Battle Royale is a violent, gripping thriller of children forced to murder fellow children, set in a dystopian, near-future Japan. Based on the Koushun Takami novel of the same name, Battle Royale was considered so shocking for its violence that it was rather find outside of Japan…that is, until Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels—which bear more than a passing resemblance to Battle Royale—took off. But enough about that.
In this story, Japan has become an authoritarian gerontocracy, a government run by really cruel old people who are fearful of the revolutionary potential of the current generation of schoolchildren. To break them of this desire to overturn things, there is an annual competition wherein an entire class of 8th/9th grade students are abducted, taken to a remote locale and forced to battle each other to the death until only one student remains. The lone survivor comes back home to a media frenzy and one imagines some kind of reward which is never really identified. The only image you’re seen of a previous winner shows a young girl so driven into psychosis by her victory that it doesn’t matter if she got a billion yen waiting for her when she gets home. Her life, such as it was before the competition, is over. And that’s just how the government likes it.
One year later: 8th grader Shuya awakens on a remote island along with the rest of his classmates, as the latest inductees into the infamous Battle Royale program. The unruly kids are all marched at gunpoint into a crumbling bunker where they are met by none other than Kitano, a former teacher of theirs whom Shuya’s friend shanked in the leg. Kitano has since recovered from his wound and is not only too eager to take part in the government’s sadistic youth reduction protocol.
The rules of the game are simple enough: each kid is fitted with an explosive GPS collar that will go off if tampered with, if Kitano remote detonates it, or if the wearer walks into a danger zone on the island, where merely crossing into forbidden territory radio-detonates the collar. The collars also monitor the kids vital signs; if 24 hours pass without a single student dying, then all of the collars will detonate. Fight or die.
Each kid is given a pack with basic supplies and a random weapon. It could be an Uzi. It could be a paper fan. Life isn’t unfair, and neither is Battle Royale. The battleground is a small island strewn with ruined buildings that look like abandoned post-war redevelopment efforts. Every six hours, a bunch of sectors are written off as danger zones, gradually giving the students less and less ground to hide in. Eventually, there will be no room left and even students with no will to fight will find themselves locked in mortal combat.
Right off the bat, we see that the students themselves have no interest in killing each other. They may be shiftless smartasses, but they are not murderers. That they are all forced to be for what appears to be arbitrary cruelty on the part of the government is director Kinji Kukasaku’s point. At the tender age of 15, he was forced to work in a munitions factory during WWII, and he personally endured repeated U.S. bombing attacks. Surviving that experience left him deeply resentful of the adult leadership that seemed willing to sacrifice the nation’s youth on a battle it could not possibly win. He waved off Battle Royale as a mere fable, but the amount of venom in the story suggests otherwise.
Once the kids are all let loose on the island and begin hunting each other down, things get bloody and chaotic. With more than 40 students to kill off in about an hour and a half, we rarely get to know a student’s name before he or she is fatally shot, stabbed, strangled, taxed, bludgeoned or poisoned to death. Eventually it boils down to Shuya and three other students: Noriko, the girl he’s got a crush on; Kawada, a tough exchange student who survived a previous stint in Battle Royale; and Kiriyama, a psychotic bastard who volunteered for BR so he could begin sharpening his already overdeveloped killer instinct. Kiriyama and Kawada are the only ones who get it right off the bat; most of the other students resist their mandate to kill. Kawada simply sits things out for a while, knowing that most of the freaked out students will do his work for him, and Kiriyama roams the island like some unkillable force, unhindered by any sense of morality or restraint.
One of the toughest scenes to watch—and this movie’s moment of truth—comes fairly early on when two girls decide to stop fighting and shout out their decision to the whole island over a bullhorn. Kiriyama cuts them down with a burst of machinegun fire and then turns on the bullhorn so every student still playing the game can hear their classmates beg for mercy before he finishes them off. Kiriyama isn’t just wake-up call to every kid on the island that they must fight, or some mutant for whom the game is uniquely suited. He is the message that any society that sees more value in dead children than living ones has crossed a line not easily uncrossed. like Shuya, Noriko and Kawada have their own ways of resisting, but they should never even need to. And yet, how many places can we find children pressed into warfare, brutalized just to make a statement, or made to toil for their adult masters? Such places are everywhere; we just choose not to look for them. And that may be the greatest horror of all.