Approaching Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale can be a tricky proposition, not for any technically deficient reasons with the film itself but for the need to view it within the context of the time of its release. Juvenile crime was on the rise in Japan and becoming an increasing concern amongst politicians. A film set in the near future where a random high school class is selected by the government to participate in a “Most Dangerous Game”-type competition that requires them to hunt and kill each other was bound to stir up some debate. And with unflinching direction that puts the violence right in its audience’s face, Fukasaku could almost be accused of courting such controversy.
But Battle Royale’s strong level of violence is not so much exploitative or “crude and tasteless,” as it was denounced by members of the Japanese parliament, as it is a reaction to and critique of political response to rising crime rates as well as a broadside attack at the Japanese cultural drive to succeed at all costs. (I have to wonder if some of those who denounced the film did so as they secretly found its criticisms hitting a little too close to home.)
The film had the misfortune of being released less than a year after Colorado high school students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered twelve classmates and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves in one of the most horrific incidences of teenage violence in decades. A film in which teenagers are forced to kill their classmates was just not going to find distribution in the United States in such an environment. This left those who were curious and who owned region-free DVD players to import the movie and those who didn’t own multi-region players to resort to less legal methods. Those who didn’t see the movie but had only vaguely heard of the controversy surrounding it were probably left with the impression that it was mere exploitation rather than a piece of social commentary sharper than the sword one of the students wields. The film still has not yet received a legitimate DVD release so this is a rare chance to see a much talked-about film.
But even separated from the film’s sociological aspirations Battle Royale still stands as a strong thriller that builds tension and its characters in equal measure. While Fukasaku doesn’t have time to develop all the students equally, they are sketched quickly enough to still feel familiar without becoming stereotypes. Every high school class has its popular girl clique, its computer nerds, its jocks, a loner who pines away for the pretty girl oblivious to his existence. Aspects of the culture may be different, but the characters remain highly identifiable. It is that ability to recognize and empathize with each of those students that helps to ground the fantastical situation of the film with an emotional realism that delivers surprising gut punches to the audience as events unfold.