Directed by: Kinji Fukasaku
Premise: Set in the future, the Japanese government captures a group of ninth graders and forces them to engaging in a battle to the death until there is only one student left alive.
What Works: There is an entire subgenre of sci-fi gladiator films, usually set in a dystopian future in which contestants fight to the death for society’s entertainment. It is a well-established genre with titles like The Running Man and The Hunger Games and Battle Royale is among the most notable and the most important of these pictures. The film and its source novel were very controversial in their native country of Japan and when it was initially released the film did not get distributed in the American market, possibly due to criticisms of violent entertainment that were in vogue at that time. But Battle Royale is a bold movie and one that is distinguished among other death-match stories. For one, the body count is considerably higher than most movies. The premise of Battle Royale holds that forty students are stranded on the island and forced to partake in the games and the film depicts quite a few of their deaths. However, this is also a very thoughtful picture and the filmmakers use the dense number of character to their advantage by weaving a complex series of relationships between them. Nearly every scene of violence has a moment of recognition in which the characters explain their relationship. This makes Battle Royale not just a story about random teenagers killing each other but a study and characterization of a group of people and the network of relationships between them. Battle Royale is also distinguished from other death match movies in the degree to which the characters try to avoid conflict. In a lot of similar movies, mortal combat is taken as a given but in most of Battle Royale’s confrontations at least one of the characters tries to negotiate a way out of the conflict and groups of people cluster together in an attempt to be civilized. That gives this movie a distinct sense of hope. Amid all of the violence, the heroes of the movie are not just fighting for their survival but actually forge meaningful relationships in a situation where those kinds of bonds should be impossible. Battle Royale also has a fair amount of absurdity; the movie isn’t very funny but it does have moments that point out the ludicrousness of the premise and that has the effect of granting the movie additional credibility.
What Doesn’t: As an entry in the sci-fi gladiator subgenre, Battle Royale is notably less extravagant. Compared to movies like The Running Man and The Hunger Games, this film is of a much smaller scale. A lot of the other movies in this subgenre tend to be about the society that supports these death match games with plenty of social satire couched in stories of a broad scope. Battle Royale does not have this kind of scale and in some ways that works for the film because it keeps the focus on the players and the imminent danger they are all in. However, the narrower focus misses opportunities to explore the concept of the movie and the audience is left to wonder about the larger context of the scenario and the meanings of the violence. That becomes most apparent in the ending of Battle Royale which is ultimately inconclusive. In most stories of this sort the social and economic systems that support the gladiatorial games are challenged and usually defeated. That ends up becoming the point, that the system itself is corrupt and has to go. Because Battle Royale does not sketch out that broader social context it is unclear just what has been won or affirmed by the end of the movie.
DVD extras: English and Japanese language tracks.
Bottom Line: Battle Royale is an outrageous movie but it is also well made with demonstrable intelligence to complement its sense of showmanship. It has become a very influential picture in the sci-fi death match subgenre and fans of movies like The Hunger Games should check it out.
Episode: #456 (September 15, 2013)