Title: Battle Royale/バトル ロウイアル

Director: Kenji Fukasaku

Screenwriter: Kenta Fukasaku

Based on the novel by: Koushun Takami

Japan release: 2000

UK and overseas Release: 2001 – 2011

Runtime: 113 minutes

A cult classic

It’s hard to imagine that back in the year 2000, a film released in Japan — a very controversial film at that — would become a cult inspiration that not only spurred the imagination of many western directors and subsequent films and TV shows, but helped create an entire genre of content that has defined a generation. 

By all accounts, Battle Royale, a film that involves sticking a group of teenagers on an island and forcing them to murder each other, didn’t go down terribly well internationally; especially in the US where it wasn’t released for another 11 years for that reason. Of the roughly $30.6 million it accumulated at the box office, it only made around $1.6 million outside of Japan or 4% of the total revenue. 

Still, 20 years later after its initial release, this cult film has continually garnered interest in the western world. But after all this time how does it hold up as a piece of cinema? And in what way has the film changed the industry? 

This is a Battle Royale film review; past and present

Quick selection

Battle Royale: begin

From the offset, Kenji Fukasaku immediately sets out his terms and the tone of the film with a rendition of requiem by Giuseppe Verdi during the opening credits. It’s a statement saying ‘you will not relax during this film’. 

Everything that follows contains a level of anticipation that rarely falls below a certain threshold; it’s as if a focus group were forced to wear heart monitors throughout the movie, and if it ever falls below 90bpm, Kenji Fukasaku would deem the audience too much at ease. 

This is battle Royale in its entirety. A film that demands a constant level of intention and alertness with very few moments of respite. (There’s no opportunity for coffee breaks here.) 

Everything works towards that idea; whether it’s the inclusion of somewhat hauntingly beautiful classical melodies which juxtapose to on-screen events; the unpredictability of the scenario and its characters; or the underlying feeling of guiltiness that’s difficult to shake as you watch. You don’t know whether to laugh or be excited, and that keeps the audience transfixed on what is transpiring.

There have been very few cinematic experiences even after the release of Battle Royale that capture a similar mood. Even re-watching decades later it still remains in some form — it’s a film that almost becomes a guilty pleasure.  

But what makes this all possible is the context of Battle Royale which makes this film truly notorious. 

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Controversial context

Enter a busload of seemingly happy-go-lucky late secondary/high school students. Then, proceed to instruct each of them to murder their friend beside them. This kind of situation sounds incomprehensible doesn’t it? That’s because it is, but it does it anyway.

It’s a situation that arises from the rampancy of youth crime (Japan calls this teen delinquency). In response to this scenario, the government of Japan issues the BR (Battle Royale) act in which each year one high school class is selected and shipped off to a remote abandoned island and told to fight each other to the death until only one survives. 

Despite this controversial subject, this Japanese thriller doesn’t pull any punches in terms of graphic details; as if to illustrate this point, the very first on screen death is unexpected, brutal, and performed by a teacher played by Takeshi Kitano in an emotionless display of violence. 

This act immediately annihilates the sacred student-teacher relationship as well as any hope for anything other than complete chaos. The truth of the matter is: this is one of the more tamer moments. 

There are a handful of scenes that are truly shocking, not for being excessively violent but for showing human instincts and emotion. The most shocking moment shows nothing except the aftermath of an event proudly on display, in a kind of scene that I’ve never witnessed before or since — and couldn’t imagine being repeated. 20 years later, it still warrants an eyebrow-raise and a short intake of breath.

The entire premise of Battle Royale is a horrific situation — no matter who you are — but Immediately put children in this violent situation and the stakes rise to about 24 on a 1-10 scale.

Beyond the madness

There is no illusion here that teenagers playing hide-and-seek with sharp edges and firearms is the main focus, but Battle Royal succeeds as a film experience in other ways. 

This action-thriller (not horror) isn’t exceptionally violent or gory as many might suggest; in fact you don’t often see the impacts directly. When it is visible, the blood effects are incredibly well-done and believable in its application. 

Camera angles and editing play a massive part here as well; fast paced zooms, cuts and effects have a smoke and mirrors style delivery that is something reminiscent of those used in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The results are a frantic display of action that showcases every action before and after, except the one frame where death occurs. It’s a powerful illusion that is beautifully curated. 

As an example to the contrary, consider anything by Quentin Tarantino which is far more graphic but uses similar techniques, or another action film like John Wick which shows everything up-front.

Despite saying all this, I still wouldn’t recommend watching Battle Royale if you are of the squeamish type. The end result can still be a stomach turning showcase. 

No mercy

Perhaps one of the most powerful elements Battle Royale employs is the absolute nonchalant-ness the film exudes. 

Considering the nature of what Battle Royale entails, deaths are merely shrugged off with very little time to process their occurrence; there’s no reflection on them, nor lengthy scenes of mourning as one might expect. Nowhere is there a better visual example of this than in Kitakano’s character. 

Going back to the first on-screen of which he performs himself, his expression in the aftermath is that of having just swatted an annoying fly. In some ways it’s quite disturbing but this attitude continues throughout the film, both through his character and cinematic style. 

This creates another juxtaposition — one between the audience reaction and the film’s reaction. 

The audience is expecting some form of respite or reaction, of which there is none. This proves to be just as shocking as the events themselves. It shows a level of brutality that most cinematic experiences shy away from. To further exaggerate this, there are moments that border being almost comedic at the expense of the many fatalities. 

Lasting legacy

This now 20 year old Japanese film proceeded to have an impact long after its initial release in a way that even Fukasaku probably couldn’t  imagine. 

Sure enough there have been numerous films and TV shows since, that have taken the concept of a survival competition or something similar and built upon the ideas found within Battle Royale. 

The most obvious is that of ‘The Hunger Games’ released in 2012 which shares remarkably similar ideas. Then there’s also franchises like The Purge which contain similar components but exist in a different environment. However, even 20 years later in 2021, the hit Korean drama Squid Game has similar foundations with Battle Royale being quoted as a source of influence. 

Even the term ‘Battle Royale’ has become incredibly popular to refer to almost any kind of face-off competition – even cooking shows.

But by far the biggest and most unexpected influence has been on the gaming industry, where ‘Battle Royale’ has become a genre itself birthing some of the most popular games in recent history.

Player Unknown Battlegrounds, Fortnite, and Apex legends are the titles you may have heard before. All three of these take the ‘Battle Royale’ concept and almost entirely replicate it in a video game experience — albeit nowhere near as dark. These three together have pulled in a collective total of an estimated 1.5 billion players worldwide. 

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The end result

One thing that Battle Royale as a film lacks is a strong narrative. While a reason does exist that leads to the events seen within the movie, it seems to be quickly sidelined or at least lost amongst the sheer weight of its own drama. Once the murdering begins everything else is forgotten. 

But that is the core of this Japanese film; what causes the controversy; what drives its success, and continues to be popular and a source of interest for many; and let’s be quite clear here for a second — it does it exceptionally well. It doesn’t conform to expectations, and for a long time I think the world took time to adjust to that notion, but as we’ve seen, adjust it has. Lets just hope it doesn’t go full circle.