Battle Royale is one of a few forays we will be taking into what HMV would label ‘world cinema’ during this list. It’s one of very few subtitled films, to my shame.
But, the thing is it doesn’t feel especially Japanese. Maybe it’s the way Western cinema, post-Tarantino, has moved more in that direction; maybe it’s the setting, isolated from actual Japanese society for almost the entirety of the film. Whatever: it means the film feels brilliantly universal.
‘Battle Royale’ is the name given to an ill-defined government programme introduced in response to unruly pupils not troubled by disciplinary measures (which, as a conversation at least, sounds familiar). A single selected class goes on a mysterious school trip – the coach journey used at the beginning for contrast feels warmly nostalgic – which ends with each of them being handed a weapon and told: it’s you or them. You have three days to be the last one standing.
It shouldn’t feel so familiar. But, like so many other ‘genre’ films using high school as a setting, the fantastical elements and high concept become a way of magnifying all that teenage drama, the way it felt when you lived it yourself. Really, it could all be a metaphorical retelling of a particular dramatic school-trip. The premise, and all the ultra-violence that follows, is just a backdrop to the relationships between the various students.
Well, mostly… Battle Royale makes some brilliant choices, of which that premise is just one: it’s perfect what would you do? fodder. Landing in Britain around the same time as Friends Reunited, the reminder that you didn’t necessarily like or remember everyone in your class at school feels pretty relevant. But, um, what if they all had to die?
The use of weapons is another. Each student is randomly assigned an individual weapon. These provide moments of tension, or humour, as each character finds out they’ve got a machine gun, or a saucepan lid. It helps keep the action scenes varied, but they also act as a way of identifying the large ensemble of characters, all dressed in identical uniforms. It’s the perfect hook: ‘Oh, it’s Scythe Girl!’ you think, before you learn their names (or before their ticket gets punched).
There are 41 students in Battle Royale. You see the death of every single one that pops their clogs, accompanied by a terse identification: “Boys #7 Kuninobu Dead. 40 To Go”. And so the entire film becomes one long countdown.
And this shapes the film: as the numbers get smaller and smaller, the plot gets chiselled down. The film is made up of a series of vignettes exploring the situation, and how the characters respond, and relate to each other. To pick a beloved example: the lighthouse scene. It’s pretty much completely detached from the central plot, just taking a little time to further explore what it would be like.
The lighthouse is the home to a small community of girls, the biggest cohesive tribe remaining on the island by the time we arrive along with our protagonist Shuya. When a boy – perceived by some of the girls as a threat, others as a sexy opportunity – arrives and breaks up the dynamic, it falls pretty quickly, and dramatically, apart.
…Which, if you take the metaphorical view, sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?
Eventually, the dropping numbers become a relief, as they narrow the focus of the plot. It’s a inevitable consequence of the film’s structure, and the dropping away of elements feels natural, leaving characters you do genuinely care about, but it’s never really as good as the sprawling series of mini-stories at the outset.
…It occurs to me that perhaps I take too much pleasure from films that celebrate the teenaged condition, being a chin-stroking twentysomething. But it feels important as a subject, even now, and Battle Royale is a perfect illustration of just that flashbulb moment in my life felt at the time. Gory decapitations included.