• Joseph Kolb

Growing Up in Battle Royale

During the far-off frame of time that was The Hunger Games franchise, I regularly heard from various friends that the premise was just a poor rip-off of Battle Royale. I’m often late to the party (metaphorically), so it’s fitting that only now, after The Hunger Games has become basically defunct, I have gotten around to watching Battle Royale only to remember that, yes, the original material is always better.

What I like about Battle Royale is how present the age of these characters is in the film’s story. When faced with killing fellow classmates, almost every action is dictated by adolescent concern. When faced with death, our unwilling participants still pine after one another, chasing love in their final moments,  their hidden affections moments before their end. Others use the circumstance (and a gun to the head) to force admittances of poor friendship or to try to finally lose their virginities. Although, yes, they kill each other, rarely is it to actually win (survive), but fuelled by whatever drama or unfinished feeling they are harboring. In this way, their uniforms serve as a continual reminder of where they came from — that these are students, pubescent 13 year-olds.

Interestingly, or maybe unsurprisingly, those who don’t wear the uniform are those who know how to truly play the game, who act, not simply react. Kuwada arrives, donning a bandana, to avenge his lost lover. Mitsuko quickly switches outfits and curls her eyelashes to kill (live), as she always has done. And Kiriyama appears out of the air without saying a word, hair perfectly styled, adorning his smart blue suit, to show that some just want to kill, that’s it. (Okay, spoiler: It’s egregious that Mitsuko was killed by Kiriyama. Not that we’re supposed to like Mitsuko, but you give Mitsuko this great, sympathetic backstory and then immediately off her by Kiriyama’s hand, whose only personality trait is his hair. It should have been Kawada vs. Mitsuko at then end. End spoiler.)

Although not overt, this is a film about growing up. Clearly, Kuwada, Mitsuko, and Kiriyama have been jaded in some way which has forced them to shed their innocence (a claim could be made for Kiriyama as an exception), and have allowed them to adapt to this environment. There is a reason why Kuwada appears older, more muscled and ready, against Shuya and Noriko on screen, who throughout the film cling to one another and heavily depend on Kuwada’s support. Yes, duh, Battle Royale is about students reacting to an absurd condition, but there is an element to this film which feels like it edges on our reality, on the margins of potential.

Watching Battle Royale reminds me of reading Never Let Me Go (which of course I recommend.) There is a sense in both, particularly here in Battle Royale’s end, that nothing will change, even as (again, spoiler) Shuya and Noriko escape. Our characters have been plopped in front of a backdrop against which they do not know how to act, against which nothing they do will lead to any real change, despite anything one might try. We might be reminded of our own political atmosphere.

Maybe this is why Battle Royale leaves us with an ambiguous ending. We are not given an overthrown government. But we can hope. Shuya and Noriko survive, must continue to survive until change comes, and we hope they will bring about this change. With their survival, we can only hope that Shuya and Noriko have too ‘grown up,’ that they will live, and allow others to live.

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©2020 by Joseph R. Kolb