Long before “The Hunger Games” but after “Lord of the Flies” there was “Battle Royale,” a Japanese survivalist horror show in which middle school teenagers are forced to murder each other. That’s the first hint that “Battle Royale” is different from “The Hunger Games” – “Battle Royale” begins like a nightmare, with children waking up from a field trip terrorized by their sadistic teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano). The little exposition provided at the beginning of the film explains that the Battle Royale (BR) Act was instituted after 800,000 students walked out of school.
The precise details of the BR Act (along with the society that generates it) is a little fuzzy, but the end result is that middle school classes are randomly chosen to wear explosive collars and murder each other until only one remains. “Battle Royale” definitely has some cultural peculiarities that don’t translate well to an American audience. I would think 800,000 students would have to do more than “walk out of school” to merit a battle to death.
But enough details! “Battle Royale” is most interested in the battle royale and the action starts almost immediately as the students shift from confused whiners to vicious killers. The class of 40 students rapidly narrows as they commit suicide and murder, all against the backdrop of Japanese middle school drama. Imagine American high school cliques armed with machineguns and you get the idea.
In addition to the 40 students, there are two ringers: one is a murderous psychopath who volunteered for the game; the other is a survivor from a previous game with a dark past. From the zones that threaten to detonate the bomb collars just by straying into the wrong territory (this never actually comes into play in the movie for some reason) to the fact that each student’s survival pack is randomly assigned – some without weapons – there is little hope for any of them. And so each pocket of children plays out a different morality play where, bereft of adult authority and a moral compass, they regress to the laws of Japanese middle school. There’s the star-crossed lovers, the pleasantly facile cheerleading squad, the hacker brotherhood, the bloodthirsty nerd outcast, the bullying jocks, and the sociopathic loner. Not all of these survival strategies are as successful in the social circles of school as they are on the battleground, and director Kinji Fukasaku has fun playing the grim drama out for our amusement as the kill counter clicks down with each death.
The acting isn’t very good, but something may be lost in the translation between Japanese middle school and American English. The students, unlike the starving paupers of “The Hunger Games,” seem oddly pampered and bewildered by the fact “Battle Royale” even exists. In that regard they are less a product of a dystopian society and more akin to the victims in “Saw”.
But that distinction makes it all the more terrible as 15-year-old kids reveal the worst and best of human nature. Some characters are unsympathetic ciphers, while others are monstrous because of the societal constraints placed upon them. Although “The Hunger Games” certainly provides a more logical place for the ritual murder of children, “Battle Royale” is its darker shadow, picking up where “Lord of the Flies” left off.
“‘Maybe there is a beast….maybe it’s only us.'”
– William Golding, Lord of the Flies, Ch. 5