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.