An entire classroom of Japanese middle school students wake to find themselves kidnapped and forced into a twisted game where only the last kid left alive will be sent back home. But this isn’t the work of some mad man. No, this is an official government-sanctioned game of death aimed at controlling the country’s out-of-control youths. This is Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale.
CAMPY YET GROUNDED
Based on the hit underground novel by Koushun Takami, Battle Royale is the landmark Japanese action film that has, in one fashion or another, influenced pop-culture around the world for nearly twenty years. And while the adaptation process meant a lot of material had to be cut out, what’s left is a tight, respectable story and plot that allows the numerous characters and action scenes to shine.
Now it should also be noted that more now than ever, given the concept and material present in the film, Battle Royale may prove to be a bit more challenge to watch for some. This is, after all, a movie entirely focused on a group of middle schoolers being forced to kill one another. And in some cases, characters take great pleasure in doing so as they are either bullies or the vengeful recipients of such things.
And a big part of what makes Battle Royale both entertaining and disturbing is not just the premise itself, but the execution by director Kinji Fukasaku. The movie’s characters still fall into a handful of tired, basic tropes, such as the main character, the love interest, the best friend, the psychopath, the professional, the geek, and so on. But each actor largely plays their roles in a more subdued manner. The performances are, for the most part, rather naturalistic. There are times where Fukasaku can’t help but up the camp and melodrama, often when the movie slows down and there isn’t much interesting happening or being said. But the quieter moments, the key moments are exciting and off-putting because of how grounded in reality they are.
For example, there’s a moment early in the film where the main character, Shuya (played here by Tatsuya Fujiwara) is caught off guard by a classmate. This classmate is clearly in the middle of an emotional and psychological breakdown, muttering mathematical equation as he attempts to kill Shuya with a hatchet. This scene is lacking the big, loud music or intense choreography or shock value seen in many similar ones. Instead, it’s largely a quiet, desperate moment between two frightened teenagers. It’s little more than a slow, clunky wrestling match with two lives on the line rather than some flashy, cool fight scene. And because of that, its also drives home just how real this moment is, how real the violence is.
PUNK ROCK vs TOP 40
Of course, the movie isn’t without its faults. There are moments, rare as they may be, where the movie’s budget begins to show. Where some of the effects and props look notably cheap. Where some of the acting is a little too over-the-top or lacking any semblance of human emotion.
And there is possibly a more notable issue of how the movie largely ignores the socio-political themes of the book, which took a hard stance against Japan’s conservative-leaning society. The book specifically points out that the story is set in a fascist-controlled version of Japan. But aside from a few brief mentions of the titular battle royale being a government-funded and officiated project, the movie presents the events as more of a personal vendetta between Takeshi Kitano’s character and the students. In the book, this character wasn’t related to the students at all. Instead, this character was simply a government employ in charge of running this particular battle royale program. In the movie, however, he’s a former, resentful teacher who was constantly disrespected and even violently attacked by the very students he now oversees.
And as a result, the movie does lose something in the translation. On the one hand, the movie is a bit easier to follow, it flows a bit better. And it definitely does keep things more focused on the personal drama and tragedy between the group of students who are fighting for their lives. But on the other hand, the movie comes across as more of a mindless exploitation movie with a bit of gravitas than a hard look at the darker side of a country’s culture and society.
In musical terms, Battle Royale the movie is a lot more Top 40 whereas the novel is much more punk rock.
Also, as a quick note: for those who might be interested in finding a copy of this movie to watch, do know that there are two versions available on home video. The first is the original theatrical cut of the film, which is the primary focus of this review. The other is the director’s cut, which makes only minor additions to the original, such as additional blood and several scenes that were neither necessary nor much of an issue once added back in.
That all said, Battle Royale is a well-made, mostly well-acted movie with some fun, creative, and disturbing action, moments, and visuals. It’s gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking at the best of times. And it’s silly, campy, and moment-breaking at the worst of times. But if you can find it in yourself to power through the grounded, painfully all-too real violence, I highly suggest you CHILL with Battle Royale.