Despite working as a director for 40 years, Kinji Fukasaku only broke through to international recognition and acclaim thanks to his final film: Battle Royale. But despite this, he has a fervent cult following thanks to the extensive praise his films received in his homeland of Japan, which lead to films such as Battles without Honour and Humanity and Shogun’s Samurai becoming more spoken about in international spheres, especially now. But while his other work have only received this attention after some time, his ultra-violent and controversial masterpiece Battle Royale received this critical and cultural acclaim from its first release, with Quentin Tarantino going as far to say it’s the one film since he started working as a director that he wished he had made himself. The cultural impact of Fukasaku’s film, as well as Koushun Takami’s novel, can not be understated; essentially coining the term “Battle Royale” that has been used to describe similar premises of character’s fighting to the death in some perverse game.
But to limit the impact of this film to solely the idea of the teenage death game is seriously undervaluing and underappreciating the intricate themes of both, this film, and the source novel. Both works have spawned a massive amount of interpretation and debate about the underlying themes and subtext of them. For me, Battle Royale has always been a warning message about contemporary society, and specifically the growing disconnect between the older generations and the new younger generation. While the original novel was set in a fictional dystopian Japan, Fukasaku, and his son Kenta Fukasaku who wrote the screenplay, keep the setting very close to the reality of contemporary modern day setting of Japan. Kinji himself has described the film as a “fable” that incorporated modern day issues such as the increase of crime committed by young people. But ultimately the film simply offered his “words to the next generation” and that it was up to them whether the film was issuing a warning, or advice. I think this is especially interesting to consider given the final message of the film, where in bold red text on a black screen the word “RUN!” appears right after the protagonist says in a voice-over: “No matter how far, run for all you’re worth”. It’s an interesting message that can be interpreted both ways, our heroes are running from the society that has abandoned and betrayed them, but visually they’re running towards a crowd of faceless white collar workers. So is the message one of freedom, or a warning about the inevitability of society? The latter of which plays into the interpretation that the death-game itself reflects the incredible pressure put on students to compete in entrance exams to get into University and secure their future.
One of the reasons why I think this film is so fantastic is exactly this idea of the dichotomy between the positive and negative interpretations. For example, during the game when students try and team up, but are more often than not sabotaged from either the inside of the group or outside of it, it’s never clear whether Fukasaku is celebrating the idea of unity, or highlighting the inherently doomed nature of these partnerships. No scene better encapsulates this than the lighthouse scene where a group of girls take in the injured protagonist, Shuya Nanahara (played by Tatsuya Fujiwara), but due to one of the group seeing Shuya earlier, in a fight that resulted in the death of a classmate earlier on in the film, she tries to poison his food, which ends up being eaten by one of the girls in the group. This small action, stemming from mistrust, ends up bringing the loyalties of the group into question as the girls turn on each other before ultimately slaughtering each other in a fantastically choreographed and shot, shoot-out. While initially it seems like Fukasaku is celebrating the girls unity and teamwork, but as you ruminate on the scene you start to question whether he was really implying that the team was always doomed due to the inherent desire of survival and mistrust, jealousy, and resentment that each of the girls all had brewing under the surface.
This idea is highlighted throughout the film, with both transfer students representing this idea of duality well in this regard. With Masanobu Ando’s psychotic Kazuo Kiriyama being presented as just that, an unhinged and unaffected killing machine who willingly partook in the game. The film doesn’t offer much questioning about his character and motives in the film, he enjoys killing the other students and even at one point broadcasts the screams of one of his victims to the island just because he can. The closest character to Kiriyama is Mitsuko Souma (Kou Shibasaki), who is just as ruthless, but at least she gets more exposition about why she is so unflinching, as it is clear she has lived a life where she has always had to consider putting herself first. But through this, the film subtly poses the question about what has led to Kiriyama to become this ruthless killer, does he too have a life that has made him so disenfranchised, or is he what we see on the surface? I think the film purposefully keeps his origins so closely to not only play into the mystery but to juxtapose him with the rest of class 3-B, as we learn about the history about most, if not all, of the main characters from class 3-B and thus sympathise with them, even if they’re now unhinged like Mitsuko. But by purposefully not letting us be privy to Kiriyama’s personal life it creates the question of sympathy and where we draw the line. The other transfer student is more fleshed out and becomes one of the core protagonists of the film; Tarō Yamamoto’s Shogo Kawada, ends up helping out the two leads in his quest to take revenge on the government scheme. Unlike Kiriyama, he’s shown as a benevolent force, helping Shuya and Noriko, due to their love reminding him of his own lost love. But even this is questioned by the end of the film, with his sacrifice ultimately being questioned through the open ending of the film, and whether or not it was worth it.If you couldn’t already tell: I love this film. Ever since I first watched it, it’s always stuck in mind, the whole concept is so harrowing and the dynamics between the children and the adults is so interesting in how it’s presented. All these themes are helped massively by the wonderful performances the whole cast gives. For me, the standout is Takeshi Kitano, who plays the equally disenfranchised and tragic teacher, Kitano. His performance is so pensive, but he can erupt into action in the scenes he’s required to do so in; the calmness parts though are what really stuck with me after watching them, especially in the final scenes. But all the kids give wonderful performances too, all of whom bring their own sense of personality and individualism to the characters. If you haven’t already I highly recommend this film, not only is the ultra-violence pulled off so well, but the film is a lot deeper and complex than it initially seems. For me, this is a seminal film from Japan, and makes me eager to dive into more of Fukasaku’s work.