Battle Royale

Shuya and Noriko look frightened in Battle Royale

“Listen, if you hate someone, you take the consequences.”

12 years before The Hunger Games became a worldwide hit, the Japanese film Battle Royale did the same thing, but with a more assertive stance. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku (Fall Guy, Crest of Betrayal), who turned 70 years old during the production of the low-budget ultra-violent film, this was a story so controversial that the Japanese parliament tried (unsuccessfully) to get both the novel and the film banned, and Germany actually did get the film banned for quite some time. But this film is more than just senseless stylized gore—there’s some intelligent plotting and well-developed characters here, and a great point underneath it all. For one reason or another (it’s actually disputed why), this film didn’t see any sort of release in America until very recently when it hit Netflix, so this film became an underground cult classic among hipsters and film buffs lucky enough to get their hands on a copy. The film is far from perfect, but I really enjoyed the film and what it had to say.

The film is set in the near-future when economic disaster has hit Japan, causing the government to take a much tighter grip on its people. Youth indifference is at an all-time high and adults are sick of it, so they start the Battle Royale, where a random ninth-grade class is chosen each year to fight to the death. Student Shuya Nanahara immediately vows to protect his friend and potential girlfriend, Noriko Nakagawa. The other students react in very different ways with some playing into the violence that’s expected of them and others trying to fight the game and strive for peace, but much like a Vegas casino, the house always wins. Shuya and Noriko struggle to keep their humanity as they fight for their lives in this sadistic game.

You just have to fight for yourself; no one’s going to save you. That’s just life, right?

Battle Royale may be conceptually like The Hunger Games, but thematically, it works much more like Fight Club in reverse. Instead of showing younger people acting out their violent fantasies as they’re fed up with the older generation, it shows the older generation taking out their anger on the younger generation. While America was writing condescending articles about Millennials and their participation trophies, Japan was coming down much harder on disaffected youth, and this film captures some of the intense pressure that was put on students in that era. And much like Fight Club, when the director takes that anger and contempt that was boiling under the surface in society and follows it through to its natural conclusion, we see it for what it is: destructive, baseless, and ultimately meaningless.

Shuya and Noriko reveal their weapons in the Battle Royale: A pot lid and set of binoculars
Weapons were distributed randomly in the Battle Royale, and these two got royally screwed.

The film succeeds in its endeavor by going deeper than most others with similar concepts. We see how rebellious and destructive the youth are, but through flashbacks and some clever interactions, we see why those kids are like that and why society has forced them into that role. Even one of the students who is initially painted as a villain is given some character development and is given a very good (and sympathetic) reason for being the way that she is. The violence is shocking, and it’s supposed to be—it shows what the pressure Japanese society was putting on the youth was turning them into, even as most of them didn’t want to play into that. This film doesn’t try to excuse indifference and rebellion in youth, but it makes a stark warning that doubling down on discipline and high expectations would only result in harming the youth further.

Battle Royale has achieved cult classic status and it’s become a feather in the cap for film geeks and hipsters, but it’s not perfect. The low-budget special effects suffer a bit, making some of the ultra-violent and dark moments seem almost cartoonish, and the Japanese style of being overly-dramatic can result in some unintentionally hilarious reactions in some dark moments. Also, between the violence and the subject matter, this is not the easiest film to watch for a general audience. Quentin Tarantino has stated that this is one of his all-time favorite films, and that’s actually a great comparison. Like Tarantino films, this one is stylized and ultra-violent, but brilliant in its own way and perfect for a niche audience. I rather enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t recommend it for family movie night.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:54
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Year: 2000
Genres: action, adventure, drama
Rating: R

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