Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 (2000)
The question to start us off is whether a state has any obligation to act rationally. It’s conventional to believe that democracy is one of man’s greatest achievements, enabling the people to listen to the arguments made by politicians, and then vote on who has the best solutions to current problems. The one(s) securing the most support then have a mandate to implement the solutions. Except this assumes all the competing points of view are rational, or that the rational groups seeking power have enough support. There are always cultural groups who take extreme positions. If they are in the majority, they win the elections and claim the right to impose their solutions on the minority. Because of this, dogmatic points of view can prevail until the next elections. If those opportunities to vote are separated by years, it allows the group in power to consolidate its grip and, if policing and military power is under their control, begin eliminating the minority.
Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 (2000) is based on a novel by Japanese writer Koushun Takami. It deals with the position of the least protected group. Although states always assert that the children have absolute protection under their laws, this assumes the adults consider the children worth protecting, i.e. there’s sufficient population growth. With no right to vote, children’s welfare is always at the whim of authority figures. This is an alternate history in which Japan has become part of the broader alliance calling itself the Republic of Greater East Asia. Suffice it to say, this is an authoritative regime that fears the possibility of rebellion. Feeling that the young are out of control, every year the government randomly selects a group of students from a single classroom. They are isolated on an island and encouraged to kill each other until only one survives. The intention is to use this annual selective cull as a warning of the power of the state to kill whenever it wishes and without having to justify itself. The selection of children for this purpose is intended to terrorise. Potential rebels are aware the selection of the annual group can always be manipulated to ensure their own children are included in the annual fight. Indeed, in this film, past winners are included in the current batch of victims to skew the outcome.
Insofar as there’s a primary character, it’s Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara). We start off in his school where things are not going well. His father has been unable to find work, feels useless and has committed suicide. This came as something of a shock and left our young man alienated. But, thanks to his best friend, Yoshitoki “Nobu” Kuninobu (Yukihiro Kotani), he begins a slow process of rehabilitation. As an indication not all is well in this society, Nobu attacks their class teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) with a knife, but runs away before he can be identified. Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) hides the knife and keeps the small group safe. Unfortunately, when the class is whisked away to the island to fight it out, Nobu is one of the first to fall. This leaves Nanahara and Noriko to try to survive.
The substance of this film is therefore an allegory, somewhat following in the footsteps of Lord of the Flies by William Golding. To make any society function, there’s a conflict between the need to co-operate and selfishness which fuels anarchy. There’s strength if otherwise weak individuals pool their resources, but individuals can quickly regress to a more primitive state in which their desire for power over each other simply results in the deaths of many. Obviously this film is different in theme because this island is not a paradise lost. It’s intended by the state to be the death of all but one. However, among the children, there’s still a very clear line of demarcation between the leaders and the led, and between those who want to co–operate to maximise their chances of survival, and those who form temporary alliances with a view to killing as many of the others as possible before they must turn on each other. Then the film considers all the reasons one person has to kill another. It can be for fun, or out of self-defence, in anger or out of love. If you look at the motives claimed for killing, everyone is capable of inventing their own justifications for taking the life of another.
When it comes to showing the killings, this is not a film that pulls its punches and it deserves an adults-only rating. However, it’s clearly distinguishable from films like the original Straw Dogs (1971) which portray violence as sadism or for more erotic purposes, i.e. in a rather more disturbing way. This is more a cinema vérité style, simply cataloguing each death as it occurs and showing the countdown to the ultimate winner as if in some reality game show. Some of the events are genuinely tragic as motives are misunderstood and fear prevails. Others show the possibility of hope for the individuals and, by extrapolation, for the human race. That despite all the chaos, some can rise to the occasion and show a certain nobility of purpose. As a final thought, because I prefer not to spoil the interest in watching how the drama unfolds: we can accept that the state itself will not bend in individual cases, but that does not deny the possibility that officers of the state cannot show compassion or perhaps merely a desire for it all to end. Perhaps in another life a teacher can reach out to a girl in the class and somehow inspire her to great things — or perhaps that’s the wrong way round — perhaps the girl persuades the teacher that not all youngsters are the same. Some may not deserve to die. Put all this together and Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 proves to be a fascinating and thoughtful film. I hesitate to say it’s exciting. That’s not its intention. But it certainly holds your attention as the deaths mount up.
For a review of the sequel, see Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルＩＩ (2003)