There’s a moment near the end of Battle Royale when the main character, Shuya, overlooks a cliff to rest his eyes upon the crumpled body of a dead classmate, and shouts, “What is the point of all this? Why?” Ok, that’s not an exact quote; I’ve inevitably mixed it with my own words because the same question was running through my head for the entirety of Battle Royale. Shuya does not know the answer. I do not know the answer. And I’m wholly convinced that no-one, not the director, not the screenwriter, probably not even the writers of the original novel or of the following manga, knows the answer.
Battle Royale is a shameless film, one of the few examples of “torture porn” to be seen outside of the B-horror genre. Known mostly for being a predecessor of the wildly popular Hunger Games franchise, it’s no wonder that this unrated film comes with a viewer discretion warning.
See, the Hunger Games and Battle Royale are both films about kids forced to kill each other. But Hunger Games has a point. Among other things, it is cleverly self-reflective and savagely critical of its audience, condemning brutal child-gladiator-fights as entertainment for a world of excess, while drawing real-life audience members and readers attracted to little more than the premise of said battles. The Hunger Games hates you for enjoying it, even as it entertains you with a completely realized sci-fi world and complex characters that endure realistic pain and realistic arcs.
Battle Royale has…none of that. It is a film almost as soulless as some of its characters, students from the same class forced to fight to the death because of, um, unemployment? If memory serves, the US during the Great Depression had an unemployment rate considerably higher than near-future Japan’s 15%, yet dystopian mass kidnap/forced murder seemed to have been kept to a minimum.
Battle Royale tells us nothing of its world apart from a short exposition. Within minutes the class is set loose on an abandoned island and within hours they start deliberately killing each other. Shuya and his crush hobble helplessly around the battlefield, equipped only with binoculars and a pot lid for protection. The more barbaric and well-armed of the students stay conveniently away from our heroes, that is, until they stumble across a benevolent protector that seems perfectly willing to do all the fighting for them.
Battle Royale switches between characters and plot lines frequently and sporadically, yet it somehow fails to provide any of its characters with meaningful change or development. The fact that the fight can only last three days is a poor excuse for why so many normal middle-schoolers have worked up the guts to become mass-killers so quickly, somehow digging so deep into their melodramatic angst that they were able to pull out a bit of Freddy Kruger.
Of course, many try to resist the violence, to make peace with fellow classmates, to act with honor. But the honor usually reduces itself to a series of valiant knights in shining armor; boys ready to take a chest full of bullets to save a girl they think is “cute.” And that peace? That resistance to violence? Even the most pacifistic of teenagers seem to become unusually blood-thirsty on a moment’s notice, attacking classmates with guns or switchblades or hatchets only moments after talking about how they’re not killers.
The violence in Battle Royale earns its parental advisory. Blood spurts in an exaggerated fashion, but not exaggerated enough to summon up a feeling of style, as in the Kill Bill movies. Teenagers die with over-the-top reactions, but not over-the-top enough so that their sobbing and begging in their final moments fails to disturb. Combat is too savage to be fun and too brutal to be morbidly entertaining. It is utterly pointless, and, frankly, quite boring. Battle Royale is two-hour film that amounts to little more than a countdown from forty-something to zero. Every time a kid dies (which is basically every scene), the film almost literally checks off a box. One more down, and this many to go. Meanwhile, the audience checks off one more minute until the credits roll.
Throughout all of Battle Royale I was hoping for an eventual First-Blood, a sudden revelation at the end that sheds light on “what it was all about.” But there was none. The “villain” characters remain absent of any motivation, and with the exception of a single character the “good guys” that the movie follows (until it spontaneously decides to jump somewhere else) are all basically one-dimensional. Battle Royale sort of just ends when the fight ends, giving little explanation on how the characters’ lives were affected by being thrust into a war zone for three days. When the blood stops flowing, the camera starts rolling. Let’s hope that the audience has already left.