When the inevitable debate arises over the merits of literature against cinema, the written word almost always emerges victorious. Alongside the few films to actually better the source material is Kinji Fukasaku’s ultraviolent Battle Royale, an altogether more concise, barbed political satire when compared to Koshun Takami’s more straight-laced work of pulp fiction. Right from its matter-of-fact opening and throughout, this is unerringly gripping cinema, and while known as much for its controversy as its brilliance, it is no mere act of novel shockery; this is a thoughtful, stylistically compelling film with potent comparisons to the aestheticisation of violence demonstrated in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
The film is available in the U.K. on Blu-ray from tomorrow. Here is our review…
At the dawn of the millennium, with Japan facing social decline, with the highest-ever rates of unemployment and truancy from school, the government passed the B.R. Act, which stipulates that every year, one school class are gassed while under the impression they are going on a field trip, and then taken to a deserted island, where they must fight to the death until only one remains. The winner gets to go home, having proven his or her worth. Overseen by the cantankerous, despondent teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), escape is virtually impossible, as the island is protected by a fleet of armed guards, and every student is fitted with a collar which will detonate if they try to flee, remove the collar or spend too long in one area. Also, after three days, all the collars will detonate if the game is still not over.
Beginning with an iconic image of the previous Battle Royale winner – a blood-soaked, smiling young girl holding a toy doll – Fukasaku’s film does not want for controversy and, in the stead of the ensuing bloodbath of forty-something students, actively seems to encourage it. While few will call it subtle or measured, Battle Royale is a massively entertaining outing precisely because it engages fully with the somewhat naive absurdity of its premise if taken as seriously as it is in Takami’s novel. Rather, when treatred with the speculation of a dystopian sci-fi, the tale is easily digested while bracingly funny thanks to both its very Japanese idioysyncatic tone and plenty of darkly comic dialogue (one character is cleaved in the face with an axe, yet declares, “No, I’m sorry, I’m fine”).
Despite featuring so many characters, Fukasaku impressively condenses down the key elements of the prime ones from the novel into concise mini-arcs, normally just before each one is killed. While the half-dozen or so main characters are naturally sketched out in the most detail, even those students who appear for mere moments mostly get to sound off about lost love or broken friendships. That characters get just enough time to declare their undying love for their chosen one seems to becoming something of a running joke before the film’s end.
The very best characters, however, don’t even come from the core student contingent; Takeshi Kitano is magnificent as the sadistic teacher, who himself has two of the students killed before the game even begins. More than just a cardboard psychopath, however, the more tragic circumstances of his predicament are well-developed as the game rages on, and as ever, Kitano is a statuesque presence. Also very good is Masanobu Ando as the Terminator-like transfer student Kiriyama, whose mute assassin character is at once the very essence of cool and the film’s best engagement with the pulpy tone of the original novel.
Such a regard for character is uncommon in a type of film that may on the surface seem like little more than a sleazy gorefest akin to something Takashi Miike might make. That Battle Royale succeeds in deftly crafting characters to care about while still delivering visceral, often hilariously over-the-top violence is a masterful tightrope dance that few directors could manage. The confidence acquired over a storied career such as that of Fukasaku’s, invariably, pays off in spades here.
While few would argue that the film is suitable for children, Fukasaku has made a convincing case that they are the most liable to identify with it, given the last-minute declarations of love and erratic behaviours may seem overtly sentimental and contrived to an adult. Having grown up with the film myself, seeing it upon the initial DVD release at age 13, it felt incredibly true and informed for a film directed by a 70-year-old then, and ten years on, it still manages to feel just as genuine in its depiction of teens under extraordinary pressure. More universally, the film is really about the strength of friendship bonds, and how some will fall at the first hurdle, while others will endure defiantly for a lifetime. While its wrapping inside a tale of considerable cartoonish violence may be too unwieldy and beguiling for many – contributing in a large part to why the U.S. remake was thankfully shelved – there is a strangely serene beauty to much of what the film has to say about people.
The Special Edition of the film (included in this set) followed a year later and while utterly superfluous, does provide a few interesting additions, fleshing out character feelings and motivations while admittedly also hampering the concise feel of the original cut. Employing considerable visual symbolism, Fukasaku frequently cuts in clips of the students playing basketball, and as they live and die, the mode of play reflects this – as one star player is killed, we see him miss a shot at the hoop. Also included is a little more breaking of the fourth wall, the film now punctuated with a question – how should adults and kids communicate – rather than the more simple declaration of the original film, torn from the novel. These additions are certainly nice to have for the die-hard fan, though they do stilt the impact of the closing moments, and the title cards detailing each “requiem” dream sequence at the end feel awfully mechanical.
In an age where many people’s children, not many years older than the ones here, are sent to what many consider an unjust war, Battle Royale’s relevance is boundless, and thrives on its controversy rather than impresses in lieu of it. Furthermore, given how a few of the more risqué deaths are shown in only fleeting detail, it certainly inspires one to read Takami’s novel. In short, Fukasaku is a master, capturing superb bunny-stunned performances from all of the youngsters involved. It gets no points for subtlety, but this confronting, devastating, hilarious and extremely fun film is a masterpiece all in its own right.
Not only will this version of Battle Royale pleasantly fill your HDTV, it looks fantastic too, particularly the island scenery. Despite the mostly washed-out palette of light blues that plague the night scenes, this is no lazy transfer, though that horrid skipping glitch that occurs when Mimura detonates the bomb on the Special Edition has carried over onto the DVD (apparently the master footage became damaged, and they never thought to just…not use it…).
Aurally, gunshots sound particularly wonderful, and Masamichi Amano’s emotive soundtrack is as rousing as it has ever been.
The retail edition features a wealth of tasty packaging treats; a reversible sleeve, a bunch of booklets and collector’s artwork, though these were not available for review.
The first disc features the original theatrical trailer – dredged up in naff 4:3 with video quality reflecting that of a low-fi streaming video site – and a haphazardly constructed though occasionally interesting 53-minute Making Of documentary, featuring extensive off-the-cuff interviews with the cast-on set.
Much like the wealth of extras on disc two – featuring more promotional materials and featurettes on the Special Edition reshoot, the soundtrack’s composition and a mock video for director Fukasaku’s 70th birthday – they’re carbon copied from the 2-disc Special Edition DVD released a decade ago.
The third disc, boasting all of the new content, was not available for review.
Battle Royale 3 Disc Blu-ray is released in the U.K. from tomorrow.