I never would have thought I’d love Battle Royale as much as I did. It’s hip, it’s Asian and it’s bloody. Not that I don’t like Bloody Asian Hippies, it’s just not what I regularly watch. It’s a film that in many ways, reminds me of the frantic anarchy of Inland Empire. I felt somehow I was in my nightmares (no doubt, the characters felt similarly) and amidst the wild entertainment I was battling with how I myself would handle a similar situation. I quickly came to the conclusion that I had no hope of survival and would be best to jump off a cliff (although, I doubt I would be able to even do that, I’d still somehow have the hope that I would by some miracle survive despite myself). It’s also a film that reminds me so much of my high school experiences, not that they were nearly as terrible as this, but the fears, the interrelations and the unexpected cruelty are all too real. It’s almost an all too easy metaphor, as high school is too often about the survival of the fittest, and resembles more of a jungle of wild, ravenous animals than an institution populated with students ready and eager to learn.
Has a dystopian vision of the future ever been so bleak (despite the presence of more than a few laugh out loud funny gags), even crueller than Children of Men we have a society that sacrifices it’s young for entertainment in a futile attempt to weed out the strongest and best equipped for society. Throw in one maniac, who enjoys senseless murder and the mantra that life is but a game reaches epic and ridiculous proportions. Is life a game? It’s clearly nothing like chess, where reasoning and foresight are essential… is living really like Battle Royale? A survival of the cruellest and the most devious, with a whole lot of luck put into the mix? Perhaps it is. I myself have encountered far too much senseless violence and cruelty to believe that life is pure, and fair. It isn’t. The film points at hope though, in our protagonists Noriko and Nanahara we find virtues that make their survival possible. Their love, their trust, and their unwillingness to “play” the game. Again though, other characters exhibit these qualities but are not as lucky. It’s not always enough to save yourself. Even if life isn’t a game, it is cruel and it is difficult.
In most of the characters and situations we can find archetypical interactions. However, they play out beautifully as Kinji Fukasaku allows them to unfold at their own pace, and channelling into characters emotions and motives we get a clear picture of why they react. There is nothing senseless, thoughtless or predictable in the film’s unfolding. To keep this all in balance, humour is strategically interjected so as not to drop too far into melodrama and beyond the audience’s capacity of suspended disbelief. We recognize in the characters ourselves, as well as the people we knew. While the situations can’t possibly match exactly our own existence they are precise and vague enough to remind us that we all have had experiences that have shaped who we are, and that nothing is truly black and white.
The two stories that stand out for me the most are Teacher Kitano’s and Mitsuko. These are the type of people I tend to hate in the real world, they are sadists, cruel, passive aggressive, and angry. Even in the film, both go through extraordinary steps to crush the people around them for similar motives. Kitano is tired, he’s tired of being pushed around, mocked and held back. Nobody likes him, and he likes nobody. This is his chance to exact revenge and he does. He makes a joke of it, finally laughing back in their faces. Mitsuko is similarly frustrated with her existence, and the hatred she inspires. However, she is determined to survive and to show the world she is not a loser and never will be. When she says “What’s wrong with killing? Everyone’s got their reasons”, I can’t help shuddering. It’s a stark and clinical statement that not only permeates the whole film, but encompasses so much of the human experience. It doesn’t justify her actions, or any actions… but it does make one think. It’s her flashback that gets me though. It’s almost out of nowhere, and it’s uncomfortable and painful. I don’t want to go into it because it’s spoilertastic, but if you’ve seen it you know what I’m talking about. Again the theme of youth is brought up, as we see a world that is afraid and careless about it’s future. “Children are our future” is not the moral of this story, as the adult world seems to believe they will be it’s downfall. I don’t think anything in this film justifies this belief, even in the cold blooded murders. Kitano is far worse than any of the students, as he has been bittered by the sterile society that has entrapped him. As I said though, he fascinates me as well. His obsession with Noriko is puzzling and I don’t truly understand it even now. It’s the dream/flashback that bothers me the most though, like Mitsuko’s it’s almost out of place (although perfectly so, I wouldn’t have the film without it), and it truly disturbs me. It’s probably the most important scene though, revealing the film’s central themes and messages about youth and survival.
This is the exchange that goes on,
Teacher Kitano: Are my classes boring?
Noriko Nakagawa: Yes.
Teacher Kitano: How dare you!
Noriko Nakagawa: [chuckles]
Teacher Kitano: I go into class, you guys look like a pile of potatoes. Slapping them around helped me tell them apart, even got to like them. But now not anymore. Now you touch a student, you’re fired. Can’t even lose it when a student stabs you!
Noriko Nakagawa: I’ll tell you just one thing.
Teacher Kitano: What?
Noriko Nakagawa: That knife that stabbed you… actually I keep it in my desk at home. When I picked it up, I wasn’t sure… but now, for some reason, I really treasure it. It’s our secret, okay? Just between us.
Teacher Kitano: Listen, Nakagawa.
Noriko Nakagawa: Yes?
Teacher Kitano: What do you think a grown-up should say to a kid now?
This film that feels so centered on youth may very well be about the adults and their malaise. There is no doubt, even in Japan culture is youth obsessed. Throw in social unrest and difficulties, there is a misplacement of emotion and confusion to one’s place in such a society. As the concept of the adolescent is relatively new (emerging as something of a post WW2 phenomena) the acknowledged difference between generations is wider than ever. We don’t know our place, and we don’t know how to breach this gap. This film is about this struggle, and these fears. What happens when the students and children no longer fear and respect the adults? When youth becomes the most prized “virtue” someone can possess? On the other hand, what happens when youth becomes a commodity. Something beyond life, but a source of carnal entertainment, nothing more than an object or doll. Battle Royale asks these questions in it’s own subversive way. It’s a film I crave to see again, while I can’t help cringing to think of how the action unfolds. It’s a film that works as pure entertainment but also challenges the viewer emotionally and intellectually. It’s clearly not for everyone, but well worth seeking out if you are curious.