Although fifteen years is not much of a “throwback” in terms of time, Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battle Royale” (2000) deserves a Throwback Thursday recognition for several reasons. First, it is a major Japanese horror thriller that partakes of the slasher tradition. Second, it predates the currently popular U.S. teenage dystopian films, some of which (especially the “Hunger Games” series) seek to imitate it, by more than ten years. Third, it provides the name (when combined with a line from a certain Tarantino film) for a cool movie blog: Battle Royale with Cheese.
OK — that third reason is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but the blog name is nevertheless genius. Another reason to watch “Battle Royale” is Takeshi Kitano.* The now-legendary Japanese actor-writer-director plays a teacher (also named Kitano) who seeks violent revenge upon his unruly, disrespectful students. He is able to do so because of a new Japanese law, the Battle Royale Act. This law is enacted to deal with social unrest that occurs due to massive unemployment caused by the collapse of the future Japanese economy into depression. Criminal behavior among teenagers skyrockets and is considered to be one of the worst aspects of this situation. To deal with it, the government selects one class of ninth graders every year. These teens are then forced by the military into isolation on a small island, where they fight to the death. The last student alive is declared the victor.
Sound familiar? That’s right — it’s a premise that is very similar to that of “The Hunger Games” (2012), but one that is executed in a much different style in “Battle Royale.” Kitano, who was once stabbed at school by one of his seventh-grade students, is chosen to be the civilian adult in charge of the military-run Battle Royale event. His former students (now ninth graders) have been chosen to participate.
This, I believe, is a much better application of the premise (and many fellow movie bloggers apparently agree). Unlike the teenage characters in “The Hunger Games,” the adolescents in this film are not a bunch of innocents. Despite their protestations of eternal friendship, they start knocking each other off almost immediately after the Battle begins.
The film is not without a dark sense of humor. For example, a training video that the students view before the Battle begins is done in classic Japanese style, complete with a perky/ditzy/silly instructor as host.
One drawback is that there are so many subplots involving pairs and groups of characters that it can be difficult to keep them all straight. However, one subplot that is particularly good (and very related to the film’s ending) involves two well-trained former Battle Royale winners who are “transferred” to the other students’ school specifically for the purpose of worsening the odds for everyone.
Although (from a Western perspective) this film has a little cheese in it, it has achieved cult status, making it a must-see for all horror fans — especially those who love J-Horror. Check out the trailer, then give it a watch (it’s currently on Netflix).
*Equally legendary science-fiction author William Gibson (Neuromancer) raves like a fanboy about Kitano in a Time Asia article entitled “The Baddest Dude on Earth.” Collected in Gibson’s Distrust That Particular Flavor (2012), the piece also describes Kitano’s participation in the production of “Johnny Mnemonic” (1995), for which Gibson wrote the screenplay (based on his own short story). Gibson recommends that those who would like to see a Kitano film start with “Sonatine” (1993).