There’s something about children killing children that remains one of the few remaining universal taboos. There is a sense of collective moral panic whenever there is a new case, whether it is a Columbine massacre or young children who take their cruel games too far, the press, the government and society begin soul-searching for answers for the apparently irrational acts. It is little wonder that there is an extensive and expanding repertoire of films that explore this theme. The earliest is probably LORD OF THE FLIES (1963), Peter Brook’s coldly efficient adaptation of William Golding’s GCSE favourite, that explores the latent savagery of human beings. More recently there has been WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) and the blockbusting HUNGER GAMES (2012) is presently playing to packed cinemas.
It was in the fevered mood post-Columbine that Fukasaku’s film was released. Class B of Zentsuji Middle School are taken to a deserted island to take part in a television game show where they must kill one another until one survivor remains. At the dawn of the millennium, the Japanese economy has collapsed and disaffected youth are on the rampage, so to reassert adult authority, the BR Act is passed. The exposition is delivered with absurd aplomb by Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano, their embittered former class teacher, whose relationship with his daughter is falling apart and he has had previous conflict with the class. It is a deft touch that the character is named ‘Kitano’ in a reference to the actor’s status as a Japanese media polymath and an indication that the broad target of this satire is the media and its thirst for violence, and the complicit relationship of audiences who enjoy this stuff.
The action bursts and splatters fairly soon after the opening with a running kill count given in white characters across the screen. It is a heart-thumping series of terrifying and exhilarating set-pieces that manage to combine friendship, tenderness, unexpected alliances alongside the blood-splattered mayhem.
Compared with some of his other output, this is Fukasaku at his most naturalistic, the violence is quite vivid when set against his famous series of five films (quintology sounds stupid, so I won’t use it) BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY concerning the Yakuza operating in occupied Japan. They are brilliantly compelling stories that are utterly bonkers and gathered a cult following when they were name checked by Tarrantino in the 90s.
Like his earlier work BATTLE ROYALE is a layered reflection on sublimated cruelty at the heart of Japanese culture and how their society is organised. Although the film found an international audience its concerns are quite parochial. His son continued to produce a sequel when Fukasaku died during its production, however it lacks the power of this film and if you are interested in following its blood-line then it can be found in Nakashima’s astonishing CONFESSIONS (2010).
BATTLE ROYALE is a startling contribution to the canon of child-on-child violence that continues to be copied but never matched.