I have to admit that I am not a real fan of horror or gore movies. I would rather watch a film about a man in tights saving the world than someone tortured to death. That said, I believe there is a place for violence in cinema as long as it supports the story and is not just there to make a quick buck with a few easy shocks. Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction and Fight Club are some examples of ultraviolence done right, but if there is one film that constantly lures me back with morbid fascination, its the Japanese cult hit Battle Royale.
Firstly let me make on thing clear, this is not a movie for children or tweenages trying to fill their need for more Hunger Games content. Although lots of people will mention the two franchises in the same sentence, Battle Royale is on a whole different level of black satire. It is filled with blood and death and trauma. Where as The Hunger Games kept its soul numbing depictions of child combat to a diluted second half of the movie, Battle Royale stretches its sickening tension for its entire running time. The atmosphere is dark and grim throughout, with the lower budget ‘fuzz’ of a Japanese movie constantly keeping things closer to reality then we would like. It is not one for the faint of heart, what I would refer to as midnight movie. (There is even a story that it was banned in the USA, although this is not technically true, it was more a case of no-one with the money for the licence wanting to stock it). But as with other controversial movies such as A Clock Work Orange, those who can stomach it will find and engaging, thought provoking story lies benieth its dark shell.
The film is based on the exploitation novel by Koushun Takami, who wrote the story as response to the Japanese governments treatment of their youth during the war, often forcing them into situations that would cost them their lives. Takami’s novel is set in the near future, where a totalitarian government rules Japan and most of Asia. As with all totalitarian dystopia Japan has a the constant problem of a population on the brink of uprising, especially amongst it younger generation who are becoming increasingly unruly and rebellious. In order to keep the order the Battle Royale act is passed, meaning that each year one class of 15-16 year olds is selected at random and taken to a secret location where they are fitted with explosive necklaces and forced to fight to the death over 3 days. The sole survivor is allowed to return home. It is centred around the 42 students of class 3-B, each with his or own chapter and story arc, but focuses mainly on the three antagonists; Shuya, Noriko and Kawada, all of whom are determined not to be dragged into the game.
‘Now don’t worry, Michael Bay assures me all the pyrotechnic stuff we crammed inside them will look great on camera… ACTION!’
For the most part the film adaptation does it best to copy this structure, with most students getting their own scenes, some of which are much more well developed then others. As with all book to film conversations a lot of the content is lost in transit and if you really want the full story of each of the 42 characters you ideally need to read the manga. Maybe if the remake ever comes, and I sort of hope it wont, then a trilogy with a movie for each day would be a more effective way of covering everything. Despite this, enough is retained to keep the movie constantly interesting, and its mass of characters and short stories that make it so engaging.
Looks like the sort of girl you could take home to meet your mother.
As a single movie with so much content stuffed into two hours, the pacing is surprising well done, with enough action to keep everything following nicely. Also for a large cast of young actors, most of whom were the same age as their characters, the acting is also surprisingly consistent. The director Kinji Fukasaku is well known for pushing his employees hard, are method which obviously works as most put in a pretty good performance. I could certainly feel the panic and fear a lot more then I could in The Hunger Games. The person who stood out to me the most was Takeshi Kitano, (an ex-comedian oddly) as the miserably evil teacher/overseer, who does a great job of looking both tired and psychotic at the same time. Also good was Tarô Yamamoto, playing the game veteran Kawada, who looks like we would be more at home in an 80′s action movie and gives a spark of old school ‘Die Hard’ heroism to the otherwise dark proceedings.
Although still an excellent film, Battle Royale does have a few problems. As I mentioned before the amount of attention each character gets is pretty impressive given the running time, although occasional it does feel as though other bits of the story have been sacrificed in order to make everything fit. Certain key plot points relating to necklaces seem to be missing from the last few scenes, as if the writer could not think of a proper way to explain the situation so just skipped over it. We get the general idea of what happened, but it seems an odd piece of the story to skip, given the importance which is placed on it earlier. The other main problem is that the ending suffers from a rather bizzare moment with Takeshi Kitano. If you have already seen the film then you will know want I am talking about. This could be some cultural thing I do not understand, but judging by the expressions on the faces of the other characters I am not convinced. Its such a strange moment and the way comes out of nowhere just destroys the tension in the final moments.
‘… I just wanted you to next the tv listings, see if there’s anything worth me hanging on for… Battle Royale 2? Screw that.’ *dies*
The final thing I have to note about Battle Royale that it will always be best the first time around. The key to this movie is the shock value, which is what makes the atmosphere work so well. Once you know what to expect you are still left with an entertaining movie, but it does feel as though it loses something. In some ways repeated viewing is advisable as you are likely to miss things the first time, but it just does not work quite as well.
Battle Royale is a cult classic for a reason, it is terrific and terrifying but certainly not for everyone. Most people will not get past the basic concept and without feeling decidedly uncomfortable. But that is exactly what the movie is made to do. Discomfort makes fear, fear makes tension and tension makes a thrilling piece of cinema. Sometimes the most memorable movie experiences are the ones that make us remember them, and if you watch Battle Royale you will not be forgetting it any time soon. A must watch for fans of Japanese entertainment or cult cinema followers, assuming you have the steel stomach required and a nice Disney flick to wash the taste out after.
Because there’s nothing dark or disturbing in any of their films.