When you watch a horror movie, it’s really hard not to imagine yourself in whatever predicament the characters are facing. That’s part of what makes the genre scary; as you empathize, you start to experience the dread as if you were the person in danger. Of course, this is a double-edged sword, in that it can really hurt a movie if the protagonists continually make decisions that you would not, turning the experience into something more frustrating or comical than terrifying. But when it’s really good, like in Battle Royale, a horror movie can have your mind racing for a better solution for its entire duration.
Set in a dystopic Japan, Battle Royale follows a group of about 40 junior high school students who are put through the government’s terrible “BR Act.” In the years following a recession, children had become unruly, stopping going to school and even assaulting teachers, some real Class of 1984 shit. So the government passed this legislation that requires a class be randomly selected each year to be taken to an island and put into a battle royale from which there can be only one survivor. The students are given collars that can be detonated and a basic survival kit that includes one weapon – anything from guns and swords to binoculars or a pot lid – and then sent out to sort everything out over the next three days.
The film starts following the perspective of Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda) as their class is gassed and introduced to the game, but the film branches off to give every student their chance to, at the very least, die on screen. Shuya and Noriko quickly team up with a transfer student, Shogo (Taro Yamamoto), and try to find a way to survive the battle. The other transfer student, Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando) reveals himself to be a psychopath, quickly killing many of his classmates. Similarly, Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki) is a girl who was bullied and abused and seems to relish the chance to exact her revenge on the other kids. Other factions form to try to survive, win, or undermine the game, and all the while the teacher, Kitano (Beat Takeshi) watches on.
The similarities between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games are numerous and undeniable. Yes, you could make the case that both are derivative of The Lord of the Flies, but their are specific commonalities that stand out. Stuff like the adults monitoring the bloodbath with technology, using a huge map and monitoring devices to make sure they’re in control are gimmes, sure. But what about how they provide weapons randomly, like how in The Hunger Games there’s a battle for the cornucopia? What about how there are changing “danger zones”? What about the periodic announcements of who has died? What about that ending? It’s the same thing!
What’s different is that Battle Royale goes for that hard R in a way that an American young adult fiction adaptation never could. When kids get shot, they get riddled with bullets, sending blood flying everywhere. When the collars detonate, it explodes a horrifying hole in the wearer’s neck instead of cleanly blowing their head off. There’s a lot of stabbing too. It’s a lot more horrifying and less action movie-like than em>The Hunger Games, and that terror is even more ramped up because these kids had no time to prepare, or even any idea that this could happen.
That’s the trick, what makes this movie more horror than exploitation: Imagine you and your junior high class are going on a field trip. You fall asleep, you wake up in a classroom you’ve never seen before, and your teacher shows you a disturbingly upbeat video explain that only one of you is allowed to live, that you have to kill each other. A girl speaks up, the teacher throws a knife into her face. Your best friend resists, he gets his neck blown up. Everyone gets weapons and you have to accept your reality: over the next three days your friends are going to try to kill you. If you don’t kill them all, you’ll die. Pretty terrible thought, isn’t it? What would you do?