Review: “Battle Royale” (バトル・ロワイアル)
Produced by: Masao Sato, Masumi Okada, Teruo Kamaya, Tetsu Kayama
Written by: Kenta Fukasaku (screenplay)
Cinematography by: Katsumi Yanagishima
Music by: Masamichi Amano
Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto, Masanobu Ando, Kou Shibasaki, Chiaki Kuriyama, Takeshi Kitano
Based on the novel Battle Royale (バトル・ロワイアル) by Koushun Takami
Director Kinji Fukasaku once said that he took on the duties of directing this adaptation of Koushun Takami’s novel thanks in large part to his experiences as a 15-year-old, working in one of Japan’s munitions factories during World War II. When he realized that the government had been lying to them about war, he grew to distrust adults, a resentment that apparently had carried on well into his own adulthood. Though I haven’t read the original novel, it’s easy to see why he was so drawn into the project, given his history. Battle Royale seems to take the stance that teenagers need not necessarily always listen to their elders and should always question their reasons for putting them through the systems that they set in the way as they head into adulthood. In this case, the system is represented through the titular 3-day, all out battle to the death between teenagers selected at random by the government in a post-millennial attempt to curtail the rise in youth crimes and once again regain the respect the younger generation no longer holds toward their elders.
It must be noted that, if that setup sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because a lot of people have accused Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games series, of stealing it for her own stories. Indeed, I had never really heard of Battle Royale up until the first Hunger Games film’s release earlier this year, which is apparently the reason why an American adaptation of Battle Royale has been halted. However, beyond some striking but very base similarities, the two films, at the very least, are quite different. Where The Hunger Games is a largely dramatic film focusing on self-sacrifice, society’s fascination with seeing people torn apart (literally and figuratively), and a war between classes, Battle Royale seems to take a more melodramatic, action-oriented approach to its presentation while serving up more literal allusions to the struggles of adolescents, primarily their interactions with each other and their reactions to a world where adults seemingly have all the power over them.
Battle Royale concentrates on three primary characters: Shuya Nanahara, who’s the quiet and sensitive type that all the girls seem to have a crush on, Noriko Nakagawa, the type of good girl who voluntarily shows up to class even when her peers happily ditch, and Shogo Kawada, an athletic and troubled older youth who has been transferred into the games to join Shuya and Noriko’s class. Thrown into these games with little knowledge of their existence, the three of teens eventually form an alliance as they’re thrown into a brutal, to-the-death combat scenario against their classmates, many of them former friends while some of them are now enabled to act out upon their frustrations with deadly force, and soon they learn just who their true friends and enemies really are. We’re given a chance to get to know each of the groups of kids, in some capacity, some better than others, but we spend enough time with them to figure out what their roles were in school. There are the science kids, the cheerleaders, the hormonal boys, the star-crossed couples, the conscientious objectors, the rumored slut, and, of course, the bully. These last two serve as the two primary antagonists out on the field, and their actions largely help in giving Battle Royale its reputation for scenes of brutal violence.
The film is quite brisk in story structure, despite the large number of characters, and, unlike with The Hunger Games, we’re thrust into this world with barely any build up, though we’re given flashbacks into some of the characters’ pasts that provide context to certain conflicts and relationships. I’d be lying if I said that I found the film to be nearly as profound as The Hunger Games, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s inferior, however — just different. There’s just enough there to make us understand and empathize with the characters, especially since we know that most of them won’t make it out of this game alive. That these kids have had preexisting relationships with each other gives the film its true allegorical oomph, which is something that isn’t missing from The Hunger Games so much as it just isn’t necessary to its own plot. The scene in Battle Royale where where rumors quickly start to spread amongst the cheerleader alliance as soon as a boy throws a wrench into their relationship with one another is at once humorous in a macabre sort of way and yet still shocking and insightful in its observations about how quickly teenagers (particularly girls) will turn on each other.
Of course there’s one other character that is necessary to the film, and that’s the curious character of Kitano, played by the prolific actor/comedian/filmmaker Takeshi “Beat” Kitano. As pretty much the only adult character the film shows extensively, Kitano was once a middle school teacher but now runs Battle Royale and serves as the game announcer. He recognizes many of the students from when they were in his class, including Noriko, who, as the good student she is, was one of the few who showed him any respect. At first, the character comes off as comically overacted, lending the film an almost Robocop-like farcical tone, but there’s clearly more going on here. He frequently receives phone calls from his disrespectful daughter and holds grudges against certain students who mistreated him all those years ago. Since these games were set up to teach the youth of Japan to once again to respect their authority figures, it’s easy to draw your own conclusions as to what Kitano’s purpose is in the story by the end of the film. The way that the character gets his comeuppance makes him look pathetic and quite foolish, to say the least.
As you may already be able to tell, I wasn’t particularly enamored with the character drama going on in the film, but I don’t think that this is such a bad thing in this case. Part of the enjoyment of watching this film is that farcical tone going on amidst all the brutal violence, though you may have to catch yourself and remember that these are teenagers doing horrible things to each other — and that’s kind of the point. Watching the movie, it felt like that’s what the filmmakers wanted me to do — to look at this movie as an action-oriented satire on the surface while recognizing it for that subtext. It’s not so much that I didn’t care for the characters, as none of them are particularly unlikeable, but I was more compelled to think about what was happening and how it paralleled real life, rather than caring so much about the actual developing romance between the two lead characters.
And, you know what? That’s perfectly alright, in this case. The intrigue of the two inevitably paired off kids is far less compelling than what the base emotional drama running throughout the film stands for in terms of their real world parallels: kids being put through the grinder of an adult world that wants them to fall in line and battle each other for dominance, and adults who wish to be respected for having placed them in this situation, supposedly for their own benefit. The condescension is apparent from the very beginning, where a cheerful woman gleefully explains to the kids how the violent game is played in the same manner as one would expect from a children’s program explaining subtraction to 5-year-olds… only with far more stabbing tools.
Is Battle Royale better than the film adaptation of The Hunger Games? In a word, no, however, with a but — the film doesn’t have to be. Whatever superficial comparisons can be made between the two (and there are admittedly many) can largely be ignored, as each story has its purpose and handles their situations adequately. Battle Royale is a bit less serious, with a heavy emphasis on cheesy melodrama than anything, and the violence is unlikely to please those who were still shocked with the toned down but still shocking violence of the Hollywood film. Battle Royale doesn’t achieve the same sort of profundity that can be found from its younger cousin/offspring/whatever, but, again, it doesn’t really have to, and it largely succeeds on its own merits.
I guess the most sucky thing about it is that a lot of people outside of Japan are now going to see Battle Royale as the rip off, ignoring the release dates of both films and both novels, largely thanks to the new exposure the Japanese film is experiencing in the light of the more recent Hollywood film. You’re not going to find anything gut wrenching or heartbreaking in Battle Royale, but what you will find is a great satire on society’s expectations for the next generation that’s likely going to continue to not only be relevant, but also pretty entertaining, too. Go see it and enjoy it on its own merits, knowing that it was here first.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3.5 / 5