Summer Classes: Battle Royale

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we examine the 2000 Japanese cult-smash, “Battle Royale.”

“You just have to fight for yourself. That’s just life…” – Mitsuko Souma, “Battle Royale”

On Patton Oswalt’s album “Werewolves and Lollipops,” the comedian discusses the moment where children finally realize that their parents aren’t always filled with wisdom and knowledge. Its a moment that he plays for laughs, but its also one of self discovery. Its the moment where the world’s gatekeepers are shown to be not all knowing, not all powerful and maybe, just maybe, fallible.

Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battle Royale” doesn’t as much focus on that moment of self discovery as much as the fallout of such. The film, loosely adapted from the manga of the same name, takes a gory, exploitative look at children on the cusp of adulthood and what they are willing and unwilling to do when they lose the guiding force of adults.

“Battle Royale” is where the premise for the teenage blood-bath began. For a variety of poorly explained reasons, the Japanese government institutes a series of laws in an attempt to reduce teenage crime and truancy, which force a randomly determined class of 9th graders to kill each other to the last man. Thankfully, there’s a helpful video to explain the rules.

From the moment the students leave the room to begin the battle, the film takes a considerably more episodic look at the various survivors, spending much of its running time focusing on a few unique killers and pacifists. Its to the film’s benefit and detriment. A few of the side characters, the sex obsessed Kazushi, the cheerleading squad and any number of the girls Mitsuko kills, all seem to have rich personalities and motives for their choices. What we get from them is interesting but maybe deserving of more content than we receive.

That being said, the episodic nature seems to be deliberate, comparable to other violent teenage entertainment. I was consistently reminded of “The Warriors,” with its’ cartoony themed enemies and picaresque plotting but “Battle Royale” is much more united in theme.

“Battle Royale” uses the premise of high school being like life and death, something we’ve seen much more often in recent years, and takes it to the natural conclusion. Characters work out their lost loves, deal with their childhood traumas, try to take revenge on those who wronged them and try to just slip quietly by. It isn’t a particularly trenchant look at the topic, with others such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mean Girls, and Lord of the Flies offering a more insightful look at the issue, but “Battle Royale sticks with viewers. Whether its the gore, the unique style, the memorable sociopaths or the smart ending, it all ends up working.

There are a fair share of problems holding it back. The version available on Netflix Instant Stream is the remastered cut, which adds additional CGI, a handful of confusing, unnecessary and pointless flashbacks, three epilogues that try to explain said flashbacks and a somewhat comical subtitle translation. Its generally pretty good but I couldn’t help but laugh at translations like “you always hurt my ass.”

There’s a point late in the film that crystalizes everything that “Battle Royale” was going for and it doesn’t involve a drop of blood. As Nakagawa and Kawada wait at the temple for the rendezvous, Nakawaga looks back on her life before being brought to the island, remembering that she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. As she stares into the woods, she says “I thought I was going to have children and grow old. Now, I don’t think that’s the case.” Much like so many people, myself included, think about the future as a phase of their life ends, the sense that she knew she could die, forces all of the students on the island to deal with their unfulfilled futures, the choices they’ve made and more importantly, the things that they never did. “Battle Royale” reduces those regrettable seconds into a flurry of gunfire, flying knives and an ever running river of blood.

Next Class: We board the Serenity to view the entirety of one of the most well loved cult TV shows of all time, Joss Whedon’s sci-fi epic, “Firefly.”

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