Film Review: Battle Royale (2000)

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

In 2000, Battle Royale was one of the biggest books in the last decade (even competing with Harry Potter).  As with essentially all hugely successful books, it was made into a movie.  If you don’t know what Battle Royale is, this is the plot: several students are trapped on an island and are forced to kill each other.  Last week, I watched this movie for the first time and I was blown away.  Not by the concept or by characters, but by how tame the execution (no pun intended) was.

When watching a movie about fifteen-year-olds murdering each other, you know it’s going to be messed up.  What shocked me was not only the believability of the violence, but also the restraint from showing buckets of blood and gore.  Remember the original Robocop?  You know, the movie that satires violence so much that they showed how a man can be blown apart by shotguns?  Well, that’s how I pictured Battle Royale.  Thankfully, when someone would get shot in the movie, they would show little to no blood.  That way, when someone did die in a bloody way, it would be more shocking.

Look at the main villain of the film (not the teacher, but one of the students, who dresses like Johnny Cash).  Most of his kills are by a machine gun.  The scenes are usually darkened to where it is hard to see when he kills someone.   But three kills stuck out from him.  The first two revolve around the truce scene.  Two girls stand on top of a cliff, telling everyone to cease fire and figure a different way out.  Suddenly, the villain kills both and puts a microphone to their mouths so everyone hears them scream.  Not a lot of blood, but less is more.  The same goes for the next main kill. When a man is trying to escape from Johnny Cash via bicycle, he is shot in the stomach.  Fortunately, the weapon he received was a bullet proof vest.  The next time we see the bicycle man is when we see his severed head, thrown into the medical shop in which our heroes are hiding.  The filmmakers could have overkilled this by showing blood gushing everywhere.  But, they knew that when you show something as shocking/ disgusting as a severed head with a petrified expression, PLUS a grenade in the mouth, you do not need to over stay your welcome.  Look at many recent horror films such as Scream 4, the Saw movies, and My Bloody Valentine.  They have so much blood it becomes preposterous to watch.  Every death in Battle Royale has a point and moves the story.

Not many movies can say every death moves the story, unless it’s a tournament movie.  Even Mortal Kombat the movie struggles with this, because there is no tournament structure.  People fight one another just because.  It seems like every five minutes Battle Royale tells us how many people are left, the name of who died, and you are shown who died.  Sure, some do not have prominent roles, such as the heavy set kid or the gang who is slaughtered by Johnny Cash.  But showing 42 prominent characters would be exhausting.  But, about thirty of them had their own story.  Even small ones, such as the man shouting equations as he tries to kill the main hero.  He explains to him that if he lives then he can go to a real school.  Sure, not an important character in terms of background, but even throwaways had some story that helped define the character.  After all, stories are supposed to be about characters.  That is why I am amazed that a movie like The Avengers has six main characters, yet gives none of them a story.

Battle Royale shines most when we see certain kids manifest into who they truly are.  Unlike our heroes, who remain pure, certain students snap and figure they must kill or be killed.  Most of the students try to stay pure, like the five girls at the lighthouse.  They rescue the main protagonist and try to protect each other.  But when one suddenly dies, the rest believe they are all trying to kill each other.  Once again, the idea of, “how quickly will you turn on your friends?” resurfaces.  This is why I love the two main characters; they remain true to themselves throughout the movie.  It gives us hope that there are good people in this universe.

If someone asked me what is different about this movie, compared to Hunger Games, I would say emotion.  The movie has a variety of emotional characters and, unlike Hunger Games, when it ended I was hopeful that the main characters are going to live together for a while, because I actually cared about them.  Sure, the movie had some confusing scenes, such as the teacher giving the female protagonist an umbrella.  Nonetheless, the movie not only felt authentic but also had a point when it all ended.  The movie was not depressing just because; the writer had a story he wanted to tell.  Because of tamed yet effective action, strong characters, and a sad but hopeful ending, I give Battle Royale an 8.5/10.

Listen to me and Richie Watkins’ full podcast on Battle Royale here.

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