Survival horror cum violent slapstick cum social commentary that's one of the most joyous films ever made. Aces.
One of the few truly great moments of social interaction through watching films is provided by one of the stand out movies of 2000. It arises when you, the erudite owner of the film, watch the film along with one of the unfortunate many who have yet to had the sheer joy of experiencing it. It's even better if they have in some way heard of the movie through some high falutin' review. It is the moment at which your compadre realises that this isn't actually a high-concept social commentary. It's a very violent slapstick comedy that happens to have a busload of schoolkids killing each other with a variety of household implements.
The setup runs thus. In the not too distant future, Japan is a society on the edge of an abyss. The failing economy and collapsing confidence leads to the nations children losing all respect for the capability and confidence of their elders. In schools, this becomes all to apparent with wildcat strikes and assaults on teachers. As part of the frantic opening gambit we see one such teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) suffering a slash to the legs from student Nobu. A few years pass, in which time the government has passed the Battle Royale act.
In a nutshell, to instill a bit of righteous fear in the young scallywags every year an impartial lottery selects one class of teenagers to be kidnapped and taken to a secret windswept island location whereupon they must kill each other off until only one remains. Duncan McCloud would have a field day. This deadly game takes place over the course of three days and three nights, with the kids given basic supplies, a map of the island, a randomly selected weapon to 'eliminate natural advantages' which can range from a pot-lid to a machine gun, and a stylish metal collar which is used to track their movements and also deliver a fatal explosive charge should it be required.
This extravagant life changing scenario can arise if the participants linger in a part of the map declared a 'danger zone', if there are still people alive once the three day limit is reached or in spectacular moment of abject coolness that reaffirms my belief that Takeshi Kitano is the Best Thing Ever, if you piss the teacher off. Returning to take the class over again after the untimely death of their current teacher at some point during the kidnapping process (apparently he disagreed. Not smart.) Nobu gets a little upset while Kitano is explaining the rules of the game. Naturally this leaves him with no choice but to chop Nobu down to size and get a little bit of vengeance which, ever the gentleman, he doesn't glory in.
While the whole class is rather upset at this point, it's Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) who is suffering the most. After the suicide of his father it was Nobu who befriended Nanahara in the orphanage and Nobu's head being attached to his shoulders played an important part in that friendship. As the class take their separate ways at top speed, joined by two older 'transfer students' Kawada and Kiriyama, Nanahara vows to stay with his close friend whom he secretly loves, Noriko (Aki Maeda) and protect her.
The stage is now set for what ends up being a carnage filled horror for the poor kids, but at the same time an utterly hilarious and over the top example of slapstick ultra-violence that's just far too ridiculous to take seriously in any way. Everyone will have their own moment where the pretence of maintaining a detached, dispassionate analysing air of considering the social implications and parallels to Lord of the Flies-esque power structures crumbles and can enjoy the sheer insanity of the situations that director has created from the original novel.
Perhaps the penny drops early with the overly enthusiastic lass giving the instructions on how to kill each other on the training video the class endure before leaving Kitano's class. Perhaps it's when two of the girls use a megaphone to broadcast a plea for clemency that serves only to broadcast their location to the by this point armed to the teeth psychotic Kiriyama. Whenever, there some strange hysteria inducing quality to this movie such that once you realise how damn funny it all is it's difficult to stop laughing until someone punches you.
Partly it's because of the almost taboo nature of the subjects. Violence isn't supposed to be funny. Violence involving kids certainly isn't supposed to be funny. Arbitrary games where kids are forced to kill each other for at best nebulous reasons ought to be sickening and disgusting. There may be some small part of you feeling that something's vaguely wrong while you giggle until you can struggle to breathe, but it's easy to ignore it.
It's the excellent performances from everyone involved that make this such a special and deeply funny movie. Kitano is no stranger to roles involving off the cuff violence, as his masterclass in nonchalant brutality in the aptly named Violent Cop shows. While in truth he has only a supporting role it's certainly a memorable one. Assured and collected, it's only a fraction of what the man is capable of but a fraction of a genius is still genius.
The real stars of the piece are the performances from the actors portraying the set-upon teenagers. Everyone gets their chance to shine, and then most likely be slaughtered by the deranged yet efficient Kiriyama who quickly gathers an impressive array of armaments from his victims. He signed up just for fun, and he seems to be having quite a lot of it. It's infectious too, especially given his knack for comic timing in puncturing moments of touching pathos and declarations of undying love with hot lead. His main competition for most dangerous player comes from the pretty and pretty deadly Mitsuko, who has a knack for charming people to get close to them before stabbing them in the back, occasionally literally.
While some of the students band together purely as a survival technique, a few are coming up with ways to fight back. Perhaps strangely, the main focus is on Noriko and Nanahara as they struggle to understand the chaos unfolding around them and more importantly to survive it. They form a bond with the other, less unstable new guy Kawada who managed to win a previous tournament but returns to try and excise a few ghosts that still haunt him from his past trials.
Latching on to Nanahara and Noriko gives us a few particular characters to identify with, which is necessary given that initially at least everyone is as innocent as everyone else. Also by following their travels it gives a useful narrative device to link at least a few of the bite sized episodic death dealing moments, which stops the film from becoming too messy, in a technical sense at least. Messy is otherwise a fairly good descriptive term given the levels of claret splashed around.
To the casual observer, there's no reason that this should be funny. Continual and isolated moments of extreme brutality involving kids are rarely seen in sit-coms. This is why you may mistake it for something that's trying to have some sort of serious message and perhaps why you'll rationalise it as such after watching it. The sheer relentlessness of it all rather quickly loses it's shock value and becomes rather amusing. For some it may be too much and they'll check out before becoming properly desensitised to the carnage even though it's all rather cartoonish.
If you want to objectify this mayhem as some kind of treatise on the state of modern Japan then we're not going to stop you. If you want to write a discourse on an attempt to fit feudalism into a modern post war society then go right ahead. You're also most likely the kind of person that will pontificate on Godzila being a deep rooted psychological response to nuclear bombs rather than a big lizard causing a ruckus, and there's nothing wrong with that. I can't help but feel there's a lot of hot air spouted about Battle Royale because it's foreign and therefore important and deep. Some people may find something shameful in finding a visceral thrill in the many, many deaths involved in this film. After all, surely it makes it no better than the average slasher film or Commando and isn't it written somewhere that self-proclaimed intellectuals aren't allowed to enjoyed such things?
Sometimes over analysing films reveals a multifaceted delight that enhances your enjoyment. Sometimes it's a desperate justification attempt. Occasionally it doesn't matter. Battle Royale is one of those events that could well be described as many things to many people and be no less enjoyable for all of them. One of the most uniquely enjoyable films to have emerged from any part of the world, let alone Asia, Battle Royale demands to be watched and enjoyed, even analysed if you see fit. Just make sure you see it before your house is declared a danger zone.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 5/5 TippyMarks.
Tatsuya Fujiwara (Shuya Nanahara)
Aki Maeda (Noriko Nakagawa)
Taro Yamamoto (Shougo Kawada)
Masanobu Ando (Kazuo Kiriyama)
Kou Shibasaki (Mitsuko Souma)