ILT’s new TurningJapnese series will serve as a discussion of all things hōga in the Land of the Rising Sun, seeking to share the latest productions and reminisce about the history, the classics, and the downright bizarre.
First up, a look back at many of my generation’s introduction to Japanese cinema…
Dir: Kinji Fukasaku
Original Release Date: 16 December 2000
Battle Royale is more than your average cult classic. One of the most famous films to ever come out of Japan, the late, prolific Kinji Fukasaku’s notorious silver screen version of Koushun Takami’s epic novel of the same name is a cinematic masterpiece of direction and adaptation. Heading down the split paths of action, thriller, and horror, but always complementing the source material, it’s a rare success in that it managed not to ruin the novel despite altering multiple aspects of it. Recognising that the depth of the novel’s context and characterisation was never likely to transfer easily to a standard feature film template, Fukasaku and his writer, Kenta (his son), wisely focused on the here and now of the story, providing a frantic game of cat-and-mouse amongst the students of class 3-B, seamlessly intercut with subtle character development by use of both flashbacks and present day actions.
Almost fifteen years on from its initial Japanese release, the film remains as fresh as ever; a chilling dystopian depiction of a society kept in line by state-sponsored violence. The chosen form of terror is an annual Battle Royale, wherein a high school class is chosen to fight each other to the death. Designed to keep the vast majority of the nation happy simply by not involving them, but also on edge due to the random selection process, the BR Act is a masterful plot device utilised perfectly here by the Fukasakus, who allow it, in the spirit of the novel, to tell the story of the characters, rather than the other way around. The Battle Royale as a concept is of course highly intriguing, but it’s not as interesting as the reactions it creates, and this is where the film succeeds.
In fact, the more I think about it, it’s actually fairly insulting to the point of being laughable that Suzanne Collins, author of the acclaimed Hunger Games trilogy, claimed to have never heard of either the novel of the film until after she had completed the first chapter of her own series, published in 2008. Whilst a great novel for young people and one I believe should be read in schools due to it being a welcome relatable, engaging youth-based tale of heroism and, erm, “love”, The Hunger Games turned out to be all but identical theme-wise and very similar story-wise to Takami’s work, released almost ten years prior.
But I digress – this is about the original. Aiding Fukasaku is a more than competent, predominantly teenage cast, led by Tatsuya Fujiwara (Shuya), Aki Maeda (Noriko), Taro Yamamoto (Shogo), and Kou Shibasaki (Mitsuko). Present also is Takako Chigusa, who would later find international fame as Gogo Yubari in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003). Despite inevitable (but minimal) instances of unconvincing rants and emotional outbursts – to be expected from such a young, inexperienced cast – the newcomers apply themselves well for the most part, no doubt invigorated by the presence of Japanese film legend and the adult antagonist of the picture, ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, whose character is his namesake.
Working closely with his actors, Fukasaku, alongside cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima and editor Hirohide Abe, combine to produce a stunning visual piece to complement the forever-hectic environment, using the characters and related themes as the main point of reference throughout. This results in plenty of nice little moments and some very well done set pieces. Highlights abound, beginning with the opening scene, the shots snapping closer in unison with the cameras of the frenzied mob of reporters and photographers, each trying to get a glimpse of the previous Battle Royale winner. As the victorious girl appears before them, covered in blood and clutching a doll, her twisted, haunting smile sets the tone with an unforgettable image of insanity personified. The thematic use of the winning girl’s smile is echoed during the finale, emitted from Kitano’s painting of his massacred students. At the heart of the carnage, alive, stands Noriko, smiling, a symbol of both purity and Kitano’s previously alluded connection to, and affection for the girl whom he wishes was his own daughter (the image of him appearing before Noriko in person, in the rain, umbrella in hand, is wonderfully striking and another standout moment). Sandwiched in between is the chilling smile of lead female antagonist Mitsuko, turning her flashlight upward in the frightening, illuminating technique of old as she encounters her first victim. Set up in the minds of the audience as a narcissistic bully well equipped to play and win such a game, this moment is actually Mitsuko’s transformation. As the film progresses and her character develops, we learn she was in fact the total opposite, a lonely, self-loathing outcast with a dark past, who it seems finally snapped at the opportunity to both prove her worth and get one up on each one of her classmates at the same time.
The intensity is consistent throughout the longer, more intricate sequences also, with two well worked scenes in particular demonstrating as much. The first is the classroom reunification of Kitano with class 3-B and the subsequent realisation that they are in line to face the BR Act. Kitano, a completely re-written character in place of the novel’s Kinpatsu Sakamochi, dictates the tone and tempo, resulting in flashes of grim brutality and emotion ranging from dry to hysterical, infused with darkly humorous Japanese-based satire. As Fukasaku proceeds to poke fun at his home country’s stereotypes, the highlight emerges as the quite frankly hilarious instructional video, featuring an incredibly clichéd Japanese television personality. Only Kitano’s superb sarcastic reactions (“Hai konichiwa!”/”Arigato gozaimasu!”) top the outrageous juxtaposition of the absurd, colourful, wide-eye inducing video (complete with the subtle, yet ingenious inclusion of BR.com – the mere idea that something this sick would have an official government website cracks me up), against the frightening reality of the situation for those on the receiving end.
The second brilliantly executed edge-of-your-seat scene is the lighthouse shootout. Predictable in outcome but built up in rapidly increasing suspenseful fashion, four female friends turn on each other in a fit of murderous suspicion, each shooting their companions to death only seconds after being a united front, leaving the fifth friend and cause of the argument, ironically, alive. Fukasaku really gets the best out of his actors here, with some strong performances from the girls in what is, for the majority of them, their only scene with dialogue. The action is at its peak here also, with the girls really getting into it as they unleash their fury and tear around spraying bullets, while Fukasaku and Yanagishima use every angle possible to convey the madness, culminating in a fantastic final high angle shot as three of the girls take each other out at once.
A condensed, yet fully realised adaptation of the novel, Battle Royale is an all-time classic of Japanese cinema and one of the most influential foreign language films ever made. The beauty of it being so well made is that if you see it before reading the book, there’s so much more to discover: the wider context of the political and social state of Japan and it’s empire (The Republic of Greater East Asia), Shinji’s backstory, his use of the collars and the concurrent, far more prominent themes of rebellion and popular uprising, the greater in-depth development of Mitsuko, and, most intriguing of all, the entirely different character of Kazuo Kiriyama, no longer the mute, psychotic ‘exchange’ student depicted in the film, but a fully fleshed out, unrelenting monster of a character who frequently pops up in some of the novel’s best moments. On the flip side, if you read the book first, the film is a satisfying take on proceedings, never attempting to do too much, but staying true to the characters and themes as much as possible and coming off as a well rounded tale in its own right. Beat Takeshi is the main highlight, producing a colossal performance and a unique character in Kitano. Dominating the frame whenever he’s in focus, the veteran actor/director was an inspired choice – funny, terrifying, tragic.
The final word, of course, goes to director Kinji Fukasaku. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in August 2002, Fukasaku succumbed to his illness just over a year later, after shooting his first and only scene of Battle Royale II: Requiem. Later completed by his son, Kenta, it’s not a sequel I would recommend watching save for a few interesting character-based moments. Fittingly, Battle Royale turned out to be the great director’s final picture. An epic, thought-provoking visual feast, drowning in box-office takings, local award nominations and, above all, domestic and international controversy. The film caused uproar as much as it received critical acclaim, with Japanese political figures speaking out against its use of violence and causing fearsome media debates, whilst the post-Columbine atmosphere in the US made sure no official North American release was forthcoming for over a decade since it first came out in Japan. All in all it’s the definition of a perfect legacy, one that will no doubt continue to be as influential as it has been over the past fifteen years.
Go, you can do it.