The director of Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku (Tora! Tora! Tora!, Battles Without Honor and Humanity) spent his childhood working in a munitions factory during World War 2. One day, it came under fire and the children were caught in the explosion. Those that survived, like Fukasaku, had to dispose of the bodies of their friends. This is when he realized that adults were lying about the war and he developed a hatred for them that lasted most of his life.
Based on the novel by Koushun Takami, the actual Battle Royale is an annual event where one Japanese class is selected to fight. Only one can survive (see The Hunger Games, which while its own work, had to have been inspired by this story). And the rest of the country watches the event live on TV. It’s also population control as Japan faces an economic recession (see The Purge).
Class 3-B is gassed on a field trip, fitted with collars that can read their vitals (and blow their heads off) and sent to a briefing room where they encounter their former teacher, Kitano (Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, a cultural force in his own right). There’s a crazy scene here where a cheerful girl explains the rules of Battle Royale in the same way you’d explain how to play a video game. But after Kitano kills two students — including the one who wounded him and caused his retirement from teaching — for horseplay, everyone knows that this is no game.
Within six hours, 12 of the 42 students are dead, mostly at the hands of Mitsuko Souma and Kazuo Kiriyama, two girls who take the Mean Girls and Heathers archetype to its logically homicidal endgame.
The two main characters, Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa, are determined to survive together. Along the way, there are twists, turns, double crosses and over the top amounts of violence. They’re assisted by Kawada, who has already won a past Battle Royale at the cost of his girlfriend’s life.
By the end, only Kiriyama is trying to win the game. Everyone else is trying to beat the system and escape the island. After a large battle, it seems at the end only Kawada survives, as he kills our heroes. But it’s all a ruse — he knew that Kitano can hear everything on the microphones they wear. Kitano then sends everyone else home, as he wants to kill Kawada himself.
As the three enter Kitano’s base they find an unhinged painting of the entire class, all foretelling how they would die, with only Noriko as the sainted survivor, painted as if she has ascended to godhood.
He tells them that she was the only one worthwhile and he wants her to kill him. His daughter had rejected him, as we learn when he tries to reconnect with her throughout the film. He threatens her with his gun and Shuya shoots him. It turns out that his gun was just a water pistol and before he dies, his daughter calls one last time to argue with him.
As they leave the island, Kawada dies from his wounds, happy that he has finally found true friendship. Our heroes are now on the fun, branded as murderers, but are determined to never stop running.
The casting for this film was just wild — 6,000 hopefuls tried out with 800 being trained and of those, 42 made it into the movie.
When released, the film was R15, a rating in Japan that keeps those 15 and under away from the film. Fukasaku complained that this audience needed to see the film most of all, but the government condemned the movie. This led Fukasaku to say to teenagers, “you can sneak in, and I encourage you to do so.” And while it’s played in the US at some limited engagements, it’s never been formally released in the wake of Columbine.
A film this visually intense, action-packed and boundary pushing? Of course, it’s influenced Western culture. And you need look no further than Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, where Chiaki Kuriyama, the actress who played Takako Chigusa, was cast as Gogo Yubari. And the Marvel Comic Avengers Arena took young superheroes and pretty much ripped off this film, even using a variation of the logo.
There’s been talk of an American remake and even a TV show on the CW, but luckily, this has never happened. Why remake what is pretty much a perfect film, filled with cultural winks, ultraviolence and an actual message and transform it into a Westernized mess? Check this out on Shudder.
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