BATTLE ROYALE (Batoru rowaiaru)
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku (2000)
In a futuristic Japan, millions are without work. Teenagers no longer regularly attend school and the educational system is near collapse. Students still dress in their neat beige uniforms but discipline no longer exists. To combat this situation, the government passes The Millennium Education Reform Act designating a class of ninth-grade students to be chosen each year by lottery and sent to a deserted island to fight each other until only one person survives. Based on a novel by Koushin Takami, Battle Royale, a film by the late Yakuza director Kinji Fukasaku, is a requiem for the end of dreams and a metaphor for the loss of innocence in a world that has forgotten what it means to be human.
Though there are moments of black humor, the film is playing for keeps and the insanity of violence is shown in such uncompromising detail that it vividly reminds us that death is not a spectator sport, but a shocking and horrifying reality. The latest contest reunites 44 selected students with their teacher (Takeshi Kitano), a detached and ruthless resentful of the dwindling attendance in his classes. Each student is given food, a different weapon, a map, and a collar affixed to their neck that will explode if they try to remove it. They have three days in which to survive or perish. The children, forced by society to engage in a bloodletting ritual, all react differently.
Some refuse to participate and plan to escape, some join with other groups for protection, some use it as an opportunity to settle old scores, a few commit suicide, and still others take it as a challenge to survive at all costs. Fukasaku captures what it means to be an adolescent with its sadness, bravado, and joy. Before she is killed, a teenage girl tells Shuya that she has always had a crush on him. Another boy facing death asks a girl if she will help him lose his virginity. Children are forced to live in an atmosphere of fear and distrust, having to look at their best friend as a potential killer. In this nightmare scenario, every morning they listen to the loudspeaker announcement by their teacher, about who is dead and how many are left alive. The actors cast are all around the age of fifteen and all are excellent.
A blur at the beginning, we gradually get to know the main characters. Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is a boy whose father hung himself and decides he will do anything to protect Noriko (Aki Maeda), the girl he loves. Kawada is a survivor of a previous contest, who Shuya and Noriko trust to provide them with a means of escape. In Battle Royale, the violence is overwhelming and the film raised a storm of controversy in Japan when it was first released. It is, however, not shown to numb our senses but to make us feel. Like All About Lily Chou Chou, a 2002 film about the effects of bullying in Japanese Junior High Schools, Battle Royale captures the effects of a social order that has lost its bearing.
It is a fable but one that makes a coherent statement about the world we live in. In a world where 14 and 15 year-olds are forced into combat in African and South American guerilla wars, where the proportion of childhood deaths in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is greater than adults by a ratio of 5-1, and where hundreds of children are killed each day in Iraq in the name of democracy, it is only logical to ask why our children should be overly concerned with the inherent value of life when apparently no one cares. In the words of Bill Marshall, "It is only through the realization thatkilling is an abomination, no matter what form it takes or how it is described, that we can instill a conscience in all of our children." Hopefully that lesson can be taken from Battle Royale.