March 20, 2012
Koushun Takami (novel), Kenta Fukasaku (screenplay)
Tatsuya Fujiwara as Shuya Nanahara (Boy #15)
Aki Maeda as Noriko Nakagawa (Girl #15)
Taro Yamaoto as Shogo Kawada (Boy #5)
”Beat” Takeshi Kitano as Kitano
Kou Shibasaki as Mitsuko Souma (Girl #11)
At the beginning of the new millennium, Japan was in upheaval. With millions out of work and the next generation rebelling and leaving school en masse, the government realized it needed to take drastic measures to keep control over the populace and the students. It passed the “Millenium Educational Reform Act”, also known as the “BR” Act, in response. Under it, a class of teenagers is annually selected and forcibly transferred to a deserted island where they are fitted with exploding monitoring collars and supplied with weapons of varying degrees of usefulness. Thus begins “Battle Royale”, a three-day melee monitored by the government and military in which the goal is to kill the rest of the players until either only one person remains or the three-day period runs out (in which case all surviving players are killed).
This year, the “lucky” class is Class 3B, a 42-person class including two special transfers brought in just for the game. In addition, the group of ninth-graders discovers that the game is being run by one of their old teachers who they were particularly nasty to, Kitano (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano). As the game begins, the schoolchildren put various plans into motion. Some refuse to play, some attempt to find a way out, some join into the same groups they were part of in school, and some go on the offensive, throwing themselves fully into the fight in a quest for survival at the expense of the others. As time ticks down and the number of players dwindles, will any of the students survive the battle?
Battle Royale’s ultraviolent, controversial reputation has built it over the years into something that it isn’t. For instance, in no way is it a traditional horror film, instead crossing over into multiple genres beyond simply that (such as black comedy, drama, and action) and being more “intense” than “scary”. In a time when films like A Serbian Film and the two Human Centipede movies exist, there are far more shocking and graphic films in circulation. Even the concept of a group of people being sent to a place to either kill each other or be hunted by a higher authority has been around since “The Most Dangerous Game” was written in the 1920s if not earlier. Instead, some ten years down the line from its release, it has staying power not from violence but from the way it tells its story. At its core, beneath the blood, Battle Royale has the elements that make the original source novel great: a well-written script, an underlying understanding of the real challenges and hazards of growing up, and a class filled with interesting and fleshed-out characters.
On the surface, the world of Battle Royale is that of adults being terrified of youths, struggling to keep them in line and prevent them from repeating the failures that created the world in which they live. However, that world is almost completely left behind once the class reaches the island and the true fight begins. Fukasaku has said in interviews that he, a prolific director of Yakuza movies, chose to take on this adaptation because he saw his own teenage years working in a World War II munitions factory and ducking air raids in the novel’s story.
The script his son wrote for the film brilliantly allows for him to combine that perspective with the real-world “battlefield” of an average high school to create something the feels like it understands both. On one hand, there are moments that feel lifted straight from a war movie such as the significance of photographs to some characters, the moment when Shogo (Taro Yamamoto) tells Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda) some of his backstory while they hideout in a clinic, or when Shuya originally decides to protect Noriko in the fight out of duty and honor to a friend who died earlier on. At the same time, the story never loses sight of the fact that these are still teenagers, not commandos. Characters have crushes on each other that inform their actions in the game. Friends try to find each other and team up, sometimes ending well and sometimes devolving realistically into suspicion, paranoia, and chaos. The fact that almost all the characters are realistic and believable as high school students first and then as amateur fighters second is a big part of why many scenes pack an emotional power impossible to fake.
That power also comes from the fact that, like the book, although there are 42 characters (not counting Kitano), the vast majority of them have personalities and depth even if they’re only on screen a short time. True, there are clear-cut main protagonists (Shuya, Noriko, Shogo and others) and antagonists like the brutal and merciless transfer Kazuo Kirayama (Masanobu Ando) and the beautiful, violent, and clever Mitsuko Souma (Kou Shibasaki) among the students. While those performances and characters are fantastic, though, some of the minor characters are given their own subplots and chances to shine. Some highlights include Hiroki’s (Sosuke Takaoka) storyline in which he tries to find two female players leading to a pair of brilliantly emotional scenes (one featuring “Chigusa”, played by Chiaki Kuriyama of later Kill Bill fame), Shinji’s (Takashi Tsukamoto) arc in which he attempts to counterattack the government, and an iconic scene involving many of the remaining girls hiding out in a lighthouse that will not in any way be spoiled here. By fleshing out both main and ancillary characters and giving some of the supporting cast rich subplots, the overall story feels well-thought out just as it did in the original novel.
However, not everything is carried over from the original novel, and some of these omissions mildly hurt the adaptation. First, as great as the characters of Kiriyama and Mitsuko are, their backstories are more fleshed-out in the novel giving an explanation for their actions that is missing here. The eight-minute-longer “director’s cut” of the movie makes some headway toward fixing this by adding in a flashback from Mitsuko’s childhood and a small moment from a basketball game framing device it uses (it also adds mild CGI to some deaths and three epilogues to the ending). A far greater injustice, though, is the difference between the book’s ending and the movie’s ending. It isn’t that the movie’s ending doesn’t make sense in terms of the storyline of the film… it’s that the ending is the culmination of an odd relationship subplot built up in the movie that is nowhere to be found in the book. Had I not previously read the book before seeing it, I cannot say whether I would prefer the movie’s take, but knowing what I do about the novel, it feels like a step down.
Overall, Battle Royale is the cult classic it is because of its complex, engaging story and interesting characters and performances. It may involve high school kids violently killing each other but to see it as simply that does both the Fukasakus script and movie AND Koushun Takami’s fantastic source novel a grave injustice. About the only injustice greater is that pointless controversy kept it from being legally on these shores for so long.
Note: The reviewer wrote this review after watching the now out-of-print 2010 Arrow UK region-free Blu-ray of the film. The release, containing both the theatrical and director’s cuts, is very similar to the 2012 Lionsgate US “Complete Collection” Blu-ray release with the primary differences being: 1) mild differences in transfer quality, 2) the Lionsgate release including an English language option and the sequel, Battle Royale II: Requiem, and 3) the Arrow release containing a few additional on-disc extras on the soundtrack and film and physical extras like a prequel comic, postcards, posters, and essay booklets. Either the now Region “B”-locked Arrow bluray or the Region “A”-locked Anchor Bay bluray are recommended depending on your region of residence.