I’ve sort of been putting off writing about Battle Royale on account of “Damn, I have no idea what to make of that.” But faint heart never won Oscar, or some such, so let’s see if we can make some sense out of the uber-controversial high school Series 7.
First off, the brief summary: a class of Japanese high school students are brought to an island, given random weapons, and they don’t get to leave till only one is left alive. If they don’t get to that point within a few days, they all die. This is theoretically part of a program to deal with juvenile delinquency. Carnage ensues.
It’s a tremendously bloody movie. I wouldn’t call it gory, but I would certainly call it violent. No worse than your average R-rated horror flick — which is kind of interesting, because those usually contain a hefty slice of violence directed at teenagers, but they don’t provoke the same kind of reaction as Battle Royale. It’s OK when it’s the monsters doing the slicing.
Taking a step back from the subject matter, and thinking of it purely as an action movie, it’s not bad. The tension is good, the acting is good, and the plot is decent. It’s not the be all and end all of action flicks, but it’s solid. Not too surprising, considering the director, Kinji Fukasaku, had been making movies for 40 years. But that’s the easy part of the analysis.
When I get closer to the subject matter, I just hit a wall. Series 7 is a satire and commentary on reality shows. This ain’t that; there’s no hint of the game show to it, although it’s clear the survivor will become a national hero. However, the event isn’t televised. So what can I make of it? What is Fukasaku getting at here?
The 1998 White Paper on Crime may be a relevant reference point. It’s particularly concerned with juvenile delinquency, which is covered beginning here. The crime rate among Japanese youth was up severely in 1998, and the nature of the crimes committed seems to have been fairly disturbing: “The survey results on juvenile offenders also indicated that in bodily injury cases, the number of those with motivations of ‘Passion’ has shown a remarkably higher percentage than ‘Grudge or Revenge’, while the results of the survey on characteristics of juveniles admitted to juvenile classification homes (hereinafter the ‘survey results on juveniles in juvenile classification homes’) showed that the motivation of ‘on the spur of the moment’ has been the highest in homicide cases.”
The White Paper seems to have been fairly prophetic, given this BBC report on the subject. Be sure to read the sidebar titled Japan Teen Attacks, and see also this article. I notice, in particular, that the kids are attacking not just each other but adults — which, understandably, is a matter of some concern. In contrast, the media-driven frenzy in the US focuses on self-directed violence in the form of school shootings.
(This shouldn’t be taken to mean that I think no US teens commit violence against adults, or that all Japanese teen violence is directed towards adults. I’m doing culture analysis here, so I’m interested in how teen violence is depicted.)
I’m thinking that Battle Royale has to be interpreted in the context of both Japanese concerns about juvenile delinquency and the generation gap (a la Speed Tribes). In that light, it’s an expression of angst and fear. It is, perhaps, a horror movie after all, but the monster is the generation gap.