Battle Royale Review
Battle Royale is Fukasaku Kinji's take on the incredibly volatile topic of societal and cultural violence. The topic, although actively ignored by mainstream Hollywood, has been looked at in recent years quite frequently, mostly by the European scene: Belgium shocked most of us with Man Bites Dog, Austria did the same with Funny Games, Germany confused us with The End of Violence and Poland offered us the superb A Short Film about Killing.
The film's basic premise is quite simple: in a decaying Japanese society, where unemployment has reached 15%, the youth has run wild and abandoned the age-old values of working and studying hard. The central government have come up with the idea of the wildest deterrent ever: Battle Royale. Each year an unruly class will be sent to an isolated island where they will have three days to finish each other off. To make sure they will do this, they are all fitted with a high-tech collar which will explode at the end of the three days if there is more than one person still alive. This year, Kitano Takeshi (the director/actor who gave us Brother and Hana-Bi) is the lucky teacher whose class has been selected to participate.
Based on the best-selling novel by Koshun Takami, Battle Royale was never going to be easy viewing - watching fourteen year olds murder each other will always be quite disturbing in my mind. Although some critics accused it of being sensationalist and cheesy, the film in my opinion takes the difficult road of not watering down the violence for mass appeal's sake (making this film virtually impossible to market in the US). The cinematography gives the film a gameshow feel with the deathtoll being flashed up on screen. Having a cast of 41 adolescents, the director took the option of making their dialogue as realistic as he could so of course they don't start elaborating on the philosphical aspect of their situation but instead come out with adolescent clichés. The actors themselves are quite good although the sheer number of protagonists makes it a little hard for their characters to be developed. That said, I didn't really find the characters flat or mono-dimensional - but in less than 2 hours it's impossible to portray 41 teenagers accurately. Emotionally, the film does play at catching the viewer out much in the same way as Man bites Dog did: the viewer is constantly having to resist getting enthralled into the action and being numbed by the violence, making this film quite a difficult one to watch with the brain switched off.
Battle Royale will probably become a milestone in years to come by being one of the first to show in graphic detail teenagers killing each other - despite this dubious honour, the film does have a message to convey - albeit quite a conservative one - to the audience about the decay of values, innocence, the trivialisation of violence, the media and the Japanese education system. Definately worth investigating for those interested in the subject but definately not light entertainement.