The End Of The 20th Century
The end of the 20th century saw the emergence of New Asian Horror, and this sub-genre in Japan is often referred to as J-horror. Prior to this new of horror films, any post-war films released in Japan tended to fall into the category of a disaster movie, or they would be heavily inspired by a “handful of notable period-set ghost stories” (Harper. 2010: 177). Galbraith (2009: 167) argues that this emergence of new J-horror films is essentially a response to “the corporate blandness of mainstream Japanese movies”. Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (2000) is considered to be “one of the most well know Japanese films of recent years” (Harper. 2010: 112). As one of Fukasaku’s last films, Battle Royale (2000) earned its title of an Asian Extreme film with its ultra violent portrayal of young people being pitted against each other to fight to the death.
Even before it’s release to the general public in Japan, Battle Royale (2001) sparked a lot of controversy. It raised a lot of questions in the Japanese parliament and was criticised by members for it’s obscene and tasteless content, there was even consideration to actually ban the film. A lot of critics compare this negative backlash to the release of A Clockwork Orange (1972) and the outrage that it caused in the 70s and the fear that it would spur young people to commit copycat crimes. Ultimately, Battle Royale (2000) was given an R-15 classification by Eirin, and this itself is a clear indicator that it had a massive impact on Japanese cinema. Davis (2006: 162) explains that it is a “rating rarely used in a country where, for example, The Matrix was released without any age restrictions whatsoever.” Guy Collick (2013) clarifies that the violence itself wasn’t the problem, but it was “the fact that it was high school kids seeing each other off with machine guns, crossbows and sickles”. Another justification of this rating is also “partly motivated by the concern that teens would wage copycat crimes”. (Khoeler, 2001)
Fukasaku was not satisfied with the rating given to the film, and requested it to be reviewed again. Gablraith (2009: 167) explains how the film is a “reflection of Fukasaku’s own unspeakable experiences as a teenager during the war”, and it was very important to Fukasaku that it needed to be shown to an audience of a similar age. In a review for Empire magazine, Newman (2001) suggests that this film was made for teenagers around that age because it would relate to them more, and states this “will really play when seen by audiences the same age as its characters.” Although Fukasaku’s request for the film to be reviewed again was denied, it did not stop young people from going to see the film. Fukasaku condoned young people to rebel against this classification, and in a press statement, he said: “Kids, if you have the courage, you can sneak in. And I encourage you to do so.” What is ironic about this is that because of the age range of Fukasaku’s intended audience, it is quite unlikely that they would have seen any of his previous works. It could be argued that it is likely that these young people were motivated to watch the film because of all the controversy that it stirred more so than actually knowing what the film was about before going to watch it.
The negative criticism that the film received when it was first released in Japan didn’t necessarily hinder the film, but instead helped promote it. The rating was used “as a badge of honor, trumpeting in its front credits” (Davis, 2006: 162). Despite the criticism it received, the film was clearly well received in Japan, as it was the highest grossing Japanese language film for six weeks in a row, and this is probably because it gained a lot of free publicity from all the controversy that it caused.
The casting for Battle Royale (2000) could also be a contributing factor as to why the film was popular Japan. Takeshi Kitano was casted by Fukasaku to play Kitano-sensei in the film. Kitano is a well renowned actor, director and comedian in Japan, and is more commonly known by his stage name – Beat Takeshi. Kitano began his acting career in the 1980s and has had a lot of recognition in Japan for over the last 2 decades. Kitano previous role in Sonatine (1993) is disputably the start of his cult following. Miyao (2004) argues that one of the reasons why he is so popular is because he “actually embodies the gap between cinephilia and telephilia”, and his popularity has also been accumulated because of his “legendary alter ego: comedian, actor, and social commentator”. However, Galbraith (2009: 169) explains how almost “all of Kitano’s films have been box-office flops in Japan” but gained popularity in the west because of “their deadpan humor, somnambulistic pacing with flashes of extreme ironic violence.” It could be argued that one of the reasons why Kitano was casted in Battle Royale (2000) because “he often fulfils multiple roles…under distinct personalities” (Taylor-Jones. 2013: 99). Guy Collick (2012) also claims that Kitano is very good at executing the role of “middle-aged men trapped in the system with stunning poignancy”.
Some critics strongly believe that Battle Royale (2000) is an allegorical film. In one way, it could be argued that the film reflects the collapse of the Japanese economy towards the end of the 20th Century. According to Guy Collick (2013), the film “captures the sense of unease at a society facing an economic and social crisis that the establishment…refuses to confront, deflecting blame, instead, onto the young, or women or indeed, anyone and everyone else.” In an interview, Fukasaku (2001) himself claims to have set the film in a context where there is a clear divide between children and adults. He has stated that the film is a portrayal of “adults [that have] lost confidence in themselves” as a result of the economic downturn in Japan. He also goes on to describe how this loss in confidence heightens the anxiety for the “children who have grown up and witnessed what happened to the adults”. Fukasaku clearly establishes a sense of disconnection between adults and children throughout the film. Kitano’s character is an appropriate example of this. Towards the beginning of the film, Kitano has no control over his class. The audience watches Noriko entering an empty classroom with Kitano sitting on the desk and the words “Today, we’re all skipping class” scribbled on the blackboard behind him. At first, it seems apparent that Kitano finally harnesses this control over the students when they are on the island killing each other. However, the audience then discovers that he still has this disconnection with the younger generation when he is “fielding abusive phone calls from his own daughter.” (Guy Collick, 2012).
On the other hand, Battle Royale (2000) could be a reflection of the Japanese government itself. As stated before, Fukasaku used his traumatic experience during the Second World War as the main inspiration for the film. Taylor-Jones (2013: 71) explains how Fukasaku “saw the first-hand damage that the government can cause a nation to suffer, and was always a harsh critic of the…post-war Japanese social and economic structures.” Fukasaku (2001) comments on the fact that the government had a progressive attitude towards the rapid growth of Japan’s economy, but finds it interesting that “that people were actually going in the opposite direction.”
Battle Royale (2000) caused just as much controversy when it was released in the U.K. in 2001. The timing of its release was a big talking point for the film, as it was released just days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA. Martin (2015: 85) describes how film critics “were confronted with a dilemma over how to discuss the film in light of the terrorist attacks”. The timing of its release definitely influenced how the film would be received in Britain, as it was seen in poor taste because of its bad timing. Like in Japan, the film was arguably used as a scapegoat for the motivation behind teen violence. Martin (2015: 74) also highlights how the British press didn’t acknowledge the content of the film, but rather the potential it may have to corrupt youths in Britain. He uses an example article from The Independent, describing how a 17-year-old boy attacked a woman within hours of the film’s opening, which then concludes on the point that there was no actual evidence to prove that he had seen the film. Despite the fact that Battle Royale (2000) received a lot of backlash in Britain, it “avoided the full wrath of the British press or, indeed, any formal censorship from the BBFC” (Martin, 2015: 87). This is because it had a small appeal to the British public, and was arguably marketed towards a niche group of moviegoers so that there would be more leniency towards the film.
Battle Royale (2000) has indeed had a massive influence on other films. The Hunger Games (2012) seems to be the most common film that Battle Royale (2000) is compared to. In a review of The Hunger Games (2012), David Poland (2012) draws a comparison between the two and identifies how the plotlines are almost identical. He states that in both films, there “is an evil gamemaster…There is a kitschy cheerleader type laying out the rules. There is a central love story, confused by another relationship. The largest kid is the most skilled, violent, and crazed. Etc.” He does also identify how the films differ, like how there is almost double the amount of children competing for their lives in Battle Royale (2000), than there are in The Hunger Games (2012). Poland also talks about how Battle Royale (2000) immediately introduces the reality of the game and how high the stakes are by having Kitano, the teacher, kill “a girl with a knife thrown into her forehead for whispering to others after she was told not to”. Another significant point that Poland makes is that because the students in Battle Royale (2000) are already familiar with each other, “there are more opportunities to get into ideas connected to specific characters before they die.” This keeps the film quite fast paced, as a back-story is not necessarily required for each individual character, but it is easy for the audience to identify what type of a character they are. By doing this, it has allowed the film to introduce “every single kid and to note their demise at least twice.” (Poland, 2012) Arguably, Hunger Games (2012) was significantly more successful than Battle Royale (2000) when it was first released, because it had a wider audience. However, it could be argued that The Hunger Games (2012) was filmed in a way so that it wouldn’t be restricted to an older audience, and this more or less guaranteed its success.
It was almost inevitable that Battle Royale (2000) would have a sequel, and 3 years after the release of the original film, Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003) was released. While the original had no specific time frame, the sequel sets itself apart by being set in a time frame post 9/11 attacks, and makes a few references to the attacks in America in 2001. Harper (2010: 113-114) supports this idea, and explains how “Shuya’s men carry out an attack that closely resembles the World Trade Centre attacks”. Originally, Kinji Fukasaku was going to direct the sequel, but unfortunately passed away during the filming due to his cancer, and only managed to direct one scene. His son, Kenta Fukasaku, who wrote the screenplay for this film and the previous film, continued his work and eventually completed the film. The film received a largely negative criticism, and was criticised for being not as nearly skilled as the original film. Harper (2010: 114) describes Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003) as “ultimately a confused and uninspired attempt at producing a sequel to a pop-culture milestone that never needed one.” It could be argued that the reason why the sequel wasn’t as popular is because it was based on a Kenta Fukasaku’s original screenplay, rather than the original book written by Koushun Takami. The original book, which was released in 1999, was already very popular on it’s own, that it got adapted into a manga series before it was released as a feature film, and this popularity of the book could have arguably contributed to the popularity of the film.
Battle Royale (2000) is still very popular even a decade on from when it was initially released. Taylor-Jones (2013: 72) explains how the film has themes which “are present in Fukasaku’s wider works, and the recent contemporary rise in political awareness and activism directly speaks to many of [them]…making them relevant again decades after they were first made”. Furthermore, the fact that the film also released so late in the United States compared to the rest of the world could possibly mean that the film took longer to be appreciated by a North American audience. Although the film was showed at the Pacific Film Archive in California in 2002, “it did not receive a full release in the US until 2004” (Harper, 2010: 112), and didn’t get it’s first theatrical run until 2011.
To conclude, it is quite clear that Battle Royale (2000) has left it’s own legacy. It could be argued that along with Nakata’s Ring (1998) and Miike’s Audition (1999), it established the recognition of J-horror and Asian Extreme films in the West. It could be argued that a contemporary audience would not view the film as extreme as it was criticised to be when it was first released. On one hand, it could be argued that because of films like The Hunger Games (2012), people have become more familiar with the idea of children slaughtering each other. On the other hand, people may have familiarised themselves with this type of violence because of all the different terror attacks that have taken place since the start of the 21st Century, and have become numb to violence because of the media. Nonetheless,