Director - Kinji Fukusaku
Rating - 4/5
I still vividly remember seeing this when it came out in 2000, in Camden. It was only on limited release in the UK due to the moral outcry that followed it around. There was a strange flyer that depicted London just like the map the students are given in the film, with the handful of cinemas that were screening. I remembered hearing that Japanese politicians were up in arms at the preposterously violent high-school story and that American distributors weren't touching it with a ten foot barge pole in light of the Columbine massacre. Aside from that though, I was largely in the dark.
As the first knife flew towards a uniformed school girl's head there was a collective intake of breath in the audience. As the blade lodged itself in her head and she slumped to the floor, everyone in that packed screening audibly gasped in a state of shock. There was this dawning realization that this was going to be something more than a little unusual. Celebrating its tenth anniversary last year, it is as fresh as ever, and I have still never had an experience quite like it in a cinema since.
The film remains a dark, lord of the flies-esque gore-fest. Before explaining the plot it is worth mentioning that if you haven't yet seen this, it might be worth going into it blind. Its one of those films that just works better without knowing the story in detail in advance. Battle Royale is set in turn of the millennium Japan which appears to be going downhill fast. Young people don't respect their elders and the system is going to pot. A counter-measure, the Battle Royale act, is proposed to restore some order. As such, the worst behaved class of students in Japan are taken to an island each year, given a selection of weapons, and left to kill each other until one survivor, the winner, is left. Some students can't believe what is happening, others take to it with incredible relish. The film's original tag-line coined it nicely, "Could you kill your best friend?"
It’s not the most obvious choice for the third dimensional treatment, but it does add a certain zing to it, with the knives flying and such. There is still that lingering curmudgeonly feeling that 3D is not the necessity film studios claims it is, and a film like this will hit its audience with the same intensity even if it sticks to plain old 2D. Having said that, it is a bit of fun and it is nice to see a film that doesn't fit the big blockbuster mold giving the medium a crack. Director Kinji Fukusaku passed away in 2003 and his son, who took over the reigns of Battle Royale 2, converted the film as is to 3D in honour of its first decade.
The contrast of the ultra-violence (a film truly deserving of that moniker) and the hokey relationships between the kids is as odd as it is fascinating; a girl lies bleeding to death in her classmates arms with them telling each other how cool they are. There are many moments like this which give you that sense of "only in Japan." The incredible instructional video shown to the bemused students at the start is masterful. The super-genki (high-energy) host explains the horrific rules, exploding necklaces, and varying weapons with a cheerful relish that is sinisterly hilarious. The best thing is still Kitano as the head-teacher, played with a dead-panned edge that only he can pull off. It is an interesting twist on the archetypal Kitano character in films Sonatine and Hana-bi. He comes of as a sort of twisted Bill Murray. It is a welcome reminder of his capabilities as recent offerings haven't quite hit the mark.
The film is viewed as a modern classic in Japan. Tarantino placed it in his top twenty films since becoming a director in 1992, though Anything Else was in there too so make what you will of it. The excellent Chiaki Kuriyama, who played the running team girl Chigusa, went on to star as Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill. She is the stand-out of the young cast. When she ends one of her classmates last ditch attempts at losing his virginity , male members of the audience will find it a particularly tough moment. Lead boy Tatsuya Fujiwara is good as Shuya. He holds the film together well with his earnest performance. He went on to star in the successful Death Note series.It is a little bit hard to picture the boyish looking Yukihiro Kotani, Shuya's best friend Kuninobu, as the supreme l'enfant terrible, but he is only around briefly. The rest of the large cast are all solid, with everyone chipping in. Japanese classes are given numbers from one to forty, and it is chilling when said numbers are read out in the loud-speaker death reports, and flash up on screen.
The music that accompanies the film is perfectly picked. Orderly classical music beamed out over the battle-ground, utterly discordant and utterly fantastic. It also allows for one of the most peculiar scenes in the film. Kitano's head teacher begins his traditional rajio-taiso, a series of stretches that Japanese companies and schools traditionally perform every morning. As the chaos unfolds, this moment of serenity and order seems to hark back to a by-gone era often regarded with slightly misty eyes by Japan's older generation. Is this the sign of a shepherd who has lost his flock, or with all the monstrosities going on around it, is Fukusaku trying to expose this nostalgia as just an empty facade?
There are some sizable plot-holes here and there, that can be a little distracting. The prologue shows TV reporters announcing from the scene of last years tournament. It makes it seem a little peculiar when all the students froth with disbelief. The film is definitely stronger in the set up, and as the second half gathers pace it loses some of its dramatic push. Yet, Fukusaku labelled this film a fable, and as such it feels a little unnecessary to be pulling on the lose threads of the film. Regardless of the few short-comings, the film as a whole works exceptionally well.
If you haven't seen Battle Royale it is definitely worth taking the opportunity to catch in the cinema. Regardless of the 3D or not it is a film that works best in the darkness of a cinema, as part of a captive audience. If you have seen it, then it certainly beats watching it on DVD again, no matter how many bonus discs they throw in with the re-release. Fukusaku's son said in an interview, "we never set out to make Harry Potter. The point is to make people think about big issues." Both of those statements are unequivocally true.
An interesting piece on the distribution problem encountered in America on its original release.