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A Haunting Film That Demands Repeated Viewings
on 15 March 2006
The Place: Japan. The Time: The not-so-distant-future. Faced with the prospect of losing control over the nation's young people, a totalitarian government decides upon a ruthless demonstration of power. The Battle Royale Act annually sends a randomly-selected class of highschool students to an uninhabited island where they are compelled to kill each other until only one of their number survives.
The reasoning behind this bizarre piece of legislation is perhaps the weakest part of the plot - but the Director deftly causes us to suspend disbelief by drawing us surely and touchingly into the feelings of the young cast. Unlike many western movies which trot out a body count of simplistic characters who are only there to die horribly for our entertainment, Battle Royale somehow manages to rapidly introduce us to the story's potential victims and make us care about them.
We are deliberately disoriented by blackly humorous elements - most notably the video taped instructions delivered by a relentlessly hyper female presenter; like a living cartoon character, she mockingly tells the children to think of her as their new big sister and urges them to ‘fight with gusto’. As the class is issued with their survival packs (containing food, water, a flashlight and a randomly-issued weapon which might be as deadly as a shotgun or as useless as a paper fan), we see them react in a variety of realistic ways - some are numbed with terror; some decline to kill; others rush outside and prepare to ambush their former friends.
You will read reviews that describe this film as excessively violent. I believe that this is a gross overstatement. Though there are many deaths and not a little blood, the main emphasis is upon simple human values - issues such as trust, friendship, love and hate - which the competition tests to their very limits. Children who have little genuine experience of living are forced to evaluate their relationships with each other if they want to stay alive. Alliances are formed and broken; long suppressed crushes and barely buried antagonisms influence their decisions.
There are no easy or mindless deaths in this film. The violent scenes make the point that violence and death are not cool or funny. This is not Kill Bill; every character in Battle Royale has value as a living, breathing human being. It may sound corny to say that the movie is an emotional rollercoaster ride, but it truly is - having dared to give us three dimensional people who bleed when they are cut, the Director sometimes dares to cruelly follow scenes of tragedy with jarring moments of biting, dark and sarcastic wit.
We are given subtle hints that the game is rigged and that the class has not really been 'chosen by impartial lottery'. The adults who manage the contest have hidden agendas; disconcertingly, their own behaviour does not make them good role models for the young 'delinquents' they are supposedly attempting to reform. Their leader - one of the students' former teachers - is revealed (like many of the S.S. men who ran the Nazi concentration camps) to be a failure in life outside the game. Uninspiring as a teacher and unloved and unrespected as a father, he receives such bitterly contemptuous 'phone calls from his own daughter that we almost feel pity for him. Yet, this emotionally-crippled man ultimately shows himself to be unexpectedly capable of an unconventional brand of compassion.
If this was an American movie, the class would be played by people in their twenties and thirties. Two or three of the students would be given a lot of screen time and the rest would be faceless cannon fodder. Five seconds after the opening titles, you would know who was going to survive. Despite its odd premise, Battle Royale seems closer to reality because its teenagers really are teenagers and it allows no comforting certainties about who lives or dies.
The true genius of Battle Royale lies in the ensemble playing of the entire cast. Although young, not one of them strikes a dud note and the script gives almost all of the students a chance to shine at some point. The fight scenes are not staged in the style of 'Enter The Dragon' - the kids are not weapons experts or Karate champions. We see them kill each other but we are not invited to hate them - they are, after all, children. They are scared and desperate.
Some reviewers have criticised aspects of the dialogue as unrealistic. There are certainly times when the script seems stagey - but it is important to remember that these Japanese children are products of a national culture which often finds the expression of passionate emotions problematical. If anything, the formal phrasing and awkwardness of their most heartfelt expressions only serves to make them more meaningful.
The Special Edition ends (quite literally) with a question. You will find yourself going back to this movie time and time again to answer it. Each viewing is rewarded with details that you probably missed previously - the depth of characterisation and the layers of hidden-in-plain-sight clues continually allow you to understand the story from fresh perspectives.