Lessons Learned in High School
It's not a bold statement to say American culture and Japanese culture are very different. You could analyze that completely obvious comment from multiple angles -- food, art, how people act towards each other -- but we'll take a look at it here from the perspective of how the Japanese viewed their students and youths in comparison to over here in the U.S. This directly ties to the movie we're talking about today, Battle Royale, and why it's a movie that really only could have come out of Japan around the turn of the millennium, because in any other context it would have been ridiculous.
For those that haven't seen it, Battle Royale is basically The Hunger Games before that series existed. It tells the story of a bunch of kids that are dumped into a "game" by the Japanese government, forced to fight each other to the death until only one is left standing. That basic summary, though, is all the stories have in common. To sell the story of The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins had to justify the setup of the games via a post-apocalyptic future, districts suffering under the rule of a rich, totalitarian regime, and combatants fighting not just because they had to but also for food and prizes for their district. None of that was required for the story of battle Royale.
All Battle Royale had to say was, "the children are unruly and have to be brought to heel." That's because for decades gangs, especially gangs of students, roamed the country. You can see this from the real phenomena of the Sukeban, violent gangs from the 1970s, through to the school kids gangs that influenced Japanese media in the 1980s (just look over at the Kunio-kunStarting as a fighting game befoe spinning out in sports titles (and other adventures) of all shapes and sizes, the Kunio-kun series is one of the most diverse, and hilarious, to ever grace both sides of the Pacific. for an obvious example). For the country, fear of their students was present, so a film that posited (with it's tongue firmly planted in its cheek, mind you) that the students had to be forced to fight, and kill, each other had a certain real-world logic to it. It's a natural, sarcastic extension of the fear present in that country.
Of course, we have gangs in the west as well, but the gang culture comes from a different place, has different cultural influences to it, and extends differently out into our media. If you were to make a film or story like Battle Royale here in the West, you have to justify how we get to the carnage. You get a story like The Hunger Games, or you pit the gangs against each other (and keep the tongue right in the cheek) and you get The Warriors. But a straight adaptation of Battle Royale for Western audiences doesn't make sense. It's context, its story, is very firmly rooted in Japanese culture. Hell, there have been a few attempts at bringing Battle Royale to the West, and they've all failed (for these reasons).
There is also the shock factor. It's hard to see Western audiences being okay with an entire group of students being dropped onto an island to kill each other. Oh, we have stories that do that, of course, but they're mostly video games. You know, the Fortnites and PUBGs, in the (named for this movie) "Battle Royale" genre. But those are obviously cartoonish, played with bright and shiny graphics, silly costumes, dance moves, and more to keep the actual violent acts at the core experience from feeling rough and violent. Battle Royale keeps things much more grounded.
There's a sarcastic edge to Battle Royale that does keep the energy heightened without ever taking away from the violence at its core. This was clearly meant as a screed against the idea that "the kids are out of control." For all those that thought, "man, the next generation just can't be trusted," this is a thought exercise that carries that notion out to its highest degree. "If they can't be trusted, we need to teach them a lesson. Then, even if those kids are dead, the others will shape up and fly right." It's dumb, in its own way, and it hardly seems plausible to Western audiences, but it had the right angle to strike a chord in its home country.
At a base level, though, the movie is a lot of fun. It's a story about a group of 9th graders (although it's hard to know what the exact age the kids are supposed to be; the actors ranged from 15 to 25) dropped into a competition where the only rule is "one one can survive." It's not broadcast, it's not made into a spectacle. Simply the kids are dropped on an island and they have to kill each other. Once that setup is taken care of (in the first act of the film) the rest is just crazy carnage and a lot of death.
What's wild is just how sardonic the film is about all of it. It's a very dry humor, but you can tell there's a joke at the core of this film. During the first act, when the kids learn about the predicament their in, the teacher plays a video for them explaining the rules. That video featured a pop idol host who cheerily describes all they have to do, the death and dismemberment they'll cause, and how only one gets to live. Big smile on her face, cheer pop idol poses. It's so dumb, but it helps set the tone. The film wants you to invest in the characters (and it spends a fair bit of time giving you snippets of back story for many of the students) but it also wants you to realize this is all very silly.
But while it is silly, the action is pretty good. The film features a lot of unknown (at the time) actors, helping to suck you into the idea that these are just normal kids. Watching them run around, shooting and stabbing and trying to blow each other up, does have a certain, visceral thrill. It's certainly not for the faint of heart as there is some pretty solid action and a lot of death. With that said, the film doesn't go in deep on gore, and while not bloodless there's a certain stages quality to all the blood and violence. This, again, plays to the idea that it's all silly and the director wants you to accept that it's fake while investing in the concept. It's a tightrope, to be sure, but the film walks that line well.
The real tragedy for the film is that, because of the success of The Hunger Games, this film pretty well flies under the radar now. If someone wanted to do a Battle Royale sequel, it would immediately get compared to The Hunger Games. That's the exact reason the CW adaptation was scrapped, because people thought this story (which came first) was derivative. The Hunger Games was such a huge success that it sucked all the air out of the room for anything like it.
But, at the same time, this film is better. The first Hunger Games movie is a fine film, but it is a big-budget, Hollywood production. It's safer, it doesn't have anything to say about current politics, and it goes for the big, safe ending. Battle Royale is bloodier, crueler, and funnier. It knows the kind of story it's telling and it goes for the throat. It makes you laugh and cringe all at the same time, with a story that really hit when it came out. It's hard to find a good action film that can check all those boxes and do it so well.
This is the film to watch if you want a totalitarian-run death match. Set everything else aside and pop on Battle Royale for a visceral time.