Battle Royale by Koushun Takami: Still Crazy After all These Years

Paperback version of the book.

Originally published in 1999 amid a flurry of controversy that would rise to a cacophony when a film one year later was adapted from the novel, Battle Royale still packs one hell of a punch. The story of a group of Junior High School students who are made to kill each other off until only one remains, still shocks and astounds 13 years after its first appearance in bookstores and libraries across the world.

After reading the book and watching the film of The Hunger Games written by Suzanne Collins, I still find it hard to believe that she never heard of either the original story or film (made by the iconic Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku). I am sure that she is telling the truth as there are enough instances of the two stories (although Collins has spread the Hunger Games stories over three separate books) being vastly different. There are, however quite a few circumstances where the two stories share a lot of things; the contestants being chosen by “lottery” or the packs that each contestant picks up before the battle commences are just two such instantances.

Of course both books are set in “the future” Hunger Games in a post apocalyptic America and Battle Royale in a future Japan that has outstripped America as a world power through the appointment of a dictator and an economy that has reduced the USA to third world country status. Japan’s isolationism has allowed them to indulge in practises that would be frowned upon by other countries.

It is part of this isolated countries culture that random Junior High School classes are picked (by computer) and “kidnapped” by authorities. These 14 and 15-year-old children are then transported to a secret location where they will be armed (some better than others) and set out to kill each other off.

The whole exercise is to show just how equal everyone is in this new Japan. No one is exempt. But like every government that is part of a dictatorship, it is corrupt and unfair, despite the propaganda that tells the masses otherwise. We meet the main players in the Battle and are given enough information that we not only bond with some of the kids, but we can see why the other children act the way they do.

Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa are the boy and girl who wind up together because Shuya’s best friend (who dies before the games even start) had a crush on Noriko and she, in turn, has a crush on Shuya; along with most of the girls in their class.

Shuya is an orphan who loves the state banned American Rock and Roll and has learned to play the electric guitar. He is good at sports and is an all round “good egg.” If anything, he is a bit too good. Noriko and Shuya team up with the older transfer student Shogo Kawada (who has actually played and won a previous Battle Royale). Together they form an alliance to stay alive while facing the murderous psychopath Kazuo Kiriyama and his female counterpart Mitsuko Souma and the other children who are fighting to stay alive till the end of the three day game.

The book is much more political in nature than Collins’ Hunger Games (although she does pay a sort of “lip service” to dictatorships in the books) and it is, despite its xenophobic setting, of a larger scale of international intent. In Takami’s verse the survivors of the games want to run away to the third world country that America has become. It brings to mind that perhaps they will meet Katniss Everdeen when they arrive.

When the film was adapted for the screen by Kinji Fukasaku’s son, it has to be one of the best screenplays ever written. Even though the film did not copy the book page by page, the casting of “unknown” child actors and the iconic Beat Takeshi and the feeling that the director was able to infuse the film with made the movie a run-a-way hit. The film is a cult favourite and is set up to get the “Hollywood” remake treatment.

This is a book that, whether you’ve seen the film or not, is one hell of a ride. You suffer with the kids as they have to kill off their friends and find out who they can trust. The two psychos of the book are truly terrifying and will scare you with their cold-blooded will to survive. There was also a Manga of the book release in several volumes, difficult to find in the UK, but well worth the effort. These Manga’s were almost as entertaining as the book and the film.

My final verdict is a full 5 stars out of 5. Once you pick this book up, you will not want to put it down. And although it’s a little too close to Christmas to come up with ideas of “stocking stuffers” you could do a lot worse than getting a copy of this brilliant book shoved in your stocking.

The equally controversial film with Beat Takeshi

Hana-bi (1997) Takeshi Kitano’s Bittersweet Romance

Apart from Battle Royale (released in 2000 and directed by Kinji Fukasaku) Takeshi Kitano aka Beat Takeshi has never been better. Written, directed and edited by Beat hana-bi (translates as fireworks) is another facet of his view on crime and the penalty it exacts from its participants.

Hana-bi is a slow ballad of a film. It has a relentless rhythm from the very first frame. I have titled my review a “Bittersweet Romance” but in terms of the overall film, it really is more of a romantic tragedy. Either way you want to describe the film would fit, but I’ve always felt that romance was the ruling factor of the film.

With Beat Takeshi’s character, Nishi and his wife Myuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) their double tragedy [the death of their 5-year-old daughter and Myuki’s dying from leukaemia] is not enough to defeat the obvious love that they have for one another. Their humour has managed to survive the battering that their life has taken. Late in the film, Nishi sets up a camera on the side of their car to take a timed picture. Just as the camera takes their photo another car drives in between them and it. Their laughter over the incident feels infectious and genuine.

The vast majority of the film is a mixture of flash backs and “present day” which works very well. You do have to pay attention though or you can get a bit lost. But regardless of the “to-ing and fro-ing” of the sequences the rhythm of the film is still relentless.

And relentless describes Nishi’s life perfectly. He has so many plates spinning at once that it’s easy to see why his character rarely says anything; but having said that, it is a trait of Beat Takeshi characters in almost all of his films. His taciturn and stoic face with its tics and mannerisms says more in repose than he could ever say literally.

Nishi’s boss and best friend Horibe (played by Takeshi regular Ren Ohsugi) is shot and paralysed when he does Nishi’s stake-out duty so Nishi can visit his wife in hospital. Noribe then has a difficult time dealing with life in a wheel chair and takes up art as a therapy measure.

Nishi and Horibe on the way to the stake-out.

When Nishi and two detectives catch the villain who shot Horibe, Nishi is punched repeatedly in the face and thrown off the suspect. Kudoh and Nakamura (played by another Takeshi regular Susumu Terajima) jump on the yakuza to restrain him. The yakuza then shoots both Kudoh and Nakamura. Nakamura is wounded but Kudoh dies on the scene. Nishi takes his service revolver out and shoots the yakuza in the head.

He then goes over to the dead yakuza and empties his revolver into the dead man’s head. This results in Nishi getting fired from the force. Already in debt to a local yakuza gang because of loans he took out for his wife’s hospital bills and their daughter’s death, Nishi decides to rob a bank to set everything right. He takes his dying wife on a holiday, pays for Horibe’s painting supplies and gives Kudoh’s widow a huge sum of money.

Since the pervading mood of the film is its relentless nature, we know that Nishi is going to pay dearly for his generosity and his guilt.

Most of Beat Takeshi’s films feature a lone character that doesn’t conform or sets himself away from other’s. His characters always have a nasty end or at the very least a short violent one. His message seems to be that it is alright to live to your own rules and ideals, but it will cost you in the end.

All of Takeshi’s films feature a lot of shots of the sea. Hana-bi features a lot of scenes by the sea and focuses on the waves beating against the shore or the tide coming in. This again points the film’s theme toward relentlessness and he appears to be drawing a parallel between the never-ending waves and the theme of the film.

The art that Horibe paints and draws in the film were all done by Beat Takeshi himself. Some of the most emotional scenes come from Horibe studying flowers in a shop and “seeing” the pictures that he will draw in his mind. Dogs with sunflowers for heads are just some of the funny, and odd, images he creates.

If ever any one man could be deemed an institution Takeshi Kitano is that man. The running joke in Japan’s entertainment industry is that Beat Takeshi is on television 8 days a week. Takeshi does have several television shows, writes articles for many different publications and writes, directs, and edits his own films. There seems to be no end to this man’s talent pool.

In August of 1994 Kitano was in an accident while riding his moped. The crash almost killed him and left his face partially paralysed. As part of his therapy he took up painting and poetry.  By 1995 he was back to  work full-time.

Beat Takeshi is an amazing individual who rose from humble beginnings to become an institution and an icon of Japanese culture. In the England people watch Takeshi’s Castle a Japanese game show that Beat shows up for at the end of each program to “fight off” winning contestants to keep them from winning the ultimate prize. Most of the viewers (and apparently the producers and the narrator of the show) have no idea who Takeshi is.

Hana-bi is always mentioned as the last in a trilogy that Takeshi helmed for himself. Violent Cop (1989), Sonatine (1993) and Hana-bi (1997) all feature a character who marches to the “beat” of his own drum and is more than happy to pay the price required to do so.

If I could equate Beat Takeshi’s acting style to anyone from the western world of cinema, I’d say he is the Japanese  Spencer Tracy. But that would be in the area of acting alone, I honestly don’t think there is anyone in the industry who equates 100 percent to Takeshi Kitano.

If you can stand to sit through the subtitles, watch this film. The translated title of Fireworks might be easier to find, but whatever title it’s being sold or rented as, it’s worth watching.

Takeshi Kitano aka Beat Takeshi

Battle Royale (2000): The Original Hunger Games

Set in the future, Battle Royale is a law that has been passed by the Japanese government. The law allows for a lottery process which picks a random class of ninth grade school children. This class is then flown to an island, given numbers and are issued with two bags. One bag contains water, food, a compass and a map. The other bag can contain a weapon or a “booby prize” like toilet paper or a pot lid for example. After receiving their bags the children are released onto the island and told that they must kill each other off. There can be only one survivor or winner. The results are followed by the media and the winner is mobbed by reporters at the end of the game.

In order to insure that there is only one winner, each student is fitted with an explosive collar which their  Battle Royale instructor demonstrates with  curiosity and amusement. The collar can be used the kill students who stray from established “kill zones” and anyone who attempts to cheat the game out of it’s required solo survivor.

Based on the novel by  Koushun Takami  (published in 1999) this film was roundly criticized in Japan when it was released. Condemned as being too violent and focussing on school children killing each other.  The film’s tag line was “Could You Kill Your Best Friend?”

Directed by  Kinji Fukasaku when he was sixty-nine years old, Battle Royale is nothing short of a masterpiece. Of all the forty-two “school children”  most had never acted before, one – Tarô Yamamoto wasn’t even a young teen, he was twenty-nine years old and an established actor. Kinji had a brilliant rapport with the mostly  inexperienced cast, getting the most out of them.

There were some members of the young cast that were professional actors,  Tatsuya Fujiwara (Shuya Nanahara) – who is perhaps best known for the Death Note films,   Aki Maeda (Noriko Nakagawa),  Chiaki Kuriyama (Takako Chigusa) better known for playing  Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill Vol 1, and Tarô Yamamoto, mentioned above as Shôgo Kawada .  Both Fujiwara and Maeda won awards as best newcomers after working in the films.

The games are overseen by the military and the ninth grader’s old teacher, Kitano-sensei. Kitano is played by the iconic multi-talented Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano aka Beat Takeshi. Kitano is huge in Japan and has quite a following worldwide. He started as a comedian but moved into acting with the film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983). Kitano’s being  cast as the children’s old teacher was pure genius as his dead-pan delivery and still face, punctuated with nervous tic’s, help make him both a kind and stern character, one that we like immediately.

This film was destined to become a classic, it has a devoted world wide fan-base . Battle Royale and it’s sequel Battle Royale II have a film website. These ‘film sites’ and other websites have provided Battle Royale themed merchandise for the many fans.

Kinji masterfully got the actors  to project the mixed emotions, reactions, and motivations of the students forced to kill each other. Disbelief, denial, excitement, anger, reluctant participation and subterfuge just to name a few. Three students are very active participants in the battle. Mitsuko played by Kou Shibasaki kills her opponents with a mixture of deceit and deadly savagery. Kou impressed Quentin Tarantino so much with her performance, that she was who he originally wanted to play GoGo in Kill Bill Vol 1. Shôgo Kawada is one of two ‘ringers’  brought in from outside the ninth grade class. Kawada is a winner from a previous Royale and is methodical and cool.  Kazuo Kiriyama is the other outsider. He is nothing short of terrifying. Kiriyama, who volunteered to play the game, is a homicidal machine, cold and deadly he very much enjoys the killing.

The film follows all the students to a degree, but the main protagonists are Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa. These two band together and vow to survive the game that they have been forced into. Shuya is a very reluctant participant in the killings and stays with Noriko  to help her. These two then bump into Kawada when Noriko falls ill and Shuya tries to help her. After Kawada helps Noriko the three form an alliance and work to find a solution that will see them all ‘win’ the game.

Battle Royale is a masterpiece. The screenplay was written by the directors son Kenti Fukasaku and he deserves full credit for adapting the book. He managed to lose a lot of the political statements that were in the book, which could  have slowed the film down.  The film contains many scenes and images that have become almost iconic in cinema. Chigusa’s track suit with it’s yellow and orange colour scheme was reproduced in the film Kill Bill as the outfit that ‘the bride’ wears in both volumes. Also keep an eye out for the lighthouse scene, it contains one of best cinematic shoot outs in the history of cinema.

If there could be only one  world cinema film that I could suggest that is a must see, Battle Royale is that film, hands down.