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The Japanese Thriller That Explains ‘Fortnite’ and American Pop Culture in 2018

Ever seen ‘Battle Royale’?

Toei Company/Ringer illustration

If you’ve played Fortnite, or read about Fortnite, it’s tough to watch the latest Purge movie, The First Purge, without thinking about Fortnite Battle Royale. The First Purge is a gruesome political allegory. Fortnite is a goofy online video game phenomenon. They’re both battle royale narratives where a select population is instructed to kill itself off, save for a triumphant survivor. In 2018, battle royale has become a strangely pervasive mode of entertainment—a malevolent craze.

Battle royale, as popularized, owes largely to a Japanese film that bears the very concept as its name. In the 2000 movie, Battle Royale—directed by Kinji Fukasaku and based on the popular novel by Koushun Takami—the Japanese government sends a middle school classroom on a dark field trip. Turns out, the field trip is a punishment; a trap. The pretext for the punishment is quite wild: “At the dawn of the millennium, the nation collapsed. At 15 percent unemployment, 10 million were out of work. 800,000 students boycotted school. The adults lost confidence, and, fearing the youth, eventually passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act,” the title sequence reads. It’s left unclear why the government means to address the nation’s turmoil by burdoning teens with state-sanctioned violence—15 percent unemployment is hardly the worst calamity, economic or otherwise, to befall Japan. In any case, the Japanese government passes the BR Act, a law requiring the students in a single, delinquent middle school classroom to slaughter one another. The classroom’s former teacher, Kitano, played by Beat Takeshi, coaches the students to shed whatever humanitarian inclinations they might have. “Today’s lesson is you kill each other off until there’s only one of you left. Nothing is against the rules,” Kitano says. The combatants are fitted with deadly tracking collars and forced to scatter across a remote, evacuated island, hunting one another until there’s just one student left standing. Naturally, there’s some sabotage and betrayals—the stakes are too high for the contest to be entirely sensible or fair. But basically, the battle royale is a Darwinian exercise: The most advanced specimen wins.

There’s plenty of deadly, dystopian pretexts for civilian factions turning against one another through the use of deadly force. There’s Mad Max, which pits bikers against police. There’s Red Dawn, which pits U.S. high schoolers against Soviet paratroopers. But battle royale is a distinct tradition. In battle royale, the conflict is flattened, and the combatants are individualized and equalized. On the killing field, there may be some exceptionally sympathetic players, including the protagonists. Alternatively, there may be some exceptionally cruel fuckers who assert themselves as the principal antagonists. But the killing field obscures the true antagonist—whichever great, malevolent force organized the battle royale in the first place. In Battle Royale, it’s the Japanese government. In The Hunger Games, it’s Panem. In any case, battle royale requires some official, formalized mandate toward free-for-all violence. It’s why Lord of the Flies doesn’t quite count as battle royale, despite its island setting and its teen violence’s resembling (and predating) Battle Royale—no puppet master compelled Roger to crush Piggy’s skull with a boulder. In battle royale, killing is the organizing principle, and the would-be killers are, in fact, the victims and subjects of an oppressive system.

Since the December 2000 release of Battle Royale, the movie’s core concept has proliferated in popular Western entertainment—books, films, and video games—from The Hunger Games through The Purge. On Tuesday, Neon released the first trailer for Assassination Nation, another suburban battle royale, due out in September. The First Purge stages its battle royale on Staten Island, a microcosm of U.S. racial tensions. Much like Battle Royale, these American narratives cite political institutions and the popular will as dark authorities. The First Purge is a wild rumination about race, class, the Republican Party, and the state’s monopoly on violence.

In 2018, there is no bigger battle royale than Fortnite, the multiplayer toon shooter that’s become the biggest gaming phenomenon of its generation. Before Fortnite, there was PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (a.k.a. PUBG), a more naturalistic shooter with a similar battle royale mode that dominated gaming throughout 2017 before Fortnite’s audience outgrew PUBG earlier this year. Two games, no nefarious political authorities—the battle royale modes are relatively frivolous, if nonetheless violent and exhilarating. In Fortnite and PUBG, players skydive onto a killing field and then, well, they get to killing. It’s possible to fight solo, but players might also organize themselves into squads, so they might win a battle royale match in league with survivors other than just themselves. See, the battle royale conceit isn’t entirely anti-social. There’s teamwork, and it’s fun!

Still, Fortnite is a brutal process of elimination. There are countless ways a player might die, and the character designs are so expressive that your killer might literally dance on your grave. In a common scenario, two or more Fortnite opponents might land uncomfortably close to one another. They’re initially armed with only their axes, and so the players might rush to stab one another to death, slowly. The axes go splat.

Shooters are a classic video game genre, but only recently has gaming tech matured to the point where 100 players can quickly congregate online to play a match on a richly detailed map with substantial nuance in the way of topography and sound design. By its peculiar gameplay, Fortnite softens the subgenre’s focus on killing—the game’s definitive innovation is the build mechanic, which is more important and exciting for the player to master than any manner of killing. The player scavenges the forests and suburbs for raw materials—wood, stone, and metal—and then they repurpose these resources for their fortifications by summoning walls to block gunfire, summoning stairs to climb the landscape, and building forts to survive. It’s actually quite bewildering for a newcomer to Fortnite, even if they’re good with others shooters—the weapons are simple enough, whereas the build mechanic is strange, whimsical, and awkward to learn. Ideally, Fortnite players don’t make a beeline from life to death—the player spends most of the time on the island engaged in survivalist crafting and creative destruction.

Human cruelty is timeless, but battle royale has become a generation’s distinct fetish. Given the current U.S. obsession with the format, it’s tempting to conclude that the country is uniquely out of sorts these days—but then the original Battle Royale is a Japanese franchise. Truly, there are guns all over the map.