With the emergence of “New York Times,” best selling author, Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel “The Hunger Games,” the comparisons to the Japanese film “Battle Royale,” originally titled in its native tongue “Batoru Rowaiaru,” have been plentiful. The 122 minute film, directed by Kinji Fukasaku, (Tora! Tora! Tora!) was released on December 16, 2000 in Japan, but never released theatrically in America. Cinephiles like me had to hunt down copies on ebay or score one at a fan convention, but that changed with the release of the blu-ray DVD on March 20, 2012, which was just several days before the March 23rd debut of the first Hunger Games film.
Budgeted for an estimated $4,500,000, the screenplay for “Battle Royale” was written by Kenta Fukasaku, (Battle Royale II) who is the son of the director and it is based on the novel of the same name written by Koushun Takami. The “Battle Royale” book predates “The Hunger Games” by almost a decade; it was published in 1999 where as Collins’ novel was published by Scholastic on September 14, 2008. The two share very similar narrative and thematic elements, but each also has a distinct feel to it that keeps “The Hunger Games” from being a blatant rip off of both the “Battle Royale” book and movie. While both explore the effect of war and violence on young people, “Battle Royale” is darker, grittier, and more realistic, and focuses more on the actual battle. Conversely, “The Hunger Games” holds back and gives a much broader view of the dystopian society itself where the government is attempting to keep the general population in line. In addition, “The Hunger Games” is much more fantasy and science-fiction oriented.
Collins has claimed that she was unaware of “Battle Royale” while she was writing the first installment of “The Hunger Games” trilogy. She has stated that the inspiration to write the books came while she was looking for something to watch on television. On one station she watched people who were competing on a reality show and on another she watched images of the invasion of Iraq. In addition, according to the author, her idea to create the novel’s main character of Katniss Everdeen came from the Greek myth of Theseus, which served as a basis for the story. In Collins’ mind, Katniss was a Theseus of the future and the games that the Roman gladiators took part in formed the framework. The feeling of loss that the author developed through her father serving in the Vietnam War also played a role in the story. The heroine of “The Hunger Games” has been without her father for five years prior to the story beginning.
The film, “Battle Royale,” opens with a frenetic pace as a media crew rushes toward a slow moving car that is making its way through a throng of people. When the car is in view of the reporter, she speaks into her microphone, “Oh look there! There she is! The winner’s a girl! Surviving a fierce battle that raged two days, seven hours, and 43 minutes – the winner is a girl! Look, she’s smiling! Smiling! The girl definitely just smiled! This is of course the winner of the previous Battle Royale tournament, which we will not get to see, but that little mysterious snippet should grab hold of viewers and keep them hooked and asking questions. How can a little girl caked in blood look so happy? Did this seemingly innocent looking child take joy in killing her fellow classmates? Does the need to live at any cost when thrust into a situation beyond our control remove the civility we are taught at home, school and in houses of worship?
“Battle Royale” presents a terrifying premise, but it is also a highly engrossing film that paints a compelling portrait. A class of forty-two, ninth grade Japanese teenagers, who were picked by a lottery, is transported to an isolated island. Why are they there? At the dawn of the new millennium, the country of Japan is in a condition that is bordering on anarchy, especially as it pertains to the rise of both student disobedience and violence against teachers. In response, to the situation, the Japanese government enacts a new law called the “Battle Royale Act” in which, as stated previously, a random class of students are chosen, drugged, and taken against their will to an isolated location. Upon waking, the individual students will find that they have electronic tracking collars around their necks and are informed that they must spend the next three days eviscerating each other until only one of them is left. As a reward, if you can call it that, the remaining student gets to return home to the life they were taken from. If there should happen to be more than one student left alive upon the completion of three days, their collars will detonate explosive charges that are rigged inside of them and they will all die.
Betrayal, friendship, and trust are evident in every scene which follows. Most of the students are reluctant, but there are a few among the class, who immediately adapt to the circumstances. For the most part the girls form social cliques, and they constantly turn against outsiders of their groups. As time continues to count down, frictions arise resulting in one-on-one confrontations as well as a scene that takes place in a lighthouse. For those of you who like his work, this scene, as it did for me, might make you think of Tarantino’s film “Reservoir Dogs.” In terms of the guys, there exists a trio of boys, who do work together in an attempt to save lives and beat the system by engaging in computer hacking and weapons building. Sadly, their efforts are thwarted by the most destructive player in the deadly game, a transfer student, Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), who enjoys killing.
The exchange of dialogue between the characters is poignant and conveys the innocence of the characters that have been thrust into an abysmal situation. The film’s three main protagonists are Shuya, who is a sensitive teenager, who after his father’s suicide, ends up in a foster home. He is in love with Noriko, who has a sweet disposition. The two end up vowing to protect one another from harm. Lastly, there is Kawada, a bandana wearing, survival expert, whose character has a mysterious air about him. The main protagonists are forced to depend on one another during the three day hellish ordeal. Since their fellow unwilling participants are armed with weapons that run the gauntlet from grenades to guns, the concept of mercy is an outdated one. While watching the movie, the viewer will see Shuya and Noriko clearly undergo character transformation by the time the film concludes. In regard to the adults in the movie, the only one the viewer comes to know is the headmaster, played by Takeshi Kitano, who is a jaded, unsuccessful parent and a teacher who hates students. Kitano gives a credible performance and even though your first instinct will likely be to want to hate him, don’t be surprised if you also wind up feeling sorry for him.
The remaining thirty-nine students serve as a cross-section of every type of individual you’ve ever known in a school setting. Keeping that factor in mind, it is fascinating to see the different students’ particular approaches to the situation that has been thrust upon them as a collective whole. Not one of the cast members delivers a forced performance, which is a testament to whomever cast the film because the script does give almost everyone of them a chance to shine at some point during the movie. The fight scenes are not choreographed in the style of martial arts films and the students don’t suddenly become weapons experts, which lends more credibility to the movie.
Trivia buffs take note, in Japan “Battle Royale” is among the top ten highest grossing films in the country’s history. It is a history that contains one of the oldest and largest film industries in the world dating back to 1897 when movies where first produced there. During the 84 year history of the Academy Awards, Japan has won three honorary awards for the films “Rashomon” (1951), “Gate of Hell” (1954), “Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto” (1955) and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for “Departures” (2008). None of the members of the cast had any stunt doubles working in their place, not even lead actor Tatsuya Fujiwara. Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films should pay attention to the character of student thirteen, Takako Chigusa, who is played by actress Chiaki Kuriyama, who acted in “Kill Bill: Volume 1” in the role of Gogo Yubari.
In conclusion, “Battle Royale” examines how diverse personalities evolve when confronted with serious danger. As previously stated, the viewer is confronted with a barrage of questions both during and after the credits roll. Could you not only turn on your friend, but take the life of someone you were friends with? Would you form alliances which, according to the way the tournament is structured, would probably just be an exercise in futility? Do you have a killer instinct that would be unleashed by this type of sadistic challenge and would killing, sadly, be not that big a deal to you? The movie takes many different viewpoints into consideration. “Battle Royale” is available in two incarnations, a film only DVD / Blu-ray or the complete collection Blu-ray, which includes the director’s cut of the film, the theatrical cut, the 2003 sequel, “Battle Royale II” and a bonus disc containing more than two hours of special features. For fans of Japanese action cinema, survival fare, and those of you who are fans of books such as “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson or “The Long Walk” by Stephen King, or movies like “The Running Man,” starring Arnold Schwarzeneggar, “Battle Royale” is a film, not to be missed.