Battle Royale

Ono Seiko and Aaron Gerow onogerow
Wed Jan 10 09:05:13 EST 2001

I guess we're into the battle of Battle Royales.  Or not....

Anyway, it seems Mark's comments center mostly on a condemnation of 
Toei's and Fukasaku's intents, namely to make as much money by just 
catering to the desire to view blood and gore.  This might fit quite well 
with Toei, for which I don't have much respect, but I think this is a bit 
of an unconsidered shot at Fukasaku.  Maybe it's because I had a lot of 
his previous films in mind (I wrote on an essay on the Rotterdam retro 
last year), but in my mind BR was very consistent with much of the 
position he's taken on violence and Japanese society over the last 40 
years, and thus at least had some political or social basis for its use 
of violence.  I thus did not think much of the violence was gratuitous or 
unmotivated (the scene in the lighthouse of the girls killing eachother 
was not a bad evocation of paranoia breeding self-destruction).  Perhaps 
it all does come down to whether you think there was a "justification" 
for the violence on screen, but I think the film should be carefully 
considered in relation both to Fukasaku's work and other recent violent 
films before being dismissed.  I say this even though in the end I found 
it a so-so film.

Anyway, here's my review of BR:

I'm always suspicious when greying politicians rant about the declining 
morals of today's youth manifested in a recent spate of violent crimes.  
I can't help but ask: What atrocities did you or your fathers commit in 
World War II?  Aren't today's crimes a pale imitation of those crimes 
that you have done everything to sweep under the rug?  Worse yet, aren't 
they the return of all that you repressed, the product of a society that 
is now unable to take responsibility for its own violence?
	Kinji Fukusaku has always been aware of this hypocrisy.  From the 1960s 
on, manifested in such hit series as Jingi naki tatakai (Battle without 
Honor), he has upped the ante of bloodshed in the movies, but always with 
the awareness that violence both exposes the facade of postwar peace and 
outlines the moral vacuum that that war created.
	It is thus quite ironic that some conservative Diet members, probably 
more concerned with publicity than moral rectification, have publicly 
complained about the violence in Fukasaku's new film Battle Royale--some 
before they even saw it--and hinted at the need for government regulation 
(e.g., censorship).  To Fukasaku, they probably represent all that he has 
tried to criticize.
	At first glance, Battle Royale is certainly a controversial film.  Based 
on a novel by Hiroharu Takami, the premise is that, in a near future 
where adults have come to fear youth crime, a single middle-school class 
is selected every year, and their members forced to engage in a "Battle 
Royale" on a deserted island.  The rules: kill each other off in three 
days until only one remains alive.  According to the propaganda around 
this, it is supposed to both create better adults (who fight for 
themselves), and, presumably, youths too scared to resist.
	The film follows one such class and the bloody consequences.  The 
violence, some quite graphic, earned the film an R-15 rating (15 and 
under not admitted) from Eirin, the industry's independent rating board, 
but that has not satisfied the politicians, who fear that kids might 
still see the brutality and want to copy it.
	The additional irony to these criticisms is first that all the extra 
publicity has probably made more young people want to see it than before. 
 And second, that even with this class of 40 kids slaughtering each 
other, Battle Royale still features a fraction of the deaths of your 
average Arnold Schwarzeneggar flick--which gets nary a word of complaint 
from the defenders of youth.
	Battle Royale is different because, while Arnold's victims remain mere 
faceless objects of his macho machinegunning, Fukasaku makes some effort 
to either tell us the background of his dying children, or let us know 
them personally before they become victims of thus cruel game created by 
	His violence is thus critical, and his barbs are evident even before the 
bloodshed begins.  The teacher Kitano, played with a brilliant cynicism 
by Beat Takeshi, explains the rules with the same sweetly false words 
used to exhort the kids to "try hard" in gym class; and a short-pantsed 
sexy girl in an "instruction video" teaches tactics with an encouraging 
tone halfway between a "fun educational" program and a lively anime idol.
	The whole premise that fighting builds character reminds us too much of 
current rightwingers like the manga-artist Yoshinori Kobayashi, who 
glorify World War II for its opportunity to not only make people 
sacrifice for others, but also more alive and together.  The hollowness 
of that philosophy is evident in the character of its representative 
here, Kitano, who turns up to be more socially aberrant than any of his 
	The problem with Battle Royale is then not in its violence (though 
Fukasaku has lost the chaotic touch of his cinematic style), but in a 
loss of clarity in Fukasaku's world view itself.  
	While he has always been critical of the brutality of authority, his 
world has always valorized the anarchic, almost amoral violence of the 
first few years after the war, when everything had been destroyed and 
everything was possible. His cinema has usually lamented the veneer of 
peace that covered up that freedom, but that sense of history is 
unfortunately absent from Battle Royale.  
	What remains is an ending where violence does end up teaching some of 
these students the value of living and fighting, but not in the radical, 
nearly amoral way of his previous films.  It is a much more conventional 
moral universe, one a bit too close to the honorably "character-building" 
view of violence espoused Kitano.
	I, for one, would have liked to have seen Fukasaku truly wage a "battle 
without honor" against those in nincompoops in Nagata-cho.

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