'Battle Royale' (unrated)
The oft-banned Japanese classic, about schoolchildren forced to fight to the death on an island, is even better than you've heard.
Here’s the pitch: The state forces kids into a death match where only one is left standing.
That’s The Hunger Games, right? Yes, but it’s also the storyline for Battle Royale, the brutal, harrowing and little-seen Japanese film that beat Hunger Games to the plot by 12 years. And that film was based on a 600-page Japanese novel published in 1999.
But with Hunger hysteria at a high point, Battle Royale — which Quentin Tarantino called his “favorite movie of the last 20 years” — might finally get the attention it deserves. This week, Anchor Bay, hungry for some of that Hunger Games action, has just released a four-disc repackaging, Battle Royale: The Complete Collection, on DVD and Blu-ray. For the full experience, though, take a bunch of courageous friends to see it at the O Cinema in Wynwood this weekend.
Set in a near-future Japan where youth crime has spiraled out of control, Kenji Fukasaku’s tense, tragic and timely film focuses on a group of 42 students who are taken to a deserted island overseen by the bullying Kitano (played by the always steely Takeshi Kitano).
They’re given a deadline (three days), a duffel bag (each with different weapons and implements), and an order to slaughter each other until there’s just one survivor. If they refuse to cooperate, all will be killed. Imagine Lord of the Flies with gunplay and sharp metal objects and you’ve got the idea.
But when Battle Royale hit the film market in 2000, it couldn’t have been released at a worse time. In Japan, where it was a hit, it was hotly debated in terms of glorifying violence. Though Battle Royale played in at U.S. film festivals, it never received theatrical distribution and some speculated that — coming a year after the Columbine massacre and a year before 9/11 — that no one in the early 2000s wanted to go near it.
A decade on and Battle Royale has built up a fiercely loyal following after being released on video a few years back. And there’s been a virtual war online as Battle Royale and Hunger Games fans go at each other like they’re the last two survivors in this ongoing teenage war that makes the whole vampire vs. zombie vs. werewolf thing so last year.
Hunger Games is like another Twilight, taking a (great) concept and (weakening) it with a love triangle that bores the (life) outta me,” charged one Battle Royale fan on a YouTube Battle Royale Vs. Hunger Games page.
“In every Hunger Games post, a Battle Royale fan has to pop up and claim it’s a ripoff,” moaned one “HG” loyalist on another blog.
Now, with The Hunger Games setting box-office records and Battle Royale getting a renewed push, movie fans will be able to make up their minds about which they prefer.
Whatever the outcome, it will be good to see Battle Royale — which, it should be noted, is not suitable for children or the faint of heart, and contains violence that would receive an NC-17 rating in the U.S. — move out of the shadow world of word-of-mouth cultdom and into the broader daylight of wider circulation. Though Fukasaku’s body of work may not be consistent, for at least one film he managed to imbue a modern-day horror story with an electric sense of drama and dread.
Here’s hoping that is one Battle that keeps on raging.
Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Tarô Yamamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Chiaki Kuriyama.
Director: Kinji Fukasaku.
Screenwriter: Kenta Fukasaku.
Producers: Kenta Fukasaku, Kinji Fukasaku.
An Anchor Bay Films release. Running time: 114 minutes. In Japanese with English subtitles. Vulgar language, extreme violence, heavy gore, adult themes. Plays Friday March 6-Sunday March 8 in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema.