Portrayals of violence can be virtuous
Views 31 | Time to read: 3 minutes | Uploaded: 4 - 3 - 2019 | By: Nathan Tudor
A ninth grader stumbles out of the forest, her neck pierced by a crossbow bolt. She has been killed by someone she considered her friend mere hours ago. Stranded on a deserted island, a class of forty students are being forced to murder one another by the government as a corrective against youthful rebellion. If they refuse to participate until someone stands victorious, everyone dies. As children die, the class’s teacher snacks on cookies in the command center.
It is easy to see why the Japanese National Diet officially condemned Fukusaku Kinji’s “Battle Royale,” the 2000 film based on Takami Koshun’s novel of the same title. The movie depicts intense violence between teenagers, and it paints the Japanese government as the author of the carnage. “Battle Royale” received the restrictive R-15 rating, which frustrated Fukusaku because he created the film for the young generation who could not legally watch the film. But what could an ultraviolent film like “Battle Royale” teach adolescents?
Media today is saturated by explicit content like violence, sex, and vulgarity (in this piece, I focus on violence, but I think the argument could be extended to other explicit media). Evangelical Christians have often opposed such media, and, personally, I’m not a fan of media that glories in gore. This isn’t a recent Christian opinion, either. St. Augustine wrote extensively on the moral corruption that could arise from Christians watching the popular theater or gladiator games—he thought they inspire corrupted love of sin.
However, I think there is a good reason for portraying violence in media: to convey the horror of it. “Battle Royale” is an excellent example of this. It is a harrowing examination of the fallenness of humanity, the fallenness that we suffer from. The film does not revel in violence; it shows us the brutality of it, and it forces us to wonder if we would do the same. One student, a cold-blooded antagonist for most of the plot, is made remarkably sympathetic through flashbacks that past suffering and alienation. This humanizing moment drives us to question whether we would act similarly.
But “Battle Royale” is not all bleak, because we also see the courage of the two protagonists. We see students refuse to accept the narrative thrust upon them—they would rather band together and fight against the authoritarian government.
They put the survival of their friends above their own lives. The film also implies that the pacifist protagonist is the “true winner” of the Battle Royale, because she never gave in to violence and hate. Despite excruciating circumstances, every person can choose which path they take.
Christians often depict the bloody violence done to our Savior. There is the gut-wrenching crucifixion scene in “Passion of the Christ,” for instance, as well as the famous Isenheim altarpiece. In portraying this violence, we are trying to do something virtuous—we are trying to show the cost of our God’s triumph over evil. The crisis of history takes place on a torture device, and it reveals the depths of human sin—depravity manifesting itself in our murder of Jesus the God-Man. When we depict the crucifixion as such, we show the extent of evil, but we also show the extent of God’s love, such that the incarnate Son would choose to suffer such a fate. Surely there is something meaningful in witnessing such violence.