Long before Fortnight gave kids an island upon which to do battle in pop-culture fancy dress, there was Kinji Fukasaku’s violent, bloody horror film Battle Royale. You’ll find no Arianna Grande avatars here, though. Instead, you’ll be dragged kicking and screaming through ninety minutes of teenage melodrama, youthful anger, and buckets of blood.
We’re welcomed into an unruly classroom, painfully reminiscent of my secondary school PSHE class whenever an unsuspecting supply teacher was drafted in. Scraping chairs, nonsense screaming, pens and papers flung across the room. Kids these days.
Juvenile delinquency is at an all time high in Japan, and so in a move that might seem a little overzealous in retrospect, the government passes the ‘Battle Royale Act.’ Stick a classroom of children on an abandoned island. Hand out weapons. The rules are simple: fight to the death. Yeah, that’ll sort ‘em out.
Despite the somewhat cooky premise, Battle Royale really is a disturbing movie. There was a lot of controvesy when the film released, echoing similar attitudes towards the book upon which it’s based. And you can kind of see why. The actors are young, unrefined, and honest in their performances. There’s a real sense of transgressive violence, with imagery that will stay with me for a long time. Flashes of gunfire in the dark, legs caught on twisted roots, whiplash switches of personality from vulnerable to vicious… Such moments come thick and fast once the games begin.
But what’s it all for, in the end? I’m not convinced Battle Royale has a strong, singular statement of intent. As events reach their climax, you might feel shaken, confused, and a little lost. I certainly couldn’t find a moral to the madness. Even so, I’m convinced Battle Royale has a lot to say.
There are a dozen little narratives playing out across the island. We meet kids driven by rage, by loneliness, by years of bullying. Friendships are tested, and grand gestures of love are performed beneath an orchestra of bullets and bloodshed. Battle Royale is youthful to the core, thrumming with the energy of broken hearts and schoolyard grudges. The action is chaotic and confusing, loud and delirious. There’s all the extravagant drama of High School Musical, envisioned through the lens of shock horror.
And it’s rebellious. Rebellious towards a callous, senile society, which is embodied brilliantly by actor Takeshi Kitano, a schoolteacher and administrator of the games. Even amongst all these children, he manages to seem the most petulant, the most juvenile. It’s a truly chilling performance, delving into darker depths with each new scene. Fascinatingly, Takeshi Kitano is a well-known comedian and TV host in Japan. I can’t begin to imagine what a strange effect this must have had on audiences at the time.
All this energy, all this rage, from a director at seventy! What a strange film. Nasty, noisy, and full of heart. A step above those it has inspired, through its sheer sense of zeal alone. Something I’ll come back to, no doubt, in the hopes that those themes of teenage outrage might start to feel outdated. But in 2021, as young people scream to make their voices heard above the stubborn machinery of a planet marching towards climate collapse, Battle Royale feels all too justified in its delirium.
Battle Royale is a violent, vicious, and very, very angry film. A sense of youthful energy and excellently crafted chaos raise this film above many of those it has inspired, with moments of disturbing horror that rival even the most cynical Fortnight crossover.