Dystopian films have found a foothold in modern cinema. This subgenre of science fiction presented bleak warnings of what the future could hold and how we could improve by showing us cautionary tales. However, with the current trend of films generally about a perverted utopia, they have become less of a warning and more of a reminder of the inevitable future we are to experience.
Stuck in the middle of these fears are the adolescents, the youths, who have become both target audience and main characters of the recent apocalyptic films. Their point of view questioned the role of society and most importantly adults, often painting them as the culprits behind the disasters of these films. To an extent, they also presented a subtle rebellion against adults and the way they control society. Dystopian films have become an outcry to the people who manage the world: to be responsible and to take care of the environment. Despite this, they shared optimism, hinting light at the end of the tunnel.
While apocalyptic films focusing on the youth’s perspective are as common as mice nowadays, such was not the case around the year 2000. That year, previously known as the future, was in a lot of ways a calm before the storm. Right before the rise of modern dystopia, one nation was experiencing a struggle that in more ways than one, could have turned into a dystopia itself.
ENTER BATTLE ROYALE
The setting is Japan, the year 2000. The Japanese youth are called ‘the lost generation’, adolescents who had grown up during the economic crisis doing part-time jobs either out of necessity (not enough stable jobs) or out of choice (unwilling to follow their parents into devoting their time to work, only to be discarded and replaced). Traditional Japanese values pressured students to keep up with high standards of education. The fears of Japan’s adults only worsened when teenage violence and suicide escalated for reasons unknown. The questioning of the adults and the silence of the children revealed a generation gap between young and old.
It was during this time when Battle Royale came into the scene, a movie that greatly reflected the distress of Japan. The film, an adaptation of a novel bearing the same name, was directed by Kinji Fukasaku with screenplay by his son Kenta Fukasaku. The plot focused on a class of high schoolers randomly selected by the government to kill each other on an island where the lone survivor would be deemed victor.
The film’s plot and message sounds all too familiar to what a young director would like to stress, but Kinji Fukasaku was neither young nor a beginner in the film industry. In fact he was around 70 years old by the time he made Battle Royale, which also was his last film to have directed. He was popular for his films like Battles Without Honor and Humanity; Tora! Tora! Tora!; and Black Lizard. His movies gave a very unique insight to violence. As someone who experienced war firsthand, blood spatters were more than just added effects—they were a potent and essential layer to his films.
Violence was a trademark of Fuksaku’s work, inspiring directors like “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, or Quentin Tarantino. But his violence is not unnecessary nor excessive. The carnage in Battle Royale is never glorified but presented as an ugly sight. This is emphasized all the more when the dead bodies lie along the beautiful shorelines of the island or when classical music (an element connected to adults) is played. The corpses almost feel like sacrilege when compared next to the beautiful waves or music. There is a disconnection that occurs between the audience and film, which symbolized the generation gap between elder and adolescent.
Fukasaku never showed the adults in Battle Royale as clear enemies: most of the characters’ inspirations and role models were their parents, despite how flawed and distant they were. Even Kitano, the film’s main villain, was depicted as lonely yet loving to Noriko Nakagawa, one of the student contestants. It was a picture of the complex relationship between parent and child; that the line between young vs. old was not as clear as thought to be. Battle Royale showed a surreal not-too-distant Japan, one that might have happened because of a few wrong steps.
Battle Royale was not just a regular film—it was personal for Fukasaku. Violence is senseless, and when you are in the midst of war, nobody blames each another for saving themselves. Kids like him suffered during war for the actions of the people in government. Fukasaku had a unique voice as a messenger to the youth while responsible for sharing his own views as an elder who had experienced barbarity firsthand:
“I was working in a weapons factory that was a regular target for enemy bombing. During the raids, even though we were friends working together, the only thing we would be thinking of was self-preservation. We would try to get behind each other or beneath dead bodies to avoid the bombs. When the raid was over, we didn’t really blame each other, but it made me understand about the limits of friendship. I also had to clean up all the dead bodies after the bombings. I’m sure those experiences have influenced the way I look at violence.”
That is why it was not surprising that when his film was called for a ban by members of the Japanese Parliament, Kinji Fukasaku complained against it. So instead, the film earned an R15 rating. The controversy surrounding it caused the film to get increasing attention, and eventually the flick was one of the highest grossing films of Japan. Fukasaku thought it was essential viewing for the citizens of Japan, both young AND old. In his own way, he wanted to show how the children of this generation would react to the same, senseless violence he had experienced.
One of the classic and unforgettable moments from the film is the infamous lighthouse scene. It acts like a short film done in 10 minutes, and if I was to ever summarize the film, it would be with this scene. It perfectly encapsulates the love, joy, hate, anger, senselessness and frustrations that the contestants had to experience in their deadly ordeal. What seemed to be a tightly knit group of friends falls apart merely under seconds after tragedy strikes. Their formation of a small society crumbled down…all because of one simple mistake. The lighthouse scene is one of the most shocking and poignant moments in the film and it should not be any less so.
Battle Royale had the hallmarks of the latest dystopian films, and it would have been forgotten if not for one important element of the film: the emphasis on teenagehood. Recent apocalyptic movies like Hunger Games, Divergent, or Maze Runner only had teenage characters. The way they acted felt more mature than what an average adolescent would act, and their age did not add to the drama or tension. On the other hand in Battle Royale, the plot was a mix of romance, vengeance, and other high school drama issues and tropes. The characters’ frustrations and fears felt real, and petty issues or long-held grudges became excuses to justify murdering each other. The fact that the characters were played by actual teenagers just adds to the drama and tension. They knew what they were doing was wrong, but it was their only way to survive. You can pick all these films apart for their political undertones, but only Battle Royale felt like a legitimate teenage drama, save for the violence.
Let us go back to one of my earlier statements. During a call for the ban by Japanese Parliament, Kinji Fukasaku traveled around Japan to show adolescents aged 16-17 his film Battle Royale. He recalled his experience in the following quote:
“A politician raised the issue in the Japanese parliament. He said that Battle Royale could be harmful to children, and so they should intervene. Historically in Japan, the film industry has censored itself. But they said censorship should be controlled by outsiders. They were being foolish. We had many discussions but they didn’t really go anywhere. By then, the film was already made. I traveled around Japan showing it to kids of 16 and 17, asking what they thought, and I felt that those youngsters were much more sensitive and sensible than those foolish adults who wasted so much time discussing the film. They didn’t understand that their censorship was more harmful than the film itself. During the war, we weren’t allowed to see any foreign films in Japan. Because I had had that experience of regret in my youth, I felt determined to fight against this censorship.”
In Fukasaku’s view, Battle Royale was not violent for the sake of being violent; it was violent to show the unstable state of Japan…that despite the strong view of young vs. old that existed, the two groups needed each other to influence and to be an example. I believe dystopias only happen when the members of a society—both elder and adolescent—fail to recognize the problems that result from the desired utopias they are too busy making.
On the surface, Battle Royale was violent, raw, emotional, full of Japanese tropes, and possibly rebellious. It could be distasteful, bland, or an excellent piece of filmmaking depending on its audience. But there is something to admire about a film that has so many underlying themes waiting to be unpacked; especially in a film about kid killers.