Weird Watch: ‘Battle Royale’

Bob Aquavia

Part of the joy of being a fan is finding odd and obscure gems that you end up falling in love with. For every Batman, there is The Phantom. For every Hunger Games, there is The Running Man. Here at Fandom, we like to go hunting for some offbeat and off-the-wall films and television shows that might just become your own secret treasures. Strap yourself in and expect the unexpected, because this week’s Weird Watch is Battle Royale! (Last time: The Spirit)

“Survival of the fittest.” “Kill or be killed.” “There can only be one.” There are plenty of movies with the arena setting where the protagonists fight to survive against overwhelming odds. Very few of them, however, can claim to be one of the most notorious films of the 21st century.

This week’s Weird Watch is Battle Royale, a modern cult classic that’s as controversial as it is influential. Released in 2000, it tells the story of a near-future Japan in economic collapse. Millions are out of work, and the government is fearful of the next generation. To revitalize the nation’s spirit as well as keep everyone in line, they instituted the Millennium Educational Reform Act aka “Battle Royale.”

“Have you ever killed your best friend?”

The class orientation ends with a point being made.

The film follows Class 3-B, a group of 42 students as they’re captured by the government and sent to a remote island to take part in that year’s Battle Royale program. The rules are simple: you participate, or you die, with the sole survivor being the winner for that year. Each student has an explosive collar attached to their neck and is given a weapon of varying efficiency. From there, they’re on their own until the end of the game.

Students break off into groups of different sizes. Some seek to win. Some just to survive. Others look to subvert the government’s control over the game and escape. The movie follows all these groups and explores what happens when true allegiances are tested, and your own life is on the line. Chaos reigns as the number of kids still alive dwindles, with the reality setting in that not everyone will make it to the end.

“So fight for survival and see if you’re worth it.”

Pre-Gogo Yubari
Before she was Gogo Yubari, Chiaki Kuriyama was another student trying to survive.

Upon its initial release, it’s an understatement to say Battle Royale was controversial. Not only did it generate heated debate about violence and brutality displayed on-screen, but almost all the actors were teenagers themselves. This was a movie about kids killing kids, and in a post-Columbine world that made the movie all the more horrific. The Japanese government called it “crude and tasteless” after an initial screening. The public’s overall reaction to the film at the time was similar to the U.K’s reaction to A Clockwork Orange in the 1970s.

Even to this day, there’s no formal distribution for it in the U.S. and U.K. Thankfully, there are easier ways to watch it now than when it was first released. Back then, you had to search for bootlegs or hope that you were close to a film festival that would be showing it. Now, region-free DVDs and Blu-Rays are easy to find for purchase. It, and the sequel, recently became available on Netflix as well.

“No matter how far, run for all you’re worth.”

Shuya and Noriko trying to stay alive
Our heroes Shuya and Noriko trying to stay alive

Looking past the controversy, the movie’s influence was immediate and far-reaching. People see it as a pioneer in the “teen death game” genre of horror, sci-fi, games, and comics. It served as a major influence for filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, as well as a direct predecessor to one of the biggest film franchises of all time.

Battle Royale’s legacy is one that’s bloody, horrific, cynical about adults and almost nihilistic towards authority. It rebelled against the conventions of the time to usher in a new, extreme viewpoint in Asian cinema. Watch the carnage and be pushed out of your comfort zone. You’ll love it for doing so.

Read more in our regular Weird Watch series here.

Bob Aquavia
I occasionally put words to page as a Fan Contributor by way of sunny Las Vegas. A fan of books (comic and otherwise), movies, tv, pro wrestling and video games. A periodic traveler and wanderer; also, more coffee than man.
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