How often does it happen that a director's final film made such an enormous impact? Upon release, Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale [Batoru Rowaiaru] became an instant cult classic, hailed by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, lodging itself into the minds of millions of teens across the globe. For many it became an introduction to Japanese live action cinema, paving the way for many other contemporaries. It's been years since I last watched Battle Royale though, so I was eager to find out if the film still held up after all this time.
Battle Royale is an adaptation of Koushun Takami's novel by the same name. While the setup borrows some ideas from other sources (many were quick to point out similarities to Glaser's The Running Man), the impact of Takami and Fukasaku's work is obvious when you know there's an entire niche of last-man-standing video games that was named after the film/book. There's a certain clarity, purity and directness often missing from other releases, which allowed Battle Royale to become the cultural landmark it is today.
The idea is pretty simple. Because adults are messing up big time, children are taking matters into their own hands and are quickly spinning out of control. Adults don't really know how to handle their offspring and in an attempt to regain control, they organize a yearly battle, hoping this will instil enough fear into the kids to beat them back into submission. One class is randomly selected, off-loaded onto an island and given some random tools to fend for themselves. They're allowed three days to kill off all the others, if not everybody dies.
And so the countdown begins. After a short introduction, 40+ kids are given a backpack and are sent into the wilderness. It doesn't take very long before factions and groups start to form, at the same time bodies start piling up. The film focuses on Shuya and Noriko as they try to survive the madness, ultimately teaming up with one of the two "transfer" students that were added to the game to spice things up. Sticking together proves harder than expected though and as the deadline approaches some tough decisions have to be made.
It has to be said that the visuals are starting to look a little dated. The muted colors don't add much to the appeal of the film and things get a little too dark and murky at times. Though these might have been stylistic choices, it's somewhat typical for late 90s Japanese cinema and since they don't really match the mood of the film it just doesn't feel very deliberate. At least the camera work is solid, with adequate focus on the action, while also dynamic enough to convey the sense of dread and mortality that haunts the contestants.
The soundtrack is a lot better. Battle Royale has some absurd touches and the music plays an important part in that. Every 6 hours the latest kills are announced to the players, set to popular and upbeat classical pieces (including compositions by Verdi, Strauss and Bach). The effect is pretty bonkers, but the contrast between the grim events and the jolly presentation is an essential part of Battle Royale's appeal and the music is one of the stand-out choices that accentuates his contrast.
The cast is pretty much a who's who of early millennial Japanese cinema. Actors like Tatsuya Fujiwara, Chiaki Kuriyama, Masanobu Ando and Ko Shibasaki all made a name for themselves here. The most notable performance comes from long-time actor and director Takeshi Kitano though, who plays the manically calm overseer of the slaughter. His docile and matter-of-factly intonation coupled with his stark expression (including the trademark nervous twitch) make him one of the greatest bad guys in film history.
Putting a bunch of kids on an island, forcing them to kill each other until only one is left is all the cult potential needed for a break-out hit, but Battle Royale didn't quite stop there. It added multiple absurd touches to further increase the cult level. The overly joyous anime-like introduction video, the upbeat soundtrack and well-timed death speeches all add to the weirdness, but nothing tops Kitano's finale. A scene I will not spoil, but is sure to have people scratching their heads (with little hope for clearing up any confusion, even after consecutive views). These bits of absurdity may put some people off, but to me they are the prime reason this film has kept its appeal over the years.
Battle Royale is a grim film with a cheery presentation. It strikes a difficult balance between shock, amusement and absurdity that is better experienced than explained. Though there is some technical decay noticeable, Battle Royale is still an amazing experience. It's dynamic, in-your-face, strange and more than a little bewildering, but most of all it's a hell of a lot of fun. It's one of those films you must have seen at least once, if only to know what others are talking about.