Dan Norman is a recent graduate of English Literature at The University of Manchester, UK. He is a full-time writer with Sonder contributing regularly to the Film Section.
Battle Royale: The exploitation of efficient characterisation.
The 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale is a masterpiece of efficient characterisation. Based on a novel by Koushun Takami, it has a simple concept—a class of forty teenage Japanese students are placed on an island by the government and told that they have three days to fight to the death until only one survives, or else all of them will be killed regardless. The film centres around two of these students—Shuya (male) and Noriko (female)—and their struggle to get off the island. However, director Kinji Fukasaku splits up Shuya and Noriko’s story with the struggles of their classmates and in doing so accomplishes an extraordinary feat.
As we see a wide range of responses to the Battle, Fukasaku gives nearly every student their own individual subplot, characterising each of them. No character is wasted or put on screen to simply be a throwaway body. Many of the characters appear for only a scene, and yet Fukasaku treats each with care, showing us the outcome of every student in Class B—as well as giving character arcs to two mysterious exchange students, the supervising teacher Kitano and Shuya’s father. It is a masterclass of character studies—all the more impressive for taking place within the confines of a high-concept genre film—films which traditionally value plot over character.
Battle Royale runs at just 109 minutes, but introduces almost fifty characters. The source novel was not well-known internationally, released just months before. Whereas the recent Pan could have Captain Hook arrive on screen, secure that the audience would know the character, Battle Royale makes no such assumptions. By setting its story around a cast of schoolchildren, Battle Royale also denies itself the use of another oft-used shortcut to characterisation namely casting familiar faces. The youth of the Battle Royale cast (and when marketed to the West, their Japanese nationality) made them unknowns to the audience. This heightens the film’s realism, but denies the audience the shortcut characterisation that happens when, for example, Robert Downey Jr. arrives on screen. With the exception of the teacher—played by Japanese icon Takeshi Kitano—the Battle Royale cast were, at the time of the film’s release, anonymous, with no screen persona to play off.
Fukasaku originally treats the class as a collective. The early scenes where the class is together and their teacher explains the Battle features multiple variations on the same shot: the camera tracks across the classroom, capturing each student’s expression in one continuous motion. By including the whole class in one shot without cuts – and occasionally placing them all in the same frame – the camera bonds the group together. The individualisation will come later – for now they are all one unit – ‘a team’, about to be fractured by their government’s Battle Royale programme. In fact, just before the first fight between members of the class – Shuya’s friend Nobu and a classmate wanting to hear the video – cuts are deployed between shots of different members of the class, subtly foreshadowing this first crack in the group’s unity. There are more cuts as Kitano activates the explosive device around Nobu’s neck, and his classmates push the boy away in fear that they will be killed for trying to help.
Kinji Fukasaku’s storytelling efficiency is clear from the very first scene—media rushing to report on the results of the latest Battle Royale—which ends on the wonderfully disturbing image of a girl clutching her blood-soaked teddy, grinning into the camera.
The appearance of this girl sets the tone for the film to follow, but also raises a number of questions about who she is, how did she become this way. By way of an explanation, Fukasaku spends the rest of the film examining nearly forty different responses to such an extreme situation, and the effect it has on wildly different personalities, leaving the viewer to speculate as to which of these paths is closest to the backstory of the grinning girl. Battle Royale’s spirit comes from these mini-moments when we are allowed a glimpse into the lives of these other characters, lending more tragedy to the carnage.
Fukasaku sympathises with the youth in his story, and appears enraged on their behalf. Although we are given an early flashback showing the unruly nature of the class, once introduced to the individual members, it is impossible to see how these are the students causing the Japanese school system so much trouble.
In spite of the similar set-up of children stranded on an island—with the assignment of killing one another no less—Fukasaku (and original author Takami before him) admirably resist the urge to simply replicate the outcome of William Golding’s iconic novel Lord of the Flies. It is easy to imagine a less interesting version of this film in which it does become every student for themselves, and all immediately transform into cold-blooded killers as we simply track which student kills the best—ignoring the years of backstory in which these characters grew up alongside one another. Fukasaku and Takami’s approach, however, is more hopeful than this, and, as a result feels more true. Only one student, Mitsuko, transforms into a psychopathic killer. While some others compete in the game, they are in the minority and are shown to do so out of sheer desperation. One character aims his gun at Shuya and Noriko whilst muttering a maths equation, before proclaiming that he’ll get into a good school—Fukasaku’s most thinly-veiled comparison between the setting of his film and the ultra-competitive contemporary Japanese education system.
Most of the other students work in groups; seeking a way off the island that doesn’t involve death, yet tragically fall short in a variety of ways. In perhaps the film’s most famous scene a harmonious group of girls holing up in the lighthouse turn on one another as an accidental poisoning feeds their internal fear and paranoia, and this surrogate family implodes.
Fukasaku does not allow for throw-away characters, encapsulated by the character of Chigusa, the runner. Chigusa interacts with barely anyone else, and her entire plot could be cut without any disruption to the rest of the film, yet her few scenes make her one of the most memorable characters in the story (Chiaki Kuriyama would later be cast in Kill Bill). A flashback depicts her promising—now lost—future, showing a dedication invisible to the Battle co-ordinators in their eagerness to condemn an entire generation. When assaulted on the island by a classmate wielding a crossbow, her rage at her situation explodes. She stares down the barrel of the crossbow and accuses him of “Always blaming someone else – that’s why I hate your guts!”, a criticism that doubles as one of the film’s major criticisms of the Japanese establishment. Chigusa pulls out a penknife and fights her attacker off, each violent stab into his body a release of frustration.
Her refusal to accept his will becomes a small moment of celebration in a grim film, and she embodies the bravery of her classmates in refusing to assist the government in the murder of their classmates, even though it means their own death.
The irony of Fukasaku’s film—and the source of Battle Royale’s anger—is that most of these students should have had bright futures. They are—for the most part—compassionate, resourceful and intelligent; resisting the labels placed upon them by the sadistic government. Very few of the class participate in the slaughter, each seeking a way out for themselves and their classmates. A group of hackers work on bringing down the army’s surveillance. Near the battle’s opening, two girls stand on top of a cliff and appeal for peace through a megaphone.
Teenage love and lust recur through the film, strengthening the bonds between these classmates. Yet, each is individual enough that this dynamic never becomes repetitive, and only increases the tragedy of each death. The relationships between these students lend each individual death the ring of tragedy, making the fate of the doomed Class B more powerful, and Battle Royale’s anger more meaningful.