Battle Royale review

:. Director: Kinji Fukasaku
:. Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Takeshi Kitano
:. Running Time: 1:54
:. Year: 2000
:. Country: Japan


Japan. In the near future, the unemployment rate has reached 15% and hundreds of thousands of students have rejected the educational system.

In view of the scope of unrest, and in order to avoid a catastrophe, the government has established a new law called "Battle Royale". Every year, a class of 9th grade students is chosen randomly and sent on a desert island where, after three days, only one can survive, otherwise all the survivors will be killed. They're left no other choice but to kill each other. Each student is given a different weapon (from a strainer to a machine gun or grenades) and food. They are free to move about the island, though they all wear a booby-trapped electronic necklace that can explode and kill them.

Despite its mistakes and clumsiness, Battle Royale is a mine of major themes about modern society and particularly the Japanese culture. It obviously refers to shows like Survivor and Big Brother that are the latest derivatives of TV's tendency for voyeurism, which here finds its ultimate achievement in Battle Royale.

It's all the more edifying that the modern TV viewer is linked to a certain sadism. Thus, the pleasure the audience has seeing a member of Survivor being eliminated is highly pernicious, since it regards the individual's failure and suffering. The satisfaction of watching macabre TV news is another classic example.

However, the main difference between Survivor and Battle Royale is that in Battle Royale, the participants are not volunteers (except for one) but picked randomly.

But whether or not they are volunteers is not the key here, because in the movie as in Survivor, the competitors are not considered victims. Nobody pities a broken-down Survivor cast whose pain is exploited by the camera. In Battle Royale, nobody seems to pity the teenagers either. Society is sick, and it is those who reject the system who are mainly responsible for the crisis. Being the victims shouldn't make them martyrs. Battle Royale is almost a Ten Little Indians set in modern Japan, where an economic slowdown and growing pessimism have created a social crisis generating unemployment and violence.

Battle Royale underlines the increase in violence by transcending it, with junior high and high schools being the main targets of this phenomenon. Paradoxically, the teacher is the most violent element, as he even runs the military battalion overseeing the show.

Battle Royale is violent, probably shocking, often sadistic (for example the scene where two girls calling for brotherhood are shot); Fukasaku wants to move the audience and the society. He shows a fascist world at war with a young generation that refuses to attend school (a problem characteristic of Japanese society). In the opening, we learn that unemployment has reached 15%, a rate that should be put into perspective. While 15% is unfortunately a reality in some countries, it is way above Japan's actual rate (5%), thus symbolizing the end of the golden Japanese era. The Battle Royale law is therefore introduced as a solution to get rid of the weak, youth delinquency and unemployment (since 1 out of 40 survives) while the survivors will be ideal workers.

But in the movie the conclusion is different. Alliance pays while suspicion and individualism is punished. It is the paradox of a society that praises group spirit and selects its members after an elitist slaughter from which only one can survive.

Fukasaku had fun creating love stories among the killings. Naïve and caricatured, they are teenage TV shows clichés and end quickly as death is coming. It seems the director enjoys setting them up to later destroy them, thus generating humor and an indefinable uneasy feeling. Some teenagers magnify jealousies and rivalries of a time from before the Island, into this hatred that leads them to murder. However, Fukasaku's black humor doesn't go too far, since he respects the values of friendship and love, despite a gloomy atmosphere.

Still, the moral of the movie is difficult to grasp. Whether they are cruel or innocent, they all die. Only brotherhood saves. For instance, a group of girls finds refuge in a lighthouse and manages to live together by helping each other, until an accident casts doubt and provokes a tragic slaughter. A couple prefers to commit suicide rather than being part of that society, reminiscent of how high the suicide rate is in Japan.

This movie could have been worthy of the greatest science-fiction books and films. Like Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Huxley's A Brave New World, Fukusaku could have had his place by their side if the story had been better developed. After a brilliant, cynical and fast-paced start, the movie falls into redundancy and excess. After some very funny moments (Miyamura Yûko, hilarious in the role of a video instructor and Kitano Takeshi in the custom-made role of a very caustic teacher /torturer), the film turns into a succession of enjoyable but voyeuristic and repetitive butcheries. Some screenplay holes also appear (for instance, one of Kitano's subplots is left wide open). The boyish ending is not very good either and quite surprising from a 70-year-old director. Filled with hesitation, it doesn't bring any conclusion and leaves us alone with many questions suggested by the movie while insinuating it was more of a joke than a parable or an allegory.

The music, though quickly written, is very good. Perfectly orchestrated (and played by a large orchestra), it is most of the time perfectly appropriate even if, like the movie it illustrates, it uses easy shortcuts from time to time. As with the direction, it would have been better not to be so wise instead of underlining the action with excessive seriousness.

Despite everything, this remains a very interesting piece of work and will probably become a cult film in certain circles—not recommended for the sensitive.

  Laurent Ziliani

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