BATTLE ROYALE (2000)
Updated: Feb 8
«My favorite movie of the last 20 years» - Quentin Tarantino
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Tarô Yamamoto, Chiaki Kuriyama, Takeshi Kitano
Related films: Battles without Honor and Humanity, Suicide Club, Ichi the Killer, Alive
In the early fifties Rashômon kindled the flame that made the world aware of Japanese cinema. In 2000 this ultra-violent smash hit re-kindled the flame and turned all eyes back at the wonder that is Japanese film. Calling it a classic is a stretch, but there is no denying that Battle Royale was an important movie.
Today it might be slightly forgotten, but back in 2000 Battle Royale was on everyone’s lips. Prior to its release Japanese cinema had reached a low point in international popularity. Not since the end of WWII had Japanese films been less promoted abroad. To everyone’s surprise the turning point would come in the form of a slightly unkempt, dystopic, teenage gore-fest.
The worldwide interest in Japanese film seemed to stabilize thereafter, at a relatively high level compared to the 90’s. Whether Battle Royale was the cause, or if the international film community was just waiting for an excuse to capitalize on Japanese cinema, is up for debate. Perhaps it was a question of being at the right place at the right time, but then again, this could be argued about most popular crazes.
Due to the rising insolence of its nation’s youth, the Japanese government passed the «BR Act» to make a «capital example» of one school class each year. 42 students are shipped off to a remote island where the goal is to be the last man standing, by any means necessary. To make the students play along, all individuals are fitted with an explosive collar.
The choice is simple. Kill, or be killed! There can be only one winner, and the timer is set to three days. The result is an endless stream of slasher violence that pretty much lasts for the two-hour duration of the film. Battle Royale stood out in its genre though, due to a rather clever mix of blood-soaked action and a simple love story.
As for the cinematography, there is not much to write home about. The camera work is haphazard and unmistakably influenced by American cinema. The acting is barely believable at times, and the sobbing main protagonist - Nanahara - is borderline annoying from the second he appears on screen.
Between the lines
Just like the production quality, the message of the story is also underdeveloped. Is it the upbringing of Japan’s children that are in question? Are we witnessing a counteraction to the government’s friendly authoritarianism? Or is the film a reflection of moral decay in a society governed by conformity and high capitalism?
Mike Egan over at Jet Fuel Review argues that the message might be a cry from an aging generation being increasingly disrespected in Japanese Society. Also, his notion that «student’s lives have become entertainment for adults» is interesting, and might perhaps lend credence to the idea of capitalist criticism between the lines. For further in-depth analysis check out the full blog post here: Jet Fuel Review Blog - Battle Royale Analysis
All the topics mentioned above would add depth to the story if properly explored. In actuality, not much social commentary is elaborated on, which makes Battle Royale lack the depth needed to stand the test of time. Instead, the thinly spread morale of the story seems to merely serve as a buffer for the extreme violence.
Luckily for Battle Royale, the violence in itself is very memorable. It might lack the weight of a real classic, but it still succeeds in making ultra-violence as accessible and entertaining as it can be. If you appreciate the genre and enjoy on-screen brutality this is as good as it gets, without getting too silly. Compared to Tokyo Gore Police or Robo-Geisha, for instance, Battle Royale is a masterpiece.
To mention a couple of gore-flicks that are actually worth-while; neither The Machine Girl nor Ichi the Killer were graced by such a compelling story or cast. Admittedly these films are less serious, and might make Battle Royale appear less gory on the surface, but the shock effect is just as chilling when the killers and victims all are somewhat relatable teenage kids.
If Battle Royale made history due to its calculating nature, or if it coincidentally happened to hit a nerve with global audiences is besides the point. No matter the reason it became a disturbing phenomenon that put Japanese film back on the map, and by extension became a part of film history.
Grotesque as the film might be, it is a must-see for anyone interested in Japanese film. There is not much to praise about the technical performance, but better popcorn violence is hard to find. Lean back, pump up the volume, satisfy your inner bloodlust and let slip the puppies of war. The game is on!
Due to the rare bridging of extreme violence and massive commercial success, Battle Royale has been released a bunch of times, in very nice versions. For the American market JCA recommends the Anchor Bay Director’s Cut.
For the European market there has also been released several very nice editions. Our favorite is the dirt cheap Arrow Video version, which dropped in price due to the release of Director’s Cut thereafter. The later cut is great and all, but doesn’t really add value to compete with the bargain you get from Arrow.