Title: Battle Royale
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Notes: A 3D version of this film is being re-edited for American release in 2011. This article refers to a subtitled Japanese edition of the original, 2000 theatrical release.
TLDR: High school kids are inexplicably drafted into an annual government-sponsored contest where students must fight to the death until only one survives.
The Way of the Samurai
The way of the samurai is death. In a fifty-fifty life or death crisis, simply settle it by choosing immediate death. There is nothing complicated about it. Just brace yourself and proceed.
- Jocho, The Book of the Samurai
The 2000 film Battle Royale is often cited as one of “the most fucked-up movies” people have ever seen. It’s usually those words, exactly. Years of being told how messed up Battle Royale was had prepared me for something as gory as a Saw film or as existentially antagonizing as a Lars Von Trier movie. What I got was Animal Farm with guns.
Battle Royale is not really a story about modern Japan. It’s a fable designed to skewer any nostalgia for a long-lost Japanese empire.
The Millennium Educational Reform Act
“At the dawn of the millennium, the nation collapsed. At fifteen percent unemployment, ten million were out of work. 800,000 students boycotted school. The adults lost confidence and, fearing the youth, eventually passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act, AKA the BR Act….”
- Title Card, Battle Royale
That’s the only context we get for the film’s scenario: High school students wake up in an abandoned high school with tracking collars. The collars explode if they enter a “danger zone” which is announced at six-hour intervals. If there is one winner after three days, the student goes home. If more than one student survives, they all die.
The headmaster, Kitano (played by Takeshi Kitano) is a former Junior High teacher pissed off by the generation he was supposed to inspire. Flashbacks show kids skipping his classes and stabbing him in the leg, which he takes with the stoicism of a samurai, going and washing the wound without wincing.
Nothing in the film explains the goal of the BR Act. When a student asks, Kitano tells him: “You guys mock grown-ups. Go ahead and mock us, but don’t you forget life is a game. So fight for survival and find out if you’re worth it.”
Whatever that means. In the 1999 novel the film is based on, the game is a research project into the psychology of terror, dreamed up by a Japan that conquered Asia in the second world war.
Kinji Fukasaku wrote and directed the film adaptation. When he was 15, the war was underway and his high school was forced to work in a munitions factory. During an explosion at the plant, he had to fight through a throng of his panicked classmates to escape from the fire with his life. When the fire was under control, the survivors were handed shovels and told to bury the bodies of their classmates.
Since the film deliberately omits much of the novel’s WW2-inspired alternative reality, I look at Kitano and see a modern-era Japanese glorification of war, the heady days of the samurai, days which are still longed for by many far-right conservatives in Japan. If the novel is about the victory of that regime, the film is about false nostalgia for a world where it had won.
Japanese Nationalism and The Last Samurai
Consider Yukio Mashima, a writer who, seeing samurai values disappear as Japan collapsed, committed ritual suicide after a hopeless coup attempt against the Japanese government in 1970. Mashima sought to restore the Emperor’s power, which even the Emperor didn’t want, and is still a hero of the extreme right in Japan for trying. The universally respected author called for – nay, demanded – the return of “courtly elegance” - Miyabi; the respect and honor of the samurai days.
Having lost the sword, Mishima believed, Japanese culture had become “something lovely and harmless, the shared heritage of humankind.” And as such, it was no longer Japanese culture.
Miyabi, for Mishima, meant the Emperor was still divine. State power as divine power means dying for the nation is dying for God.
Nothing needs to make rational sense in such a world, and so you can imagine a far-right movement encouraging a return to the Book of the Samurai by teaching youth to prepare constantly to die for the state.
Crazy? It happened to the director’s high school, and to the kamikaze pilots of the second world war; all mostly teenagers. It spread through in state-wide orders for mothers to make more babies to give to the Emperor’s army. It is fundamentalism and totalitarianism, and Battle Royale is showing us what it might look like if those long-abandoned ideals ever came back to Japan.
The Book of the Samurai
The Book of the Samurai, or Hagakure, is the guide that defined Japanese codes of honor and public order for centuries. It covers topics like how to give advice, how to avoid yawning in public, how to love (you must have a mistress, a wife and a true love that you never reveal) and how to find freedom in choosing your own death.
Facing death like a coward – that is, by choosing to live – lacks honor:
“If, always prepared to die, a samurai begins to think of himself as already dead, if he is diligent in serving his lord and perfects himself in the military arts, surely he will never come to shame. But if a samurai spends his days selfishly doing what he pleases, in a crisis he will bring dishonor.”
Mishima lamented the death of this ideal. While Hagakure lingers in Japan’s stoicism and in every tradition (the Hagakure even invented the formal ceremony of the drinking party), it is no longer the organizing ideal of Japanese political and military society, despite the best efforts of the far-right.
Battle Royal lampoons those efforts. Kitano’s speech about “why” the students must kill each other makes perfect sense coming from a pissed-off samurai: They’re doing it because the kids were flippant. They forgot to prepare themselves for death – life is a game, he says; the kids take their own lives too seriously. Let’s find out if you are worth your time living; you are only worth living if you’re ready to die. Kitano, the teacher, is old enough to remember when these were common ideals worth dying to preserve.
The kids aren’t. So each character devises a strategy; embracing one or the other extremes or struggling to find a balance between the two.
Some throw themselves from cliffs or hang themselves (neither of which is dishonorable to Kitano). Some kids team up to form revolutions. Most of those kids are undermined by rogue individualists prone to paranoia and, afraid to die, turn into animals. They cheat, lie and undermine attempts at co-operation that might lead to their collective survival.
Animal Farm with hand grenades
The director acknowledges that the film questions “where politics is taking us.” It’s taking modern Japan back to a dream world of nostalgic ultraconservatives and examining – through dystopian caricature – what Japan would look like today if we inverted the relationship between the chrysanthemum and the sword.
If that’s the most fucked-up society you’ve ever seen, just imagine living it.
Also, the film has nothing to do with this: