Battle Royale’s cultural influence is unquestionable, especially in contemporary media with the free online game sensation Fortnite commodifying the films main narrative for gamers worldwide. Before Fortnite, a plethora of films were also influenced by the Japanese film’s narrative. The most overt influence being the blockbuster film franchise The Hunger Games which has mirrored Battle Royale's dystopian social justice system but has expanded it into themes of differences in social status and class rather than divides in generational values. As well as this, other films such as The Belko Experiment have parodied the influential narrative into a corporate setting, and even the WWE has had their take by throwing Steve Austin into a Battle Royale death game in The Condemned. Similar to how these contemporary texts have commodified the horrific situation of Battle Royale’s narrative, the film’s director Kinji Fukasaku adapted a controversial manga of the same name by Koshun Takami to reflect on a specific social situation happening in his home nation of Japan at the time. This article will explain the socio-cultural influence behind the inspiring Battle Royale, and analyze how the film wears its influences on its sleeve.
Fukasaku’s Battle Royale focuses on the issues of the contemporary Japanese education system. Sarah Ellis argues that ‘Battle Royale echoes a contemporary pessimistic mood in Japanese society involving economic decline, adolescent discontent within the pressure-cooker world of national education, and a growing level of violence among the school population who react in frustration to the fact that their social structure is rapidly breaking down.’ In Battle Royale, Fukasaku reflects on his nation’s youth at a personal level.
[Fukasaku] put to film the experience of seeing his friends die in the munitions factory, the event that made him renounce the old values of his country. The experience directly influenced numerous earlier Fukasaku films, particularly in his use of young characters to more dramatically show the full negative effect of Japan’s reconstruction. (Mes and Sharp, 2005: 51)
Battle Royale concerns itself around a younger generation of students affected by a Japan in economic ruin. According to Anthony Leong, ‘[b]oth educationally and economically, post-war Japanese society has always thrived on the competitive ethos.’ This competitive Japanese culture is exaggerated in this film, as the narrative problems and complications lead to the students competing over their own lives by being forced to kill each other. The characters are essentially forced into a ‘zero sum mindset’. Leong explains this as a mind-set ‘[i]n which one country could only achieve its objective at the expense and annihilation of another, dominated Japanese political expansionism prior to both World Wars.’ Leong continues by arguing that, ‘[t]he players in Battle Royale are faced with a “zero sum” situation, where there can be only one winner, and the use of force becomes the currency for all transactions.’
Reflectively, Fukasaku presents an array of characters who respond to this competitive ethos in different ways. As the protagonist, Shuya (Fujiwara Tatsuya) and Noriko (Maeda Aki), fight for survival and a way off the island whilst avoiding murder, many of the other characters take different actions within the game. The representations range from extremes of, students committing suicide to escape the game, to certain students embracing the chance to commit homicide. This is particularly relevant to the two characters: Mitsuko (Shibasaki Ko) who murders many of her fellow female students for revenge, and Kazuo (Ando Masanobu) an exchange student who is the only character who willingly signs up for the game. Due to their sinister motivations within the narative, both of these characters are demonized within the film's mise en scene.
One character that embodies the pressure created by the Japanese school system on students is the character of Motobuchi (Nitta Ryou). He is represented as the stereotypical class geek with his costume of glasses, and his anxiety-ridden performance. This is reinforced by his intentions behind killing all his students, so he can survive the game and ‘go to a good school’. He even recites algebra before firing his gun in an attempt to kill off his fellow students. Leong notes that:
[i]t is not coincidental that the students selected to play ‘Battle Royale’ are from the ninth grade…by the ninth grade, students have to compete ferociously in nationwide examinations for placement into the more prestigious secondary schools that guarantee eventual entry into quality higher education. During this time, high-school students face great emotional pressures that often result in suicides.
As the students are forced into an evil act, to contrast their actions in this 'zero-sum situation' Fukasaku provides flashbacks for a majority of the main cast. Each flashback is used to humanize the children by essentially placing them in issues and a lifestyle that is common for regular school children. The flashbacks tend to be quite joyful moments to reminisce upon, with the exception of Shuya's and Mitsuko's that both portray themselves as victims of failed parenthood. Both are equally disturbing, however, Mitsuko's acts as a reasoning behind her sinister motivations within the death game as she was faced with evil at an extremely young age.
Furthermore, the film portrays these students being oppressed by a government law which is then enforced by the Japanese military. Leong explains that, ‘[a]fter Japanese commercial and military expansionism in the late nineteenth century, the school system operated like miniature military units.’ Moreover, ‘[i]n the late nineteenth century the Japanese minister of education declared that schools were not run for the benefit of the students but for the good of the country. Elementary school teachers were trained like military recruits, with student-teachers housed in barracks and subjected to harsh discipline and indoctrination.’
The antagonist of Battle Royale, Kitano (Kitano Takeshi), embodies this notion of the military-teacher, and Fukasaku provides a critique of this idea from his representation of this character. Kitano is represented as a monstrous figure that does anything in his power to enforce the “BR- Act” law upon his former students. This involves even killing two of the students to exemplify the situation the students have currently been placed in by the government. These killing happen as a consequence to a slight manner of disobedience from the students, and are depicted in a gruesome manner from the ‘gratuitous violence’ that Fukasaku uses in his films. For whispering during the informational video about the battle, Kitano throws a knife into the head of a girl student. A mid shot is used to foreground the girls flowing blood from her forehead, and background the terrified reaction of the other students in the room. A more gruesome death is portrayed from Kitano’s killing of Nobu. Kitano gets revenge on Nobu from an earlier scene of Nobu stabbing his former teacher in the leg. Kitano enacts the same violence on Nobu by stabbing him, but then utilizing his injured state to show the rest of the students what the necklaces around their necks are used for. The use of a close up shows the necklace explode, resulting in blood squirting out of Nokus neck.
Furthermore, to emphasize the demonization of Kitano’s character, Fukasaku presents a binary opposition between Kitano and the student’s present teacher Hayashida. During the films narrative exposition, it seems the students do not respect Kitano at all. For example, they all collectively decide to truant on his classes. Hayashida on the other hand is presented amongst the student, playing a game with them on the bus to their supposed “school trip”. Hayashida is later killed. Kitano uses his corpse for seikatsu shido (life guidance), as an example for what a ‘failure of an adult’, according to Kitano, looks like for the children to understand.
In the end, even the villains fall victim to this oppressive government regime and modern ethos on the Japanese school system. Although at first Kitano embodies the oppression he too is a victim of high pressure and zero respect. Not only do the students fail to accept him, but also his own children. However, there does seem to be a level of understanding between his character and that of Noriko. Just like children, Fukasku provides a flashback and a requim section to humanize Kitano, and expand on the relationship between the two characters. Kitano's own separate ethos from the regime is presented in his own artistic interpretation of the death game. This childlike painting portrays the extreme issues faced by the contemporary Japanese students.
Ellis, Sara, ‘Teenage Wasteland: Battling the Royale Mess of Japanese Education’ (2001)
Leong, Anthony, ‘Those Who are About to Die: Battle Royale in Asian Cult Cinema’ (2001)
Mes, Tom, Sharp, Jasper, The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2005)