An Ode to the Movie Battle Royale

Today’s write up will be different. Normally I tell you about the movie generally, in a non-spoiler way, show you a trailer, deep dive the whats of the movie, and then I talk about why the what’s are significant, try to explain it, and throw theories at you. That’s how I roll here at THiNC. as we find crazy complicated movies that blow our collective minds to talk about. But today? Nope. Why? Because here’s what happens in this movie – a group of 40 something students are taken to an island, and told to kill each other. Last one standing gets to go home. And as the game winds to an end, two people finish the “game” and figure out a way to break out of the game and survive.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, whoops, too late. No seriously, it’s not too late. You can find the movie right here and your click will help support THiNC. stay open day after day. This movie is the grandaddy of an entirely new generation of films. Belko Experiment, The Circle, and whole swaths of horror movies can attribute their plots and storylines directly to this movie. Not only that? But the craze that is Battle Royale? Yup, 100% stole from this movie. Literally. Top to bottom. Oh wait, have you heard of a little book/movie called the Hunger Games? Yeah, Suzanne Collins 100% stole everything from Battle Royale. Literally, from beginning to end. She says that she’d never heard of it. (hahaha.) So yeah, this movie has had a huge impact on books, movies, and video games the world over. But today, I just want to talk about the philosophical underpinnings of this movie and what it says about us today.

Battle Royale’s Underpinnings

Today? Battle Royale can be seen as a funny little movie with some splatter movie special effects blood that is just a cute little movie about violence and survival. But when this movie first came out? Oh holy cow. This movie shook the globe. It was originally released years ago in Japan, but then nowhere else for years. I saw it through an underground copy from a warez server with hand made (and bad) translated subtitles. It was sort of a cool movie to be able to say you’d seen here in America. It’s kind of like the book House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. My first copy of that book was handed to me by a guy that printed it out on Wheaton College’s printer, and notated religiously. Right? It had underground street cred attaches to it. So much so, that grabbed 9 Zip drive disks to copy it and hand it to other friends so that they could watch it too because it was literally impossible to get a hold of here in America back then. 

Why? Because it cut against the grain of anything we’d seen up to that point. It ran against the grain of movies like Free Willy, Field of Dreams and Keaton’s Batman. Right?! And when this movie first came out it was released in Japan with an R-15 rating that was hardly ever used in Japan up to that point. But it was wildly successful within Japan. 

The History of Battle Royale

Kinji Fukasaku, the director of Battle Royale, actually survived World War II. At the age of fifteen (the age these game contestants participated in their battle royale), Fukasaku worked in bomb factory. And apparently, throughout the war, the factory was bombed regularly. “One of my jobs was to take a wheelbarrow around the factory and pick up body parts after the bombing raids.” Obviously, this harrowing experience gave Fukasaku a lasting hatred for war, that and an ongoing sense of betrayal by the adults around him.  So, obviously, Fukasaku, in spite of the violence throughout the film, is making an anti war statement with this particular film. An indictment of the adults that betrayed him, and left him with a wheelbarrow full of body parts. Which, should be our collective response to the world’s history – two world wars, a multitude of regional wars, land grabs, and oil fevers – abject horror at humanity’s utter greed. In a word, man’s inhumanity to man. So yeah, Battle Royale was/is/will be, fully grounded in a post modern context.

The Judgement/Retribution Psychology of Battle Royale

As the movie opens, how did it explain the selection of the children to play the game? They took a class that was disrespectful, rude, and otherwise failing, and selected the lot of them. Why is that important? In all horror movies, I’m not sure if you realize this, but the horror is always invited in. Think about it, the monster never breaks into the house to get the people hidden inside. It is always invited in. I’ll give you one perfect example of this. The movie Alien. Instead of destroying the Alien, the Weylan corporation directed its staff to capture it in order to weaponize it for future products and sales. Same thing is happening here. The students, by their disrespectful actions have basically asked for this fate to befall them. (Not in my logic, but rather in all internal movie logic.)

So the deaths and the evil that hammers them in varying forms and degrees? Was logically justified. They didn’t follow the laws and mores of society? Therefore it makes perfect sense to have them fight to the death. Which taps into our collective idea of judgement and justice. Follow the basic rules of society? Work. Contribute. Participate. Great. You don’t get selected for an island trip where you’ll be impaled on a katana. Why is that? What is that urge that is in all of us for judgement when applied to someone else? Have you never broken the rules? Of course you have. So why are we ok with this being applied to society at all? It’s just hardwired into our DNA to drive for justice. And in the movie world, where cartoonish characters are held to an even higher moral law, if the on screen character so much as litters, you can be certain they will meet an early demise. Even more so for an entire class of reprobates. 

Battle Royale and Camus-ian Absurdism

Camus talked alot about Sisyphus… and his eternal punishment of rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back to the bottom as it hit the top of the mountain. Camus saw this as a fantastic metaphor for life itself. That it was cold, brutish, and short (oh wait, that was Hobbes), and was completely devoid of meaning. That we search and search for meaning but there absolutely isn’t any. And this plays out in the game of Battle Royale by pointing out that these kids, and their murdering of one another has no meaning. That their attempt at survival was meaningless. And so, this game is just a metaphor for our lives and how useless it all really is.

I mean, after all, we will all die eventually anyway, right? This is the central question for Camus. He would have, after all, identified well with the four characters at the start of the film that commit suicide as an objection to the brutality of the game. He struggled continuously to logically solve this conundrum. But Nietzsche, a fellow postmodern absurdist of sorts, turned to another line of reason to mentally talk himself out of this particular dead end. He too thought life was devoid of intrinsic meaning. But, he thought it possible to embrace the illusions of meaning. By grabbing hold of artists, and illusionists, maybe we could create new “inventions and artifices” that created this mist of beauty to life, when in fact it isn’t. And ultimately? It would be possible to become “the poets of our lives.” He basically ascribed to this belief of fooling ourselves.

But the thing I like about Camus’ vantage on this problem is that he is thoroughly and painfully honest with himself. Instead of positing for poetic illusions, he is staring into vast intensity of the void and not backing down. And it’s also what I like about Kinji Fukasaku’s unflinching vision of Battle Royale. With his island, and his unforgiving rules, with his ever-listening neck collars, and hidden explosive charges, he has declared this game of life madness. We have proven ourselves animals even on the best of days. Fukasaku takes his experience with the wheelbarrow and the body parts and makes a film that is commentary, not only about WWII, but also about life in general. 

Final Thoughts on Battle Royale

Fukasaku managed to make a movie that was about students murdering one another and actually make it fairly light fare. I wouldn’t exactly call it campy, but it is funny in parts, and pretty low key. Imagine if Christopher Nolan decided to make a remake of this legendary film? People would be scheduling counseling appointments left and right, and purchasing Zoloft in bulk. Which, is 100% why I believe Hunger Games stole from Battle Royale completely and totally. The tone, and the moral perfection of the survivors was too similar to wave off. 

But more than the movie, I appreciated the insights and critical eye that Fukasaku brings to the discussion of the meaning of life, the universe and everything. I think he managed to posit a fairly dark idea, while still being extraordinarily optimistic about it all.