Directed by Kinji Fukasaku [Other horror films: The Green Slime (1968), Fukkatsu no hi (1980), Makai tenshô (1981), Chûshingura gaiden: Yotsuya kaidan (1994), Batoru rowaiaru II: Chinkonka (2003)]
Undeniably more than just a horror/action movie, Battle Royale (or Batoru rowaiaru) is an utterly beautiful, yet violent, film which never fails to leave an impact on me when watching.
We all know the story – a bunch of classmates are dragged to an island and forced to kill each other off due to a fascist Japanese government. If the adults are scared of the youth, I’m not sure making one of them into a super killer is the best idea, but the faulty logic aside, it’s a story that really gets to me, and it’s just so tragic.
The adolescent view of life is apparent in most of these kids. You have people harboring untold crushes which influence their actions, or people relying on past friendships in the hope that they’ll work toward a peaceful outcome as opposed to slaughter. Loners and the misunderstood now have a chance to make something of themselves, and petty disputes can now turn kids murderous.
In many ways, Battle Royale is drenched in the angst of being a teenager. Some of these kids have more to deal with than others, but the core of it is they’re all still kids (well, mostly, aside from one of the transfer students, a winner of a previous Battle Royale). It’s due to this that I think the movie has a greater impact – not just shock value due to the fact that they’re young, but in that these characters have only lived for 15, 16 years, and are now expected to fight for an adulthood they may not even comprehend on violent terms (there’s four who opt out and commit suicide in the situation, and I can’t say that’s a bad choice).
Also, it’s a movie of friendship. Sure, some of these characters love one another, but the bonds of friendship really shape most of the relationships. Look at the tragic story of Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama) and Sugimura (Sôsuke Takaoka). Hell, look at Mitsuko’s actions and the basketball flashback – she’s never felt like a part of the group, so do her actions really come as a shock, given her background? If she had some solid bonds, would she have taken a different route?
Battle Royale isn’t for the light-hearted, not with this level of violence beautifully melded with a very tragic story. I won’t even get into specific scenes to watch out for – there’s fantastic gunplay, of course, but there’s also more traditional horror deaths, such as knives, axes, and other fun sharp implements. It’s a bleak movie, but don’t be surprised if a few surprising moments of levity arise.
I won’t go as far as to refer to this one as a black comedy, but there certainly are elements here and there, especially in the jubilant Battle Royale explanatory video and Kitano’s (Takeshi Kitano) commentary and obsession over the cookies. Or his final scene, as a matter of fact (not counting the requiems at the end).
If there are any standout performances here, it’s either Tatsuya Fujiwara (Nanahara) or the aforementioned Takeshi Kitano. Kitano has a pretty good scene with Aki Maeda (Noriko), and Maeda’s really good too. Maeda and Fujiwara have solid chemistry, and I buy their adolescent affections.
Tarô Yamamoto (Kawada) was a bit of a mystery at first, but really came into a pretty good character. If you discount Kitano, the two main antagonists are Masanobu Andô (Kiriyama) and Ko Shibasaki (Mitsuko), both of whom are strong. It could be said that maybe Andô’s performance is a bit on the cliché side, but I still think it was good.
Others who positively stood out include Eri Ishikawa (Yukie, who really only had one scene of note, but it made her a lovable character), Takayo Mimura (Kotôhiki, who’s heartbreaking scene with Sugimura was amazingly sad), Sôsuke Takaoka (wish he would have done more than look for Kotôhiki, but the heart wants what the heart wants), Chiaki Kuriyama (Chigusa, who added another rather depressing scene in the film), and Takashi Tsukamoto (Shinji, who had a cool, revolutionary uncle and was perhaps one of the most interesting and apt characters in the film).
Battle Royale, if it hasn’t been made clear by now, is an emotional experience. The way that flashbacks and dreams are utilized just work really well, and gives depth to some characters who might otherwise just be seen as one-dimensional caricatures. There’s a sense of hopelessness throughout the film, but come the ending, with the final monologue, we’re told to “run for all you’re worth”, and if that’s not an optimistic conclusion, one of a hopeful future, I don’t know what is.
It could be said that the three requiems at the end aren’t necessary, and the third one (an extended dream conversation between Noriko and Kitano) is just bizarre, but what the hell, they still add some flavor into the film.
And speaking of flavor, that music, tho. Sure, you get some quality classical pieces, such as Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube and the epic Dies Irae by Guiseppe Verdi, but the whole score is gold, and the cherry on top is the concluding song by Dragon Ash, titled “Shizuka na hibi no kaidan wo.” I fell in love with this song when I first saw the film, and even now, the song sends chills down my spine. An utterly fantastic song to end with.
All things said, Battle Royale is a film that, if approached with an open mind, you can really fall in love with. I didn’t fully follow the events when I first saw this movie (I was much younger, and couldn’t tell many of the characters apart from each other), but even then I sensed this was special, and Battle Royale certainly is. It’s a horror movie in my eyes, no doubt about it, but it’s so much more. A perfect movie, with great violence, amusing black comedic moments, and characters you can find yourself getting attached to. I doubt films get much better than this.
This is one of the films covered on Fight Evil’s podcast. Listen below as Chucky (@ChuckyFE) and I discuss this one.