Battle Royale is perhaps the best film about teenagers killing each other for sport ever made. Granted, that’s a pretty small pool of movies. Or at least, I hope it is. Normally, I would do a Google search for this kind of thing, but with my browser history the way it is, searching for “movies about children killing each other” might just be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back and earns me an impromptu visit from the FBI in the middle of the night. Originally released in 2000, it would take another twelve years for Battle Royale to be released in North America, likely owing more to discussions over film rights than the more romantic notion of the film being banned because it was so provocative and powerful. Battle Royale is both provocative and powerful, but it definitely did not unite world governments to spend any amount of time and effort to actively ban its distribution en masse. This decision is much to their own detriment, however, as Battle Royale is also a truly subversive film, calling into question the shifting nature of the relationship societies have with their young people, what it means to be both a child and an adult in a modern world, and exactly what is the nature and power of the social bonds between human beings. It also calls into question the amount of blood contained in the human body, because if the characters in this movie are any indication, we are essentially walking balloons filled to the breaking point with blood ready to be popped.
Battle Royale takes place in a dystopic Japan that has resorted to bloodsport (minus Jean-Claude Van Damme) to maintain control over its population. Every year, a class of students is randomly chosen to compete in a contest to the death. Dropped on an uninhabited island, they are forced to kill each other until there is only one survivor. These rules are enforced by special collars that contain a GPS, a microphone, and an explosive device that can detonate and kill them at the push of a button or if it’s tampered with.
What’s unique and terrifying about Battle Royale‘s dystopia is how mundane and realistic the circumstances behind its evolution are portrayed; although the nature of the actual Battle Royale is fantastical, its implementation is driven in large part by a growing unemployment rate and unruly behaviour from the nation’s youth. And that magic unemployment number that drives an entire society to begin implementing sadistic games pitting children against each other in a bloody life-or-death struggle: fifteen percent. This number seems kind of comically low at first, but also just banal enough to be believable upon further consideration. If the goal is to prevent further social unrest, then you want to nip that trend in the bud before it becomes irreversible. The idea of bloodsport as a means of control is a fascinating one not only because it speaks to the violence of our own natures, arguably the basest of all of our purely animal urges, but also because of the implications of that intersection between the primal and the civilized.
The actual idea of any bloodsport is built on this foundation of contradictions. It takes the ugliest parts of our selves and sanitizes and codifies them. There’s a real sense that through this codification there’s an admission that this proclivity for violence is something that can never be truly expunged from either our individual or collective character. There’s also a tension inherent in trying to control something that, by that same admission, can never be truly controlled.
Historical precedent, however, does demonstrate how our violent urges can be weaponized on a societal scale; even though our natures cannot be suppressed indefinitely, they can be twisted on a macro level to control us. The titular competition of Battle Royale draws on these concepts, updating and recontextualizing them within the structure of a totalitarian regime. The most obvious historical example is, of course, gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome, which even at the time was recognized by leaders as a way to control the masses by keeping them distracted with “bread and circuses.” In the totalitarian Japan of Battle Royale, the deadly games are, likewise, used to divert the attention of citizens from the more important issues they are intended to address, as evidenced from the very first scene of the movie where reporters are clamouring around the “winner” from a previous Battle Royale competition. The diversion isn’t entirely about simple distraction, though; the organized killing spree is also an outlet for frustration, anger, and a lot of the negative emotions that people are experiencing as a result of large-scale economic and social unrest. For any kind of totalitarian or authoritarian government, this kind of rechannelling of emotional and cognitive energy is essential to prevent it from instead being spent working to overthrow them; instead, it’s deflected to a more innocuous and less consequential target.
Although still in its infancy at the time of Battle Royale’s release, one can’t help but draw parallels between reality TV the titular competition of the movie, at least insofar as entertainment can be said to be a distraction from real-world issues. It’s not that TV or movies or any other entertainment medium is inherently some sort of negative force or somehow facilitates authoritarian plots to oppress the masses. (Although, I am slightly biased. This is, after all, a review posted on a website that focuses almost entirely on watching and collecting movies, and not on advances in the cure for cancer or some other such noble pursuit.) Entertainment is, however, a convenient outlet for our energies; casting the next Batman movie or scaling back on the number of immunity idols in Survivor seem like solvable problems. We can wrap our heads around those things. Trying to solve world hunger or cope with a global pandemic requires a scope of cognitive effort that feels nigh on Sisyphus-ian in comparison. That is to say, human beings, as a general rule, are usually easily distracted from the big picture because solving a small problem provides a degree of emotional and mental gratification that feels like we’re making real progress compared to feeling like we’re constantly coming up short on the big stuff, even when we do manage to make actual progress in addressing more important challenges. It’s an absolutely self-defeating tendency, and it’s something we have to be constantly on guard against. The price of freedom, and all that.
The bloody competition in Battle Royale goes a step further than mere distraction, though, by using fear to control people’s thoughts and behaviour. It’s one thing for a government to simply randomly kill a group of people from time to time to inspire fear; it’s another thing entirely for that government to coerce or convince people to act against their own moral convictions in line with the self-interests of party members, which in the case of this movie’s world, is to quiet the rebellious urges gripping the youth of the nation. If the fictionalized Japanese government in the film can socially engineer a situation where friends would be willing to murder each other just to stay alive, then it can clearly demonstrate its grip on the hearts and minds of it citizenry; that’s a helluva lot of power, and the scales are really difficult to tip back once things get to that point. There’s something deeply disturbing about the thought of having our own mental and emotional faculties compromised in that way. I think a lot of us still hold to the notion that there are some internal parts of our consciousness that are impenetrable, even though history has shown us time and again that we are all vulnerable to manipulation on a mass scale by compromising our individual integrity. It’s kind of like Google’s targeted advertising; you kind of feel dirty at the violation of being shown a product for sale that you’re positive you’ve only ever thought of and never breathed a word of to another living soul, but you still find yourself clicking on that link for a self-cleaning Fleshlight (or whatever your particular poison may be).
This kind of socio-political manipulation is tied to even deeper human themes. When watching Battle Royale, one can’t help but see the influence of one of those mainstays of high school curricula across North America, Lord of the Flies. By now, most people are familiar with the story of a group of young boys stranded on an island, who try to maintain the structure of society that they are familiar with, but ultimately break down, resorting to violence against each other, much to the horror of the adults who eventually discover and rescue them. Battle Royale, unsurprisingly, subverts this by recasting the adults not as passive bystanders but as active orchestrators of that violence. This is a pretty deliberate subversion of roles; typically, society is seen as a civilizing force, while Battle Royale portrays the corrupting power that comes from an over-reliance on that structure. What it all seems to be getting at, ultimately, is exploring the boundaries between childhood and maturity. In this case, the movie is looking at one way of drawing that line, which is the responsibilities and realities of adulthood leading to the metaphorical death of the innocence and naivete of youth. A key underlying irony of the movie is that all children, of course, eventually mature into adulthood; the children in Battle Royale are inadvertently taught to hate the very thing they will become by the adults who have grown to resent a crucial phase of their own developing identities.
Simply put, this view of youth and adulthood goes back to the old battle lines of rebelliousness versus conformity. Neither of these modes of living is bad in and of itself; there are times in life where we need to question the status quo and other times when we need to make compromises to work together with others. Problems tend to manifest when we move too far to either end of that spectrum, and conflicts tend to intensify as shifting too far in either direction has a way of eliciting a proportional response from those at the other end of the spectrum and polarizing people into these two camps.
There’s a particular brand of cynicism that only those who have been in the workforce for any significant length of time can understand. (As evidence, I submit how much more funny and depressing Office Space becomes the older one gets.) In the modern world, the jungle in which we find ourselves hunting or being hunted is the workplace. As so much of our energy is required to procure resources for ourselves and our families, it’s no surprise that our primal competitive instincts manifest themselves in the modern world in the terms of careers. When the students first arrive at the evacuated island for the competition, their old teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) welcomes them after a fashion, and there’s one key part of his introduction to the Battle Royale that highlights this view of adulthood in almost Darwinian terms:
“Because of folks like Kuninobu here, this country’s absolutely no good anymore. So the bigwigs got together and passed this law: Battle Royale. So today’s lesson is you kill each other off until there’s only one left…. Life is a game, so fight for survival and find out if you’re worth it!”
There’s something telling about the misrepresented idea of survival of the fittest as it’s being used here. Certainly, within the context of the film and the economic decline it portrays, the idea of being employable in an increasingly cut-throat environment speaks to this idea of out-classing the competition (the adult equivalent of pwning a n00b). But even without the background of large-scale economic and social unrest, there tends to be a prevailing sense as one transitions to adulthood that life is a game of sorts, and not one that you can necessarily win in the traditional sense, but one that you can progress in to one degree or another, if only relative to other competitors in close proximity. I’m almost ashamed to say that I’ve felt the gravitational pull of this particular brand of cynicism, and that I’ve internalized sweeping pessimistic estimations of my own self-worth based merely how productive I am at my particular occupation or the apparent societal value of that job. I’m guilty to some degree of “playing the game,” and measuring the value of myself as a person against how successful I’ve been in my career or what my job is. In my defence, it’s difficult not to conflate one’s self-worth with how society apparently values your worth in a purely superficial utilitarian sense. It’s telling that one of the first things we ask a stranger upon first meeting is what function they perform in society.
In the world of Battle Royale, the totalitarian Japanese regime is trying to control the rebellious youth within its population by teaching them this idea that they’re only as worthy as they prove themselves to be. That out of the chaos of that competition will emerge the structure of society. But as hard as the government and the adults try to instill this sense that the children must somehow justify their worthiness not just to live, but to live a good life, and that this somehow marks the border between childhood and maturity, the more hollow the idea rings. When you look at just how elaborate the set-up for the Battle Royale competition is, you get a sense not of control, but of desperation. (And we all know by now thanks to the Broken Lizard crew that desperation is a stinky cologne.) Kitano’s reunion with his old class has an ironic sense not of an adult trying to restore order, but of a petulant child whining because things didn’t go his way. The whole set up of the Battle Royale seems specifically designed as a desperate attempt to drown out a basic truth with as much bombast and vitriol as possible. But in so doing, it only serves to highlight this truth even more clearly:
No one needs to prove their worth.
Your value as a person is inherent, and is exactly equal to every other person. The rest is just window dressing.
The adults in Battle Royale pitting the children against each other in a game of violence is almost too obvious in its goal of trying to validate the worldview that all of the growing pains that adults suffer as they reach and exist in a perpetual state of maturity have to mean something. That all the bullshit of going to work, paying our bills, taking out the trash, and dealing with the general slog of adult life has to be specifically rewarded in the end, and the fruits of that labour meted out to each of us individually based on how hard we worked or how much we suffered. The ultimate subversion of Battle Royale is that the supposed adults in the film have the most immature world view imaginable and that the children are taking on responsibility far beyond their years as they fight against tyranny and inequality. When the children stop trying to kill each other and start working together, they are able to undermine the corrupt system the adults have established, and break the game.
In the end, it turns out that the true winners of the game are those that recognize the inherent worth of all people. It’s not because they earned it, because it’s not something you can earn. By refusing to actively participate in the murder of their fellow classmates for the twisted purposes of the adults, and by taking a stance against a totalitarian regime despite the odds of their success being next to nil, the children ultimately demonstrate the kind of integrity and capacity for self-sacrifice that truly mark the boundary between childhood and maturity.
They’re willing to do everything in their power to resist the manipulative and coercive tactics that were being used to try and compromise them. The fact that they had very little power to work with is also the point. It’s easy to take a stand when you have nothing to lose; when you have a little skin (or a lot of blood) in the game, sticking to your principles becomes a lot more difficult. Given the chance, Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), the two students from the current class who make it out with the help of returning player Shôgo Kawada (Tarô Yamamoto) (some people are suckers for punishment), show that they are willing to fight and, yes, even kill if necessary to break down institutions that perpetuate hatred and violence. When they finally confront Kitano again before fleeing the island, he forces their hand as he draws what turns out to be a water pistol, and they gun him down in self-defence. This act is more significant than the typical movie action hero (last or not) getting revenge on the bad guy. Nanahara and Noriko are forced to confront another harsh truth about being an adult; sometimes there are no easy answers, and sometimes the best answer isn’t the one that’s right, but simply the one that’s the least wrong. One of the great tragedies of life is not that innocence can be lost but that innocence, once lost, can never be recovered.
Battle Royale is a highly stylized, blood-soaked examination of the tension between youth and maturity, innocence and experience, pot lid and pistol. Through a clever inversion of having the children forced to mature beyond their years and the adults behave as impetuous children, it challenges preconceived notions of what it means to be an adult (as well as the actual durability of bullet-proof vests). It cautions us as adults to not lose touch with the idealism of youth, tempered by experience it may become. It also shows that the struggle against the responsibilities of adulthood is a futile one; Nanahara, Noriko, and Kawada are ultimately fighting a losing battle. Although they can’t prevent their eventual transition to adulthood, they can still fight for the kind of adults that they want to be. And that fight never ends, for them or for us.
Above all else, Battle Royale shows that age truly is just a number, and not necessarily indicative of any level of cognitive or emotional maturity and that it’s never too early – or too late – in life to be your best self. Being and adult is hard; but dealing with the fallout from being stuck in a state of perpetual immaturity is much harder.