While old by today’s standards (it came out in 2000,) “Battle Royale” is still infamous, and with good reason. Just the tagline should give an indication: “In today’s lesson, you kill each other off.”
Adapted from Koushun Takami’s novel, the movie, while editing out certain things for time and shifting the storyline, kept the core ideas that lay behind “Battle Royale.” While it has been 13 years since the fact, the movie still holds up as one of the more interesting studies of human interaction under extreme duress.
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, screenplay by Kenta Fukasaku and starring Takeshi Kitano, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Takashi Tsukamoto, Taro Yamamoto and Masanobu Ando, the movie was as much a hit as it was controversial for its content – after all, it featured a bunch of under-aged children brutally murdering one another over the course of two hours. To this day, however, it remains a very crucial viewing, which says a lot for a movie that was made 13 years ago.
One caveat, however, this article does contain spoilers, which I would like to suggest you avoid until after seeing it yourself.
Fed up with the way youth is out of line and continues to bring their country down, Japan passes a law: the BR Act. According to this, each year, a random class of students will be chosen via impartial lottery, whereby they will be brought to a remote location, and made to play the game of Battle Royale. The particular year of our plot concerns Class 3-B and the demure, yet disgruntled Shuya Nanahara. After being gassed to sleep and brought to a remote island, with their previous class teacher Kitano in charge, the students are explained that they were chosen for the BR game.
The rules of the game are simple: the object of the game is for the number of students left alive to be brought down to 1, i.e. “You kill each other off.” The combat area is divided into a grid, and as the game goes on, some of the squares become danger zones (shrinking the combat area). The students all have explosive collars around their necks, which will go off if they try to take it off, or linger in a danger zone for far too long. The game’s time limit is three days (the novel just required one death per day as minimum,) after which, if there is more than one standing, all the collars will be detonated. The players are given one “BR Kit” each – a bag containing a map, a compass, bread, water and a random weapon. The said weapon can be anything from a paper fan (yes, a paper fan) to a shotgun to a GPS locator locked onto the collars’ signals to a pot lid. The game begins as soon as the students leave the building they were given the briefing in, which is the HQ of the operation itself, and it, too will be a danger zone shortly afterwards, making it inaccessible. Beyond these, there are no rules, it is kill or be killed.
Of course, what isn’t told the other students is that this year’s BR isn’t played fairly. Two transfer students, older than the rest of Class 3-B are also present: one is Shogo Kawada, the survivor of a previous game, and the second is the mute, yet extremely dangerous Kazuo Kiriyama – both, according to Kawada, has been dragged there without their consent in order to purposefully “fix the game.” It must be mentioned that while Kawada tells Shuya, and the crush of his best friend, Noriko this, it is only through rumor that we learn Kiriyama actually volunteered.
“Battle Royale,” (henceforth BR) as it has been said, is not, as one store clerk defined it, an “Asian killing movie.” Yes, there is killing in it, quite a lot of it and all quite brutal, but the violence isn’t the point, it’s the framework. The movie is actually a character study of sorts, in that its main goal is to observe how a group of high school students react to being put in such an extraordinary situation. There are several key elements of the movie that bare this, more than others, but the underlying theme of human reaction to distress comes through loud and clear.
The first reaction is one of abject panic, that still prevails more than halfway into the first day of the game – with students freaking out, unable to make sense of what they are in, what they are supposed to do. Of course, trapped in a time-attack do-or-die situation, every hidden emotion, repressed crush and repressed bit of violence comes pouring out of them. There is an instance of a group of girls (the lighthouse girls, mentioned below) that has the participants’ violent urges and/or blind panic curbed by group solidarity, only to leak out at a provocation and turn them on each other. Those barely holding back their darker urges release their control, giving in completely – Mitsuko Souma is one such person, going straight into killing whoever she could find or coax into dropping their guard. An also-common reaction is those who have a crush on someone currently on the island, but cannot express themselves for one reason or another, begin to search for them in order to tell them before they day. To this end, Hiroki seeks out Kotohiki, the girl he fancies. Armed with his GPS tracker (that’s locked to the collars’ frequencies) he locates her hiding in a depot, but his approach frightens her, who was scared out of her wits to begin with, prompting her to shoot him several times in the chest. Hiroki reveals, however, that he came to tell her he loved her, and a shocked Kotohiki replies, “But… you never said anything to me.”
In an instance recalling the Standford Prison Experiment, Kitano himself isn’t shown to be immune to the game itself. There are three principal things about Kitano’s scenes that show that he is as much a part of the game as the students, mainly relating to Noriko. The first is that he keeps eating Noriko’s homemade cookies, recovered from the bus, which Shuya never actually got to taste, almost compulsively, denying the soldiers surrounding the control room even the slightest indulgence in it. The second is that he keeps making a painting, which is revealed to depict Noriko, with a halo over her head, smiling in the middle of a field of her classmates’ corpse. The third is that at one point, when Shuya, barely patched up but carrying every weapon he could take from lighthouse, finds Noriko – Kitano appears out of nowhere, carrying an umbrella, and gives it to her, telling them not to catch a cold in the rain. These three, and the fact that Kitano stayed behind after the game was over, make it known that the teacher himself is shown to be playing the game also – by playing favourites when he can. Of course, it is implied that he had a very dysfunctional relationship with his own family, and has a little bit of a connection with Noriko, but it’s inconceivable that he end up in stalker territory.
Groups A-E, Step Forward
Several groups of behavior can be identified in BR. The first group is the bucklers, those who break under the strain: in fact, there are four suicides (both couples) before the first hour of the game is even up. Others, such as the straight-A student Kyouichi Motobuchi, buckle differently – he decides to keep solving equations in his head while looking for people to shoot with his revolver. Tatsumichi Oki, who had a small wood axe in his bag, resolves to hide in the bushes (tying branches to his head via his uniform’s tie, and when the time comes, he attacks Shuya, and in the scuttle, the axe gets stuck in Oki’s head. Keeping with the fact that this is quite an unreal situation, Shuya’s first response is to ask his friend, who took an axe blow to the head, if he’s alright. Oki, clumsily standing up, says that he is, before dropping dead.
The second group is the copers, those who would try to enforce a sense of normality. This is done in several ways. Takago Chigusa, for instance, takes shelter in a shrine, to wait for Hiroki Sugimura, her best friend. She’s a track team member, and is shown to be jogging on the second day, tracksuit and all, as if she is still outside the game. She is interrupted by Kazushi Niida, who has come to ask her if she’d sleep with him, only to threaten her with a crossbow and have it accidentally scar her cheek. This results in Chigusa getting her revenge by using her buck knife to stab him, many times, in the genitals. Another instance is known as the “Lighthouse Girls,” a group of girls (insert name), all carrying firearms, take refuge in the island’s lighthouse. They find and nurse Shuya back to health after he washes up on their beach, and their routine is shown to be impeccable: some keep watch while some do the domestic work that needs doing. Their solidarity, however, is short-lived as one botched poisoning attempt (on Shuya) ends up killing one of their own, and in a scene that was inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s works, a Mexican standoff ends with the girls killing each other, the actual culprit of the poisoning (insert name) surviving only to commit suicide.
The third group is the action-takers. Shinji Mimura is one such person: he is an expert hacker, who is joined by his friends Keita Iijima and Yutaka Seto. Together, they find a generator, fill it with gas and form with a dense network of homes and Mimura’s beat-up laptop an impromptu hacking station, as well as a bomb that can be delivered to the HQ from outside the danger zone (in the movie, the bomb is installed on a mini pick-up; the novel has them using some sort of a pulley system.) Shogo Kawada is a second one – he proceeds immediately to find a base of operations, rig it with wires strung in the front yard to alert him, and does not hesitate to use his shotgun to dispatch his opponents quickly. When two girls (insert names!) attempt to use their weapon, a bullhorn, to call out to other students while Kawada is arguing the finer points of getting killed in a BR game, Kawada fires into the air as a warning, in order to get them to stop exposing themselves. Mitsuko Souma is one also, able to discern the time for taking action and moving accordingly: in a scene cut from the movie, Mitsuko was captured by three boys, and managed to use their sexual enthusiasm to dispatch all three of them, all by biding her time.
The fourth group are the seekers. In a cross-cutting existence, Kazushi Niida is one of them – having fancied Chigusa, he seeks her out, and tries to talk her into having sex with him, asking her if she wouldn’t like to do it at least once before she died. Her rebuttal brings out the opportunist in him, which is outlined below. Chigusa has already been stated to be a seeker, albeit implicitly, as she passively seeks Hiroki by staying in one place. Hiroki, on the other hand, is a seeker as well – he seeks both Chigusa, his best friend, and Kayako Kotohiki, the girl he loves. He finds Chigusa first, as she is slowly succumbing to her gunshot wounds, and then sets out to locate Kotohiki, to not very good results.
Then there are the opportunists, the “would-be-winners”, if you will. Kazuo Kiriyama is a notorious one, holding the highest kill-count in the movie. He begins with a paper fan, but quickly overpowers a “gang” attempting to kill him (by intimidating him first) and steals their weapons (which include an Uzi, a 9mm, several grenades, etc.) He continues to move through the game with the same precision, killing whoever he comes across and taking their weapons or equipment (which saves his life in one occasion.) Mitsuko Souma is another – known in the novel as “hardcore” Souma, she plays only and only to win, using emotional blackmail, sexuality, the element of surprise or just sheer killing instinct to cut a swath through her targets. Kazushi Niida becomes an opportunist when Chigusa crudely (and rightfully) rejects him, stating that while he might fancy her, he’s also playing to win, and will not hesitate to kill her (which he, unfortunately for him, does.) In a cross-example, Mitsuko stumbles onto the scene of Chigusa stabbing Niida to death, and uses this distraction to attempt to (and manage to) kill her. Yuko Sakaki, the lighthouse poisoner, is also a bit of an opportunist: having seen Shuya’s struggle with Oki and also “seen” that Shuya killed him, she takes the opportunity to use her weapon, poison, to attempt to kill Shuya.
The final group is the lost, into which Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa fit, as well as, it can be argued, Kotohiki. These are the ones who simply do not know what to do with themselves, or how to navigate the game, instead letting their conditions guide them. Shuya repeatedly states, both to himself and to Noriko, that he is useless, mostly stemming from the fact that he couldn’t stop Kitano from killing Kinonobu. He accompanies Noriko the best he can, but he is at an utter loss at what is happening around him. Likewise, Noriko mostly navigates the BR program by tagging along someone – initially, it’s Shuya. In Shuya’s absence, she sticks to Kawada, letting someone else do the driving and helping however she can. Toshinori Oda, who carries a bulletproof vest, is shown to be riding a bike when he is introduced (and trying to escape Kiriyama) – while there is nothing more, even this implies that he could have been riding the bike around with no aim.
Interestingly, the class teacher, Kitano, who makes the announcements throughout the game, is shown to be one of the lost, himself, but this has been outlined above, so it bears no repeating here.
Winners and Losers by the Score
BR has one pervasive truth embedded into it, both into the game played and into the movie itself – that to win is a hollow prize, because the victory is decidedly pyrrhic, requiring one to either mow down his friends, or to step aside and watch them mow each other down. Further, the “single survivor” rule is shown to have forced the hand of two people, a couple, in a past game: they had to shoot each other because it was either one, or none. In the novel, one is literally taken under the government’s wing in case of a win, mostly because there are betting pools that bet on who will, which means they would be set for life – all they have to do is to kill their friends and not get killed. In the movie, however, there isn’t such a prize. There is press coverage of the winner, but there doesn’t seem to be any reward for having survived the hell of BR. This then calls forth the question of what can actually be won, or if BR is just simply the new face of government terror, a no-win situation. The answer provided in the movie is that even if one was to circumvent the program itself, one has to run, and that the important thing isn’t to live or die, but it is to be free meanwhile, which is what BR ends on, the caption of “RUN!”