“Don’t forget, life is a game. So fight for survival, and find out if you’re worth it.” These are the words Kitano, the teacher, gives to his students, right before they head off to kill their fellow classmates.
Some of you readers were probably still in Pampers when Battle Royale initially came out. Guess what? It’s 15 years old, and if you haven’t already seen it, we think you should. Based on Koushun Takami’s novel, the Japanese film courted controversy before it was even released. Given the premise of 42 high school students having to kill each other off, it’s not a surprise to learn that politicians tried to get it banned. It also didn’t see an official release in the US for over ten years.
From Toei Company and directed by Kinji Fukasaku (known for his yakuza epic Battles Without Honour and Humanity), it presents a dystopian future of Japan. With the nation crumbling, and millions unemployed, students begin boycotting school. Fearing what’s happening with the youth population, the government passes the Millennium Educational Reform Act, aka The Battle Royale act.
Only One Can Survive
Each year a random class of high school students is chosen and placed on an island. This year it’s the 42 students of Shiroiwa Junior High School, 9th Grade, Class B. They have three days to kill each other off until there is only one left. If after three days more than one survives, then the explosive collars around their necks will explode and they all die.
With the game overseen by their former teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), the focus is on two students, Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), both of whom are reluctant to kill their classmates, but find that in order save each other, they have to play the game.
Here was a film that did not shy away from going to extremes, as the teenagers commit acts of horror because of the horrific situation in which they find themselves: at one point a student’s severed has a grenade stuck in its mouth before being lobbed into a shack. Even the opening ten minutes feature a smiling blood-stained schoolgirl, a suicide and a teacher getting slashed.
Amid the extreme violence the film injects moments of dark humour and touches on numerous themes such as social pressure, youth crime, bullying and trusting your friends (the film’s tagline was “Could you kill your best friend?”). It also has something to say about the expectations placed upon children, the education system and the generation gap, with adults losing respect and fearing the youth. Battle Royale presents a future where those in power have decided that getting teenagers to kill themselves off is a better alternative than having them grow up as potential lawbreakers.
“The blurb said: ‘42 junior high students – dead,’” said director Fukasaku of the novel at a press conference during the final few days of the film’s shoot. “It wasn’t just shocking. As a high school student during the [second world] war, I had first hand experience of death and annihilation, and that’s why I was determined to make this movie.”
Working in a munitions factory during World War II, he described how he would struggle to hide or escape when the US Task Force opened fire. “It was impossible to run or hide from the shells that rained down. We survived by diving for cover under our friends. After the attacks, my class had to dispose of the corpses. It was the first time in my life I’d seen so many dead bodies. As I lifted severed arms and legs, I had a fundamental awakening … everything we’d been taught in school about how Japan was fighting the war to win world peace, was a pack of lies. Adults could not be trusted.”
Battle Royale was Fukasaku’s 60th film. Before shooting, he spent six months with the young actors, going through script reading and putting them through physical tests. Filming took place in the summer of 2000, during which Fukasaku turned 70. One of the issues with converting a novel of over 600 pages into a two-hour film was that there’s only so much time to devote to each of the students (most of whom are on screen for just a matter of minutes). However, Fukasaku made sure that their final moments prove to be unforgettable, be it their last lines (“I just didn’t want to be a loser anymore”) or their actions (two students use a megaphone, calling out to their classmates to stop fighting, with disastrous consequences).
What the film adds over the novel is a soundtrack. Juxtaposing classical themes from the likes of Verdi, Strauss and Bach is unexpected, but emphasises the disturbing yet powerful imagery. As with End Of Evangelion, Battle Royale makes it impossible for you to hear Bach’s “Air on the G String” in quite the same way again; you won’t be able to listen to it without recalling the heartrending moment when a teenager is shot repeatedly.
Calls For A Ban
Battle Royale was issued with an R-15 rating by Eirin, the Japanese ratings board, barring a large number of its target audience from seeing it; those aged 14 and under. Interestingly, the rating was based on the violence in the script. In an interview with Midnight Eye, Fukasaku described the R-15 rating as, “something I couldn’t accept. I did lodge a complaint and asked for a review.”
However, he had to withdraw his appeal after education ministers Tadamori Oshima and Nobutaka Machimura stepped in, asking cinemas not to show the film, while Democratic Party member Koki Ishii launched a campaign to ban it (even though he had not seen it), worried that the film would inspire teenagers to imitate the actions seen on screen.
When talking to Reuters, Fukasaku spoke of the politicians’ response to his film, saying, “I think they are stupid. I talked with high school students who saw my film in a preview and they all understood it. This shows that politicians have a poorer understanding and such people have no right to comment on movies.” He later encouraged the youth of Japan to try and see the film.
The buzz surrounding its R-15 rating and the attempts to ban it only served to make people seek the film out. Capturing the zeitgeist of a generation, people were lining up at cinemas in Tokyo days before the film was due to open. When it was finally released on 16 December 2000, Battle Royale earned ¥613 million ($5.45 million) during its opening weekend. It went on to earn ¥3.11 billion ($27.6 million) during its theatrical run.
Six months after the initial shoot, Fukasaku gathered his cast together again to shoot some extra flashback scenes for a specially cut special edition that would allow those under 15 to view the film. Some scenes that were originally cut were also reinserted. The special edition was released within a matter of months on 6 April 2001, giving fans another reason to go see it.
Battling In The USA
Although the film was never actually banned in the US, it didn’t see an official release there till January 2012 by Anchor Bay (coincidently, just months before the release of the similarly themed The Hunger Games). With numerous stories as to why it took so long, some highlighted Toei’s high licensing fees, alienating small but interested distributors, while those that could afford to market it would never touch the film while still so close to the Columbine high school shootings. One of the main reasons cited appeared to be that Toei had many buyers, but simply refused to offer the rights to anyone, never fully explaining why. Anyone in the US that was curious about the film had to import the DVD to see what all the fuss was about. Especially when director Quentin Tarantino called it his “favourite movie of all time”, going so far as to cast actress Chiaki Kuriyama (who plays Takako Chigusa) in Kill Bill.
Its limited release in the UK in September 2001 surprisingly went without a hitch, distributed by the then Tartan Films (God bless Tartan Films). It was, however, marred by unfortunate circumstance, opening just days after the 9/11 attacks. With the world having witnessed real world death and destruction across news channels, a film where teenagers kill each other might not have been the escapism people were looking for at the time.
Over the years, the impact of Battle Royale has not been diminished. Battle Royale II: Requiem was released in 2003, directed by Fukasaku’s son, Kenta, who took over after his father died from cancer. However, with a more political slant the film struggled to replicate the same level of success. A manga adaptation was serialised in Japan which ran for over four years. It saw an English language release in the US and UK via Tokyopop, compiled into 15 volumes, with Masayuki Taguchi’s illustrations forcing the reader to see every bit of blood, sweat and tears.
The film marked its 10th anniversary in Japan with a 3D re-release that saw CG bullets and blood flying towards the audience, as well as a new theme song: “CHECKMATE”, a modern reworking of Verdi’s “Requiem Dies Irae”, featuring Anna Tsuchiya collaborating with rapper ANTY the Kunoichi.
2010 also saw Arrow Films finally release the film on Blu-Ray, with a limited edition box set that included a number of goodies. Notably it came with an exclusive prequel comic book, Parent’s Day. Written by Stefan Hutchinson and Barry Keating, it manages to tie in with certain events that lead up to the film, as two students discover that their class has been elected to take part in the next Battle Royale.
Fans of the film can delve even further after the last year saw the publication of a “remastered” translation of the novel and Battle Royale: Angels’ Border, a manga side story penned by original author Koushun Takami, focusing on the girls who took shelter in the lighthouse, mainly Chisato Matsui and Haruka Tanizawa. There’s also the Battle Royale Slam Book, a collection of thought-provoking essays about the novel and film. One contribution from John Skipp has him mention his experience of the film, even going so far as to show it to his two teenage daughters (best dad ever?).
15 years on and Battle Royale’s influence can be seen in video games, comic books and films. Marvel’s Avengers Arena comic book borrowed heavily with a similar premise and a cover design that mimics the film’s poster and logo. Also both the novel and film gained further prominence after The Hunger Games was adapted for the big screen, with many citing various similarities between the two (even though author Suzanne Collins claims to have never read or seen Battle Royale).
Still topical and relevant, Fukasaku’s daring yet tragic cautionary tale is regarded by many around the world as a cult classic, showing how the themes and struggles faced by the characters are not just restricted to Japan, but relatable to all. As one of the most important films to come out of Japan, for those that haven’t seen it, Battle Royale certainly deserves your attention and will stay with you long after. You also can’t help but ask, “What would I do?”
Battle Royale is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Arrow Films.