All I can say is it’s about damn time.
Battle Royal, Kinji Fukasaku’s cult classic, has been floating around in various forms since its initial release in 2000. I’ve personally watched it on grainy VHS and region free DVD, at late night screenings, and once even projected on the massive concrete wall of an abandoned warehouse near an airport. Finally, the controversial film is getting a proper US release on DVD and Blu-ray with Battle Royale: The Complete Collection. And the package is well worth the wait.
Based on Koushun Takami’s novel of the same name, the home release of Battle Royale is designed to look like a book. It comes with two versions of the film—both the theatrical and director’s cut—a copy of the equally difficult to track down sequel, Battle Royale II: Requiem, and a separate disc packed with enough great bonus material to choke a charging rhino.
Whether Suzanne Collins acknowledges it or not, her Hunger Games trilogy owes a huge debt to Battle Royale. In a dystopian future the powers that be remind everyone that they are in control by forcing teenagers to battle to the death. True, in Battle Royale the event is not televised, but there is a comparable media firestorm surrounding the games, like when a gang of reporters descend upon a lone, bloodied survivor. The release date of The Complete Collection is no accident, scheduled for the same week The Hunger Games adaptation took over theaters. The box even invokes the name of the young adult novels, and hopefully Battle Royale, which has always enjoyed a modicum of fame and notoriety, will gain a new foothold in the American mainstream.
Battle Royale, itself an updated Lord of the Flies (also owing a huge credit to Running Man), is savage, sharp, satirical, and brutally funny. As a way to control rampant underage crime, a class of out of control ninth graders is drugged, rigged with explosive collars that can be remotely detonated at any time, and released into an abandoned island wilderness. Last teen standing wins; winner takes all. Much like Top Gun, there are no points for second place.
Fukasaku’s film captures the desperation of the unwilling participants. Some are wracked with fear, guilt, and panic, while others take to the situation with shocking ease, adopting the horrifying necessity of murdering their classmates in order to live another day. Darwin’s edict of survival of the fittest played out in a teenage microcosm, Battle Royale is a bleak commentary on humanity and society, full of blood, the violence and splatter that Japanese cinema does so well, and biting gallows humor. The film garnered worldwide acclaim, including a multitude of Japanese academy award nominations but, hot on the heels of Columbine, never secured a US release.
While Battle Royale is an artifact of the post-columbine world, the 2003 sequel, Battle Royale II: Requiem, is a response to 9/11. Three years after the action of the original, Requiem finds the world embroiled in a full on teen versus adult war. The survivors of the first film have returned to wreak hell on the adults who turned them into murderers, unleashing shocking acts of violence on the populace. In one eerily resonant attack they bring down a handful of skyscrapers. Viewed as terrorists by some, freedom fighters by others, the BR Act, the impetus that gave the government legal authority to pit kids against each other in the first place, is amended to combat these rebels. This year’s batch of “recruits”—delinquents, hoodlums, and orphans—will not be forced to kill each other, they will be collared, armed, and set upon the terrorists, only a few years older, and recently placed in the same predicament.
Less subtle and less effective than the original, Battle Royale II: Requiem is both more scattered thematically, and over the top acting wise. Riki Takeuchi (Dead or Alive trilogy) hollers and hams his way through as the teacher of the class selected for battle, and the younger actors bounce back and forth between angry yelling and quiet, contrived, dramatic talking. Requiem is worth watching for fans of the original, but it is generally a single note story, and lacks the wit, insight, and impact of Battle Royale. Add the fact that Requiem is 30 minutes too long, and you’re better off watching both cuts of the first film and calling it a day.
As earlier indicated, there is an entire extra disc of bonus material, and the content runs the gamut. There are behind-the-scenes featurettes and footage from on set. TV spots and trailers mix with audition and rehearsal videos, and there is a making-of feature as well as a documentary about Battle Royale, from inception to larger cultural impact. All of this extra material, and much more, creates a comprehensive package that is entertaining and informative. Not just for fans of the film, this parcel is something to behold for movies in general.
At this particular moment in time, comparisons between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games are inevitable. The two tread similar thematic grounds, though Battle Royale is less about wide societal control than straight-up brutal punishment of out of control youth. It’s less a game, less a political tool, than it is about vengeance and survival.