It’s not my fault.
The idea that a totalitarian government would target children as a means to subdue opposition wasn’t a far-fetched concept even before such YA-fare like The Hunger Games arrived over a decade later. You don’t have to look further than twentieth century wars wherein teens were drafted to serve as cannon fodder while the adults in charge sought to destroy the world. Transform draft dodgers during Vietnam into bratty fifteen-year-old punks rebelling against high school authority and you have your unwitting band of so-called “disrespectful counter-culture” types those in power have deemed expendable at the center of Kinji Fukasaku‘s Batoru rowaiaru [Battle Royale]. Put the slighted teacher faced with his own obsolescence at work and at home in control of their collective fate and let the blood rain down.
Based on Koushun Takami‘s novel of the same name adapted by Fukasaku’s son Kenta, we’re told the Japanese government’s response to unruly children is the BR Act wherein one class is chosen at random to be placed on a deserted island for three days until only one survivor remains. They’re given a bag with food, water, a map, a compass, and one item that may or may not be used as a weapon (anything from a crossbow to a paper fan) and are warned four times each day about which quadrants will be deemed “high risk” for an hour—anyone caught within its borders during that time will trigger the collar around their necks to explode. That this class is chosen, however, appears anything but random.
Why? Because amongst the military men holding a perimeter so the confused teens waking up have nowhere to go is their former teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano). He resigned the year before after getting stabbed by a student (Sayaka Kamiya‘s Noda) without any recourse against it (satirically drawn as the result of corporal punishment being outlawed in school settings). So having him be the one in charge of this war of attrition can’t be dismissed as a coincidence—especially once he decides to take his position of power to the nth degree by murdering two participants while the instructional video is still playing. Kitano is reveling in the chaos and absorbing every scream as a welcome form of cathartic vengeance. It seems he hopes they’ll all die.
And that could prove feasible considering everyone’s collars will explode if more than one person is alive by third day’s end. Just in case, though, Kitano enlists a couple of “ringers” so that a winner can still be crowned without any of his former students proving the victor. Both are former champions: the hardened Shôgo Kawada (Tarô Yamamoto) who’s marked by the memories of those he lost and the psychotic Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Andô) who actually volunteered this time to satisfy his bloodlust. They are the two everyone else has to worry about since few (if any) of them have what it takes to kill. Many of these kids are couples smitten by young love—some willing to embrace Romeo and Juliet’s fate over Kitano’s grudge.
Some are also more industrious than others. It could be likeability (no one dislikes our de facto leads in Tatsuya Fujiwara‘s Nanahara and Aki Maeda‘s Nakagawa), intelligence (Takashi Tsukamoto‘s Mimura is cooking up some revenge of his own), curiosity (Sôsuke Takaoka‘s Sugimura is pretty much traveling the island to talk with as many people as he can), athleticism (Chiaki Kuriyama‘s Chigusa refuses to take a day off from running), and violence (Ko Shibasaki‘s Mitsuko learned from a young age that the only person who can save her from evil is herself). The camera then moves from one clique of allies to the next with antagonists popping up to dispatch a few every ten to fifteen minutes while Kitano monitors the carnage from his makeshift defense headquarters.
That’s about all the plot that elder and junior Fukasaku care to supply. Do we know exactly why this is happening besides a few lines of text setting up a proto-Boomers versus Millennials political tug-of-war? No. Do we know how Kitano got his job and subsequently got his victims? No. The extent of back story that we do receive is the odd glimpse at relationship dynamics via flashbacks: Nakagawa being bullied; Mitsuko being an outsider; Nanahara, Noda, and Mimura living large as members of the basketball team during a recent win; etc. But even if we’re told “this person” is good and “that person” is bad, human complexity has a tendency of throwing preconceptions out the window. Duty and/or paranoia can compel anyone to go against their nature.
Battle Royale therefore lives or dies by its premise and whether or not the machinations within are entertaining enough for you to stick with its shallow world-building and opportunistic characters. For me the best parts are when things go buck-wild crazy like watching innocent-looking teens fake their deaths in order to drop someone’s guard and slit their throat or a bonkers moment when someone who should be dead suddenly gets up as though nothing happened. I would have liked the filmmakers to lean heavier into the latter, though, since even that specific instance ultimately subverts its own comedy by its end. But while Fukasaku seems unable to fully trust the embellished humor underneath his hyper-violent imagery, he does trust the earnest puppy love via countless declarations of affection.
Whether heartbreaking or eye-roll-inducing, each one allows the silliness of its inclusion within the scenario to shine above the life-or-death stakes. So much of their jealousy and fear is born directly from characters’ over-zealous drive to devote themselves to the person they pined over despite never having the courage to talk to them. The creepy vibes born from such instances make the targets quick on the trigger just as the romance renders those forced to watch their crushes die quick on theirs. In the end you can’t really trust anyone because these high-pressured circumstances are devoid of certainty once things ramp up. That we can pretty much guess who survives from the opening scene is a bummer, but at least the conclusion ensures them a satisfying path nonetheless.