Despite never having been officially banned in North America, Battle Royale suffered de facto censorship through non-distribution, despite its popularity in Japan and among lucky film festival crowds who caught it in rare runs abroad. Over the last decade or so, bootlegs and other mysterious video editions of the film began seeping into Western markets until, clearly, demand won out, and now Kinji Fukasaku’s visionary epitaph (his sixtieth feature film) takes its rightful place in international film history. This is no longer a film you should acquire in whatever third-hand, semi-legal format you can arrange. Battle Royale is yours for the asking in a handy-dandy, thoroughly excellent Blu-Ray package.
The first noteworthy element of the collection is a red sticker, upon which Quentin Tarantino proclaims ”My favorite movie of the last 20 years! I wish I had made this movie.” That is as perfect an endorsement as a film distributor could hope to have, especially when selling a film like Battle Royale to a hungry cult audience. This release is primarily geared toward the film’s existing fans, but touting it as a Tarantino essential should certainly lure some curious outsiders.
The first three discs in the set contain the original theatrical cut of Battle Royale, a special director’s cut with added footage and slightly deeper emotional context, and the 2003 sequel Battle Royale II: Requiem. The fourth is stacked with well thought out and meticulously assembled bonus content. Along with the standard promotional spots and trailers, there is a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage cut into several featurettes. They are a little repetitious if watched in one sitting, but each highlights interesting points about the production of the first film. The level of commitment and energy displayed by the young cast and the aging director is astounding, and will no doubt deepen whatever regard viewers already have for Battle Royale.
Koushun Takami’s novel Battle Royale is an exceptionally bleak satire, which has stirred hearts and turned stomachs since its publication in 1999. Set in a totalitarian nightmare, it looks hard at one of modern society’s most eerie preoccupations: children committing violence against their peers. As part of a government effort to cow upstart youths into fearful submission, the Battle Royale Act dictates that one full class of schoolchildren be selected every year to be pitted against one another in mortal combat.
In other words, forty-two ninth grade students are armed and set loose to hunt one another on a remote island, with the understanding that only the last survivor will be allowed to leave. Various systems are in place to force this outcome, whatever objections the participants may raise. Some choose to fight, some choose not to. However, all but the weakest form some strategy for staying alive.
In 2000, veteran director Kinji Fukasaku adapted Takami’s book for the screen, and created a milestone of cinematic controversy. Featuring “Beat” Takeshi Kitano as the sadistic figurehead of the program and an able cast of teens as the hapless ensemble, Battle Royale has established a popular legacy far beyond what you might expect for such an ultraviolent shocker. Those who would dismiss it as mere exploitation have probably not actually seen it. Rather than glorify all the killing and hurting, Battle Royale chiefly highlights the courage, spirit, and dignity of the survivors. In addition, it dissects the social order of the classroom with the unsubtle precision of a new razor.
At one point during rehearsals for the film, Fukasaku inspires his young cast by recounting his own experiences as a boy in Japan near the end of the Second World War. The memory of that harrowing time is evidently what drew the director to Takami’s novel in the first place. This seems to resonate with the cast members and give them a point of reference for the predicament shared by their characters. In a press appearance tied to the Battle Royale‘s release, one of the film’s stars remarks that he believes it the “duty” of all Japanese people to watch the film.
However, the movie speaks to an audience far wider than Japan. The horrifying dilemma of certain death weighed against survival at the cost of one’s friends resonates in any healthy soul. The awkward tenderness of adolescence makes it all the more heartbreaking. A group of people at the age of pure potential, forced to face purposeless destruction, invites comparison to any number of historical atrocities.
In a scenario so volatile, tempers are bound to run high for long stretches of time. Behind the scenes, Fukasaku – amazingly hands-on and aggressive at age 70 – works his young cast extremely hard. However, the results on screen answer brilliantly for such a long and difficult shoot.
Between takes, the young actors seem exuberant and fascinated by the process. Under Fukasaku’s close direction, they give confident, mature performances of teenage angst and desperation. That may sound like a paradox. But think of all the shrill, irritating performances of teenage angst and desperation out there. Battle Royale manages to make a story about screaming teens, riddled with emotional and physical wounds, both moving and exciting.
Battle Royale II: Requiem would have been the elder Fukasaku’s sixty-first feature, but sadly, he fell victim to cancer having directed only one scene. His son Kenta Fukasaku, writer of both Battle Royale films, completed the sequel in 2003. Set in a world where survivors of previous Battle Royale programs have instituted a policy of relentless terrorism against the adult population of the world, it drops a new set of ninth graders into an even more aggressive meat grinder.
The organization of young terrorists, known as the Wild Seven, have established a stronghold on a remote and well-fortified island. To root out these troublemakers, the cold-blooded suits in authority have revised the Battle Royale program, forcing young students to invade this island and eliminate Wild Seven forces without the need to expend standard military manpower.
Whereas the original Battle Royale dealt with universal themes of humanity and the survival instinct, Requiem gets more specific with its political themes. However, the Wild Seven manifesto could have used more organization. In trying to make many earnest (but disparate) arguments about Western imperialism, the nobility of resistance by the downtrodden, and the inherent innocence of children, it becomes badly muddled and difficult to take seriously.
Nonetheless, in the footsteps of his father, Fukasaku has directed the film’s scenes of warfare action with conviction and skill. Though it may inspire dizziness and mild headaches by the one-hour mark, Battle Royale boasts the same impact in its high-speed, shaky-cam combat as the gristle-and-bone climaxes of Lionsgate releases like Rambo and The Expendables.
In other words, if you plan to have these films around (which I highly recommend), Blu-Ray is definitely the way to have them. The Battle Royale saga boasts three of the medium’s best features – graphic action violence, lush visual style, and intricate sound design – in abundance, and the thorough assembly of this package constitutes appropriate fanfare for a film franchise so long unavailable by conventional means.
“To me, these are greetings to the young people. Those were my words to the next generation of young people, so whether you take that as a message or as a warning or advice is up to you as the viewer.”
– Kinji Fukasaku (1930-2003), interview with Midnight Eye