The International Writers Magazine: Film Space

Richard Stirland

Could you kill your best friend? So goes the tagline to one of the most controversial, and indeed successful Japanese films of recent years, Battle Royale (2000), in which a randomly chosen class of schoolchildren are forced by the government to fight to the death until only one remains.

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku
Kenta Fukasaku (Screenplay)
Koushun Takami (novel)

It’s a question that luckily most people will never have to consider. However, if Battle Royale’s dystopian near-future vision of a collapsing society is to be believed, then the youth of Japan is destined not to be so fortunate.

Of course, the lengths to which the Japanese government are willing to go to in an effort to curb juvenile disobedience are greatly exaggerated in the film. Or so you would hope. Is Japanese society crumbling to such an extent that drastic actions such as the Battle Royale Program need to be taken? Of course not. In fact, this is far from the message that the film is trying to put across. What Battle Royale does intend though, is to reflect and criticise the Japanese system and society that has put the children in this unenviable position in the film, as well as forewarning what could happen if things continue as they are. Indeed, this is not the first time that concerns over the state of modern Japan have been raised by filmmakers.

Yasujiro Ozu, one of Japan’s most internationally renowned directors, is a key example, his moving and emotional films still bearing relevance today, almost half a century after his death. His work is an important source of anxiety over the death of old Japan, and the country’s subsequent modernization and obsession with technology, particularly in his later films such as Tokyo Story (1953) and Late Autumn (1960). He was also certainly not afraid to address the negative effects that he felt this was having on the people, particularly the youth, of Japan. Most tellingly:
many of the young dislike his work, calling him old-fashioned and reactionary. And so he would appear, since he so continually celebrates those very qualities against which young Japan is constantly in revolt: the traditional virtues of Japan
(Richie, 1959, p.18).

So, clearly there is an obvious conflict of interest and values between the young and the old in Japan. Take Ozu’s Tokyo Story for example, which is basically an examination of the Japanese family. In the film, we see an elderly couple travel to Tokyo in order to visit their children. Upon arrival, they are essentially brushed off and sent to a resort, as their children are too busy and preoccupied to spend time with them. For Western audiences, myself included, our natural reaction is to feel sorry for the parents, because of the disrespectful treatment they receive. In Japan on the other hand, sympathy lies with the children. They are the ones seen as being inconvenienced, and their parents are viewed as a bothersome irritation.
On my first viewing of the film, it was hard to relate in any way to the actions of the children in Tokyo Story. I would like to think that I have a close relationship with my parents, and would hope that I never come to think of them as a nuisance. But is it the same for the Japanese? In a word, no. Their modern family system is formed in such a way that it appears to suppress emotional ties between parents and their children, at least from my perspective. Because of the adults’ excessive working hours and overtime, coupled with the children’s’ demanding educational schedules and private after school classes, often modern middle class Japanese families have very little free time to spend together socially. It’s hard to imagine a having a strong bond with your parents if you never see them. This is one of Ozu’s concerns in Tokyo Story, as we see Koichi, the doctor, having to forgo a trip out with his children because of a patient he has to visit. His sons’ angry reactions suggest that this is a regular occurrence. Koichi doesn’t even have time for his own children let alone his parents. Perhaps this is the statement that Ozu is trying to make: that the new jobs and lifestyles that came along with modernization of Japan are tearing apart the bonds that make up families. Are Koichi’s children likely to treat him with any more interest and care than he does his own parents when he gets older? I doubt it.

Interestingly, a fair percentage of elderly Japanese parents do end up living with their children. However, this arrangement tends to be made:
for pragmatic rather than altruistic reasons. Given the high cost of purchasing housing properties, young people are prepared to live with or close to their parents and provide them with home-based nursing care, in the expectation or acquiring their house after their death in exchange (Sugimoto, 2003, p.176).

So under the surface, the support for one’s elders in Japan appears to be more of a business agreement than anything else, and this further reinforces the notion that emotional ties between Japanese parents and their children may not always be present. After all, aging parents who lack many possessions or anything inheritable of worth have difficulties living with or receiving care from their children, as their offspring have nothing to gain from it.

I can see Ozu’s point. Modernization seemingly has driven a rift between Japanese family relationships and created social issues. Surely if a husband and wife never get to see each other, at least one of them would be unhappy. The fact is, the rigid code of Japanese conduct in middle-class society means that people rarely articulate their true feelings. This can be seen in Ozu’s films where, ‘the "plot" often involves an exquisite dissection of ritualised politeness to reveal the characters’ true emotions by the film’s end.’ (Lopate, 1986, p.13). If it takes the length of a film for someone to say what they mean, then it is no small wonder that issues and problems in Japanese society remain unresolved because the country’s behavioural codes do not permit people to freely state their opinions and worries. The fact that Ozu’s films are constructed solely to build up to a climatic release of emotion also reveals Japan’s tendency to value style over narrative. Just think about Tokyo Story. Its narrative does not drive the film, and the plot is rather secondary and basic to the interaction between its characters. Not only do relationships appear to be a major concern of Japanese society, but they also emerge as a central focus of Japanese films.

While the Japanese middle-class struggle with the restrictions of their social manners, it would appear that the working classes have greater freedom of speech if Japanese cinema is to be believed. Witness the work of Mikio Naruse for example, and you will find much more frank and less reserved patterns of behaviour within the poorer families he tended to depict. Generally, his characters were far more expressive, and exchanges between them were more open and carefree than those of Ozu, because for Naruse’s underprivileged individuals, ‘time-consuming, stereotypically "Japanese" manners might be considered a luxury.’ (Lopate, 1986, p.14). Seeing how Naruse himself had a relatively impoverished upbringing, and led a very modest lifestyle, it would be a safe bet to say that his films embody a realistic picture of Japanese working class life.

I have only touched upon certain areas and factors within Japanese society, but on the face of it, it would seem that the modernization of Japan has most deeply affected the middle classes. What is most striking is that the transformation of the country was fundamentally triggered because Japan felt inferior to the rest of the Western world, as opposed to having a practical desire to progress culturally. When Japan encountered Western civilization near the end of the 19th Century, it noted the scientific and technological advances the West had made, and rapidly and intently began to imitate and reproduce these innovations. It is ironic how the reverse is true now, as we in the West try to import and absorb as much Japanese technology as quick as possible. The Western influence was also incorporated into certain areas of Japanese filmmaking as well, in the work of Kenji Mizoguchi for example, who was, ‘one of the first in Japan to make fully realised sound films by assimilating the Western model.’ (Cohen, 1978, p.111). You can see it in his editing in particular, making use of a Western framing techniques, such as a spectacular dissolve to link a bath between Lady Wakasa and Genjuro with a picnic in Ugetsu (1953).

Japan’s decision to modernize, as we can see today, has led to the dense urbanization of large areas of Japan, and their worldwide reputation for embracing modern technology in all areas of life. Whilst the Japanese seem happy to promote their mastery of electronics and suchlike, I’m not sure that they have been so eager to show that:
their achievement in technology, in turn, has had a profound impact on the Japanese concept of the collective self. Indeed, the Japanese have been jolted, as it were, by their own success and are having a difficult time redefining their own position in relation to the rest of the world (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1990, p.199-200).

So I think it would be fair to say that modernization is at the heart of the problems in Japanese society that I have looked at, and also perhaps played a part in fuelling a crisis of national identity. Ozu would undoubtedly feel very smug.

And so we come full circle to Battle Royale, a film that takes all of the aforementioned concerns of Japanese society to the extreme. The near-future Japan shown in Battle Royale is very different from the idyllic country depicted in Tokyo Story, with its 15% unemployment rates, abundance of juvenile delinquency and upwards of 800,000 pupils boycotting school.

I personally think the film acts as a cautionary tale, providing an insight into Japan’s possible future, and in particular the plight of its youth. To be fair, I wouldn’t want to go to school in Japan when considering the increasing pressure that its prejudiced education system puts onto its pupils. For one, the major corporations that have emerged with the modernization of Japan supposedly promote employees on the merits of the university they attended. So in order to achieve career advancement, you have to study at the best universities, which in turn only tend to accept pupils from the best schools (the majority of which are privatised). Japanese school pupils from underprivileged families consequently have little chance of progressing into high-powered careers because of this biased system, which is structured so harshly against them.

This system is controlled and dominated by the Japanese government itself. Most aspects of Japanese school life are. Decisions over what textbooks are used in schools, style of uniform, length of pupils’ haircuts, every aspect of modern educational life is decided and enforced by the government. This militaristic approach has the effect of standardising every pupil, to the point that:
It is standard routine in many subjects for a teacher to instruct an entire class to read a textbook aloud, in unison. This…makes it difficult for any child to deviate from the set pattern (Sugimoto, 2003, p.132).

You can see the effects in Battle Royale: every pupil is identified purely by a number after they have been killed in the film, because that is what they have been reduced to: one number among many. As soon as anyone rebels, the government kills them off with the Battle Royale program, to scare everyone else into conforming to its ideals.

So who in Battle Royale is there to help the kids? No one, only themselves. Where Ozu saw relationships between children and their parents as failing, in Battle Royale the parents are absent completely. Take Shuya for example. His mother has run away, and his father has committed suicide. We only see his father alive in flashback, and even then, there is very little communication between them. I think its fair to say that society and the government have failed the youth in Battle Royale, and yet the young are the ones being punished it. For me, it is little wonder therefore that the pupils of Battle Royale have rebelled. Thankfully, Japanese society has not yet reached this point, although the country is in the midst of a ten-year recession. Perhaps Western influences and modernization have unbalanced Japanese society to such an extent that the long-term effects are still being realised. Time only will tell what will these effects will be.
© Richard Stirland June 2006

Richard is a recent graduate from the University of Portsmouth

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