Ever watch a “reality” TV show like Survivor (or Big Brother or The Real World) and wonder what it would be like if, instead of getting voted off the island, contestants would be put to death? In the Not Too Distant Future, an economic collapse, followed by rocketing unemployment and school boycotts, results in the government passing the Millennium Education Reform Act, allowing the creation of the Battle Royale Survivor Program. Orphaned Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) finds that his middle school class trip is a ruse – his class is the latest to be abducted for this year’s BR tournament.
Drugged, they awake in different sort of classroom, each of them wearing metal collars. Soldiers surround the building. Their grade 7 teacher Kitano (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) appears, introducing two “transfer students”: older juvenile delinquents Kawada (Taro Yamamoto) and Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando). He explains the situation to them: Class B has been isolated on a small deserted island. Their instructions are to kill each other until only one is left. To demonstrate the seriousness of the situation, he executes a girl for whispering during the lecture. If they try to escape, or fail to leave the constantly shifting “danger zones” in time, the collars will explode. If there is no winner by the third day, all the collars will explode. Kitano demonstrates this on Nanahara’s unruly best friend Nobu. Each student is given a survival kit and a random weapon.
Some immediately begin sniping, picking the others off. Some commit suicide. Others band together to defy the game for a while, but mostly to kill stragglers more easily. Nanahara joins with his girlfriend Noriko (Aki Maeda) and tries to figure some way out of the situation. But everyone is inevitably drawn into the bloodshed.
Based on a best-selling novel, Battle Royale takes the darkly comic tone of RoboCop and turns the lights down a few notches darker. Though the book places the story on an alternate world where Japan won World War II, our own universe is sufficiently violent for the story to work. If it were made about a group of adults, this would have likely been picked up for distribution in the USA immediately. But a film in which fifteen year olds run around stabbing and shooting each other is a bit beyond what most Americans can handle, even with Lord of the Flies being taught as a literary classic in our schools. As time goes on, the killing is less frequent, but increasingly savage.
Even amid the violence, the teens continue their petty crushes and disputes. Friendships are formed, despite the fact that they may be forced to kill each other when the time comes. Taken as science fiction, action-adventure, or social commentary, Battle Royale is a terrific film, full of engaging ideas, thrills and surprises. The traditional mainstream music soundtrack only makes it more effective.