In Japan in the near future, fear of out-of-control teenagers has resulted in the government creating the ‘Battle Royale’ act. With this act, randomly selected school classes are taken to an island and forced to fight and kill each other until there is only one survivor. Refusal to fight will result in the activation of the exploding necklace that they have all been fitted with.
NOTE: This is slightly longer than I expect from you but should give you a rough idea.
‘The nail that protrudes gets hammered down’: Old Japanese saying.
‘The nail that comes all the way out never gets hammered down’: Contemporary Japanese saying.
These two opening adages offer a unique insight into the main themes of Battle Royale. Set in the near future this is the violent tale of school children been forced to kill each other became a worldwide phenomenon. The opening scenes set the tone for what is to come. With classical music dramatically introducing the inter-titles we are told that Japan has suffered from economic and social collapse and that with 800,000 children boycotting school the adults took fright and instigated the Millennium Education Reform Act (known as Battle Royale).
We are then introduced to Class B of Zantsuji Middle School via a black and white class photo. The central face is a recognisable one, the actor/director/comedian ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano. It will be their teacher Kitano-sensei (the film keeps the same name for the character as the real-life person) who will run the brutal game that Class B will soon find themselves involved in. The use of Kitano serves several purposes: first, Kitano is one of the most successful Japanese stars to have emerged in last few decades and as a result he has very high levels of audience recognition on both the domestic and the international stage. This can be seen in the poster that was used to advertise the film where several of the children’s faces are crossed out but he remains a dominant central figure. Secondly, Kitano is clearly an adult male and placing him as the opponent makes the children’s fights all the more tragic since they are competing against a figure who (via his most famous film roles such as Violent Cop (1989), Boiling Point (1990) and Sonatine ), has a proven ‘history’ of violent behavior. Thirdly, and perhaps more vitally, his role as iconic mass media figure opens up the notion that this game could happen. Kitano himself presents many TV game shows such as Takeshi’s Castle (1986-1989) and the use of a real games presenter gives a depth and a potential realism to this outrageous game show concept. At the end of the show he presents to them a painting that he has drawn of all the murders with Noriko standing as an angel-like figure in the centre. He says that of all the students Noriko would be the only one worth dying with. His admiration for Noriko relates back to a dream that she had where she and Kitano-sensei were walking on the beach. When she wakes up she comments that Kitano-sensei seemed sad. The sadness of Kitano-sensei is the heart of the films narrative impetus. Battle Royale is far more about these feelings of sadness than it is a violent action film. The motivation of Fukasaku is to reveal a real social problem that he sees as affecting contemporary Japan. For him the sadness of Kitano-sensei reflects the malaise and feelings of inferiority that Japanese adults have suffered in the last few years. He states that ‘the fact that adults lost confidence in themselves, that is what is shown in Battle Royale. Those adults worked very hard through the 70s in order to rebuild Japan. They went through that period working for national interest. Of course there was a generation gap between the young and the adults, even throughout that period, but consistently adults were in control in terms of political stability and whatever was going on in the nation. However since the burst of the bubble economy, these same adults, many of them salary men and working class people were put in a very difficult position with the economic downturn and all of a sudden most of them started to lose confidence in themselves. And the children who have grown up and witnessed what happened to the adults, their anxiety became heightened as well. So I set the film in this context of children versus adults’ (Fukasaku 2001).
For Fukasaku, the state of the nation has spawned this brutal game. Juvenile delinquency has been caused by the lack of confidence and the crisis that has set in amidst the older social groups rather than any innate problem with youth. The children are not originally to blame but they will be disproportionately punished for the failures of the adults. This reflects a real crisis in Japan where there have been several well-documented cases of the teachers and school system showing an extreme approach to the disobedience of children. The fear of those in positions of authority are that their inadequacies will lead to them losing power and control and as a result they conduct themselves in an overly aggressive fashion towards the children that most represent their fears.
The presentation of the brutal government structures that are using a vulnerable group as scapegoats reflects the concerns that Fukasaku expressed for his entire filmmaking career. Fukasaku himself had witnessed the brutal effects of a war including having to clear away the bodies of his own classmates after a bombing raid (Antoniou 2004). He saw first hand the damage that a government can cause a nation to suffer. He was always a harsh critic of the post-war reconstruction and the failures that he perceived in post-war Japanese social and economic structures. He was part of the 1960s movement to challenge the status quo and of course in Battle Royale we are told that Shinji’s uncle was an activist in the 1960s and he had taught Shinji how to make bombs. This evocation of an earlier attempt to challenge the social system (which failed) is seen as an encouragement for the children to attempt to fight back. Although Shinji himself will ultimately die, Shuya and Noriko survive and it is on them that Fukasaku places his hope for the future. His final call for them to ‘run as fast as they can’ offers a hope for a future that will challenge the dominant structures and create a new type of society. The opening sayings reflect the changes that are taking place in Japanese society and culture. From a situation where any dissent from individuals would be repressed for the collective harmony, the situation in the contemporary age is one where more and more people are beginning to challenge the status quo and society is beginning to acknowledgment that individual opinions cannot always be ignored (Yoneyama, 1999).