photo manipulation by nacrowe
i first saw KINJI FUKASAKU's brutally intense film BATTLE ROYALE (2000) in high school when i was in KUWAIT and didn't really understand it until i taught high school years later at an international school in JAPAN.
the film deals with a series of japanese high school students that are whisked away to an island where they are reluctant participants in a sadistic televised game where only one student survives. each participant is given a weapon and a collar attached to their throat with explosives. each hour that someone isn't killed results in a random collar being detonated. the film is beyond vicious and the premise is pretty terrifying.
when i saw it as a high school student i didn't latch on to any of the underlying themes or embedded criticism of the japanese public school system. i saw it purely on a visceral level of going along the ride of the narrative. its too bad, because what FUKASAKU was describing was very pertinent to my experience attending school in the MIDDLE EAST where conformity was beyond intense, in fact NOT CONFORMING could result in your family losing their visa privileges.
i should backtrack slightly. KUWAIT only allows christians and muslims into their country officially, looking the other way with common domestic and service industry workers from predominantly buddhist and hindu countries in SOUTHEAST ASIA and the INDIAN SUBCONTINENT. common workers were virtual 3rd or 4th class citizens. westerners were definite 2nd class citizens and seen as guests in their country, so long as they weren't jewish. this meant that at my high school any mention of jews, buddhists, hindus, homosexuals, etc. in written form were forbidden from publication, which is exactly why i wrote about those subjects every chance i could. my term papers literally had to be burned or else my teacher stood the risk of being deported.
back to the film. when i taught high school in YOKOHAMA i really got a close-up look at japanese culture and the psychological toll it took on students that didn't fit in. by that i mean literally students that were not fully japanese. i had students that were a mix of japanese and turkish/uszbeki/pakistani/korean/chinese/american parentage. the school was specifically made to cater to the mixed crowd due to the notorious OVERWHELMING BRUTALITY of the japanese public school system.
JAPAN is a conservative culture that is very traditional and for them being japanese means having 100% japanese blood. if you are 50% japanese, by their measure you are NOT japanese. i learned from my students the levels of unrelenting torment they received from other students, both in class and online, from former peers at public schools for not being japanese enough. apparently the suicide rate is very high among students in japan, partly because of bullying, partly because of parental pressure to succeed.
when i taught at STUYVESANT HIGH SCHOOL in MANHATTAN there was this thing called an "Asian Fail" which was any grade below a 95. essentially not getting an A+ to traditional chinese/koream/japanese parents meant you failed and the familial pressure was intense. locks on windows were everywhere there as a precaution for possible suicide attempts, which sadly were not uncommon.
BATTLE ROYALE in a dramatic manner questions why the japanese public school system is so intense, effectively creating an environment were even those that survive are traumatized by the experience. the film questions if the cost is worth the benefit of having a homogenious society that accepts and relishes its traditions. this story very much reminds me of SHIRLEY JACKSON's 1948 short story "The Lottery," which similarly critiques the cost of unquestioned traditions and cultural practices that effectively hurt the population.
as somebody who experienced such sanctioned toxicity in two places, this film has served as a mirror to those concerns that makes me rethink my assumptions each time i watch it. just a brutal film of the highest caliber. required viewing.