Battlia Royale: Beyond Battle Royale
Last Sunday night, I watched a pool of people deliberately choose to kill a class of students.
My heart sank when the ushers divided the crowd and despite the pleas for their lives, only 24 chose to make the students live while the rest of the 150 or so participants in that night’s play chose to see them dead.
The night before, only 10 out of 200 guests.
In a play that rides on the brutal social imagination of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, Sipat Lawin’s Battalia Royale goes beyond adapting Takami’s vision and elevated the text by turning it into a social experiment.
Shit gets real in Battalia Royale.
Note: Spoilers ahead. Necessary spoilers I might add. If you want to experience this play differently.
The Bloodshed that is Battle Royale
I’m quite sure that I’m not the only one who watched Battalia Royale expecting it to be exactly like Battle Royale. When the buzz on the play came out a few months back, I was wondering if we were ready for this. I have friends in my timeline from abroad who were curious about it. Well guys, I finally saw it. And honestly, I wish all of you saw it. I even wish Koushun Takami could see this come to life.
Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale is a cult classic among Asian movie fanatics and Japanophiles. It’s a movie that mixed childhood innocence with sex, blood, and gore that even Quentin Tarantino could not forget the film.
Battle Royale is the story of “The Program”, an annual televised event that showcases the brutal “cleansing” of a random class in Japan. “The Program” is sponsored by the crazy totalitarian government and I suppose its sponsors. This highly publicized event kidnaps students and they are tasked to kill each other off in an isolated island where their only escape is either their death or their own survival. The kids are given provisions, some rations and one weapon. You’re lucky if you get a gun. Unlucky if you’re stuck with a lid. The game continues until one survives.
Many who attended the play knew this premise. The play does take inspiration from Battle Royale but it has spun the story in ways that it has been localized for a Philippine setting. Sipat Lawin Ensemble collaborated with Australian writers on how they can bring life to this play. Sipat Lawin Ensemble’s a small independent theatre group whose goal is to cultivate local communities to develop community theatre. It’s considered edge theater, specializing in performances in alternative spaces (from parking spaces, cinema spaces, even the CCP bathroom). They often collaborate with other theater companies – in this case, 2 college theater groups. It’s theater beyond the 4th walls, bringing it closer and more accessible to the people. And this means everyone. Thus, Battalia Royale is in many ways heavily localized and loose adaption of the original text. More so, it’s a small community production. It’s not a big ass performance but more of a theatrical experiment where various connections both locally and abroad pooled their experiences together to create a dynamic theatre experience that anyone and everyone could relate to. Strangely, it was a lot more than just a theatrical experience.
Battalia Royale has its similarities with the original. While there are similar characters, their circumstances are very different. The way I see it, the school in Battalia Royale could be any school, and the place could just very well be the empty parking lot of an children’s museum. Ours was held in Museong Pambata, right beside the American Embassy.
What’s interesting is how many had a lust for blood that night. They were noting down the names of students they think would die. By the stairs the crowd’s mixed with emotions. “Who’s gonna die?” “Can’t wait for Kiriyummies!” “Where’s Psychobitch (Kakai)?” “How will they die?”
I’ve never seen a group of people more excited about people’s deaths. Fictional deaths, at least. But still, deaths.
Outside “The Program”
As soon as the students of Class Hope, the blessed sacrifice for the night, was introduced to the crowd, the audience was divided into three groups where each group will follow a different set of people in the early part of the game. It’s amazing because you get to run and follow the students as they find for a safe place or their first kill. You can also hang back, leave the group, and see the things that Sipat Lawin doesn’t let you obviously see.
This is where the Battalia Royale stems away from the original. If you step away from the groups, you’ll see a different story. You’ll see the story outside the main narrative but is still very much a reality to their story. It may have been initiated by my lack of athleticism but having known the original story, seeing these untold stories changes the play completely.
In all versions of Battle Royale, (the Sipat Lawin production — mildly included), there’s a narrative audiences follow. It’s not what we wish to see but what the author, the mangaka, the director wishes to show us. And it’s not bad. It’s great blood and gore with enough to make us question our morality and humanity. But there’s more to that and strangely this “outlying” narrative is forgotten by the crowd who were mobilized from one place to the next to follow the main one. There were caring and moving conversations of friends with great hope. There were conversations of fear. There were moments of loneliness. Then there was despair everywhere. In staying back, I saw students hiding in the shadows with trembling fingers and nervous steps. A guy who has seen the play 9 times said he hadn’t noticed that this happened in previous versions of the play. If it’s an addition, then it’s brilliant because if anything, it showed me how real this game was to them.
The theatre is the entire parking lot and while everyone is caught up on some lesbian action in the greenhouse, those who stayed back in the light house would hear the only moral bastion, the loudest voice of morality in the story. And it’s moving how this girl, Jessica, convinces every person that passes her way not to falter and be corrupted by the system. My heart sank when she tries to convince the Shuuya character, Victor, to pool the class in the light house where they can discuss a way out. And she holds him tight as they both weep, shaking the nerves and the shock of the game from their system. When they part, Victor becomes determined to save as much people as he can while Jessica tries to keep up her classmates’ hope.
This scene was not in the movies or in the manga or in the novel. It’s not part of the storyline but the writers were thoughtful enough to take note of these little things that reminded me as an audience that this show was not just bloodbath. The story continues outside of the main story line but with only five people watching the scene, who will remember this part? Probably no one, except for us five who witnessed it. The interesting thing is if we go back to the group and tell them what happened in the light house, will anyone believe us?
History, after all, lies on where we stand and if we stood away from everyone else, how can they accept our experience as real? At that point I wondered about the value of historicity and how this play was brilliant in creating a multiplicity of experience, the way that our realities will never be solely a single narrative.
No longer an observer
It was heartbreaking to catch that scene and for the next few I scenes I always returned to that lighthouse to keep my morals at bay. I started watching other scenes where the main narrative was absent and for all the heroism they show in the main narrative, the students shriveled back to helpless children when the spotlight’s not on them. And it’s depressing how a few could only see this and how many were rooting for the psychobitch when they should be rooting for the class VP and her friends who were fighting to keep their humanity.
As the play reached its midway point, the audience was pooled together. The teacher asked the audience that at this point in the play, we have to make a very important choice. Do we choose to make the remaining students live or do we let the game continue? They needed 30 people that night to save the people. As I said earlier, we fell short. By four people. Even when ALL the students were begging to for their lives, the crowd pooled together to let the bloodshed continue. I tried in vain to convince some people to my side, but to no avail, hardly any one moved.
Is it because we paid for bloodshed so we’ll let it continue? Is this the Colosseum where blood must be shed for us to be entertained? Was the audience so caught up with the manufactured world of the play that they sought comfort in its performance? That this was just a play so that they can be amoral bastards and see the bloodshed continue?
As soon as the crowd parted to continue the story, I caught a glimpse of the director moving on, looking a bit teary. A part of me wondered that if the audience has not heard of Battle Royale before, would they have chosen to save the students’ lives? Or were the people on the other side were all informed BR audience and they knew the kids MUST die? What about the people who didn’t know the story? Why did they choose for the kids to die? Is it because the story dictates that the kids should die so they should all just die?
When the audience had the power to stop the bloodshed, why didn’t they end it?
It was fascinating to see the people’s reactions because while there are some douchebags who were raising their hands with pride with their decision, many were feeling lost. I remember some who had confused faces who were willing to jump if not for the pull of the crowd. So does this mean that if the democratic vote is towards violence, we just… go with the flow? For all the education that we had on morality, violence, human rights, and all that jazz, do we in the end, choose to be entertained or simply not be bothered by the moral weight of our decisions?
Have we lost our agency?
In that instant, the play has become a social experiment. The perfect experiment that allows you to explore the decisions people make as governed either by the experience they’re in, their knowledge of the text, or maybe even by their own moral choices (although, it would be scary to think that most of the people there were psycopaths). I had more questions about humanity, morals, social construction, and cultural memory that after that moment, I observed more on how the audience reacted every time the play pulled their strings.
Somewhere along the way, beyond the usual drama of survival, they ask the audience again to spare 1 student: Timothy. Happily, the crowd chose to save him. Then I raised the question, that if the crowd was willing to save one, why couldn’t they choose to save all? Did they choose to kill this guy because he was innocent? Or did they choose not to save the rest because psychobitch (Kakai, Mitsuko in the original) and bloodthirsty brat (Basti, their Kiriyama-esque character) were still alive. They were but 6 of still many students who could have been alive. It’s like the crowd chose genocide over the sin of a few and… did that justify their act? Or were they really just seeking comfort of the god hand the play has given to them?
The plot continues with the crowd cheering for psychobitch and noble boy to kill each other. They even cheered for the bloodthirsty brat. Of course, in the end, the writers made the decision that a great percentage of the audience never had the balls to decide: they ended the game with someone who can end it. Someone who knew that there’s something fucked up when people choose to kill people. The most moral of them lives, but I do wonder if she can manage, given the trauma she’s had in this game.
“Personally, I don’t think of the story being so much about school and totalinarianism, but more like how to live. I think the most important thing is to live honestly and with hope, no matter when or where you are.” - Koushun Takami, “The Men Behind the Madness: An Interview with Koushun Takami and Masayuki Taguchi (Part 3)”, Battle Royale Vol. 08, 153.
The crowd roared when the play ended. The bloodbath is over. The good girl was “saved.” The baddies were killed.
The “class roll call” was like a pile of bodies after some natural tragedy. They were in neat rows and covered with a blanket. They rose together but not one smiled. The crowd kept on cheering, and I assumed it’s for their performance but somehow, there’s nothing to be happy about in their faces.
In my head, it was as if watching the dead hearing the cheers of the crowd on how proud they were to have killed them. It’s sad and as much as I’d love to make a scene and hug them, I simply respected their memories as they fall back to the end.
It was the oddest experience. I was completely shaken by the entire play but at the same time I can’t help but admire the brilliance that allowed me to feel this way.
I know it’s fiction but if I felt real emotions that night, then I’m quite sure, there’s a whole lot of reality in this play.
Sipat Lawin’s production and the writers behind this has given Koushun Takami’s story great thought before bringing it back to life. It’s never about the blood shed. It wasn’t about the system. I think, at its core, the story questions what is it that we need to survive. Is it brute violence? Is it sex? Is it our desires? Or hope?
However, unlike the story, the play raised more questions: Who are we to decide who lives or dies? And how much deaths do we have to see before we put a stop to things? Do we have to be divorced from fiction for us to decide what’s right?
I wished I had seen this play earlier but I heard that it was only last weekend that the play decided to try out the new spin on things. It was a great parting gift from the writers (who were Australians), and I am heartbroken how so few actually saw the message they’re trying to say: we’ve always had the power to put an end to violence and hate. It’s a matter of us choosing to do so.
I owe it to myself, to people, most especially to the students of Class Hope to write about my Battalia Royale experience. In a way, I want to trigger a “what if?” Based on my conversations with the director and the staff, no one has chosen to make the class live. Can you imagine? The earlier versions of the play, where they only chose 1 student to survive, traumatized that student once because the crowd was so fervent in killing him.
So what if they live? What can we hope for?
I’m hoping to have faith in humanity.
Because of my re-read of the manga, I now vehemently vote against it if you want to catch up or refresh your Battle Royale memories. It’s a horrible translation that aimed to be edgy but proved to be a re-imagined dialogue that promoted hate over the system rather than raise a dialogue on our agency. It basked in the gore and the fanfare of murder which is like watching the film when you were just eight.
If you want to have more Battle Royale feels in the right places, I have nothing to recommend but the re-translated edition of Battle Royale as published by Haika Soru. This is the best edition and one that befits the title and perhaps what this book and this play intends to achieve. This book is available in Fully Booked stores and should be accessible to most readers in the Philippines.