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Battle Royale (2000)

January 31st, 2008 · 7 Comments

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Synopsis
In the not too distant future, unemployment and student rebellion have crippled Japan. A disaffected 9th grader named Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) discovers his father has committed suicide. At school, his rebellious best friend Nobu (Yukihiro Kotani) attacks their teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) with a knife, which is concealed by a bookworm named Noriko (Aki Maeda) because she has a crush on Nobu.

Loaded together on a bus for a school trip, the 42 boys and girls of Class B are gassed. They wake up in a deserted island with metallic collars around their necks. Soldiers enter, led by their former teacher Kitano. He plays a video hosted by a cheery instructor who explains the rules of the “Battle Royale Act.” The government selects one class each year to participate. The students have three days to kill each other until only one remains. Failure to comply results in the detonation of the collars around their necks.

Each student is given water, food, flashlight and a map, which they must use to navigate away from certain grids at certain times of the day. Being caught in these grids results in the detonation of their collars. To level the playing field, each is randomly distributed an item, perhaps a weapon, or maybe a joke item useless for survival. To prove he’s serious, Kitano throws a knife into the forehead of a girl for whispering. Nobu gets out of line and has his collar detonated by the teacher.

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Two strangers to the class include Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), winner of the previous Battle Royale, and a psycho named Mimura (Takashi Tsukamoto) who’s playing for fun. Once the game begins, some students panic and stumble into quick deaths. Others refuse to play and commit suicide. One group of boys and another group of girls band together for mutual survival. Shuya takes it on himself to protect his dead pal’s girlfriend and flees with Noriko. Her random item is a pair of binoculars. He has a pot lid to defend himself with.

What Shuya and Noriko lack in killer instinct, they make up for in luck. They cross paths with Kawada, who gives them shelter and offers Noriko medial treatment. He reveals that he and his girlfriend Keiko were the last survivors of the previous Battle Royale, but instead of dying together, she forced him into shooting her and surviving the game. He tells Shuya and Noriko that he knows a way off the island. Standing in their way is class slut Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama), who’s discovered she has a taste for killing.

Production history
Battle Royale was a 1999 novel by Koushun Takami. Published in Japan, it envisioned a police state known as “the Republic of Greater East Asia.” The story followed a class of junior high school students selected at random for “The Program” – also known as Battle Royale – in which they’re forced to fight each other to the death. A TV director and aspiring filmmaker named Kenta Fukasaku optioned the novel and adapted a screenplay, hoping he would direct it. That changed when Fukasaku told his father about Battle Royale.

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Kinji Fukasaku was nearly 70 years old and had been directing movies for four decades. His credits ran the gamut from the 1970s The Yakuza Papers thrillers to the 1977 cheesefest Message From Space to replacing Akira Kurosawa on the Japanese segments of Tora! Tora! Tora! Taking over the directing reigns from his son, Kinji Fukasaku saw the story as a faerie tale and a means to comment on the brutality of war, which he had experienced as a teenage civilian during World War II.

Many in the Japanese government didn’t want the film seen at all. Japan’s education minister urged movie theaters not to screen Battle Royale. Other politicians – fearing copycat violence – advocated legislation to increase local and national censorship laws. The controversy only generated free publicity. Released December 2000, Battle Royale was a blockbuster, grossing $25 million in Japan.

When it came to selling the film’s distribution rights in the U.S., the studio – Toei – saw Battle Royale as a big commercial movie to be distributed in hundreds of malls across America. The major studios saw the film’s potential differently. With its almost certain NC-17 rating, Hollywood anticipated the film would never be exhibited by theater chains. While never “banned,” screenings of Battle Royale in the U.S. were relegated to film festivals. It is available for purchase via Amazon or rent on Netflix.

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Opinion
There are as many things that the film version of Battle Royale does wrong as it does right, but what ultimately makes it worth seeing is the primal ability of the story to create a microcosm of humanity among 42 Japanese teenagers in crisis. Some keep their composure and advocate working together. Others victimize the weak. Some are unsure of what to do. The psychological sketches of the various characters are very well thought out and at times, unsettling in their reality.

The lighting by Katsumi Yanagishima cuts glass. The musical score features Verdi’s “Requiem Mass”, Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz” and Bach’s “Suite No. 3 in D Major.” But while Battle Royale looks and sounds spectacular, its script is all over the shop. The first 15 minutes of the film are cut together in a way that makes it difficult to follow, while the ending was too intellectual for my taste and not visceral enough. Some of the blame goes to the DVD, which with such a sloppy English translation robs the film of finesse.

There also moments so over-the-top that the film is pushed toward B-grade cheese. Too many death scenes seem like they were taken right out of an old western, where the deputy sheriff gets shot and squeezes off one last line of dialogue before expiring on cue. But the characters are vivid, the action well executed and the tragedy of the material hit me right in the gut. Kenta Fukasaku took over direction of Battle Royale II: Requiem after his father succumbed to bone marrow cancer days into filming.

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Nick Schager at Lessons of Darkness writes, “A metaphor for adolescent angst? A satiric look at 21st century Japanese society? Or merely a twisted, trashy black comedy about kids forced to murder each other? Either way, Kinji Fukasaku’s hilariously energetic Battle Royale … races along with the swift, brutal precision of a samurai sword cutting through cotton.”

“For me, Battle Royale wound up being exploitation at its finest. I never EVER dreamed that I’d have a blast watching kids murder themselves, but this flick made it happen with its ballsy premise, tight direction, enthralling action sequences, gorgeous cinematography, potent gore and its overall huge set of kanakas between its legs,” writes John Fallon at Arrow in the Head.

Colin Polonowski at DVD Times writes, “Despite the fairly heavy first impression, there is quite a streak of black humour throughout the film, for example the ‘training video’ that introduces the children to their fate is very much like something out of Starship Troopers. In fact the whole film feels and works out like a very violent satire.”

View the Japanese trailer for the special edition re-release of Battle Royale.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Alternate universe · Based on novel · Coming of age · Cult favorite · High school · Military

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph R. Valdez // Feb 1, 2008 at 5:48 am

    Dear # 1 son,
    Thought this was some sort of James Bond pic that must have completely flown under my radar screen when it was first released. Skeptical when I saw its origin, your review took me by surprise and was so descriptive and compelling I find I must find a way to rectify that situation, and you’ve thoughtfully shown the way. Thank you.

  • 2 Pat Evans // Feb 4, 2008 at 5:12 am

    This is a pretty sick yet very special movie — I’ve seen it a few times now and definitely reckon it, although I agree that the ending is something of a cop-out. I’ve also seen the sequel which is a little over-ambitious and not really in the same shock league.
    Mind you I’m a big, big Takeshi Kitano fan and if you haven’t seen all of his films put them on your “must-see” list. I take that back, his last two movies where he sort of mocks his own persona are more than self-indulgent. But the earlier ones are wonderfully violent and the middle period like Hana-bi (Fireworks) and Dolls brilliant. I also love his take on Zatoichi.

  • 3 Piper // Feb 5, 2008 at 9:30 am

    Joe,

    I heard the premise of this movie when it first came out and knew I had to have it. I bought some kind of collectors edition that only plays on my portable DVD player and I watched it on a flight to LA.

    The two scenes that do it for me are the classroom scene where the children quickly become aware of the situation they are in and the super happy/super creepy video they are subjected to. And the scene where the kids in the lighthouse are convinced they are all trying to kill one another.

    The violence is over the top and I appreciated that considering the subject matter. If it were handled more seriously, I might have found it just too disturbing. So I appreciated the cheesiness at times. I do however feel this movie kind of fell apart at the end. I guess I was expecting a much darker ending rather than a hopeful one. It’s my understanding that the sequel to this was not good.

    Tarantino loved Chiaki Kuriyama in this so much, he tapped her to play Gogo in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

    After I saw this movie, I couldn’t stop talking about it. I was at a dinner in LA with the Executive Producer in charge of Film Production at Anonymous Content (nice title dropping, huh?) and I was telling him about it. He ended up borrowing my DVD to dub it because he was very interested in making an American version of it. I kept telling him that it was a weird disc and he probably couldn’t make a dub of it. He kept telling me very arrogantly that as Executive Producer in charge of Film Production he could probably find a way to get it dubbed. He never did.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Feb 5, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    Dad: There’s no mistaking Battle Royale for anything other than a Japanese exploitation flick, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. There are many similarities between this movie and The Long Walk and The Running Man novellas of Stephen King’s The Bachman Books.

    Patricia: I wish you were a professional critic. “This is a pretty sick yet very special movie” is a blurb that would get me into a theater. I always enjoy your take on international cinema and appreciate you filling me in on Takeshi Kitano. He sounds like a Japanese Lee Van Cleef.

    Pat: I see your point about the violence needing to be over-the-top instead of realistic. This again demonstrates why I should not be a movie director.

    I read that Tarantino was in Japan having dinner with Kenta Fukasaku and told him how much he loved that lighthouse scene. Fukasaku told Tarantino that the author of Battle Royale had seen Reservoir Dogs and used it as the inspiration for the standoff between the girls. So even if you’re a Tarantino hater and believe he steals everything he writes, it’s refreshing to know that creative inspiration goes both east and west.

  • 5 Ichii Yamamoto // Mar 5, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    this was the best japanese movie that I’ve seen in centuries, greatly surpassed all of the american action/survival/horror flicks put together.

  • 6 tHE hERETIC // Aug 13, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    Just rewatched it again, and still impressed. Can’t help but compare it to _Lord of the Flies_ in its themes of trust and civilization.

  • 7 We Are Ninja // Sep 15, 2010 at 10:02 am

    For the record, the “class slut” and cold-blooded killer was Mitsuko Souma, not Takako Chigusa…

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