Let battle (re)commence. Twenty-one years after its release, the controversial Japanese cult classic Battle Royale is back in cinemas following a shiny new 4K restoration – although you might say it’s never really been away.
Kinji Fukasaku’s action thriller, which follows a group of high-school students forced by a totalitarian government to fight to the death, is arguably one of the most influential movies of the 2000s.
Certainly, its bloody mix of politics and ultra-violence tickled Quentin Tarantino, who declared in 2009 that it was his favourite movie.
“If there is any movie that has been made since I started making movies that I wish I had made, it’s that one,” he stated. He even cast the film’s star Chiaki Kuriyama as the mace-brandishing schoolgirl Gogo in his 2003 martial arts spectacular Kill Bill.
Battle Royale began life with the 1999 novel of the same name by Koushun Takami, who said he dreamt the idea: “I got the mental image of a teacher from a school drama I saw on TV long ago. He said, ‘All right class listen up… now today, I’m going to have you kill each other!’ The image of him grinning as he spoke was so vivid, I laughed but was also terrified.”
He conceived of setting the story in a near-future fascist Japan, where the government randomly kidnaps students and pits them against each other – a way of instilling fear and quelling rebellion.
When it was published, Battle Royale immediately caught the imagination of the veteran director Fukasaku. The story goes that the director was reminded of his childhood working in a war-torn munitions factory during World War II, when children reputedly used each other as human shields to survive the heavy bombings.
If anything might give you a bleak outlook on friendship and survival, it is this.
In the film, a class of 42 adolescents are rounded up by their callous teacher, played in a brilliant piece of casting by actor-filmmaker Takeshi Kitano . Each child is fitted with a metal collar that explodes if they refuse to participate. Given a backpack with supplies and a random weapon, they have no choice but to kill their friends and classmates, often in the bloodiest ways possible. Poisonings, suicide, bombings – you name it, Battle Royale has it.
There was controversy even before the film arrived, with various members of the Japanese parliament attempting to ban the book. When that failed, attention was turned to the film. With an outcry over the juvenile bloodshed and violent scenes, Battle Royale became the Clockwork Orange of its day, as the film inspired fierce debate and moral indignation about portrayals of violence in the media.
When the film was given a rare R15+ rating in Japan, Fukasaku commented to youngsters who were unable to see the film legally in cinemas:
“You can sneak in, and I encourage you to do so.” Members of the National Diet, Japan’s bicameral legislature, claimed the film harmed teenagers; inevitably, this stoked huge interest in the Japanese public, who flocked to see it.
“When the original Battle Royale was released, [it was] right before one congressman started a campaign saying that the film was politically incorrect and shouldn’t be shown to minors,” Kitano recalled in an earlier interview with this writer. “It was in the social news sections of the newspapers, so it was a huge topic.”
While he called the controversy “just a publicity stunt”, Kitano admitted to being baffled by the film’s popularity. “Battle Royale did unbelievably well in Japan, though I didn’t get why it was so successful.”
Fukasaku immediately started working on a sequel, 2003’s Battle Royale II: Requiem, but tragically died of prostate cancer after shooting only one scene with Kitano. His son Kenta Fukasaku completed the film, though it left Kitano a bit nonplussed.
“I fast-forwarded the video the distributor gave me, and I couldn’t tell the difference between the two,” he said. “It’s a bunch of young kids shooting at each other.”
In America, the original Battle Royale went unreleased for years, with the Japanese production outfit, Toei, refusing to sell it to distributors for fear of reprisals; the film had arrived in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, when 12 students and one teacher were killed by two arms-carrying pupils. Eventually, it did make it to American screens – but not until 2011 after Anchor Bay bought the rights.
By this point, a proposed US remake had also been put on ice permanently following the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre when Cho Seung-hui, a student of South Korean descent, killed 32 people and wounded 17.
Still, the film’s influence seemingly filtered into one of the biggest franchises of the era: The Hunger Games . The trilogy of novels written by Suzanne Collins, and published between 2008 and 2012, spawned four movies, grossing US$3 billion (S$4 billion) between them.
Collins denied borrowing from Battle Royale. “I had never heard of that book or that author until my book was turned in,” she told The New York Times . “At that point, it was mentioned to me, and I asked my editor if I should read it. He said: ‘No, I don’t want that world in your head. Just continue with what you’re doing.’”
True or not, Collins’ success with The Hunger Games shone a renewed light on Battle Royale.
At the same time, the video game industry drew considerable inspiration from the basic premise as the phrase “battle royale” entered popular culture. As online gaming grew in popularity and the technology evolved, the idea of players battling it out to remain the last man standing in shooting games became huge. The “battle royale” evolved from being an optional game mode into a genre unto itself.
Games like Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG ) and Fortnite became a worldwide phenomenon. In both, 100 players drop onto an island and seek out weapons to down their opponents. Fortnite now has millions of players taking part and generated over US$9 billion combined revenue in 2018 and 2019 following its 2017 release.
Meanwhile, Battle Royale ’s influence also grew in other media, like the comic world; see Marvel’s superhero tale Avengers Arena , which even imitated Battle Royale ’s logo.
As for Fukasaku’s original film, its place in the pop-culture firmament has grown, with a special edition (featuring extra footage) and 3D cut released over the years. Worldwide, it grossed over US$30 million – a remarkable haul for a film so vilified in some quarters.
That air of controversy never dissipated. In Germany in 2013, a court ruled that no one was allowed to sell the movie and copies were to be confiscated. The German licensee appealed the decision, and the ruling was overturned. But it was another example of why the savage power of Battle Royale remains.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.