Claire Danes got off easy. When My So-Called Life debuted in 1994, the show was hailed as a breakthrough in truthfully depicting the emotional lives of teenagers and the shared pain of growing up — and then it was cancelled after less than a season. Audiences supposedly weren’t ready for a show that laid bare the heartache of adolescence instead of bathing it in a nostalgic glow ala The Wonder Years, or reducing it to the clichés of Saved by the Bell. But strangely enough, each year pop culture seems to go farther and farther into the dark heart of our teenage years.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of the earliest examples of using genre conventions to amplify teen angst, with high school horrors literally imagined as horrors. Since then, the torch has been passed to shows like Veronica Mars, a blend of teenage drama and film noir that’s ultimately about one girl’s commitment to find out the painful truth rather than live in blissful ignorance, no matter what disturbing secrets those closest to her are hiding. Even Harry Potter, initially a children’s fantasy series only a shade or two darker than most, has become a masterful saga of childhood wounds and accepting that we cannot forever rely on the adults in our lives for protection. The stakes keep being raised, but the metaphor remains the same: growing up is hell.
And then there’s Battle Royale, a 2000 Japanese film that’s quite possibly the most extreme example yet of this theme. After a vague prologue which suggests that Japan might be under martial law (this is left unclear, although it’s possible fuzzy subtitles are to blame), we learn that the government has sanctioned an annual competition in which a class of junior high students is stranded on a deserted island and ordered to kill each other until there’s only one person left standing. Everyone is given one item to start with — the lucky ones get weapons, the less fortunate tools like binoculars or a garbage can lid — and each is outfitted with collars rigged with explosives. If three days pass and more than one student is still alive, the collars explode and everybody dies.
I hate to state the obvious, but the concept itself is ridiculous. Ignore the public’s outrage at allowing something like Battle Royale to take place: what is the purpose of such an event? The prologue suggests that it’s used as a means of population control, although killing 39 junior high students a year hardly seems like it would have much of an impact. Likewise, although we see a student assaulting a teacher with a knife early in the film, most of the class consists of nice, normal kids who aren’t deserving of this punishment. And since everyone seems ignorant of the game’s existence at first, it’s uncertain whether Battle Royale is even televised for the sake of entertainment for the masses.
The movie’s premise is too outlandish to act as a critique of Japan’s political landscape or the generation gap between rebellious children and manipulative adults. But as a personal story of high school hell and asking hard questions about what we’re willing to do to survive, it’s a masterpiece. Most of us would like to assume that we don’t have it in us to take another human life, but if we’re truly put in a position where only one person can survive, would our Darwinian instincts for self-preservation kick in and decide that it’s going to be us, or them?
Not everyone reaches that point, however, and one of the most fascinating aspects of Battle Royale is seeing how each character reacts. Two pairs of lovers decide to commit suicide immediately rather than face the prospect of turning on each other. Meanwhile, the two most dangerous students are Mitsuko, the school sexpot who witnesses the double suicides and vows that will never be her fate, and a sociopath named Kiriyama, a previous winner of Battle Royale who’s back merely to satisfy his bloodlust. Everyone else falls somewhere in between these two extremes, squeamish about killing but equally as determined not to die.
What’s so perceptive about Battle Royale is that its characters don’t suddenly become the savages ala Lord of the Flies in order to survive: they just reenact the same rivalries and cliques from high school. A group of computer geeks band together to find a way to escape the island without murdering each other. The popular girls seek refuge in a lighthouse and try to promote pacifism, but when one of them is mysteriously poisoned they become paranoid and turn on each other. While Mitsuko is able to slaughter every drooling boy who’s unable to see the amoral killer lurking behind her knockout looks, her former friend Noriko has a good reason to be suspicious of her: Mitsuko once stole her boyfriend.
And faced with the possibility that they will almost certainly be dead in three days, love and lust are on everyone’s minds. One of the female students, Takako, lies bleeding to death from a gunshot wound and is found by her close friend Hiroki, whom she suddenly realizes she loves; she begs God for just a few more moments of life in order to tell him that she thinks he’s the coolest guy in the world, and that it’s okay if he doesn’t reciprocate her feelings. Hiroki in turn spends his three days trying to locate the girl he’s been secretly in love with, but when he finds her hiding place she shoots him before he’s able to confess his feelings. This is melodrama, sure, but it’s made palpable by the undeniable truth that for all the sleepless adolescent nights we’ve spent haunted by our crushes, unrequited or undeclared, the private worlds of our emotions remain invisible to everyone but ourselves.
Director Kinji Fukasaku deserves a lot of credit for getting into the mindset of these high school students, especially considering the fact that he was almost 70 years old at the time the movie was made (sadly he passed away in 2003). Although many of the 40 students are inevitably depicted as either cannon fodder for the central characters or as members of the larger social groups, there’s an astonishing amount of character development here given the large cast. Flashbacks to their time at school fill in their motivations and connections to other characters, but unlike the frequently desultory flashbacks on Lost, they’re used here to quickly set up who these teenagers are and why we should care about them. Almost nobody here is an anonymous victim, and it’s surprising how many of their deaths touch us. Casting also helps: the violence is all the more disturbing because everyone looks, appropriately, to be around 15 or 16-years-old.
Unfortunately, the definitive version of Battle Royale has yet to be released on DVD in America. Due to legal complications the movie isn’t officially available stateside, although that hasn’t stopped a number of Region 0 imports from fulfilling the needs of Asian cinema fanboys. This version from Korean company Starmax provides the director’s cut of Battle Royale, which fills in a number of crucial details, fleshes out the development of several characters via flashbacks, and cleans up the CG blood in the death scenes. Unfortunately, the picture quality is mediocre and the subtitles are given a second-rate translation. Even more insulting is that every now and then the subtitles will be too long to fit on the television screen, cutting off the beginning and end of sentences. Didn’t anyone at Starmax think to watch the movie in its entirety before packaging it for sale?
A second disc is packed with extras, including two making-of documentaries, screen tests, interviews with the cast, and even an impromptu birthday celebration for Fukasaku on the movie set. Once again, though, Starmax manages to drop the ball: subtitles are only available in Korean, so it’s unlikely American viewers will get much out of these special features. Apparently the other major unofficial version of Battle Royale from Tartan video is better produced, but only contains the original theatrical cut.
Regardless of how long it stays in legal limbo, Battle Royale stands tall as both a part of the current Japanese trend of blood soaked horror films and thrillers, and as a timeless commentary on our adolescent years. I’m sure there are some filmgoers who will see Battle Royale as merely an exercise in empty sadism, when the film is really just turning up the heat on everything we worry about as teenagers: our love lifes, where we fit in at school, whether or not we can trust our friends, and our fears of the corporate world of adults that views us as disposable commodities. It’s ultraviolence with a bleeding heart, A Clockwork Orange meets My So-Called Life. And a brutal reminder that high school can be as vicious as a war zone, and even the survivors have their fair share of scars.