The 61st film of 70-year old director Kinji Fukasaku, BATTLE ROYALE begins with a prologue:
“At the dawn of the millennium the nation collapsed. At 15% unemployment, 10 million were out of work. 800,000 students boycotted school. The adults lost confidence and, fearing the youth, eventually passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act AKA the BR Act.”
While the logic of instating the BR Act due to the downturn of the Japanese economy is tenuous at best, Battle Royal escreams into action and doesn’t allow time to ponder such issues. After a few scenes setting up core characters-Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda)–the forty-two high-schoolers become trapped on a remote island where they’re reintroduced to their seventh grade teacher, Kitano (brilliantly played by “Beat” Takeshi Kitano).
“This country’s become no good,” Kitano says. “The bigwigs got together and passed [the BR Act]. So today’s lesson is… you kill each other off. ‘Till there’s only one left. There’s nothing against the rules.”
Armed with a random “weapon” (some get semi-automatic guns, some get less lethal implements), each student has three days to dispatch his or her classmates in hope of being the last one standing. Again, there is little time for logic and no room for pacifism. Playing like a high-stakes version of Martin Campbell’s island prison adventure No Escape, BATTLE ROYALE finds fuel in the heightened melodrama of adolescence. As these kids struggle to stay alive, classroom rivalries skyrocket and doe-eyed crushes become heavyweight love affairs.
Shuya, whose father abandoned him via suicide, becomes the stand-in for the audience as well as the prototypical Japanese. Struggling in this microcosm of Japan, Shuya is a young man without a father as Japan is a country without a strong leader. Meanwhile, the only male role model for Shuya appears to be Kitano, the slump-shouldered former teacher plagued with family problems of his own.
As the body count goes higher, director Fukasaku keeps raising the stakes, never relenting in this dogged contest. Cleverly, BATTLE ROYALE doesn’t appear as an outright parody but, rather, it takes melodrama to the nth degree. The film’s score booms with emotionally riveting classical pieces, giving the proceedings an operatic overtone.
BATTLE ROYALE fits into the fine filmic tradition of gladiatorial games for entertainment. Though the film has its moments of “score-keeping” via on-screen graphics that tally the names of those who have died, it’s not portrayed as a television show (a la Series 7: The Contenders, Death Race or The Hunger Games). Though not a “public spectacle,” the competition of BATTLE ROYALE sucks an audience into its world.
Based on the 1999 book by Koushun Takami, Fukasaku’s film came quick on its heels. Though it was released in December of 2000, it’s taken over a decade for BATTLE ROYALE to finally find a legitimate release on American shores via the 2012 Anchor Bay box set which includes the director’s cut of the film (which includes some enhanced special effects and a few scenes that don’t add much to the tighter theatrical release) and the tepid sequel.
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku’s son, Kenta, BATTLE ROYALE II feels more like an unsuccessful remake rather than a true sequel to the original film. It’s another battle where the stakes have been raised. Rather than the cool, inscrutable Takeshi Kitano, the proceedings are overseen by the unhinged Riki Takeuchi (Dead or Alive).
The controversial sequel begins with a bang. Literally. Shuya and Noriko, the two survivors of BATTLE ROYALE have since formed Wild Seven, a terrorist organization who levels buildings in Tokyo in a chilling scene that recalls the crumbling of the World Trade Center.
Rather than pitting students against one another, the rules of BRII are designed to take down Wild Seven. The students of Shika-no-Toride are volunteered for this new battle. The 42 teens are divided into pairs, one boy and one girl. In order to ensure teamwork, their familiar collars are attuned to one another, meaning that if one of the pair is killed, the other will follow quickly. Their new assignment is to storm the island stronghold of Wild Seven and destroy them. The military intelligence behind this decision leaves a bit to be desired.
The politics of BRII are over-the-top and in-your-face. Takeuchi doesn’t have much to say to the BRII students other than listing off 22 countries that have been bombed by the U.S. over the last 60 years (including Japan). And, when Shuya explains that he and Noriko left Japan for Afghanistan after they survived the first BATTLE ROYALE the message of U.S. aggression is hammered home even harder.
A major shift in tone and narrative occurs an hour into the film when the BRII brigade finally meets Shuya. The students suddenly seem to come down with a bad case of flashbacks and longwinded speeches taking BRII from an action film into an inaction film. Things pick up from time to time when the Japanese military is sent in to do the job that the kids couldn’t handle but they don’t fare much better.
BATTLE ROYALE II doesn’t provide any sympathetic characters, pulse-raising action or heart-wrenching drama. It merely apes other war films and brings nothing to the table except for rampant half-baked anti-U.S. rhetoric. I’m all for calling out the U.S. on our dunderheaded foreign policy but BATTLE ROYALE II fails on this level even more spectacularly than every other.
Though the behind-the-scenes for BATTLE ROYALE are interesting (though not fascinating), I can heartily recommend the single-disc version of BATTLE ROYALE. Skip the extras (especially the sequel) and stick to the original instead.
SPECIAL FEATURES FOR THE COMPLETE COLLECTION (single disc version does not have any special features:
Making Of Documentary
Instructional Video: Birthday Version
SFX Comparison Featurette
Tokyo International Film Festival 2000
Basketball Scene Rehearsals
Original Theatrical Trailer
Special Edition TV Spot (SD, 1 min)
TV Spot: Tarantino Version
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