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Reviews in Retrospect: Battle Royale

Still serving as inspiration for films and video games, in some ways the afterlife of Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 cinematic masterpiece is no surprise.

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It’s been a busy decade for Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 masterpiece about schoolchildren forced to fight to the death across an abandoned island.

First there came The Hunger Games, the successful young adult novel series and subsequent film adaptations, which share Battle Royale’s premise but replace its grit, rage and blood with a stylised PG fantasy. Then came the video games PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite Battle Royale, which put players in the schoolchildren’s place and made battle royale the most popular entertainment genre in the world.

In some ways the film’s afterlife is no surprise. It is, after all, about a game. When its class of unruly 15-year-olds are hauled to a military base and told of their fate by their old teacher, the super-famous comedian Takeshi Kitano (known in the UK for Takeshi’s Castle), it’s via a peppy instructional video with bright computer graphics.

Not only must they fight till only one remains, they learn, but they are each also fitted with a collar that will explode if the three-day time limit expires, or if they wander into one of the island’s shifting “danger zones.” They’re each given a little survival pack and a randomly-assigned weapon, ranging from uzis to a pot lid. A simple set of rules and the highest stakes: it was inevitable it’d become a video game.

Rewatching it now, however, what sticks out is what Battle Royale does with this schlocky exploitation setup. It’s both an operatic tragedy and a furious political fable. At times it has more in common with Peter Watkins’ terrifying 1971 pseudo-documentary Punishment Park, about anti-war protestors and student radicals hunted by cops in the California desert, than it does with The Hunger Games or its video game imitators.

As the film’s opening crawl tells us, Japan in 2000 was suffering from a decade-old economic recession. It was beginning an authoritarian right-ward lurch that would lead, a few years later, to the election of the ultraconservative nationalist Shinzo Abe. The young were widely seen as dissolute, unmotivated and delinquent. For the right, the problem was an education system that made children unpatriotic, individualistic and ashamed of Japan’s imperial past.

Readers in Britain in 2021 might find some of this familiar. They might also find, in the midst of new attempts to criminalise protest, that Battle Royale’s envisioned future – one in which disrespectful teens are disciplined by extreme state violence – is not all that far-fetched.

In this context, the care and affection that Battle Royale has for its teenage protagonists becomes radical and moving. Unlike The Hunger Games, where the kids are mostly hyper-competent miniature Navy SEALs, Battle Royale goes out of its way to emphasise their youth. Their fight to the death is complicated by ordinary secondary school concerns like crushes and bullying.

In a standout scene, future Kill Bill star Chiaki Kuriyama, bleeding to death on a dam, confesses to her friend that she thinks he’s “really cool.” Tearfully he admits that he has feelings for someone else. It’s played totally straight, with as much seriousness as the carnage around them. Fukasaku was 70 when he made Battle Royale; the film feels like an act of real solidarity.

These heartfelt moments were dialled up even further in its unfairly maligned, even more radical sequel, but inevitably they have not made it into Battle Royale’s world-beating video game successors. It’s here, though, in its rage against a state that would slaughter its youth rather than understand them, that Battle Royale’s contemporary resonance really lies.

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