Battle Royale Blowout

Pun Intended

If you visit any Japanese animation or manga message board, there is an excellent chance that you have heard at least a whisper or two about Battle Royale. If you visit this site regularly, then you may have even read my impromptu review of the film. Well this time I'll try to bring out all the details about the horrifying success of quite possibly the most gruesome book, manga and film of our time, Battle Royale.

The Book

Title: Batoru Rowaiaru "Battle Royale
Author: Koushun Takami
Originally Published: 1999
English Language Version: 2003
Translator: Yuji Oniki

Well, this is what started it all. A book that details the grim events of a 'what if?' Japan. What if Japan severed ties with a nation it dubbed the "American Empire"? What if, in 1997, Japan was actually known as the Republic of Greater East Asia? What if Japan was ruled by a faceless leader known only as "The Great Dictator"? What if the "Program" existed?

What is the Program, or perhaps more specifically, Battle Experiment No. 68 Program? This is, and I shall put this as delicately as possible, an event that transpires where 50 individual junior high school classes are selected at random and thereafter each class will have a battle among its students until someone wins. In Japanese Pro-Wrestling, an event similar to this is called battle royale. In a battle royale, the winner is the last person left standing; in the Program, the winner is the last one left alive.. And so, with such a cheerful topic, Takami brings us into the bloodbath he calls "Battle Royale".

Author Kousun Takami was born in 1979 near Osaka, but grew up in Kagawa Prefecture. Those of you who have traced my past adventures across Japan know that I have been to Kagawa Prefecture on two separate visits. I have many friends in Kagawa's capitol, Takamatsu City, where the novel begins as the students head to their final destination, unbeknownst to them. Takami was a writer for the Shikoku Shinbun, a newspaper distributed throughout the four prefectures of Shikoku Island. After leaving his position at the newspaper, Takami completed "Battle Royale". After some controversy over its content, which resulted in the novels expulsion from a literary contest, "Battle Royale" was published and became a "hit", or rather, its message about a government surging out of control made an impression on a lot of people. So the book sold well, it was turned into a manga, and then the inevitable, a feature film that made headlines around the world. Oh, did I forget to mention the film's sequel? Battle Royale II although still in production as of this writing, will be unleashed on July 5th, 2003. Not bad for writing only one book.

By now, perhaps you are wondering what the story is like. Well, it is exactly what one would expect a book about 42 Japanese 3rd year junior high school students (high school freshmen by US standards) running around on a deserted island killing each other by any means possible: forks, pistols, Uzi's, boomerangs, shotguns, poison, sickles, etc. It is a book sopping with blood, made all too clear by the US version's deep red cover, but it also has a message about society. Now, this is no George Orwell piece, which makes perfect sense since George Orwell wasn't Japanese. Instead this is more of the author's comments on society via a direct in-your-face, (and occasionally in-your-stomach), style. Everything is presented quite clearly here, too much power in the government leads to desire for control which ultimately causes lots and lots of death. The whole purpose of the Program as the villain (one of them) admits is to instill people with fear and make the idea of revolution seem impossible, since they don't know who to trust. The other "symbolism" seems to be an evaluation of cliques and other labels that students find themselves attached to in school: the nerd, the daydreamer, the fat kid, the beautiful bitch, the basketball star/lady's man, and so on. All of these and much more are explored, in some cases very deeply, by Takami. The novel almost makes you believe that this is exactly how these people would react in such a situation. It would be unfair to say that everyone gets what they deserve, and I infer that with negative and positive connotations for heroes and villains, but in the end, everyone creates their own grave so to speak.

So how is it possible to write a great book about 42 students killing each other, regardless of what it represents? I found myself asking that even after I finished its 600+ pages. "Battle Royale" is not the mind-expanding and eye-opening experience some would make it out to be; after all, I just explained to you the majority of what its purpose is. Admittedly there are some other things it has to say about society, along with some excellent views on life but it is not anything you have not seen before if you are a regular Japanese comic fan. Much of the book is spent on erratic thoughts from the minds of the players or quick dialogue exchanges. Suffice to say, the players are full of character. You spend much time inside their frantic minds and as a result, by the end you know all but three or four of the players exceptionally well.

The reading itself is far from complex. Yuji Oniki's translation is at times awkwardly direct. Nevertheless, the "colorful" language sprinkled throughout the book raises the reading level significantly. Actually, I found myself speeding through this novel and finished it over the course of a week. I'm fairly certain that the blood red cover decorated with a shotgun, explosions and war planes was created to make sure this book is not for the lil' ones. Since the text is tremendous and spaced out significantly, this otherwise would be a rather condense book. It is quite possible that the increase serves to scare off young readers. And you know what? It should. Having seen the movie countless times, I was feeling pretty brave. I was doing just dandy until almost precisely halfway through the novel. I had been anticipating this particular altercation since it was one of the most brutal and painful deaths in the film, especially for male viewers (you are free to use your imagination as you please). When I finally reached that point I was literally squirming and gasping, reading through squinted eyes. As bad as the film's rendition was, it could not compare to what occurred in the book. It was easily the most descriptive violent scene in the book and thankfully the movie had been toned down significantly.

It is certainly possible to learn something from reading this novel. For me it was probably a sense of how fragile the shell we call a body really is. I also felt somewhat relieved that after turning the last page I had exited that world of death and betrayal. As for the kicks you get out of reading the book, the twist at the end is fantastic. If you have seen the film first, then the end will actually be somewhat different, but still have the same result, whereas if you read the book first, you will know exactly what surprises the movie holds...well all except for one. The final battle is also nothing short of epic. I don't want to talk too much about the film here, but the book's last confrontation is far above the film's in terms of excitement and scope. There is nothing that disappoints the reader after all is said and done, but the novel is certainly not "a classic for all time". As I have said all along, it is the story of 42 fifteen year-olds killing each other, with a little glimpse of modern society thrown in for good measure.

The Film

Title: Batoru Rowaiaru "Battle Royale"
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kenta Fukasaku & Koushun Takami
Release: December 16th 2000
Premier: Tokyo International Film Festival
Cost: $2.9 Million
Cast: Includes...

Kitano "Beat" Takeshi
Taro Yamamoto
Aki Maeda
Tatsuya Fujiwara
Masanobu Ando
Kou Shibasaki
Takaashi Tsukamoto
Yuko Miyamura
And many many more...

Any film that immediately starts off with a crashing chaotic orchestra performing a section of Verdi's "Requiem" is bound to take you for a helluva ride. Why is this movie so fantastic? I'm hoping someone can tell me because I do not know why I like it. No, that's not true. I know why I like it. I like it because after seeing the film so many times I desensitized myself to the horrible horrible acts of violence displayed in front of me and instead of feeling ill, I root for the villains, cheer on the heroes and "boo" Kitano. I like the movie because now I watch it as a series of imagined events thus having removed myself from the pure terror I experienced when I first watched the film. That is why I like it, but for all intensive purposes I should be disgusted by it. I guess that's how these things go for some people. However, I will never forget the first time I watched the movie, sick to my stomach, as Kitano announced, "So then you will kill each other off slowly", or when Megumi Eto's throat was slit open in full view of the camera by a sickle, and the time Yukiko and Yumiko were gunned down mercilessly, their screams of pain amplified by the megaphone they were just using to call for help, only to be droned out by the noise of the assailant's finishing shots to their bodies.

Yes, this movie is that violent and extreme.

However, in a way we should expect nothing less from director Kinji Fukasaku who is no longer with us. How many films had Fukasaku completed before his death? Well, it is safe to say you couldn't count them on your fingers, it would take your and five of your friend's fingers; Kinji Fukasaku completed 60 feature films in his lifetime. Among his works was a little film some of you may recognize that goes by the name "Tora! Tora! Tora!". Yes, it was Fukasaku who picked up the reigns after Akira Kurosawa was banished from the project. Fukasaku never held back when displaying violence, and since many of his films involved crossing swords or guns, he was more than perfect to take on the task of directing something like Battle Royale. After all, he is also the man responsible for making Sonny Chiba famous in yakuza and tough guy roles. Sadly, during the production of Battle Royale II, Fukasaku died of bone cancer on January 12th 2003, before the completion of his 61st feature film; and so the torch was passed to his son, Kenta Fukasaku. However, Kinji expected to die and even said that if he passed away during filming, he would rather die doing what he loved and make Battle Royale II his final work.

Why did BR make it big? Well as mentioned earlier, the message had already struck a chord with readers of the book. But let us be perfectly honest here. What is the best way for a film to make cash? CREATE CONTROVERSY! Discussion on the release of Battle Royale went straight to the Diet, the Japanese parliament. It was proposed that the film be banned, but in the end it was hit with an R15 rating. That means no one under 15 would be admitted to the film. Just to put that in perspective, the Japanese release of "The Matrix" was not tagged with any age restriction. However, this is not a case of the government being overprotective. Although Japan is a relatively safe country, recently youth crime has been a problem and by youth crime I do not mean stealing videos or magazines. For example, in 1997 a 14-year-old boy from Kobe Japan progressed from killing birds, to cats, and classmates. But this was not as removed as the rifle incident in the United States, in this case, the boy severed the head of his 11-year-old victim and left it outside his school with a note, "This is the beginning of a game." As Battle Royale is a game of students killing students, it is obvious that the Diet's fears were in good taste.

Education Minister, Nobutaka Machimura, called for a toning down of the film's violence. The Diet's Opposition Leader, Koki Ishii accepted the need for film-makers to express themselves, but also said that the nation needed to protect itself against criminals. Ishii dismissed the film as "rubbish" and said it was the "lowest level" of film he had ever seen. He also contested that it was just created to raise controversy in order to make a profit. It is hard to disagree with Ishii when you see statements from Toei Studio's publicist, Kaoru Sugita like, "Since they started rocking the boat, there's been enormous publicity and many more people now want to see it.." In addition, it is hard to ignore that on the day "Battle Royale" was released a 17-year-old injured 8 people with a baseball bat. Be that as it may be, the film was a success among the youth of Japan and became a hit.

BR's film incarnation deviated slightly from the pulp version, but instead of taking out, Fukasaku added, or rearranged events/stories. There are some elements of the book that are left out of the film because they are a bit too extreme, as I described in the book review, but for the most part, both carry the same general story. The film does not take place in any specific year, only in an undefined future or possibly the present. Themes of "The Great Dictator" and Republic of Greater East Asia are absent. Instead we are told that Japan is in a state of national chaos. Unemployment is 15% and as a result students are running amok. The Battle Royale Act was passed in order to keep students under control. Each year one class, not 50 as listed in the book, is selected for Battle Royale and brought to an unidentified location. In the book and movie, this location is an island. The students are to kill each other, until only one remains. Each student is outfitted with an explosive collar tracker. If the student tries to remove the collar, boom. If the student tries to swim away, boom. If the student enters a "danger zone", boom. If after three days, the game is NOT complete and more than one person is alive, BOOM! Everyone dies instantly.

These instructions are given out to the students via a videotape that features a Battle Royale spokeswoman who addresses herself as "big sister". (As it so happens, this cutesy woman delivering horrible news is the seiyuu of Asuka from Neon Genesis: Evangelion) Then each student is given a map, bread, water, compass and you guessed it, a random weapon. The weapon could be anything: pistol, grenade, katana, binoculars, GPS, poison, nunchaku or even a pot lid.

Tah-dah! With that recipe for chaos and disaster, thus begins the game. And for a little under two hours, you watch 42 students attempt to survive or kill. What makes the movie work? Well just like I said for the book, the film somehow manages to let you in on the secret lives of almost all 42 students. Obviously the film is somewhat more shallow than the book, but that is expected. Aside from most of those who perish the first night, the viewer can identify with each character. This is only enhanced by the Special Edition DVD release of the film which shows clips of students from their days in junior high school. And since there is a protagonist with a goal, to protect the girl his deceased best friend had a crush on, the viewer is actually able to root for someone. Of course no film is believable without decent acting, and somehow, these kids serve it up.

As a result of the hard work of these talented actors and actresses, while some of the script teeters dangerously on the edge of falling into the realm of a Japanese television drama, the finished product resembles a real movie. Sure, there are some cheesecake lines, "You're the coolest girl in the world!", says Hiroki to a dying Chigusa, (this was also in the book), but overall the lines are delivered beautifully.

Of course, the villains outshine everyone else. Kou Shibasaki as Mitsuko Souma can turn on the waterworks, then stab you in the back with stone cold eyes, just like in the book. Masanobu Ando portraying Kazuo Kiriyama is vicious. His eyes light up with insane joy as he fills his prey with lead, or dismembers them. Kazuo's character is quite different in the film from that in the book but he is no less menacing, and perhaps even more so. In the pulp version, Kazuo was born without emotion, but Ando's portrayal of Kiriyama is a demon that smiles with glee when he's shot at.

Then there is Taro Yamamoto as Shougo Kawada. Despite the fact that he's often seen on Japanese television running around naked with tribesmen in Africa, Taro Yamamoto just oozes coolness. As the tough-guy exchange student that nobody trusts, his body covered in scars, no one wants to get near him. Every time he pumps his shotgun, the viewer wishes they could look that awesome. Add to that a Kansai accent and he instantly becomes the smooth badass of the film.

And of course the one and only Kitano "Beat" Takeshi playing the demented former teacher, Kitano. In this respect the movie is vastly different from the book. The Program leader in the novel, Kinpatsu Sakamochi, was almost a feminine character with long wavy locks of hair who cracked sick jokes. Kitano is a no-nonsense martinet. Like I said earlier, after the first five or so times of viewing the film, instead of feeling sick you actually anticipate the violence; like the first time he shows the class that he doesn't like whispering during "class" (you'll know what I'm talking about when you see the movie). Some say that Takeshi played the role only because Fukasaku was originally signed to direct Takeshi's breakout success as an actor and director, Violent Cop. Regardless, Takeshi is scary as Hell here. I would strongly suggest you see Takeshi's award-winning drama/comedy film "Kikujirou no Natsu" before BR, or you'll never see him the same way.

Having covered all the menacing figures, one might wonder where that leaves the protagonist duo, Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa portrayed by Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda respectively. Both come across as innocent figures caught in the middle of a battlefield; Shuya because of his pure desire to protect Noriko, and Noriko is the only person who is able to see good in anyone. Aside from Shuya's persistence, made evident in the latter half of the film, they do not stand out as particularly interesting characters, but that is not to say the actor and actress do a poor job. It might be possible to argue that Shuya represents an ideal male Japanese figure with Noriko as the female counterpart. The viewer will be caught up in the drama, hoping for the impossible, a way for both of them to get out of the game.

When he was 15-years-old, Fukasaku worked in a munitions factory in 1945 and in July of that year, just one month before the most destructive weapon used in history was unleashed, his vicinity came under attack, "It was impossible to run or hide from the shells that rained down. We survived by diving for cover under our friends." Fukasaku went on to describe how he and his classmates were assigned to clearing away bodies. Having heard adults say that the war was to achieve world peace, and then seeing the massive innumerable death they had brought upon themselves, he decided not to trust adults, a theme he makes all too clear in the film. Blindly following a leader or authority figure will get one nowhere and can be dangerous.

The Manga

Title: Batoru Rowaiaru "Battle Royale"
Author: Koushun Takami
Artist: Masayuki Taguchi
Release Date: December 30th 2000 (Collection Volume 1)
Publisher: Young Champion Comics

To tell the truth, I do not have much data on the origin of the Battle Royale manga. I do know that it is still published by Young Champion Comics and as of this writing, Volume 9 has been released. I purchased the first volume a while ago and was, quite frankly, terrified. Scenes from the book, which were easy to handle, suddenly became real, and unlike a movie, the horrible images don't go away, they are always there on the page.

The story is being done by the original author of Battle Royale and there are several differences between the novel and manga, but in the first volume, the differences seem to be nothing but expansions, such as Shuya actually talking with the mentally distraught Yoshio perched on the school's roof.

Speaking of the characters, you may be most surprised by the variety of character designs. Some of the boys look like they came straight out of an Archie comic, while the ambiguous "Zuki" appears to be a Japanese delinquent from the 70's or 80's. Meanwhile Kazuo fits the book description, a slick-haired and emotionless bishounen, as opposed to the wild-eyed movie incarnation. This amalgamation of style provides for a dark contrast and humor.

An English translated version of the manga is being released by TokyoPop and will be available in May 2003. Just be warned, it IS very graphic and disturbing.

Pulling It All Together

So what can I say? You now know everything you need to in order to "enjoy" watching or reading Battle Royale. Since I have not read much of the manga, it would be unfair for me to say which incarnation of the story is best, but given what I have seen in the manga thus far, it looks to be the best and most gruesome form. The movie is perhaps the weakest, but please be aware of the fact that it is not a poorly made film. However, comparing it to the novel, the novel has much more to offer, and since the manga, in some respects, is even more detailed than the novel, the film is the least immersive of the three. Then again, the film is the only version where you see real people acting out the events, so that obviously makes it more realistic. I don't know what to tell you! I do not want to be caught in public quoted as saying, "'Battle Royale' is an cool movie/book/manga!", but if I could recommend it to a friend, I would.

Characters from the movie who were heroes, end up being jerks in the book. That is just the way it goes when you get to know someone more. The movie makes a character like Mimura out to be a genius leader, and in the book, he is a genius playboy who is more interested in getting out alive than uniting with a group. In the manga, he appears like even more of a womanizer as he looks at a row of girls and mentally checks off who he's been in bed with. None of that shows up in the live-action film, the viewer only gets a hint that he was popular with the girls

The book's final battle outshines the movie's rendition, using a chase scene in the woods, followed by a car chase, a gun battle and crazy acrobatics. Meanwhile the film's version is a duel surrounded by flames, and the death of the unlucky loser is....satisfying to say the least. Also, the twist, and double twist of the book are certainly no slouch nor is the movie's triple lemon twist leaves you wondering if a certain someone actually is capable of ever dying, albeit somewhat unrealistically.

In the end, after all the smoke clears, regardless of what medium you have experienced BR in, you will come out a little shaken. Director Kinji Fukasaku went on record to say that he wanted to create the same feeling in the audience as he felt when the munitions factory he worked in was bombed. But after the credits finish rolling, or you put the book/manga down for a few minutes you will realize what you just read or watched, astounded that you thoroughly enjoyed it! It is the perfect thriller/drama/social and political commentary. It makes a blunt and glaringly obvious comment about the fragility of society, power breeding corruption (in the government and in the students) and putting the ultra-violence aside, it is an amazing drama. You are always wondering who will go next, who will have the better weapon, if the rebellious students will escape, when Kiriyama will strike, if Mitsuko will ever get hers and if Shuya can fulfill his resolution to protect Noriko. There are some points in the film I openly wept, and not just because kids were dying horrible deaths, but because the story is touching in a macabre way. This is especially true regarding the relationship between Kawada and his girlfriend. That story is significantly more tragic in the novel because he never addresses the issue fully and in the end renounces his love for her to accomplish what he must do. The movie and book both end with a different challenge for the viewer/reader. If you put them together, it is an excellent way to think about life, and how to make yourself a better person. Never forget the past, but don't stop moving ahead.

And All the Rest

The Japanese marketing machine never ceases to amaze me. If visualizing or reading the story is too much for your heart, then you may want to consider the Battle Royale Collectible Card Game. Or how about BR pins, apparel and yes, dolls. On April 7th 2001, the Special Edition of Battle Royale was released on DVD in Japan. It includes some extra footage, tweaks to sound, and more CG blood. Toei claims that there are close to 100 improvements made to the film. I have yet to see it myself, but the links section at the end here will provide you with the best information on it.

Prior to the film's debut "Battle Royale Gaiden" was released on video. Gaiden was a 50-minute "making of" video. If you feel too sick after watching the film, it may help to watch Gaiden since you'll see humorous juxtapositions like Gouki Nishimura, who played Ooki Tatsumichi, laughing and joking with an axe sticking out of his head or Aki Maeda blowing out her birthday cake, covered in fake blood.

Battle Royale Links

Battle Royale Online- Probablly the most prominent English BR movie fansite on the web. Contains all sorts of info, including shots of the real locations where the movie was filmed, sound track listings, extensive cast lists, a weapons guide, the downloadable trailer and the list goes on. This is also the place where I blatantly ripped off most of the pictures featured here. Please support this true fan's site!

Battle Royale Film- This website is dedicated to all forms of BR and has many bits of information on each of its forms, often missed by other sites. In addition, this site has more coverage of the BR sequel than any other English language website as of this writing.

Battle Station- Not comfortable with being just "Another BR Info Site", Daniel Wang has created a storehouse for plenty of BR desktop multimedia as well as a downloadable Battle Royale Gaiden.

Toei's Official BRII Site- The official site from Toei for Battle Royale II. Includes latest news, pics and trailers. (Japanese only)