By Corey Birkhofer
Battle Royale, Japan, 2000
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku
From a spectators stance, I would classify Battle Royale as an action film. But the way director Kinji Fukasaku breaks the conventions of the action genre leads me to define it as mixed-genre. By obeying certain conventions but totally disregarding others, Fukasaku presents an action movie, a tragic drama, and a pseudo-post-apocalyptic film. To start off, the film earns its setting in an alternate future Japan where unemployment, student dropout rate and crime are all at an unprecedented high. To remedy this economic nightmare, Japan’s government instates what is called the Battle Royale Reform Act. Fully backed by the government, the reform act seeks to filter out Japan’s younger, unruly generation by forcing random classes of ninth-graders to take part in an annual competition. For our main character we have not one person, but rather fifty ninth-grade Japanese students randomly picked that year to take part in the Battle Royale competition. Under the impression that they are on a simple field trip, the students are gassed to sleep while on their bus and flown to a deserted tropical island, waking to realize they will be forced to take part in the annual game.
In the game students have one goal: to win and be re-granted Japanese citizenship. To create some sense of order and keep students from refusing to participate, there looms a military presence, but most importantly, instead of banding together to protest the students have no choice but to follow the last rule of the game. And the main rule of winning Battle Royale is you must be the last student living on the island. Upon watching an informational tape hosted by an anime-esque broadcast girl, students learn they each get a survival pack and random weapon. Some students get fully automatic machine guns while others get GPS locators or kitchen utensils. Regardless what each student gets, all are equal in the fact that every one of them has a collar around their neck. This collar, if tampered with, will explode if they try to swim from the island, or if they are in certain places at certain times announced by an island-wide intercom system. Which leads me to yet another essential component of Battle Royale, as it broadcasts every few hours the current updates on which students have been killed.
Already in laying out the framework for Battle Royale, Fukasaku has taken several normal action genre conventions and altered them. In pitting innocent students against one another as both protagonist and antagonist all oppressed by a military force, he hints at the convention of the lone man against the army, but does not abide by it. And as the film progresses, Fukasaku takes from the action genre the high violence, death count and impending approach of the final showdown. As the climax nears, more students are killed, but strangely the viewer realizes that these deaths are not undermined. The excessive amount of killing is still present, but Fukasaku gives his characters a back-story and lifelong goal that could never be achieved (not to forget the intercom announcements upon the recent student deaths). In doing this, Fukasaku ultimately conveys a student’s death with a sense of loss and tragedy, highly contradicting the usual terrorist, sleaze-bag or sicko killed quickly and easily in common action films by the single protagonist. Lastly, the ironic aspect to this film is that the one deemed worthy of freedom in Japanese society (in other words, the winner) must also be the most deadly, but not the one-man army who defeats evil, as in the case of most action films.
To go any more in-depth with Battle Royale is not the main point here. The main point is Fukasaku presents a very unique, engaging and far from cliched action film by using certain conventions in the action genre to his advantage while disregarding others. A large cast, all given more than just a simple undermined death, an antagonist which is not really a character but rather the students’ murderous drive to win, and ultimately the moral issue of students killing students, all go against the conventions established in the action genre.
Battle Royale is definitely an example of a mixed or challenged genre. Aside from the controversy the film stirred up upon its release in Japan, the challenging aspect to the film is how Fukasaku breaks “the rules” in it. Like Clint Eastwood with Unforgiven (1992), the idea of the anti-genre is not far off when categorizing Battle Royale. However, in regards to the film world as a whole, genre is very important, and through the alteration of common conventions, all our current genres can continue to provide the bases of our stories for years to come.
Contact the Author: CoreyBirkhofer@MoviesIDidntGet.com