotional honesty and a conflict whose resolution can't be guessed by looking at the poster or release schedule. If you're truly hungry for a smart, gripping coming-of-age story with a sick sense of humor and a sicker body count, you can't beat Battle Royale.