‘Battle Royale’ at 20: revisiting the ultra-violent Japanese classic with screenwriter Kenta Fukasaku

The 2000 Kinji Fukasaku-directed movie, which debuted in the UK 20 years ago this month, very much proved that the kids aren't alright

Battle Royale is a riotous dystopian bloodbath. Its premise is simple: Japan’s government, fearful of the country’s youth and teenage delinquency, passes the Battle Royale Act, where secondary school kids are forced into a kill-or-be-killed arena of combat. The 2000 film was a huge hit, inspiring The Hunger Games and a swathe of Hollywood-made YA sci-fi franchises in its wake.

As with George Miller’s iconic Mad Max (1979), situating the story a few years from the present-day allowed Battle Royale’s hyperbolic qualities to reflect historic and contemporary social anxieties all within a futuristic setting. Based on a controversial novel by Kōshun Takami and directed by Kinji Fukasaku, best known at the time to cult cinema fans worldwide for his Yakuza series (Battles Without Honour and Humanity), the filmmaker’s son, Kenta Fukasaku, provided the screenplay. Unexpectedly, the father-son duo had an international smash on their hands.

Battle Royale premiered in the UK at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August 2001, before rolling out on the arthouse circuit a month later. Kenta recalls the production with great fondness and is grateful the film has made a lasting impact. “It’s fabulous that this generation is enthusiastic,” he tells NME, before explaining what it was like to make a film with his old man. “[It] was the most exciting and happiest moment of my life. My first production, my first screenplay and, above all, making a wonderful and original novel into a film with my dad, my favourite director.”

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Battle Royale arrived at the perfect time as access to Japanese genre cinema was widening, thanks to the J-horror boom and the highly regarded crime dramas made by Takeshi Kitano (who appears in Battle Royale as a schoolteacher and vengeful master of ceremonies). Quentin Tarantino loved it so much he cast Chiaki Kuriyama, memorable as one of Battle Royale’s prominent teen psycho villains, in Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) as schoolgirl bodyguard and Meteor Hammer-user (a spiked ball connected to a chain) Gogo Yubari.

Battle Royale’s story, and the topics it stirred up, enabled Kinji Fukasaku to pursue a long-standing interest in putting social and political themes into his genre flicks. “He [liked to] describe the foolishness of adults obsessed by wars and profits,” explains his son, adding how much his father’s wartime experiences shaped not only his work, but his anti-authoritarianism and rebellious streak. “His attitude was consistent and never changed through his entire career.”

Those who watched Battle Royale abroad might not pick up on the political satire and instead simply enjoy the gore and thrills provided by this nightmare scenario. Kenta looks back on the film at the time it was made and doesn’t think much has changed since. “I don’t think the world has changed at all from the time of [Battle Royale’s] production,” he ruminates. “I think that is clear from the current shift of countries around the world to the right, uninterrupted wars and slaughter.”

With Battle Royale being such a hit, it was inevitable a sequel would go before the cameras. Sadly, as Battle Royale II: Requiem began filming, disaster struck: Kinji Fukasaku, having shot only a single scene with Takeshi Kitano, was forced out of the director’s chair after being diagnosed with cancer. He died on January 12, 2003. Put in this awful position, it was decided that his son would take the reins and make his directorial debut. It made sense: Kenta could stick closely to his father’s vision and pay homage to him.

Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003) is an original story that switches up the format, recreating the first movie’s concept into something more extravagant and infinitely angrier about the state of the world, especially warmongering US foreign policy and disastrous forays into the Middle East.

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“Kinji Fukasaku created the Battle Royale II concept about the survivor of Battle Royale, that is Shuya Nanahara [played by Tatsuya Fujiwara], who swears to take his revenge on adults and becomes an icon [of rebellion],” Kenta says. “[Kinji] wanted to deliver a final message to [the] Japanese people, who have forgotten their memories of the war. I think that the theme Kinji Fukasaku wanted to create was conveyed. Until the end, my father was thinking about the war in Afghanistan.”

In the sequel, the kids become avengers of their generation and form a terrorist organisation to attack their own corrupt country. It’s potent stuff. However, the film fared less well at the box office and with critics, but the writer-turned-director set out to honour his father with the film they intended to make all along: no compromises. Again, it all circles back to Kinji Fukasaku’s political obsessions and belief in storytelling as a tool to reflect society’s ills. Battle Royale II: Requiem is strikingly aggressive in its stance against America.

“Certainly, I think it’s an anti-American film,” the younger Fukasaku admits, before correcting himself and simply describing it as “anti-authority”. He adds that the film really tells a classical story, one as old as human history: “The strongman exploiting the weak, or the strongman abusing the weak, has not changed since the birth of mankind.”

The filmmaker finishes by telling NME: “I believe it is our responsibility [as filmmakers] to tell stories so the same tragedies are not repeated. We keep fighting through [making] films to make [a] better world.” Kenta Fukasaku isn’t entirely pessimistic, either. “We’re still living in a crappy world where people like George W. Bush, Shinzo Abe and Donald Trump are chosen as leaders. But, at the same time, [it is] gradually getting better.”

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