Hey there! As I may or may not have let you know, I’m currently taking a class on horror film, aptly titled “The Horror Film.” Our midterm project in this class was to watch and critique a foreign horror film we had never seen before. I chose Battle Royale, a Japanese film by Kinji Fukasaku. I ended up really enjoying it, and I found that there was a lot to say about the film. So I figured this week, I’d do something a bit different and just present that critique to you. Enjoy!
It is a common theme of modern horror to depict the destruction of youth by older generations. Perhaps no film presents this theme as opaquely or as brutally as Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale. While it is true that the children in the film are the ones killing each other and themselves, it is only within the confines of the adult-controlled dystopia of the BR-act that they do this.
Respect for one’s elders is an important cultural theme around the world, but especially in Japanese culture, and the film sets up the justification for its titular piece of legislation by showing how out of control the youth are. At the opening of the film, students are refusing to show up for class, and are even being openly violent towards their teacher, Kitano. But in moving into its main premise, the film wastes no time in showing the children just how helpless they truly are in a world controlled by adults. In setting up the BR Act and the deadly game in which the students must participate, the film’s adults take on a tone of, “how do you like us now?” A tone that I’m sure resonates with anyone who has ever been a parent or teacher.
One of the more subtle ways that Battle Royale cements itself in a world controlled by elders is its use of classical music. Much of the film’s score, including the music played over the PA system on the island, are western classical pieces. By scoring the film classically, the action played out by the students is framed in terms of an older, or bygone generation. This mirrors the way that the rest of the student’s lives have now become pieces in a sick game purely for the entertainment of adults. A film’s score is a subconscious and omnipresent element; it tells the viewer how to feel. By having this classical score, the viewer is being constantly reminded of the presence of this looming, adult force. This works, and might even be necessary for the film’s narrative success, because while all of the film’s conflict takes place between two or more young people, and students are the antagonists in every scene between the beginning and end, the real “big bad” here is the adults. They are the ones who designed this game, and they are the reason the students are killing each other. Framing the film with recognizable western classical music keeps the viewer subconsciously aware of that fact.
At its conclusion, Battle Royale reveals a sort of meta-commentary on the horror genre. Kitano’s painting depicting Noriko as the last one standing, having killed everyone else, is a clear homage to the “Final Girl” horror trope. Kitano acts as this film’s “monster.” He causes the horrific events of the film, and he is the students’ final confrontation. He clearly has some affection for Noriko, viewing her as a daughter. And it is implied through Noriko’s dream earlier in the film that she at least somewhat feels for Kitano, as well; even if it is only pity. This takes the place of the traditional Final Girl/monster relationship that plays out in horror films. Having Kitano so clearly, and literally, draw out the film’s possible Final Girl scenario – his desired outcome – it is allowed to more obviously subvert that trope, with Shuya delivering the killing to blow Kitano; and all three final students, Noriko, Shuya, and Kawada, escaping in the end. In applying critical scrutiny to the film, this aspect can feel a bit tacked-on, and the film could absolutely stand without it. However, its inclusion allows the film to add a deeper meaning to its conclusion, and also to comment on and actively subvert a common horror trope.
Battle Royale takes the common theme of young vs. old and bakes it into an incredibly relatable scenario, despite its extreme and dystopic nature. Adult viewers can relate to being fed up with “juvenile delinquents,” and younger viewers can relate to feeling trapped in a world controlled by adults, made to do things against their will. And indeed, feeling as though they are constantly competing against their academic peers. Making the world of the BR Act so relatable is perhaps Battle Royale’s greatest triumph.
— Mike Egan, Film Blogger