First and foremost, as with my Videodrome review I must state that this film is not safe for the children or work. Now with that out of the way, have you ever wondered what Hunger Games would be like if it were actually an extreme/violent Japanese film? Well, if you have wondered that, or if now that I have put such a thought into your mind you’re intrigued, this is most definitely a flick for you! Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 adaptation of Koushun Takami’s novel Battle Royale is a multi-layered masterpiece of modern Japanese cinema. Through the combination of a multifaceted plot, a multitude of relatable/human characters, beautifully choreographed violence, and a dash of black humor, Takami and Fukasaku have created a classic!
At the heart of it Battle Royale is an intense psychological thriller that follows 42 middle school students pitted against each other by the government and forced to fight to the death. In Takami/Fukasaku’s future, Japan has fallen upon hard times and with an immense amount of their population unemployed the government passed legislation that created the “BR” or “Battle Royale” initiative. Through this program, one graduating middle school class is taken to an island and forced to kill their classmates, with one strict rule... only one could survive.
Under the guise of one last class trip the students are knocked out and wake up in a strange place with metal collars on their necks. As they begin to come to they are joined by their incredibly sadistic, vindictive, and crazily sarcastic former teacher, Kitano-sensei (played by Takeshi Kitano). Kitano-sensei proceeds to explain the facts of the situation and warn that if any of them were to step out of line, or if more than one person was left after the three days, their metal collar would explode, instantly killing them. This fact is then quickly demonstrated on a kid that had wronged the twisted teacher years prior. As the students’ terrifying introduction to their predicament comes to a close they are introduced to two mean looking “transfer” students who’ve been chosen to make the game more interesting, given a random weapon (some as useful as a gun or GPS tracker, some as useless as a pan lid), and sent out on their own to fight to survive.
One of the aspects of Battle Royale that makes it such a remarkable film is the fact that you quickly find yourself invested in the stories of all of the students even though you spend relatively little time with them. Each student has their own back story, told through flashback, which leads us to fully empathize with them. Additionally, throughout the film we receive little pieces of the class's collective story providing us with a better understanding of their group dynamic. In the end you really feel as if you’ve shared in their experiences, which makes the violent and casualty-filled journey just that much more impactful. While you empathize with all of the characters in one way or another, the innocent love story of Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) aided by the previous survivor Shôgo Kawada (Tarô Yamamoto) (one of the mean looking transfer students) provides the incredibly affecting main story arc.
The truth of the matter is that, while the plot stems from a rather simple concept, the narrative itself is incredibly complex, and while I attempt to write a brief synopsis I find myself constantly saying, "Oh don't forget that part," and "Oh man, that is one of the best parts!" There is just so much packed into this two-hour flick that you just have to watch it to fully understand. On top of the fact that this is a glorious and expansive narrative, the action, gore, and tension are all incredible! After the kids are released into the wild every turn that they take could lead to a fatal battle, and as the viewer you feel that sensation. However, even though the plot and mood of the film is rather severe, the way that it is written and acted adds a certain natural black comedy to the tragedy that surprisingly enough doesn't seem forced.
In summation, if you like complex, brutal thrillers and have always wanted to see a more realistic and less stylized version of Hunger Games I would recommend that you check out this extraordinary film! Not only is it incredibly engaging, with some intense battle sequences, but it is beautiful, touching, and at parts comical... just like real life. So, if you would allow me, I would love to turn you on to this film because, well, it's just a killer flick!
- Edward Hill