Eastern Premise #16 – Battle Royale
This week Jason Julier apprehensively takes a look at KinjiFukasaku’s Battle Royale.
When compiling these entries for Hopes Lies I’ve tried to maintain a mix of new, old and very much the unknown. For now I’ve managed to resist the widely acknowledged appeal of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, although undoubtedly their time will come. Sometimes you just have to give in as the years roll by and films drop into the wilderness. With the recent mammoth Blu-ray release of Battle Royale by Arrow Video, it’s an opportune moment to jump back to the dawn of a new millennium and a time when we were concerned about the future and doomsday scenarios.
Battle Royale is a well-known film despite managing to avoid the Hollywood remake fetish that surrounds many successful J-horror or even K-horror releases. A Western version was mooted a few years ago but thankfully never transpired. To categorise the film as a horror is a disservice. Yes, there are copious amounts of blood on display and a ruthless killing streak by the school children pitched yet returning to the film today confirms its edge is blunted.
Based on the popular novel by Kenta Fukasuka, the government has taken legislative measures against that familiar of all problems; Japanese youth. While more recently in Confessions (2010), Yuko Moriguichi as an adult rebelled against the lack of punishment and took matters into her own hands, in Battle Royale tough powers are granted via the Millennium Educational Reform Act. The backdrop of the film is only briefly touched upon, as we are not granted permission to see huge levels of unemployment, students boycotting education and the widespread fear of grown-ups. It’s this panic that prompts the older generation to call upon the army annually to kidnap a high school class to participate in the eponymous battle royale.
Transferred to a remote island the classmates are forced into a Lord of the Flies descent into madness and violence. Some take to the art of killing almost immediately, whilst others refrain and attempt to use their wits to survive. The island is heavily monitored by the army and divided into area, as the teenagers each wear explosive necklaces they must avoid specific zones at certain times. The game is played out over three days with the last classmate standing declared the winner. How this resolves the mass hysteria of the adult population and the burning resentment of their offspring is never clear.
Throughout we have two distinct sides categorised by the uniforms of the army and high school. There is one exception to this rule and it is a pivotal role played by Takeshi Kitano, who funnily enough is well known in Japan as the former presenter of the Takeshi’s Castle game show. Known more commonly as Beat Takeshi he plays the lumbering, track-suited former teacher of the class. Overseeing the battle royale he is the main focus of the pupils’ anger and represents an oddity in the film as a whole.
Director Kinji Fukasuka predominantly filmed Yakuza films before being drafted in to replace none other than Akira Kurosawa in the troublesome Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). He soon returned to the gangster genre with Battle Royale coming towards the end of his career. His dominating presence and old-school approach are captured in the sizeable extras that accompany the Arrow Video Blu-ray release. Watching Battle Royale again, I always question the wisdom of his selection and if another director was involved what the final result would have been. However as his son wrote the Battle Royale novel, his appointment should come as no surprise. It is well documented that he called upon his own experiences a child munitions worker during World War II and his fight for survival when filming the novel.
A key strength of Battle Royale that remains undiminished by time is the use of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. The classical accompaniment and use of pieces is brilliantly executed and gives sections of the film a dream-like quality, as moments of violence are played out against a wonderful arrangement. Kinji Fukasuka returned to the theatrical version shortly after its release to create a ‘special edition’ with flashbacks, epilogues and widespread use of CGI. This version is also included in the recent Arrow Blu-ray release, I still prefer the theatrical version overall but it is a film that refuses to die having recently been reborn in 3D.
Blu-ray enthusiasts have debated the quality of the transfer on the recent Blu-ray release. I find such questioning tiresome; Yes it is far from flawless but represents the best we’re likely to ever see the film. The 10,000 only edition boxset is weighed down with extras, becoming the essential survival pack if you wish to experience the Battle Royale event. The impact of the film itself may have diminished over the years yet the premise still packs a considerable punch.