Battle Royale has a premise that promises a naughty, maybe even subversive, smashing of taboos. In the near future, Japan's economy has collapsed, unemployment has soared to 15 percent, and youthful gangs act in open defiance of authority figures. The government (it's never specified whether these issues are global or plague only Japan) responds to this impending social catastrophe by passing the BR Law, which requires that a ninth grade class be randomly selected each year and sent to a remote island where they'll be forced to kill one another with a variety of weapons until only one student remains. If the children refuse to participate they'll all be killed, via the metal necklace they're forced to wear that's programmed to explode after three days.
In other words, a fairly standard dystopian conceit of a deadly game, goosed up by reducing the ages of the contestants. The death of a child, as any writer can tell you, is a social pressure point that no amount of bad genre endeavors can diminish. (You can usually sense a director's desperation to shock his audience by his or her willingness to off or imperil young characters.) But this premise, tasteless though it may be, has potential as satire. Children, particularly in this age in which kids are more conversant with ever-evolving technologies than their parents, have always been somewhat scary to adults, who often respond to that fear by condescending to them: shortchanging a child's capacity for understanding as well as for cruelty. The notion of children running around a creepy island gunning each other down can certainly resonate with a world that's haunted by problematic gun-control laws, as well as the school shootings that periodically disturb our illusions of stability and sanity. Battle Royale also, of course, stems from a tradition of sci-fi that's critical of TV audience's insatiable lusts for embarrassment and violence as represented by the apparently unending procession of crass, tabloid-ready "reality" TV. (Stephen King has explored TV's mercenary tendencies a number of times, most vividly in his disturbing novella The Running Man.)
Battle Royale squanders its considerable potential almost immediately with a rocky opening. After some text—presented with distractingly ostentatious opera accompaniment—informing us of the future society and of the Battle Royale, we're thrust into a press coverage of the arrival of the survivor of the most recently completed competition. The survivor, a girl caked in blood, flashes the cameras a deranged grin—a chilling image which then segues into narration from a young boy whose class will soon be kidnapped for the next battle.
The tone is all over the place, and the opening with the previous survivor, while temporarily infusing the film with dread, is labored, confusing, and ultimately beside the point. These scenes have a leering, smug quality that may or may not be purposefully ironic, and they distract from the ultimate story, which is of the current class that's subjected to the Battle Royale. Director Kinji Fukasaku then, temporarily, steers the film into a moony, melodramatic mood that's meant, one assumes, to reflect the dreams and fears of your typical moony, melodramatic ninth grader. But the romanticism doesn't mesh with the show-off nihilism of the opening, and the filmmakers don't appear to be commenting on the children's naïvete, but indulging it.
The film then returns to the sick-jokey ghoulishness of the opening with a seemingly endless scene where a grave former teacher (Takeshi Kitano) explains the rules of the game to the new contestants while casually killing a few of them for insubordination—an act that's basically staged as a punchline. The teacher, accompanied by the military, then forces each child to snatch up a backpack containing food, a map, and a weapon of choice while ordering them to flee into the wilds of the island and go about the ritualistic slaughter.
I'm assuming that parts of this film are meant as satire, but I'll be damned if I can tell what the target is supposed to be. The ruthless opportunism of TV wouldn't appear to be the subject, because the Battle Royale, despite the opening with the press conference, wouldn't appear to be televised. The pronounced obviousness of a desperate government's corruption, and a mass population's fearful, self-absorbed complacency to it, could potentially be the subject of the film, but little that actually happens here supports that interpretation. There are scenes that promisingly suggest that the Battle Royale symbolizes the hellish schools we force our children to attend and that the students take to killing one another so quickly because they're at the mercy of petty, hormone-addled jealousies that contribute to an ultimate mutual loathing. But this isn't allowed to develop either.
The most accurate way to read Battle Royale is as a genre movie that uses a gimmick to shrewdly offend people in the hopes that it be discussed (and attended), and if it were well made that might be enough. The gory showdowns are well staged and initially pack a disturbing charge, but Fukasaku fails to develop any momentum from scene to scene, and the killings, which you expect to escalate in intensity, quickly become redundant and rote. The film has no sense of progression; every other scene introduces us to a new victim and so the movie is constantly starting all over again. Fukasaku has a good joke that he took from De Palma: He "humanizes" a character with a flashback to their prior lives (and I think these scenes are kitschy deliberately) only to cruelly kill them off in a purposeful anti-climax. But this joke is quickly pounded into the ground.
Fukasaku continually dashes your expectations. Early in the film, it's explained to the students that "danger zones" will be created throughout the island over the course of the competition, and that they will have a certain amount of time to flee those zones before their necklaces explode, which leads the viewer to reasonably believe that the film will gradually build to a climax that squeezes the remaining players together as the danger zones expand. That never happens. The confrontations are relegated to mostly one-on-one or two-on-one pairings, which lends too much scheme and symmetry to something called a Battle Royale. And how the hell is a Battle Royale supposed to correct a society struggling with youthful obedience anyway? Particularly when the classes are arbitrarily selected in a fashion that in no way reflects their behavior? The last 30 minutes are truly awful, with the film inexplicably morphing into an inspirational tale of transcending abuse, gallingly inviting viewer empathy with Kitano, who's been previously shown as a monster all too willing to kill his former students in the name of bureaucratic nonsense. Who wants that from a disreputable blood thriller?
I assume that the film's considerable cult believes Battle Royale to be edgy and subversive, and that my reservations reflect a delicate, prudish sensibility that couldn't handle whatever the film thinks it's peddling. But movies this smug and determined in their ability to shock aren't shocking, just dull. Maybe Battle Royale's ultimate punchline is its inexplicable ability to fool some people into taking it seriously.