Most controversial movies get that way because of the things they do. Yet so much about this movie works because of the things it doesn’t do.
It seems ironic that apart from the United States, the country that arguably produced the greatest filmmakers in the twentieth century was its greatest enemy in World War II. Japanese films made today are no longer popular in quite the way they used to be. Godzilla is almost as much of an American icon now as he is a Japanese one, and it seems that with some exceptions, Tom Cruise really was the last samurai. Today Hollywood celebrates more material from South Korea – most notably the wonderful filmmaking of Park Chan-wook, the technically competent and interesting yet unsatisfying filmmaking of Bong Joon-ho, and Netflix’s boring smash hit Squid Game.
What Bong and the Squid Game producers have in common, as reflected in their respective material, is that South Korea would be a better, fairer place if it was more like North Korea.
Squid Game is an empty revolver to the head masquerading as class-conscious entertainment. It rips off a dozen different better properties, almost none more so than Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale. If you want nasty, dystopian violence carried out by desperate fascists where the main characters are trapped in a confined dog-eat-dog space until only one is left alive, and where half the fun is character backstories, conflicting motivations, anticipating inevitable betrayals, and shockingly gruesome killing, this is the book you’ll want to read. And also the movie you’ll want to watch.
Seriously, it’s amazing. Quentin Tarantino has famously listed Battle Royale as his favorite film that has been made by anyone during the course of his entire career, the movie he most wishes he could have made himself, and a key inspiration for half of the crazy things he did in his own films. It’s not hard to see why.
The first time I watched the picture, I did so with a depraved mind, fresh off the book and eager to see how much of the graphic murder would be replicated. It did not disappoint. But what I didn’t expect was how deeply the film would also deliver on the coming-of-age story at the heart of the novel. It’s not a “hangout” movie, but it almost feels like one during the breaks between the splattering because the characters spend the film reflecting upon themselves, what they have accomplished or failed to, and upon what meaningful thing they will do or memory they will make before their lives change forever… or abruptly end. Recall American Graffiti where some characters subtly wonder if they really knew those they’ve spent their entire life “knowing,” and whether the impressions they had of their peers or figures were anything close to reality. Now imagine The Lord of the Flies was just imposed upon your class and see who and what your classmates turn into, reveal themselves to be, and how they end up.
Most dystopian fictions work themselves into a tizzy trying to explain how each and every feature of their reality is a comment on slippery slopes, human tendencies, and contemporary issues. If there’s a plot or a story, it’s entirely in the service of showing you how messed up the world is so you’ll be encouraged to stop it from becoming the real one. Or, as happened in rip-offs of this movie that missed the point (The Hunger Games & Squid Game), the story becomes an escapist hero’s journey into surviving, escaping, and then destroying the evil regime. Battle Royale is too smart for any of that. Much like RoboCop, the dystopia is an authority unquestioned. Too late to stop it or change it; it’s here, deal with it. It’s not realistic to turn any of these kids into naïve idealists simply because their lives are gruesome, terrible, and hopeless. People do what they know, and some find virtues where they can even when others are at their worst.
The backdrop for this, of course, is the punishment Japan endured for the role it played in the murder of millions of civilians in World War II. Fukasaku was a teenager during the war, and played a version of the game with his classmates when they were caught in Curtis LeMay’s firebombing campaign. Having to dive under each other, use the corpses of classmates as human shields, and then dispose of them without dignity probably felt like he was killing them himself. He spent the rest of his life expressing that pain with masterful strokes of filmmaking. Everything from the Battles Without Honor Or Humanity series to the greatest dramatic document about Pearl Harbor (Tora! Tora! Tora!) in one way or another reflected his conflicting feelings about his country, the war, the bombing, the aftermath, and the future. Battle Royale not only reflects the variations of teenage experience, but also caps off a creative career that represented the best efforts of wounded, broken sinners to move on.
Given how rarely we think about Japan today, it might have worked too well.
The film opens with an image that recalls Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange. The latest winner is a girl holding a stuffed animal, and the pattern on the shoulders of her shirt makes her look like Wolverine. She says nothing, but the smile on her face says “I was cured, all right.“
A similar high-art moment comes when the main character, Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara), is unconscious and being cared for by a group of girls who had found the most ideal way to keep their innocence amid the whole game. If you saw The Hateful Eight and wondered where the poisoned coffee idea came from, it was this. Except unlike there, where one of the characters had knowledge that turned the whole story into a monologue, the situation here resolves in a far more horrifying and socially commenting way. The entire film is full of moments like this. Some of the kids lose their innocence immediately, and others have preexisting baggage or issues that bubble up at the worst time because of the pressure cooker of murder they’ve been thrown into. Remember that one kid in your class you found so impressive that you thought he was eventually going to be famous? That mentality can also be found here.
The world is dystopian, and thus not real, but the experience of violence is not only seen but familiarly felt. Yet Battle Royale does not posit that this is simply because all human beings are animals and thus naturally inclined to rearrange each other’s organs if they weren’t already under orders to do so. It’s that the adolescent existence and social engineering are turbulent and violent mindsets independent of one another. When mixed together here, the teenage condition is amplified by the social condition. And it is clear that it produces far more people like Kazuo Kiriyama and Mitsuko Souma than it does Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa. In fact, the film’s only real flaw is that the payoff involving Noriko has everything except an earlier buildup. Then again, the little it did have is almost its own form of poetry that suggests the teenage mindset never actually leaves any of these people after they “survive.” That the Battle Royale program isn’t a way to help kids grow out of their youth but to stop their growth. This was a change from the book, and while the book is still better, I endorse it.
A lesser story would have reduced the conflict to a class or geographic metaphor. That is not what makes stories like these interesting. These stories are interesting because they reflect genuine anguish and difficulty that even the most pampered and active teenager can relate to. The cast of the film looks like a group of teenagers because it was one, which only further added to the mountain of controversy over the film. The earlier comparison to A Clockwork Orange wasn’t an accident. If Stanley Kubrick had lived another year to see this film, he’d have understood it for what it was.
Nothing less should be expected of the rest of us.
V’s Ten for Ten (2022)
#1: “48 Hrs.” (1982)
#3: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949)
#4: “Rope” (1948)
#5: “Malcolm X” (1992)
#6: “6 Underground” (2019)
#7: “Broken Blossoms” (1919)
#8: “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011)
#9: “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935)
#10: “Escape From Alcatraz” (1979)