Known across the world as one of the most violent and controversial films ever made, “Battle Royale” is only now receiving an official U.S. release after 12 years. Attempts to release the film in the U.S. were halted due to beliefs that the film’s content would be too controversial following the Columbine shootings. It is also one of the most critically acclaimed films to come from Japan in the last 20 years, being one of the nation’s highest grossing films. Director Quentin Tarantino has even gone on record saying that this was his favorite film of the last 20 years.
The film takes place in an alternate version of Japan where every year a random middle school class is selected to compete in a broadcast battle to the death in order to quell the masses. More specifically, this is done to instill fear into the growing Japanese youth, who are becoming increasingly violent and delinquent. The film follows several members of a ninth-grade class as they are abducted from a school trip to a deserted island and forced to compete.
It is hard to speak of this film in modern context without also mentioning the recent success of “The Hunger Games,” which has an extremely similar plot. There are crucial differences between the films, the first being that the film is set in modern Japan instead of the future setting of “The Hunger Games.”
The characters of “The Hunger Games” have sponsors who arrange for them to receive aid; in “Battle Royale,” each kid is given a bag containing a piece of bread, two bottles of water, a map and a random weapon, which could range from a shotgun to a pot lid. The kids in the Hunger Games spend a large amount of time training and preparing for their fight. In “Battle Royale”, the kids are released onto the island less than ten minutes after finding out that they are going to be forced to kill their friends.
That brings me to the biggest difference between the two: the kids in “Battle Royale” have been classmates since the seventh grade and many are going to have to face their friends in fights to the death, all while being monitored by the seventh-grade teacher they abused years earlier. Despite the dark content, the film has a strong grasp on when moments of dark comedy are appropriate. At times, it is shocking how quickly moments of joy and levity transition into horror.
“Battle Royale” is an engrossing movie that focuses on how average school students would react while placed in such a harsh setting. The actors portraying these kids do a great job, and only one or two of the forty students turn in a mediocre performance. The main villain, Kitano (played by veteran actor Takeshi Kitano) plays the class’s seventh-grade teacher and he steals every scene. Kitano adds depth and a comedic touch to a character who watches his former students fight each other to the death. Despite knowing of the horrible things he is condoning, it is hard to actually dislike his character.
Despite its outward appearance as a violent thriller, the film has many well-developed themes. Both “Battle Royale” and “The Hunger Games” deal with media exploitation, but that is not the core theme of “Battle Royal.” “Battle Royale” is about the struggles of the youth of today trying to survive in a modern industrialized world. Just as the students in the film compete for the right to live, the youth in Japan fight to survive in the competitive job market.
The film uses the loss of innocence though violence to illustrate the idea that Japanese children are losing their childhoods and are instead being exploited as a commodity by a harsh and brutal society. The film is difficult to watch at times, but the violence does not detract from the overall message of the film. The story is well thought out and well told. There are few flaws with the film and I can easily give this film five out of five stars.