Hello there, and welcome to another issue of Your Japanese Film Insight. Later this month, the world-first release of a brand-new 4K remaster of Battle Royale will hit store shelves in the UK courtesy of Arrow Video. This comes just a few months after the film celebrated its 20th anniversary this past December.
In that time, the film has earned itself notoriety for its violence, despite having more to say on generational divides and post-war Japanese society than it was sometimes painted out to be. It was almost banned in Japan, was never officially released in the US for more than a decade, and caused a moral firestorm as a result of the timing of its release. In contradiction to this, it was also the highest-grossing live-action Japanese film in the year of its release and won various awards.
With this in mind, I want to spend this latest issue of the column first discussing what makes Battle Royale such an impressive film before exploring the legacy of this film in the two decades since its initial release. As a film whose impact continues to be felt on the medium, let’s explore the influence of Fukasaku’s final cinematic masterpiece.
Film Flashback: Battle Royale (バトル・ロワイアル, Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
Battle Royale, more than being a violent movie about kids fighting to the death on a deserted island, is a movie about generational divides and the state’s reaction to a threat to their power, fueled by the ‘lost decade’ of economic stagnation Japan had been experiencing in the 1990s. When economic collapse drives a wedge between an older generation rapidly losing confidence in itself in a new world, and a younger generation rebelling against an outdated status quo, then, as the saying goes, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.
Perhaps it’s no wonder the film feels more relevant than ever in our turbulent modern times.
Battle Royale has become an iconic film around the world. Set in a world where hundreds of thousands of children are boycotting school and rejecting the lessons of their elders, an attempt to regain control sees the government pass the Millennium Education Reform Act (the ‘Battle Royale’ Act). Because of the act, random classes are chosen to be sent to a deserted island to fight until only one survives. This year, Nanahara Shuya’s class has been chosen, with their former teacher Kitano (played by Takeshi Kitano himself) leading the game.
Battle Royale has received praise from all angles for the strength of its filmmaking. While it was also the thing that made it so controversial at the time of its release, the violence is filmed with a gruesome intensity that is emphasized by the terror from the victims and perpetrators who feel they have no other choice but to take part in this violent government show. It not only makes each murder feel more jarring and real, but visible fear gives even the deaths of nameless characters a level of sympathy.
Then you have the strong ensemble cast. It would be easy to lose track of characters in a film with so many characters, but everyone holds a purpose that ties into the movie’s ultimate message, from the teacher Kitano, Shuya and Nakagawa Noriko who each have feelings for one another and reject the rules of the game to protect one another, to the transfer students Shogo Kawada (a friend of our two students returning for revenge) and Kazuo Kiriyama (returning to the game for the thrill of the fight).
Beyond its violence and characters, it’s this that ensures the film’s continued impact all these years later. Both the original novel released in 1999 and the movie released one year later were each created in reaction and in relation to the economic uncertainty of the time. The growing youth unemployment, the suicide rates, and the economic turbulence challenged the post-war economic miracle and status quo of post-war Japan.
It’s this idea that makes Kitano the center of the thematic discussion of the film. His character, alongside Shuya’s father who we learn committed suicide, becomes a representation of the once-growing power of post-war Japan and the shattered confidence of adults in the economic depression. It’s no coincidence that Shuya’s class is junior high school class 3-B, with Kitano being a parody of the iconic national teacher Kinpachi-sensei, the titular character from the long-running J-drama series of the same name. That character became a TV icon that, as much as he taught lessons to Japanese youth and adults alike through the screen and his class, somewhat embodied the face of post-war Japan.
However, whereas Kinpachi-sensei would reach out to a younger generation that felt abandoned, Kitano wallows in self-pity, estranged from his family, grasping to the hope that the younger generation will be the ones to save him.
Yet the film’s portrayal of Kitano as a pathetic but somewhat sympathetically lonely character who forms a parasocial relationship with the only student who didn’t fully reject his classes, Noriko, is emblematic of what Fukasaku blames for the social unease of 1990s Japan. A rise in youth crime and suicide was caused by the older generation turning their backs on them, breaking generational social contracts. Not only did this leave a nation directionless and hopeless, but the younger generation is also then blamed for the rise in crime this void inevitably brought about, without analyzing the circumstances that may have caused it.
Kitano also represents post-war corruption, complacency, and the general failures of Japan’s older generation. The director, Fukasaku, was critical of Japanese post-war reconstruction as someone who lived through the war because it avoided scrutiny and the ability to learn from Japanese acts of war. It was an idea that he explored in many of his films of the 60s and 70s, like Battles Without Honor and Humanity. This film uses Kitano to update these ideas into a Japan reeling in economic depression and stagnation while remaining relevant to that period.
Notably, this was still a film made for teenagers, despite the violence and R-15 rating it received in Japan. The portrayal of a pathetic older generation is used to reject their ideas and encourage the teenagers watching the film to embrace this rejection of social norms and push for change. The battle royale itself is so powerful because it shows a younger generation trying to survive and find meaning in a world that has repeatedly drilled into them their worthlessness. Grasping a purpose amidst the unrest and disorder of their fight to the death, our characters are encouraged to move forwards, finding strength where the adults abdicated it.
Far from encouraging violence, it encouraged rebellion and change, a rejection of social order. No wonder the film was so controversial, no matter where or when the film was released. No wonder the Japanese government reacted particularly strongly to the film’s release.
Controversy, Legacy, and Growing Relevance
Battle Royale’s release immediately led to controversy, as the book and film’s production and existence reiterated the same divides that the story of the movie sought to explore. Politicians feared that, especially at a time when youth crime and suicide were on the rise, the film’s release would exacerbate and further contribute to these rising figures. Fresh in the mind of many was also the Kobe child murders of 1997.
In May 1997, the decapitated head of Jun Hase was left outside of Tainohata Elementary School, having been murdered, beheaded, and mutilated by a person using the alias Seito Sakakibara in a note stuffed in his mouth. A month-long manhunt was undertaken before he was found and arrested, where he admitted to the murder and assault of multiple other people in March of that year. The resulting fallout saw the age of criminal responsibility reduced from 16 to 14 and saw some politicians calling for restrictions on violent media for younger audiences, with ministerial investigations into the possibility of restrictions that ultimately went nowhere.
This didn’t stop the debate from being revived with Battle Royale’s release. The film was given an R-15 rating by the industry’s self-regulatory body, but it didn’t stop politicians from continuing to shout about the film’s harm to children and teenagers, saying it would inspire crime. These arguments only increased after a bus hijacking one week following the film’s release.
Controversy has followed the film in almost every country it was released within, and this speaks to something deeper within the content of the film. In an interview with Time Asia about the film, there’s a palpable sense of anger at how the government has responded to Battle Royale. In specific reference to the idea that it would inspire further youth violence, Fukasaku was unconvinced.
‘It’s not the responsibility of the film. There are kids who say they copy crimes they see. But is that the real cause of the crime? Deep inside them, there must be some other reason. Those details, however, are never reported. Nobody seriously is analyzing the causes of these crimes.’ In a more frank summary, Fukasaku stated, ‘Adults have lost hope for tomorrow. Children have no hope for the future.’
The film speaks to a deeper sense of trust that, once broken, creates a disorder and break in a society that fuels unrest, crime, and violence. Rather than addressing the root causes, a scapegoat is found. And that scapegoat was Battle Royale.
The initial UK release of the film occurred just days after the 9/11 attacks in the US that challenged British trust just as much as it did US sensibilities. Yet in many ways, with a film that challenges government failings after retaliating with violence against the younger generation rather than addressing the root causes that brought about this breakdown in society, it perhaps couldn’t have been better timed with the resulting governmental overreach and retaliatory violence and reaction to the attack.
Meanwhile for the US, while no official reason was given, licensing issues and multiple high-profile school shootings meant that, despite the buzz and momentum surrounding the film, it was only ever showcased in limited capacities at film festivals. Countries like South Korea, Germany and more have each, at some point, banned the film due to violent content.
All of this in spite, or maybe because of, the messaging it contained. The film was a rallying cry to weaponise the anger not for violence but for a challenge against a system that had failed them. There’s a reason the film ends with an overthrow of the battle royale and a message of hope; even if the film could be enjoyed by anyone and enjoyed phenomenal success at the box office because of that, its messaging was most powerful for those the same age as the characters.
While the film was relevant at the time due to domestic unease and international events impacting further releases, the film continues to be impactful against a backdrop of reduced worker protections and stagnating wages caused by the 2008 financial crash. How much has really changed, when governmental retaliatory violence has deepened distrust between civilians and governments as the unchecked power of police sees them inflict violence on the people they’re supposed to protect? Especially when those same police forces never face consequences for their actions.
The countless deaths of black people by police in the US, most recently involving 13-year-old Adam Toledo being shot and killed by police, the recent Kill The Bill marches in the UK sparked by the murder of Sarah Everard by a Metropolitan Police officer, and recent incidents in Japan such as one where a Kurdish man was kicked to the ground by Tokyo police officers. Each of these has brought thousands to the streets in protest.
Protests against this violence exist because of a breakdown in trust between authorities and the general public, and that the standard way of pushing for change through debate and discussion has failed them. Taking direct opposition to the failures of authority is what Battle Royale is all about.
There was a sequel released in 2003, directed by Kinji Fukasaku’s son due to his death from cancer, that addresses these ideas in a post-9/11 society more directly. The film lacks the subtlety and nuance of the original, however, replaced by a very blunt and direct war film that doesn’t do much to hide its commentary on the war on terror’s entrenchment of social divides and how it has been used by political establishments to drive a wedge between groups of similar interests.
It’s proud of this lack of subtlety, too. The movie opens with a shot of two skyscrapers side by side, crumbling to the ground against the on-screen text that we have entered the age of terror. Nanahara now leads an insurgent terrorist group that the government wishes to stamp out, using a reformed Battle Royale act to divide the younger generation against one another by sending them to war against them. The film is proudly anti-American, criticizing illegal wars and dedicating time to listing countries the US has bombed.
Although blunt and overly long, it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests, with this reputation a result of the film it’s inevitably compared against. The film has things to say about what bravery means in response to terror, and the need to mend bridges, rather than dropping troops and weapons and inflicting further pain. It makes for an interesting film, albeit one that leaves little up for interpretation.
In the end, Battle Royale II is mostly an extension of the original story’s ideas and messaging that have ensured its continued cultural relevancy. The original film inspired directors like Quentin Tarantino, while its general outline, if not its thematic content, formed the basis of some of the most popular games of the modern day like Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite.
Pitting the arm of repression against a younger generation that feels betrayed and left behind by those that have done little but pull the ladder up from underneath them, it’s no wonder that the people are angry. In its place, Battle Royale holds a framework for coming together and changing that cycle of violence, originally against economic unease and decline but now providing a blueprint to oppose state-sanctioned violence and the stoked fires of division.
Revisiting Battle Royale today, the film’s message rings truer now than it ever has. Rather than listening to hollow platitudes of hope from a generation whose actions speak contrary to it, challenging the system and charting forwards in opposition, as this film suggests, is the only solution.
Battle Royale is available digitally in the US, and digitally and physically in the UK. A new 4K UHD remaster of the film is set to be released in the UK on 26 April from Arrow Video.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl !