Japanese filmmakers Kinji Fukasaku, Takashi Miike, and Sion Sono are depicting the thrills of the deadliest survival games
For a while now, the Japanese ‘death game’ genre has been a staple of J-horror – a way of exploring all the messy complexities of human morality.
For the uninitiated, a death game generally refers to a film or TV show where a group of people are forced to participate in a deadly contest, the best known recent example being Netflix sensation Squid Game. Globally, filmmakers have used these tales to look at the collapsing points of rigid social orders and failing (often capitalist) societies. In the west, movies such as James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s iconic Saw franchise and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games have become hugely popular death game media, with a lot of their stories’ stylistic features inspired by the works of Richard Connell’s 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game and Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 cult classic Battle Royale.
Basically, the death game genre provides an outlet for us to compartmentalise our collective feelings of dread and uncertainty towards the failings of our governments and systems. It takes the underdogs of our social orders and grants power to their humanity and desire for survival against a system hellbent on harming them for entertainment. For many people, these stories have become akin to real life, which has always been something of a deadly survival game.
As of now, with the return of Saw X, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and the highly anticipated second season of Squid Game, it seems like death games are making a comeback. Here, we delve into the history of this bloodthirsty genre.
Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale is arguably one of the first archetypal portrayals of a death game, kickstarting the genre as we know it today. The movie’s cultural significance is global, with most newer death game media lending itself to having either stylistic or narrative influences from this cult classic.
In this film, the Japanese government decides that the best course of action to combat a major recession and high unemployment rates is a government programme (titled the ‘BR Act’), which forcibly sends a class of junior high school students to a remote island to participate in a twisted game. Once on the island, their objective is simple: fight to the death until one survivor remains. The cult classic follows the main protagonist, Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and his friend Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) in this fight for survival, as they resist the cruel fate imposed upon them and confront the darker aspects of the human condition.
In this movie, ten strangers, fuelled by the promise of immense wealth, agree to participate in a lucrative social experiment where they are placed in a secluded facility. Things take a deadly turn when they discover that one of them will play the role of the murderer and needs to kill the others while avoiding detection. While suspicion and paranoia quickly sets in, the group must find a way to survive, and uncover the truth behind the cruel experiment. The film keeps its audience on the edge of their seats, fusing elements of suspense, mystery and psychological drama.
This is the first instalment of The Werewolf Game franchise, which offers a deadly new spin on an age-old party game. The movie follows high school student Airi (Nanami Sakuraba) and nine others, who must survive a deadly game of “werewolf”. In this movie version of the game, there are two groups: villagers and werewolves. The werewolves must secretly kill off the villagers each night, while the villagers try to identify and vote out the werewolves during the daytime rounds.
Throughout the film, each character is forced to face psychological and emotional challenges as they begin to question each other’s motives and confront their own fears and vulnerabilities. The Werewolf Game: Villager Side delivers a tense and suspenseful narrative, blending elements of horror and mystery as the villagers struggle to survive and unmask the werewolves among them.
This is arguably one of the more underrated classics of the iconic Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, who is best known for his highly stylised and erotic filmmaking, depicting explicit and taboo images of sex and violence with works such as Audition (1991) and Ichi the Killer (2001).
As The Gods Will follows Shun Takahata (Sota Fukushi), whose school becomes a playground for some mysterious, supernatural forces. In this sadistic game, they are forced to face off against giant, sentient toys such as traditional Japanese Daruma dolls and Maneki–Neko (“beckoning cat”), that challenge them to games such as red light, green light and basketball. Failure to complete the challenges results in gruesome and instantaneous death. The movie blends horror, suspense and elements of Japanese folklore to deliver a thrilling and cinematic experience.
In what appears to be a simple game of cat and mouse, high school student Mitsuko (Reina Triendl) finds herself transported to an alternative reality, where she and her classmates become prey for a relentless supernatural force dead set on killing them. Yet as the characters try to make sense of this lethal game of tag, they find themselves falling deeper into this psychedelic nightmare. The film is an excellent take on the death game genre, seamlessly blurring the lines between reality and imagination.
Despite being a more recent addition to J-horror’s death game genre, Alice in Borderland has already become a fan favourite, gaining a huge global fanbase with the second season landing the number one spot on Netflix for the most viewed non-English series during its premiere weekend.
As the story goes, reclusive gamer Arisu (Kento Yamazaki), alongside his best friends Chota (Yûki Morinaga) and Karube (Keita Machida), all find themselves transported to a mysterious alternate reality called the Borderlands. The conditions of survival in this world are simple: they must participate in deadly survival games to remain in this world or die an instant death. Each game challenges the characters’ wits, courage and morality as they face life-or-death situations with highly unpredictable rules. The series is an intense and suspenseful thriller exploring themes of survival, friendship, and the consequences of losing your humanity.