Battle Royale is fifteen years old this year. Old enough to be gassed, shipped to an island, and forced to kill other movies. And fifteen years later, Battle Royale, one of my favourite movies, is still increasingly relevant as a way for people who want to look cool insulting The Hunger Games. “It’s a rip off of Battle Royale, which is a foreign movie so you wouldn’t have heard of it,” is an actual quote thrown at me while I was at a party once. But for one second, let’s forget that tired discussion, because Battle Royale is also increasingly relevant because it’s brilliant.
Based on the novel of the same name by Koushun Takami, Battle Royale is the story of a high school class who are kidnapped and placed on an island where they are told to fight to the death. On a micro scale, it is the story of Shuya and Noriko, two classmates who fancy one another and end up having to protect each other even as they will inevitably have to decide if they die together or one kills the other.
When I guested on the Soylent Greenscreen podcast, I talked at length about my love of this movie. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the characters are teenagers, and act thusly. They are full of petty arguments and unrequited affection. Some see the island as a way to save their crushes and win their hearts, while others see it as a chance to settle some scores. The usual clichéd high school characters are there, but the situation is heightened to an insane effect. In a normal high school movie, the popular girl alienates some geeks, and eventually learns the error of her ways. In Battle Royale, the popular girl kills a bunch of people, and ends up in a final boss battle with the big bad guy, Kazou, the silent transfer student. In a normal high school movie, the computer nerds are comic relief. In Battle Royale, they are integral to bringing down the island’s security, and sacrifice their lives to help their friend. In a normal high school movie, the group of jocks would harass the lead until they are humiliated, or learn the error of their ways. In Battle Royale, they are in the movie for ten seconds before Kazou brutally murders them all. Battle Royale doesn’t take these high school characters out of school and change them. It takes them out of high school and arms them.
But my love of the movie comes from the tiny, tiny touches. It’s the scorecard that appears on screen after a death. It’s the “How To” video, with the chirpy Japanese woman that informs the students all but one of them will soon be dead. It’s the silly weapons some students find in their bags. It is the lighthouse scene. Oh, the lighthouse scene, in which mistaken identity leads to accidental poisoning and a shoot-out. That scene’s beginning, in which we realise that the wrong person has been poisoned, and we wait for them to react. And then the scene’s finale, in which the final dying girl declares simply that everyone’s stupid. That weird mix of hyper violent and funny is what makes Battle Royale tick so well. It descends into melodrama occasionally, but also engages in some slapstick and great visual jokes, alongside the scenes of violence, murder, and suicide, something that directors from this part of the world do so seamlessly.
I can understand that the movie might, for some, offer a limited appeal. After all, school children killing each other is something that doesn’t simply exist in the realm of fantasy and on our movie screens, but too often it does exist on the news with a body count and the ensuing endless road of arguments and recriminations and grief. I think the reason that Battle Royale doesn’t turn my stomach is that, for the most part, the violence has consequences. There are multiple scenes dedicated to the characters mourning their friends rather than brushing it off and moving on to the next scene.
That’s why I can’t agree with that party guy I mentioned earlier. And why I don’t agree with any of those folks who share some variation of the reductive sentiment. I don’t think Battle Royale has been ripped off by The Hunger Games, much in the same way that I don’t think this movie is a rip off of 1924’s The Most Dangerous Game. Ideas are fluid and open to reinterpretation. The idea of man hunting man for sport or people forced to kill each other for someone else’s entertainment appears in a multitude of media (and people being forced to kill each other for sport is as old as the Romans, and probably older). When it comes to The Hunger Games/Battle Royale debate I think the cause is actually snobbery. The Hunger Games is popular and Battle Royale is foreign so Battle Royale is better and The Hunger Games is plagiarism. Battle Royale is really better, but only because The Hunger Games movies are painfully unrealistic in their insistence that Katniss wouldn’t choose Gale because Liam Hemsworth is fucking dreamy, and also they are actually pretty boring in comparison to their source material, which is riveting. In the end though, I would advise anyone who likes The Hunger Games to watch this movie and come to their own conclusions. I would also advise anyone who likes movies to watch this movie and come to their own conclusions. And if those conclusions are negative, please drunkenly shout them at me during a party. Because I love that.
Featured Image: Toei Company