BATTLE ROYALE | REVIEW & ANALYSIS
Updated: Mar 24
Fukasaku took a stab at Japanese politics and made film history!
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Tarô Yamamoto, Chiaki Kuriyama, Takeshi Kitano
Related films: Battles without Honor and Humanity, Suicide Club, Blue Spring
Introducing Battle Royale
Back in 2000, Battle Royale put the spotlight back on Japanese films. Not since Rashômon opened the world’s eyes to Japanese cinema in the early 50s did a Japanese movie make such waves in the international film community.
Battle Royale was based on a novel by Koushun Takami which quickly became a sensation across the Japanese nation. It didn’t take more than a year before it was serialized as a manga. Then came the film, which made Battle Royale an international phenomenon.
The story and theme were controversial from the get-go, which presented Takami with some obstacles when launching his writer’s career. But conservative voices couldn’t silence the onslaught of homicidal teenage entertainment for long.
It didn’t take Kinji Fukasaki more than a year and a half to turn the novel’s ultra-violent antics into a cinematic event of splattering proportions. Battle Royale had come to stay. Soon, it spawned a whole genre that spread to films, TV series, games, and beyond.
Calling it a classic is a stretch, but there is no denying that Fukasaku’s Battle Royale was an important movie. Without it, we might never have seen the rise of Japanese splatter sensations like Tokyo Gore Police, The Hunger Games Trilogy, or gaming sensations like Apex Legends and Fortnite.
How Battle Royale Rekindled the Japanese Film Flame
Today it might be slightly forgotten, but back in 2000, Battle Royale was on everyone’s lips. Before its release, Japanese cinema had reached a low point in international popularity. Not since the end of WWII had Japanese films been less promoted abroad.
To everyone’s surprise, the turning point would come in the form of a slightly unkempt, dystopic teenage gore-fest. But Battle Royale was much more than your average slasher film. It didn’t take long before moviemakers and game developers worldwide capitalized on its concept.
«My favorite movie of the last 20 years»
- Quentin Tarantino -
The worldwide interest in Japanese film seemed to stabilize after that, at a relatively high level compared to the 90s. Whether Battle Royale was the cause, or the international film community was just waiting to dive back into Japanese cinema, is up for debate.
Perhaps its success was a question of being at the right place at the right time, but then again, this could be argued about most popular crazes.
The Splattering Story of Battle Royale
In the not-so-distant future, violence was rapidly rising among Japan’s youth, which led the government to pass the «BR Act». The new initiative intended to make a «capital example» of one school class each year.
This year, forty-two students were shipped off to a remote island where they got one simple goal; to be the last one standing by any means necessary. To make the students play along, all individuals were fitted with an explosive collar. The choice was theirs, kill or be killed.
There could be only one winner, and the timer was set to three days. Naturally, it ended in an endless stream of slasher violence that pretty much lasted for the film's two-hour duration. But Battle Royale stood out due to a clever mix of blood-soaked action and socio-political critique.
Why Fukasaku’s Battle Royale Caused an Uproar in Japan
In the 90s, there was an alarming surge of violence among Japan’s youth. Fukasaku shed light upon the generational differences that might have contributed to this. Therefore, his film was more of a social critique than the book, which directed more attention to the Japanese political system.
In Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, the Japanese education system was coupled with the military arm of the government. As such, the film pointed a critical finger at the entire institution of the Japanese education system.
«... those foolish adults who wasted so much time discussing the film. They didn't
understand that their censorship was more harmful than the film itself.»
- Kinji Fukasaku -
At the time of Battle Royale’s release, violence in movies was a hot topic in Japan. The Japanese Diet and the Ministry of Education discussed its effects, but the film’s real controversy was the message between the lines.
Fukasaku’s Battle Royale ultimately victimized the youth and criminalized the leaders by depicting a government that was rotten to the core. He openly criticized Japan’s politics, which historically has not been a good career move for Japanese moviemakers.
It didn’t help much that Battle Royale's release coincided with several school shootings in the United States. As a result, critical voices questioned the film’s potentially harmful impact on young viewers.
Under the Skin | Battle Royale Analysis
Like the production quality, the story's message was somewhat underdeveloped. Was Japanese childrearing called into question? Or did the film reflect the moral decay of a society governed by conformity and high capitalism?
To better understand the context, it helps to consider Fukasaku’s background. Battle Royale was a personal film that echoed his own experiences in WWII. During the war, he worked at an ammunition factory that was hit by an artillery strike.
The image of his fellow teenage workers falling victim to warfare made him turn his back on the Japanese government, which at the time tried to rally war support from its citizens.
“The emotions I experienced then … an irrational hatred for the unseen forces that drove us into those circumstances … a poisonous hostility towards adults.”
- Kinji Fukasaku -
Fukasawa saw Battle Royale as a fable about the generational gap in Japan in the late 80s. Since the war, people had been working in the nation’s best interest to rebuild Japan. They were just starting to feel good about themselves when the Japanese asset price bubble burst in the late 1980s.
Suddenly, the people who created Japan’s post-war prosperity - from working-class salarymen to politicians - were put in very difficult positions. Due to the recession and the economic downturn, the generation in power lost confidence.
According to Fukasaku, Battle Royale reflected the generational differences that ensued. Japan’s youth grew up in anxiety as they witnessed a ruthless society turning their role models into insecure pawns.
The economic decline was followed by adolescent angst, which bled into Japan’s educational system. Violence was on the rise in the schools, which many argued was directly linked to the rapid breakdown of Japanese social structures.
“This is why when I hear reports about recent outbreaks of teenage violence and crimes,
I cannot easily judge or dismiss them.”
- Kinji Fukasaku -
In Battle Royale, the students were oppressed by the government, which used the military to enforce its barbaric law. This was not coincidental. It is well-known that Japan ran its schools like miniature military units until the late 1990s.
The Japanese minister of education even declared that schools were not run for the students' benefit but for the good of the country. The teachers functioned like sergeants, while the students were subjected to harsh discipline and indoctrination.
What is the Message of Battle Royale?
Battle Royale victimized the students and villainized the leaders. By doing so, it pointed out that adolescent violence always has a root cause. Furthermore, Fukasaku highlighted the consequences of pushing a nation's citizens to the brink of madness.
At some point, the relentless abuse of your own people will come around and bite you in the ass. Or, in this case, it was bound to end in the violent on-screen hacking to pieces of forty ninth-graders.
Battle Royale portrays a society that values conformity and obedience over individualism and creativity. The students in the movie are forced to compete against each other to survive, which can be seen as a metaphor for the cut-throat competition in Japanese society.
Mike Egan over at Jet Fuel Review argues that the message might be a cry from an aging generation being increasingly disrespected in Japanese society. Furthermore, he presents the idea of «student lives becoming entertainment for adults», which is interesting and might lend credence to the notion of capitalist criticism between the lines.
On the other hand, Fukasaku never seems to have brought up any points about Japan’s youth neglecting the older generation. On the contrary, he advocated that its caretakers used and abused the younger generation.
All the abovementioned topics would add great depth to the story if adequately explored. Sadly, not much social commentary is sufficiently elaborated on. In many instances, the thinly spread moral of the story seems to merely serve as a buffer for the extreme violence. Thank God for the internet and its countless analysts of the macabre and perverse.
An Unimpressive Production that Impressed the World
As for the cinematography, there is not much to write home about. The camera work is haphazard and unmistakably influenced by American cinema. The acting is barely believable, and the sobbing main protagonist - Nanahara - is annoying from the second he appears on the screen.
In other words, Battle Royale's acting is believable but overrated. Granted, they were a young bunch, but many Japanese actors have done better in other films at a young age. In fact, many of these actors had already done better than they did in Battle Royale.
As such, the acting added to the rushed feel of the entire production but was not entirely without merit. Some notable performances include Takeshi Kitano as the game's sadistic organizer and Chiaki Kuriyama as the deadly schoolgirl, Takako Chigusa.
The camera work is as gritty as Battle Royale’s topic matter. At times, its standards sink dangerously close to that of a b-move, but never entirely so. One thing is for sure; the film would have benefitted greatly from a less hurried production.
That said, Battle Royale also showcased inspired filmmaking. Many times, Fukasaku applied unusual camera angles and movement, which effectively underlined the character’s inner turmoil.
The use of handheld cameras and quick cuts added to the frantic action, while slow-motion shots highlighted key moments of violence. The color palette is also notable. The contrast of bright, vibrant colors with darker, more muted tones was used to great effect.
As for the soundtrack of Battle Royale, it was perhaps the soundest part of the production (pun intended). It was composed by Masamichi Amano and perfectly highlighted the film's mix of action, drama, and horror.
From the opening credits to the «grand finale», the music in Battle Royale adds a layer to the film's emotional depth. The haunting melody of «Shizukana Hibi no Kaidan wo» (Stairway to Quiet Days) is particularly memorable and arguably became the most recognizable theme from the movie.
A Lesson in Ultra-Violence | The Virtue of Battle Royale
Luckily for Battle Royale, the violence in itself is very memorable. It might lack the weight of a real classic, but it still succeeds in making ultra-violence as accessible and entertaining as possible.
If you appreciate the genre and enjoy on-screen brutality, this is as good as it gets without getting too silly. Compared to Tokyo Gore Police or Robo-Geisha, for instance, Battle Royale is a masterpiece.
To mention a couple of actually worthwhile gore flicks, neither The Machine Girl nor Ichi the Killer was graced by such a compelling story or cast. Admittedly these films are less serious and might make Battle Royale appear less gory on the surface. However, the shock effect is just as chilling when all the killers and victims are somewhat relatable teenagers.
Following in the Bloody Footsteps of Battle Royale
Battle Royale has inspired more stories, movies, and games than this article cares to mention. Safe to say, the impact Battle Royale had on popular culture is one of its most interesting aspects.
How many films in history can claim to be the starting point for an entire subgenre of movies, anime, games, and beyond? Some of the most notable titles to follow in the footsteps of Battle Royale are The Hunger Games movie trilogy, the gaming phenomenon Fortnite, and the Netflix TV series Squid Game.
As such, Battle Royale has become a cultural touchstone, influencing how many people think about violence in popular culture. It took a stab at Japanese social conventions and the critics of violence and made film history in the process.
Final Verdict for Battle Royale
If Battle Royale rose to fame due to its calculating nature or if it coincidentally happened to hit a nerve with global audiences is beside the point. No matter the reason, it became a disturbing phenomenon that put Japanese film back on the map and, by extension, became a part of film history.
Grotesque as the film might be, it is a must-see for anyone interested in Japanese film. There is not much to praise about the technical performance, but better popcorn violence is hard to find. So lean back, pump up the volume, satisfy your inner bloodlust, and let slip the puppies of war. The game is on!
Chicago Sun-Times: Was this Japanese film an inspiration for "The Hunger Games?"
Fandom: Battle Royale (Film)
IndieWire: Quentin Tarantino’s Favorite Movies
JetFuelReviews: An Analysis of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale
Midnight Eye: Kinji Fukasaku interview
Pop Matters: Battle Royale (2002)
Reel Rundown: The Influence Behind the Inspiring 'Battle Royale'
Sabukaru: The Cultural Impact of Battle Royale
Time Magazine: Royale Terror
The Guardian: The Kid Killers
Due to the rare bridging of extreme violence and massive commercial success, Battle Royale has been released a bunch of times in very nice versions. For the American market, JCA recommends the Anchor Bay Director’s Cut.
Several excellent editions have also been released for the European market. Our favorite is the standard Arrow Video version, which dropped in price due to the later release of a Director’s Cut edition. The latest edition is excellent, but it doesn’t add enough extra value to compete with the bargain you get from Arrow.