By Government decree, each year a group of teenagers are selected and sent forth into the wild to do battle in a fight to the death. Each participant is provided with weapons with which to wreak their destruction as they strive to become the sole survivor. Sound familiar? This is the premise of Battle Royale and the similarities between this and the Hunger Games don’t end there, so if anybody tries to convince you that the series of books from Suzanne Collins and the subsequent film adaptations starring Jennifer Lawrence are not ‘inspired’ by this Japanese classic from 2000, you must tell them, in the words of Darryl Kerrigan, that “they’re dreamin’.” I won’t elaborate on the myriad similarities between the two because these have already been explored in depth elsewhere, with this article providing a snapshot that demonstrates the extent to which the plotting, narrative devices and characterisations overlap.
Directed by the late Kinji Fukasaku, whose output included more than 60 feature films in a 40-year career, Battle Royale is screening as part of the Cult Japan retrospective at the Australian Cinemateque within Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). This story is set in a Japan of the near future, a country on the brink of social and economic collapse. Unemployment is at an all-time high, youth violence is spiralling out of control and children are boycotting school. The Battle Royale Act has been introduced in which a random school class is transported to a deserted island and forced to fight each other until only one student remains. Despite their similarities, Battle Royale has two key elements that the Hunger Games lacks; humour and violence. Unlike the somewhat sanitised Hollywood take on the idea, blood flows freely in Battle Royale as the various competitors are despatched. Despite the carnage, there are many moments that are genuinely funny, although perhaps not always intentionally. A source of much mirth is Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), a character more bizarre than anybody who inhabits Collins’ dystopian construct. Estranged from his family, his only pleasure seems to be in overseeing the competition and providing contestants with information about the fate of their rivals, occasionally throwing in some half-hearted attempt at motivation with pearlers such as “it’s tough when friends die on you, but hang in there”, a platitude that completely undermines the kill-or-be-killed mantra that he has drummed into them before they set out.
Sure, there are plenty of gory moments, not the least of which is a severed head being thrown into a warehouse with a hand grenade wedged between its teeth, but it is certainly nowhere near as gruesome as I had been led to believe. Certainly, it pales in comparison to the levels of violence that we see on screen now. Whilst each of the students are provided with weapons and a pack of supplies, it is a lottery with regard to what this might include. Whilst some have guns or knives or machetes, poor Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) has only a saucepan lid with which to defend himself and somehow eradicate his rivals. Another has only binoculars and another just a GPS tracker, so it isn’t by any means a fair fight, which forces some to improvise in a bid to stay alive. Anybody who is familiar with The Hunger Games should be able to work out fairly early who will emerge victorious as there are remarkable parallels between the two in this regard.
Having been aware of Battle Royale for some time (a recommendation from a former student), I have been waiting for the opportunity to see it in a cinema and I am certainly glad that I did. This is a film that, like all the others showing as part of this program – and pretty much every movie ever made for that matter – is best enjoyed on the big screen and the large audience at the screening I attended seems to agree. It is not a masterpiece in a technical or artistic sense, but there is so much to like about it that you can overlook its failings. Some of the acting leaves a lot to be desired and there is plenty that doesn’t make any sense or simply isn’t explained particularly well, but overall it somehow comes together to make a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
The Cult Japan program continues at GoMA until September 2, with a range of classic and contemporary films across four thematic strands, including more than 10 productions from animation master Hayao Miyazaki. Event information and tickets are program available online.