Starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto, Masanobu Ando, Kou Shibasaki, Chiaki Kuriyama, Takeshi Kitano, Yukihiro Kotani
This absurdist movie is based on a best-selling novel in
To the racketing sound of a news helicopter and the jostling of reporters pressing against a barrier of soldiers, we are shown the conclusion of the last Battle Royale. “The survivor is a girl”, screams the reporter into her microphone, “and she is smiling!” Immediately we go to a school where a student hurtles chaotically through a doorway and knifes a teacher in the corridor. A girl picks up the knife and instinctively conceals it. The opposition between teachers and students thus set, the narration is taken over by a student named Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara). Accompanying his voice-over we are shown the hanging suicide of his father at the beginning of Year 7. His grief and lack of direction determines him as the epitome of the students’ experience and it is his story that is highlighted against the other students’ throughout the film.
Nanahara’s class is ostensibly taken on a school bus trip. On the way they are gassed unconscious and wake up in the middle of the night in a strange place wearing metal collars. In a classroom with ominous sheeted plastic on the floor and armed soldiers surrounding them, they are stunned to see their old 7th Grade teacher, Kitano (played by an impassive Takeshi Kitano) taking his place in front of the blackboard. Kitano was the one who was knifed in the corridor two years before by one of them, Nanahara’s closest friend and classmate, Kuninobu (Yukihiro Kotani).
In the group are two older ‘transfer students’, Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), an evil-looking, gum-chewing individual with a psychotic sneer, and the cool, blasé Kawada (Taro Yamamoto). In the face of their confusion and terror Kitano tells them that their rebellious behaviour has resulted in the Battle Royale Act. Without emotion he says that their class teacher was opposed to their selection. His bloodied body is revealed on a gurney. The shocked group is shown an orientation video of the kind more usually shown for motivation at an adventure or fitness camp. The presenter is an upbeat young woman who talks brightly about the island they are on, their collars, the danger zones and the assorted weapons they will randomly receive. Her bizarre, enthusiastic gabble is like a travel advertisement and completely at odds with her deadly information.
Kitano is so emotionally detached it is obvious that all human feeling has long been burned out of him. He loses no time in asserting his authority and soon a caption appears on the screen, naming the dead, along with their class numbers and ending with “40 to go”. Intimidated, one by one the students are called by name and number. Soldiers throw each of them a survival pack as they run out into the night. The time, 1.40am, is called through a public address system. The Game begins.
With weapons each finds in their kits ranging from a pot lid and binoculars to a sharp bladed sickle, a machine gun, axes, a megaphone, and a handheld sensor showing the hidden location of others, each of the students reacts in a different, characteristic way, from suicide to sniping. The rate of killing, as one would expect, is greatest in the first few hours. By 6am, with the first public address announcement of the rotating danger zones that the students must mark off on their maps, the death toll is read out. Twelve students are named, dead. Every six hours the new danger zones are read out and the list of the newly dead as well. By the middle of Day Two there are only 16 left, and these are expectedly craftier, more bloodthirsty or just luckier than their dead comrades. The effect of the disembodied voice of Kitano listing the dead is as demoralising on most of the remaining students as actually having to kill their peers.
Through it all there are betrayals and avowals of love and loyalty. The teenagers form their alliances and predations based on puppy-love crushes, being rejected by schoolgirl cliques or memories of being bullied. There are varying degrees of creative tactical cleverness and raw animal cunning. The smartest do not necessarily last the longest. The ending is unpredictable and the main message, that the kids should not trust any adult and only with caution anyone else, is brutally brought home.
The pace is fast, the characterisations effective and believable and there are moments of tenderness and joy among the carnage and the stress of having to survive. Some of the best moments are between the resourceful and surprising Kawada, who has an agenda of his own, and Nanahara and Noriko. Satisfying too are the deaths of those who most deserve it for cruelty or inhumanity. The blood-red sunrise at the beginning of Day Three, with only seven left alive, is awesome. The whole saga is disturbingly offset by the island’s beautiful scenery and the absurd playing of classical music including Samuel Barber’s Adagio and the genteel Blue
The final message is that while even in such extreme circumstances an admirable humanity can be found, it must be fiercely protected to survive. Society and its rules are shown not only as untrustworthy, but insane, since the BR Act seems ineffective as a deterrent to wayward youth and appears to be more the blind retaliation of a spurned adult culture trying to reassert dominance.
© Avril Carruthers 8th March 2003
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