Ah, nostalgia! Be it that old cartoon, a favorite toy or a comic book from days gone by, isn’t it great, when out of the blue, the memories come flooding back, and you’ve no choice but to exclaim “Holy Crap! Remember…?”
Directed by Kenji Fukasaku
Starring Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, and Chiaki Kuriyama
It’s amazing how quickly some tastes and taboos change in the realm of popular culture. Ten years ago, a movie like the recent film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games, which featured a cast of young men and women killing each other for the amusement of society, would have been unthinkable, and yet in 2012, that story provided the basis of a wildly popular movie. Back in 2000, a film was released in Japan entitled Battle Royale that had a similar plot to The Hunger Games but was so controversial upon its initial release that it never received a full theatrical release in the United States. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the movie gained a sizable cult audience worldwide and is now seen as a modern classic. Viewed today, Battle Royale is seen less as an ultra-violent exploitation flick and more like a cutting satire on Japanese culture, much like The Hunger Games satirizes the current reality TV craze here in the West.
Based on the original novel by Koushun Takami, the plot of Battle Royale follows a group of Japanese middle schoolers who are kidnapped and taken to a remote island, where they are forced to hunt and kill each other in order for only one of them to escape the island alive. Each student is given a knapsack containing food, water, a map of the island, a compass, and one weapon. The island is ruled by Kitano (played by legendary actor/director Takeshi “Beat” Kitano), a disgruntled former teacher of the students who dispassionately fills them in on what they must do in order to be released from the island. Some students seem to have no problem with violently killing their classmates in order to ensure their own survival, while others, like the two main protagonists of the film, are more hesitant to use violence and only do so in self-defense. Occasionally, the film flashes back to the kids’ life together before they wound up on the island, which shows the audience how they interacted with each other before they were forced to play this cruel game.
Battle Royale was a huge hit when it was first released in Japan, but the outcry over the film’s violent content made it one of the most controversial films of that time. It was never shown theatrically in the U.S. upon its initial run due to comparisons many made to the Columbine tragedy that occurred the previous year in the U.S. Western audiences became familiar with the film via import DVD copies, and it quickly amassed a wide cult audience. Today, Battle Royale is much more highly respected among critics and audiences. The themes brought up by the film’s narrative actually have a lot of poignant things to say about the competitive nature of Japan’s education system and the effect it may have on that nation’s youth. As a former educator, I found some rather disturbing parallels within the film to America’s fixation on test scores and meeting state criteria in order for schools to remain open. In many ways, the demands put upon many of America’s schools and students today mirror the same spirit of competition that the film clearly satirizes in the bizarre Darwinian game that Kitano forces his former students to play.
Even though it does contain several graphic scenes, Battle Royale never seems overly exploitative or crass in its depiction of violence. The latest DVD and Blu-Ray release includes several scenes showing the backstories of many of the more prominent characters, which makes the audience more invested in them and even more shocked at what happens to them on the island. Some may argue that this new, longer version tries to explain too many of the characters’ backstories and ultimately interrupts the flow of the film, but many of these scenes are very effective in the way they develop these kids as characters instead of as mere cannon fodder. The themes brought up by Battle Royale are subtle and yet clear enough to raise the film above its lurid subject matter, and the film strikes the perfect balance between visceral thrills and social commentary. In an era where The Hunger Games has become a cultural phenomenon, fans of that film and the books it is based on should definitely check out Battle Royale to see how a similar story can be used to illlustrate a wide array of themes.
4 out of 5 Head Grenades.