School’s out… forever! Battle Royale and the Japanese cinema of the extreme

By Steve Balshaw

MM’s horror specialist Steve Balshaw dons his rubber gloves to go sifting through the blood and guts filled mire that is Japanese extreme cinema, ahead of Grimm Up North’s screening of two of the genre’s classics.

The recent release of Gary Ross’s cinematic adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ popular HUNGER GAMES novels led to a much-shared online joke, inspired by a line from PULP FICTION, that the film was simply ‘BATTLE ROYALE with cheese’.

The joke referred to a controversy that had dogged Collins since the publication of the first HUNGER GAMES in 2008: That the world she has created in her books, and which now appears in the film version, is simply a sanitised, teen-friendly version of that of BATTLE ROYALE.

BATTLE ROYALE, like THE HUNGER GAMES, started life as a novel, written by Koushun Takami in 1999, and filmed a year later by Kinji Fukasaku, best known otherwise for his extraordinary series of ultraviolent 70s Yakuza films, such as BATTLES WITHOUT HONOUR AND HUMANTITY, which have been much-championed (and swiped from) by tireless cinematic magpie Quentin Tarantino. The film differs from the book in a number of ways, but the world depicted is essentially the same.

Parallels between the world of BATTLE ROYALE and THE HUNGER GAMES are certainly striking.

BATTLE ROYALE takes place in an alternate reality where Japan is a part of a Totalitarian State, the Republic of Greater East Asia. Under the guise of a “study trip”, a group of students are taken to an isolated, evacuated island, where they learn that they have been placed in an event called ‘the Program’.

According to the rules, fifty third-year junior high school classes are selected to participate. Students from a single class are isolated and are required to fight the other members of their class to the death. The Program ends when only one student remains, with that student being declared the winner.

THE HUNGER GAMES takes place in a nation known as Panem, all that remains of North America, following some unknown apocalyptic event. Panem consists of a wealthy Capitol and twelve surrounding, poorer districts.

As punishment for a previous rebellion against the Capitol, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected from each district by annual lottery to participate in the Hunger Games – essentially an outdoor gladiatorial contest, which ends only when all but one of the participants are dead.

Even those who praised Collins’ novel on its release could not avoid mention of the debts it seemed to owe. Stephen King, for example, while he praised the novel for being “as addictive (and as violently simple) as playing one of those shoot-it-if-it-moves videogames in the lobby of the local eightplex”, nevertheless observed that anyone familiar with “BATTLE ROYALE [or] THE RUNNING MAN… will quickly realize they have visited these TV badlands before.”

There is more than a little irony in this observation, however. In his collection of essays on film, WATCHING, Harlan Ellison, himself no stranger to having his work “borrowed from” (James Cameron, take a bow), recounts Robert Sheckley’s reaction to reading the novel THE RUNNING MAN, published under King‘s Richard Bachman pseudonym: “I may be crazy… but do you see a lot of my story “The Prize of Peril” in that book?… Do you think I ought to do something about this?”

For all of his customary litigiousness, Ellison advised against taking legal action because: “in the realm of SF/fantasy there are ideas that we rework and re-rework, recast and refashion, expand and transmogrify, that become common coin.”  And this is one of them.

Sheckley himself had first explored some of the concepts of “The Prize of Peril” (1958) in an earlier story, “The Seventh Victim” (1953), later expanded into the novel THE TENTH VICTIM to tie in with the 1966 movie version LA DECIMA VITTIMA, directed by Elio Petri. Chances are Stephen King read one or other of the short stories or saw the film at some point and the ideas took root without his realising he hadn’t originated them.

Thus, as Richard Bachman, he writes THE RUNNING MAN (1982), which, five years later gets filmed by Starsky himelf, Paul Michael Glaser, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the eponymous runner.

It is  worth noting that the town from which the ill-fated students in BATTLE ROYALE hail is called Shiroiwa, which translates as “Castle Rock” – the name of the fictitious town in which a number of Stephen King’s books take place. And so who is to say that, when Koushun Takami wrote BATTLE ROYALE in 1999 he didn’t have King’s novel, or Glaser’s film (or Sheckley’s book, or Petri’s film) somewhere in the back of his mind?

But the reference could also be to William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, wherein the boys set up camp at a large rock pile they label “Castle Rock”. Golding’s seminal study of English public schoolboys gone feral seems a very likely source of inspiration for the inhospitable island set up and classroom-bullying-turned-open-warfare of Takami’s novel.

Or perhaps he had seen Peter Watkins’ bone-chilling documentary-style political satire PUNISHMENT PARK (1971), which imagines a situation wherein political protesters have a chance to evade prison if they can survive three days being hunted across the California desert as part of a supposed National Guard training exercise – survival which, of course proves impossible.

Ultimately, though, all such narratives have their point of origin in Richard Connell’s much-anthologised, endlessly-emulated short story “The Most Dangerous Game”, first published in Collier’s Magazine in 1924, and first filmed for RKO in 1932 by many of the team who would go on to make KING KONG the following year. Connell’s story is the original of all of those “Man as Prey” narratives: A big game hunter from the States is shipwrecked on a deserted island, where he finds himself the quarry in a hunt organised by a rival hunter.

Even as baldly stated here, this is clearly a very different scenario from that of THE TENTH VICTIM, or THE RUNNING MAN, or BATTLE ROYALE, or THE HUNGER GAMES. But it underlies them all. As Ellison says, ideas get recast and refashioned, expanded and transmogrified.

They get intermixed with other ideas, some new, some reworked from somewhere else. They evolve and change in response to the environment, society, politics, the world in which they come into fruition. Films such as Daniel Minahan’s SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS (2001) or Marc Evans’ MY LITTLE EYE (2002), the first of which, in particular, also owes something of to BATTLE ROYALE, could only have been spawned in our current age of Reality TV, and are a response to it.

In short, while there are certain similarities and parallels between the worlds of BATTLE ROYALE and THE HUNGER GAMES, there are just as many differences, as should be perfectly apparent from the synopses above. They are products of very different cultures, with different sets of cultural baggage.

Collins’ novels have been seen in certain quarters as having Christian allegorical elements. The author herself has said she deliberately referenced Greek mythology throughout. But far more evident in the basic set up is the influence of a long tradition of American post-apocalyptic fiction, and the various Dystopias and savage New Frontiers conjured up therein, as well as a vein of American Gothic of the kind found in the fiction of Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson (whose short story, “The Lottery” is surely another source of inspiration).

BATTLE ROYALE could only have come from Japan. While Takami might reference Stephen King and / or William Golding, the Pan-Asian totalitarian state his novel is set in has its origins in the feudal-militarist culture and imperial expansionism of pre-World War II Japan.

The ‘Program’ in which the kids are forced to participate has been in existence since 1947, and its purpose is to keep the populace in a continual state of terrified servitude. Director Kinji Fukasaku claimed he was drawn to film the novel because it reminded him of his boyhood experiences during World War II.

His class was made to work in a munitions factory, which was seen as a glorious means of serving the War Effort. Then the factory was bombed, and the children were forced to use one another’s bodies for cover, after which the survivors had to dispose of the corpses.

The shocking disparity between the heroic ideals the population were being fed in the press and the grim reality of war left him permanently distrustful of all militarist attitudes, and of authority in general. But the novel isn’t just drawing on Japan’s past.

The modern Japanese school system is a notoriously high-pressure environment. There are many instances of kids committing suicide not because they feel alienated or bullied by their peers, but simply because they are failing to get the grades they are led to believe they need. BATTLE ROYALE, which pitches classmates in a quite literal fight to the death might thus be read as a brutal piece of social satire.

But perhaps such interpretations are reading too much into what Stephen King described as “insanely entertaining pulp”.

It is significant that the novel was very quickly adapted by its author into a Manga series with artist Masayuki Taguchi, because, far more than any novels or films, the biggest influence of all on BATTLE ROYALE is the highly-stylised, ultra-violent world of Japanese comics, where School kids have been behaving badly at least as far back as 1968, when Go Nagai’s notorious, taboo-busting HARENCHI GAKUEN [SHAMELESS SCHOOL] first scandalised Japanese audiences. BATTLE ROYALE’s success lies less in any social commentary than it does in the fact that it features cute schoolgirls in sailor suits massacring each other with machine guns.

This might seem a startling image to Western audiences, but in Japanese comics it is as much a cliché as the image of a flying man in tights is to Americans. The novel was thus making smart use of a series of tropes that were both familiar to, and much loved by its target audience.

The film adaptation clearly recognises and chooses to emphasise this. With its cute, clean-cut cast, spiky-haired psychopathic antagonist, and sudden bursts of splattery cartoon violence, it plays like a particularly pure form of live action Manga.

Adapting Manga into movies, though, is a long-established tradition in Japan, be it as live action or as animation. What does seem to have happened in the wake of BATTLE ROYALE, however, is that Manga-inspired and Manga-influenced films seem to have been getting ever more extreme, ever more stylised, surreal, grotesque, and even deliberately ridiculous, in conscious emulation of the most outrageous extremes of the Japanese comics industry.

And those extremes are, to be blunt, pretty damned extreme. The work of such manga maestros of the monstrous as John Zorn cover artist Suehiro Maruo (MR ARASHI‘S AMAZING FREAK SHOW), unsettling surrealist Junji Ito (TOMIE), and the truly alarming Hideshi Hino (A PANORAMA OF HELL) contains imagery that even the most hardened, most unshockable seeker after the sick and the strange might balk at.

Anyone thinking I might be exaggerating here should bear in mind that Hino’s work was the inspiration for the widely-banned ‘Guinea Pig’ series of films made in the 80s and 90s; indeed, Hino himself directed the most notorious of the entire sequence, FLOWER OF FLESH AND BLOOD, which was actually investigated by the authorities, who initially believed it to be a “snuff” movie. Like I said, pretty damned extreme.

Anyone looking for an explanation as to why the Japanese create and consume such extreme imagery should probably ask a psychologist, or a social anthropologist – who would doubt make some glib observations about such a repressed, orderly, workaholic society having a particularly dark and chaotic Id and needing an especially powerful kind of pressure valve. Or something.

But anyone looking for where a taste for such material might have originated could do worse than check out the work of Hirai Tiro, better known by his pseudonym Edogawa Rampo. Rampo, whose name is a phonetic rendering of the Japanese pronunciation of his literary hero, Edgar Allan Poe, took Poe’s obsession with the depiction of abnormal minds placed under extreme pressure, and cranked it up several notches by adding sexual perversity into the mix; in particular an erotic obsession with freaks, deformity and dismemberment.

Rampo’s influence on the more extreme reaches of Japanese art and culture is undeniable, and considerable.

It is no accident that a list of cinematic adaptors of his work reads like a Who’s Who of Japan’s most  full-on filmmakers: Teruo Ishii’s HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN (1969), Yasuzo Masumura’s THE BLIND BEAST (1969), Noboru Tanaka’s WATCHER IN THE ATTIC (1976), Shinya Tsukamoto’s GEMINI (1999), Koji Wakamatsu’s CATERPILLAR (2010). Similarly, all three of the above-mentioned Manga extremists cite Rampo as an influence, with Suehiro Maruo going so far as to adapt a couple of Rampo stories into comic book form.

But Rampo’s work, no matter how grotesque, bizarre, and freakish the subject matter, is, like that of his hero, Poe, grounded in psychological truth – which makes it all the more disturbing.

If he has a modern heir, it is Ryu Murakami (no relation to Haruki), sometimes (and somewhat lazily) described as ‘Japan’s Bret Easton Ellis’, whose best known novel, the nightmarish black comedy, AUDITION, was very memorably filmed by one of the most celebrated of Japan’s cinematic extremists, the incomparable Takashi Miike.

Recently, however, there has been a new trend in Japanese extreme cinema. A move towards an ever greater cartoonishness; more knowing, more tongue-in-cheek. And more full-on than ever before.

In the films of such directors as special effects maestro Yoshihiro Nishimura (TOKYO GORE POLICE, MACHINE GIRL, VAMPIRE GIRL VS FRANKENSTEIN GIRL) and his frequent collaborator sometime hardcore director Noboru Iguchi (MUTANT GIRLS SQUAD, TOMIE UNLIMITED, ZOMBIE ASS), the weirdest, wildest, most surreal, scatological, psycho-sexual, blood-splattered excesses of Japanese Manga reach some kind of apotheosis of excessiveness. 

The result is some of the most extreme, outrageous, absurd cinema currently out there – and I do mean ‘out there’.

Grimm Up North is delighted to be offering an opportunity to discover – or rediscover – BATTLE ROYALE in all of its gung ho glory alongside the mind-blowing mayhem of TOKYO GORE POLICE in a truly deadly double-bill, kicking off at the devilishly deco Dancehouse Theatre on Thursday June 21st from 7.30pm.

Tickets may be bought via the Grimm Up North website, or from the Dancehouse box office.

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