Plot: 42 students, 3 days, 1 winner. Let the games begin.
Even more than twenty years later Battle Royale (バトル・ロワイアル) has lost none of its inherent power. It was, is, and remains a milestone, a worldwide phenomenon that Japan hasn’t been able to match nor surpass to this very day. To put it another way, Battle Royale is a well-deserved classic not just of Japanese, but of world cinema. There’s a point to be made that Albert Pyun (of all people) got there first with the stylish but ultimately limp Mean Guns (1997) that was marred not only with a so-so story but, more importantly, with action scenes and shoot-outs that lacked in weight and oomph. In Battle Royale every kill counts and every setpiece builds on what came before. Time has not diluded it in any way. In fact the irrevocable passage of time has only amplified that Kinji Fukasaku was on to something at the dawn of the millennium. No other movie has come close to matching, let alone surpass, this unbelievable milestone. This was something that only Asia could produce and find a worldwide audience for.
Battle Royale unites two iconic names of Japanese cinema: director Kinji Fukasaku and comedian, game show host, actor, and director Kitano Takeshi. Fukasaku was a versatile and consummate professional whose work spanned several decades and genres. He has a versatile and experienced filmmaker who had done it all. He was one of the key directors that helped establish and define the yakuza crime genre with titles as Rampaging Dragon of the North (1966), Japan Organized Crime Boss (1969), Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), and Yakuza Graveyard (1976), among others. Fukasaku worked with Luciana Paluzzi on the American co-production The Green Slime (1968) (a clandestine sequel to Antonio Margheriti’s Space Station Gamma 1 franchise) and filmed the Japanese scenes for the big budget Hollywood war epic Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). He had made samurai period pieces in the form of Shogun's Samurai (1978) and The Fall of Ako Castle (1978), Star Wars (1977) inspired space operas with the deliciously kitschy/zany Message From Space (1978), tried his hand at fantasy wuxia with Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983), and delved into dystopian science fiction with Virus (1988). Kitano had been part of the stand-up duo Two Beat and hosted the gameshow Takeshi’s Castle (1986-1990). As an actor he was in, among others, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and stood in front and behind the camera for Violent Cop (1989), Sonatine (1993), Gonin (1995), Hana-bi (1997), Brother (2000), and Zatōichi (2003). Battle Royale would be Fukasaku’s swansong and revive Kitano’s career.
Battle Royale’s journey from novel to screen was not free of fight nor controversy. The basis for the big screen adaptation was the 1999 debut of Koushun Takami and its accompanying seinen (young adult male) manga. Upon publication the Japanese Parliament in all its benevolence and wisdom tried to get it banned. Instead of relegating it to obscurity it prompted audiences to buy it en masse making it a surprise best seller. When Battle Royale hit the cineplexes across 200 screens in December 2000 members of Parliament were once again up to their old tricks. The result? Crowds descended upon cinemas in numbers eager to see what all the hubbub was about and the box office reflected just that. Battle Royale grossed ¥3.11 billion domestically (it collected 212 million yen or US$1.8 million in just the first week and for the next five weeks it would remain just as profitable), was released in 22 countries (except in the United States were Toei refused distribution for over a decade, mostly out of fear of potential lawsuits and the political/cultural climate.) Battle Royale was easily the most talked-about foreign movie this side of Rape Me (2000). Not only that, it would end up creating the now widely known battle royale literary and videogame genre. For the longest time Americans could only get it through import. Anchor Bay Entertainment would eventually release it direct-to-video in 2010. Two years later Americans got their own with the trilogy of The Hunger Games young adult novels (in 2008, 2009, and 2010) from Suzanne Collins which got their own big screen adaptations in the following years.
At the dawn of the millennium Japanese society collapsed. A deep recession put 15% or some 10 million people out of work, and 800,000 students boycotted the schools. The youth, unruly and delinquent, was out of control and fearful parents were driven to desperation. In fear of a civil uprising if nothing was done to remedy the quickly escalating situation Japan’s fascist, totalitarian regime passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act, otherwise known as Battle Royale. The Battle Royale is an annual televised event to instill fear of the government into the citizenry and quell any dissidence. A busload of students of Kurasu 3B of Shiroiwa Junior High School from the fictional Kagawa Prefecture town of Shiroiwa are en route to what they believe is a field trip. Orphan Shūya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara), his best friend and fellow orphan Yôshitoki Kuninobu (Yukihiro Kotani) as well as the privileged and sheltered but otherwise innocent Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) and her best friend Megumi Etô (Sayaka Ikeda) are jittering with excitement. They are gassed and driven to a remote location surrounded by military checkpoints. Then everything went black…
As they come to the 42 students find themselves in a derelict classroom where they are welcomed by their former teacher Kitano-sensei (Takeshi Kitano, as Bito Takeshi) who informs them that they were randomly chosen to partake in this year’s Battle Royale. The kids laugh it off and put no stock into anything Kitano says until the bloody mutilated remains of Masao Hayashida-san (Ken Nakaide), Kurasu 3B’s current educator, is carted in. Kitano explains that Hayashida-san was “no good” and protested the selection too much. Having barely regained their composure the group is shown a short game instruction video presented by an incredibly cheery and kawaii hostess (Yûko Miyamura). When Fumiyo Fujiyôshi (Aki Unone, as Aki Inoue) disrupts the video Kitano kills her for subordination by throwing a knife in her head and Shuya’s friend Yôshitoki Kuninobu has his neck collar activated and is blown up when he protests too much to the slaying. At this time Kitano informs them that they are joined by two transfer students. Shôgo Kawada (Tarô Yamamoto) is the survivor of a game from three years prior and Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Andô) voluntarily signed up just for the thrill. Each are given a duffelbag with food, water, a map, and a randomly selected weapon and every few hours a random sector will become a danger zone. As the classroom systematically empties, the game’s on. Battle Royale, it seems, has begun.
Shuya’s first and immediate priority is seeking shelter and offering protection to Noriko, out of respect of his best friend Nobu who he knows was infatuated with her. Unburdened by trivial things such as a conscious and a moral compass Kazuo Kiriyama and Mitsuko Sôma (Ko Shibasaki, as Kô Shibasaki) are free to indulge their bloodlust and misanthropy making them very efficient and proficient killers. On their way to shelter Shuya and Noriko run into axe-wielding Tatsumichi Ôki (Gouki Nishimura) and in the skirmish following Shuya’s attempt to talk him down Ôki is accidently killed with his own weapon. What Shuya doesn’t realize is that in the foliage young Yûko Sakaki (Hitomi Hyuga) saw the whole thing convinced that Shuya killed the object of her affection. It’s then that they meet Shôgo Kawada who jokingly refers them to Pot Lid and Binoculars after inquiring what weapons they were given. At a distance Yûkiko Kitano (Yukari Kanasawa) and Yumiko Kusaka (Misao Kato) heard the kerfuffle and are screaming for everybody to lay down their weapons and think up a peaceful resolution. In a distant warehouse Keita Îjima (Ren Matsuzawa) and Yûtaka Seto (Yutaka Shimada) will use computers and guerrilla tactics to stop Battle Royale. Their leader is Shinji Mimura (Takashi Tsukamoto), better known by his hacker alias The Third Man. In the woods an argument between athlete Takako Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama) and Kazushi Nîda (Hirohito Honda) turns deadly. (Chigusa’s “every inch of me will repel you!” monologue is justly legendary.) As night falls Shuya and Kawada valiantly defend Noriko from an assault by Kiriyama. Wounded and exhausted Shuya is brought to the lighthouse by Hiroki Sugimura (Sôsuke Takaoka). Sigimura himself is on a quest to find and rescue the girl he loves most, Kayoko Kotôhiki (Takayo Mimura).
At the lighthouse Yukie Utsumi (Eri Ishikawa) has improvised a make-shift commune where she lives together with Satomi Noda (Sayaka Kamiya), cook Chisato Matsui (Asami Kanai), Yûka Nakagawa (Satomi Hanamura), Haruka Tanizawa (Satomi Ishii), and Yûko Sakaki. In a moment of youthful exhiliration she confesses her love for Shuya, which leaves him confused. The girls are resigned to their fate that their days are numbered but tensions run high regardless as they are consumed by paranoia and paralyzing, mind-killing fear. Yûko holds a vial of potassium cyanide with which she intends to poison Shuya for killing Ôki. When Yûka ends up gorging on a plate meant for Shuya and bloodily dies it finally drives Satomi, already half-mad with terror, over the edge who empties her Mini Uzi killing all the girls except for Yûko who was able to find shelter. Shuya witnesses only the bloody aftermath and Yûko killing herself. As the game draws to an end Mitsuko and Kiriyama turn on each other, the Third Man launch their attack and Sigimura at last finds Kotôhiki after a three-day expedition. In the classroom where they started Shuya confronts Kitano-sensei and Shuya and Noriko escape the island as convicts. In the city Noriko obtains a switchblade, and now that they’re both armed they’re ready to take on their repressive government.
Battle Royale made domestic stars out of its lead cast and many of its supporting players. Tatsuya Fujiwara and Minami have remained steadily employed since and both have amassed respectable filmographies. Aki Maeda wasn’t able to lever her appearance into a career and become an A-list leading lady upon reaching majority. Soon after she shifted her career mostly towards television. Her other big movie was the fuwa fuwa comedy Linda Linda Linda (2008). Sôsuke Takaoka, Shigehiro Yamaguchi, Yasuomi Sano, and Masanobu Andô have all become fixtures of Japanese television with Takaoka appearing in Cutie Honey: Tears (2016). Ko Shibasaki has also remained active on both the big and the small screen, and has a parallell career as a singer. Sayaka Ikeda has only starred in Ultraman Saga (2012) from Tsuburaya Productions. Video Training Girl Yûko Miyamura as well as Aki Unone, Satomi Hanamura, Shirô Gô, and Yuuki Masuda have all remained steadily employed as voice actors in both manga and videogames. Battle Royale made an international star out of Chiaki Kuriyama. Kuriyama would go on to play assassin Gogo Yubari in Quentin Tarantino’s two-part Kill Bill (2003-2004) saga - a thinly-veiled retread of Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (1973) with a dash of TNT Jackson (1974) - in what largely can be considered a pastiche of Asian action and wuxia. Chiaki would refrain from further English-speaking roles because of her shaky mastering of the language. She could more recently be seen in Blade Of the Immortal (2017). As for its international influence and cultural impact Battle Royale has been mentioned in Shaun Of the Dead (2004), Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Juno (2007) and American TV shows such as Lost (2004-2010) and Community (2009-2015).
Kinji Fukasaku went out on a high note with Battle Royale as this was the kind of violent epic he was born to direct. Usually it takes several years for a picture to attain classic status, but with Battle Royale that title was bestowed upon it almost immediately. Seldom does a movie live up to the early hype and even rarer is the instance wherein it exceeds it. Even more than twenty years later Battle Royale has lost none of its relevance, or its impact. In the years since Tsurugisaki Lighthouse on Cape Tsurugi in Miura, Kanagawa Prefecture has become something of a minor tourist attraction of sorts and the character of Takako Chigusa is popular among cosplayers. Japanese schoolgirls have always been fascinating to the West in any context, let alone in this one. The legacy of Battle Royale is incontrovertible, and its impact reaching far beyond cinema extending into mass entertainment at large, especially video games. The inevitable sequel Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003) was forgotten about as quickly as it arrived, and under no circumstance would, or could, it be able to live up to the high standard set by the original. Even more than twenty years later Battle Royale remains as poignant, powerful, and relevant as ever. If you haven’t seen it, what better time than now?