Battle Royale is three things. It’s a remarkably effective analysis of teen angst through the fisheye lens of state sanctioned deathsport (I guarantee nobody’s ever uttered that exact arrangement of words before). It’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films. And, it’s the answer to the question geeks have been asking people at parties for about a year now: “Can anybody tell me the name of the movie/book the Hunger Games totally ripped off?”.
Viking Night: Battle Royale
By Bruce Hall
July 3, 2012
Not only is that guy annoying, and probably living with his parents, and has probably never had a girlfriend, but he’s also unfair. There are almost seven billion people alive today. It’s thought that at least a hundred billion humans have ever lived on Earth. The written word is about 5,000 years old; the intelligent use of speech far older. So it’s only natural that sooner or later, two people are going to come up with the same story, right?
Even if you find that example simplistic, to suggest otherwise is to imply that ER is a deliberate rip-off of St Elsewhere just because both are hospital shows...I think I dated myself. Besides, rip-off or not, Suzanne Collins still had to create the characters and write the story, and they happen to be pretty entertaining, well written books. So who cares? Get off the lady’s back, unless you want to show us all YOUR trilogy of adventure novels.
What’s more interesting to me is how two somewhat similar concepts take essentially the same idea in two very different directions.
Like all the best science fiction, Battle Royale takes place in a dystopian near future. In this one, Japanese society has collapsed, all thanks to stupid teenagers and their meddling ways. No, seriously. If I understood the opening narrative, the Government passed a series of crippling austerity measures in response to impending economic collapse. The youth of the nation rebelled, and everything went to shit. I know, it’s a ridiculous premise, one that in no way resembles anything going on anywhere in the world today, because it is so completely unrealistic. But if you can get past that, you’ll really love the part where in retaliation, the Government starts randomly rounding up teenagers and making them fight to the death on a deserted island.
Unlike The Hunger Games, the festivities are not televised. Rather, they seem to be merely a way to cull the tot population and make an example out of whatever lucky kid “wins” a lifetime of paralyzing emotional scars. The Battle Royale takes place once a year, and the entire adult population seems pretty “meh” about the whole “killing off our own children” thing. That’s a bit easier to swallow when the story takes place in a fantastic, far flung future where the world we know today has long vanished. Less so in contemporary Japan, home to one of the world’s most philosophical populations. But no matter, the combat is little more than a device to test our characters’ relationships, and that’s the part of the story you should care about.
It’s said that the kids are randomly selected but immediately after the following setup, that would seem not to be true. A high school teacher named Kitano (Bito Takeshi) is stabbed one day by an unruly student. In that one moment, he makes the decision to quit his job, utterly abandon the principles he’s upheld as a father and educator and become head of the Battle Royale committee. By sheer coincidence, it’s the very next year that Kitano’s old class is selected to brutally murder each other for his amusement in Japan’s answer to Wrestlemania meets the Super Bowl, if the Super Bowl was not on television and the WWE would just let The Rock decapitate Edge already...crap I just dated myself again.
So let’s recap, because I want to reiterate something. Japanese society collapses, and it’s because of those teenagers and their damn loud music and smart mouths. So, the government starts rounding them up and making them kill each other for fun. Also, Mr. Kitano from class 3B got so sick of children that he quit his teaching job, patiently worked his way up from the mailroom at Battle Royale, became CEO, kidnapped his former students and is now going to force them to slay each other or be executed. All while he giggles and eats their food.
Yes, that IS completely jacked up. But wait, there’s more.
Orientation for Battle Royale includes viewing your new teacher’s badly beaten corpse, a cheerful instructional video where you will learn where, when and how you will meet your death, and watching Mr Katani slaughter the Math Whiz by driving a combat knife into her skull because she spoke out of turn. Yes, this is going to be that kind of movie, and it only gets worse from here. In fact, unless you’re a complete psychopath, it should be very unsettling to see a room full of children murdered and/or intimidated by their old teacher and his stone-faced foot soldiers.
Now, if you’ve only seen the glossy, uplifting film version of The Hunger Games you’ll be surprised to hear that the level and nature of the violence in the novel isn’t much less disturbing. Both stories also involve the protagonists’ journey from adolescent to adult, juxtaposed against the kind of unimaginable adversity only the Apocalypse can provide. But the biggest and most interesting divergence between the two worlds is the way Battle Royale explores its relationships in the context of a high school class. It seems more meaningful because they’re related by more than just a vague sense of shared subjugation.
So when they inevitably form cliques, the lines fall pretty much the way they do socially. The old boss becomes the new boss, as the bigger, meaner kids pry on the smaller ones. Against this backdrop, you’ve got all the genre (how about that, teenage murder porn is now a “genre”) archetypes you’d expect to see. There’s a Survivor - a previous “winner” who is being forced to play again. Then there are the kids who are totally into it - the ones who’d all just eventually end up pumping gas and beating their children, so it’s probably just as well they kill each other off now....so the movie seems to imply.
Some kids play along and fight reluctantly. Some get noble and sacrifice themselves. Others get off on dancing in freshly spilled blood while still more refuse to kill, preferring to outwit their jailers and try to find a way out. Our two protagonists, Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda) are just that type of people. Shuya is an orphan whose father committed suicide, and whose best friend Nobu was exploded by Mr.Katani back in the first act. He’s sweet on Noriko, but so was Nobu, so Shuya kept it to himself. But with Nobu now splattered into several pieces, there’s no better time to bond with Noriko than during a no holds barred, three day jungle death match!
Shuya and Noriko’s classmates find their own relationships evolving as well. And that’s the really interesting thing about this movie, as long as you’re okay with a lot of snarky kids giving each other slit throats and massive hatchet wounds. Battle Royale is a movie about what it really means to be a friend. It’s about learning to grow up fast in an unpredictable world or risk being filtered out. It’s part Dawson’s Creek, part Lord of the Flies, if Philip K Dick was a showrunner and Quentin Tarantino wrote novels. I tend to think the level of gore is not necessary to drive home the content, but I found the film version of The Hunger Games to be almost comically sanitary, so I guess I asked for it.
Speaking of The Hunger Games, there are so-called “Danger Zones” (either Top Gun or the concept of irony must be unknown in Japan), although they’re a lot less spectacular here. In fact, we never really see them, so it seems a waste of narrative space to even mention them. Also, the man behind the game has more at stake than we are first led to believe. And both films utilize a series of flashbacks. Battle Royale manages to craft a surprisingly rich back story for class 3B. Hunger Games used the device less effectively - to gloss over large chunks of the novel and cut down on run time. It’s the personal touch that makes Battle Royale stand out from its descendant.
The Hunger Games strikes me as a clarion call to Liberty. Character back stories felt less important to me than the events happening around them. But with the exception of one bafflingly divergent pinch point, Battle Royale declines to go the broad, political route. It focuses almost exclusively on the shifting interpersonal dynamic between classmates. It’s a far more intimate, engrossing - and in the third act, starkly philosophical - movie than I am comfortable admitting. And I should mention the movie makes good use of the idea that what happens in the jungle is pretty much the same thing that goes on in the halls at school, just with lots of guns. And knives. And tasers. And lawn tools.
Hey, there’s even some good old fashioned, American style action! Guns that never run out of ammo, people diving toward the camera in slow motion while something explodes right behind them but somehow does not harm them in any way...even the occasional pithy one liner. And since it’s hard to see the point of it all, Battle Royale literally spells it out for you right at the end. I can’t say it really justifies watching children blast each other in half with machine guns for 90 minutes, but it’s something worth thinking about. And did I mention it’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films?
It’s got the blood red seal of approval from the warped, ADHD afflicted mind that created Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. Two severed thumbs up from the manic genius who single handedly keeps Red Bull in business. Case closed.