30 March 2012
Here’s a well-known traditional Japanese proverb: “the world sucks”. Filled with deception, greed, and amoral opportunism, honesty and trust have become nothing more than archaic misnomers and fantastical abstractions for naïve dreamers and gullible idealists. As such, there are people out there who see life as nothing more than a game, and when that game is survival of the fittest, you get Kinji Fukasaku’s dark, twisted, macabre 2001 Japanese film, Battle Royale.
At the dawn of the millennium, Japan suffers a collapse not unlike the 2008 recession. The unemployment rate is at 15%, 10 million people are out of work, and 800,000 students have begun boycotting school. Because of the country’s eroding social values and their fear of the rebellious youth, the adults pass the Millennium Educational Act (AKA The Battle Royale Act), which aims to thin out the teenage population by forcing them into a no holds barred free-for-all to the death.
When Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and his peers in Class B are chosen to participate in the latest installment of Battle Royale, they are faced with moral and ethical dilemmas that pit their desire for self-preservation with their desire to protect the last remnants of civilization and humanity.
Since its release, Battle Royale has been accused of being a lot of things, but the one thing it was never accused of being was subtle. While some directors like to benignly hit you over the head with their message, Fukasaku prefers to use a sharp pickaxe to maliciously vocalize his polemic of students, teenagers, their parents, their teachers, governments, society, and just about everyone who is anyone. In fact, Fukasaku seems to hate everything. He and Lars von Trier must be Facebook friends.
In the film, many of the characters are actual mouthpieces, often repeating key words like ‘trust’ and ‘friendship’, and, at the same time, use rhetoric that is incredibly exaggerated and hyperbolic. They are generic because they are defined solely by their social standing within their high school community. Their motivations, actions and beliefs are entirely predictable because they adhere to established high school stereotypes; the bullies are mean, the sluts are vindictive, the loners are lonely, and the geeks are, well, geeky.
The insinuation that high school social relations are a microcosm of social relations as whole is incredibly heavy-handed. In fact, one can describe it has iron-fisted. The analogy doesn’t just hit you over the head; it bludgeons it to a pulp.
But taking all of this into consideration, Battle Royale still endures as a cult classic, and it can be argued that these reasons are precisely why. The film revels in its gratuity, and makes no apologies for its farcical tone and nonchalant approach to gory violence. Although the art of killing annoying teenagers remains a fantasy to most grown-ups, Fukasaku proves himself to be an unparalleled virtuoso in secondary school annihilation.
The deaths are deliciously inventive, with the ensuing bloodbath appropriately gruesome. The extreme violence is meant to be a consequence of the extreme devaluation of human life, and because the film succeeds in setting a proper context, the sadism is entirely justified.
The acting is also intentionally tawdry, and the few instances of extremely dark humour help to create moments of much needed levity. The film also employs a classical score, using the refined compositions of Schubert, Verdi, Strauss, and Bach as juxtaposition to the savage and barbarous degeneracy of a supposedly advanced generation.
As you may have already figured out, “the world sucks” is not really a Japanese proverb. But that doesn’t mean that Fukasaku didn’t take that message to heart when making Battle Royale. His message of social decay and the devaluing of human life have become ever-present, and when films like the avoidable The Condemned and the unavoidable The Hunger Games begin replicating these themes and motifs, it appears that Battle Royale has become a Japanese proverb of its own.