by Jayden Leggett, Assistant Editor
Forget everything you might have heard about how “original” an idea The Hunger Games was, Battle Royale is where it all began. And what a battle it is. Prepare to enroll in the ultimate survival program…
Set in Japan in the not-too-distant future, unemployment levels are at a huge 15%, with over 10 million people out of work. To make matters worse, 800,000 children have boycotted school and are responsible for soaring levels of juvenile crime rates, causing adults to both fear and loathe these dang kids today (sounds like it could quite easily be set in the present, which is somewhat worrying). In a desperate attempt to whip the younger generation back in to shape, the government passed the bizarre and controversial Millennium Educational Reform Act, aka the BR Act.
After some introductory text, the film opens dramatically with blaring orchestral music, as a swarm of reporters are being held back by the army from viewing the only survivor of the most recent Battle Royal, a very young-looking girl covered in blood who is grinning menacingly, complete with braces and a toy doll to complete the morbid ensemble and adequately set the tone for the story that is to follow. Creepy stuff indeed.
We are introduced to Shuya Nanahara, a ninth-grade student whose typical school day involves the entire class playing hookie, and random students stabbing their teachers in the ass. To cut a long story short, Shuya, along with his crush Noriko Nakagawa and best friend Yoshitoki Kuninobu (“Nobu”) as well as the rest of his entire class are gassed and pass out on their bus ride home, only to awaken to find that they have been unwillingly enrolled into the Battle Royale Survival Program. To make matters worse, the person in charge is their former teacher Kitano, who has a huge grudge against the entire class due to the previously mentioned ass-stabbing, as well as other grievances. As the children listen to the brutal rules of the game in shock and disbelief, Kitano shows how serious he is by sending a knife through the skull of a girl because she was whispering while he was talking. This guy obviously runs a tight ship.
The rules of the game are simple: kill everyone until you are the last person left alive. If more than one person is still standing at the end of the three day time limit, the explosive collars around their necks will detonate, as Kitano demonstrates on his former knife-wielding attacker Nobu, which results in an explosion of gore and rampant arterial spray. Thus, the game begins, and within seconds of Shuya leaving the military-occupied complex and venturing out into the wilderness, he already witnesses the first of many, many deaths, as his friend Tendo keels over with an arrow lodged through her neck. In case that doesn’t paint enough of a picture for you, this movie is extremely violent, bloody and so much more brutal than that wimpy Hunger Games could ever hope to be.
What unfolds is a desperate game of survival that feels like a morbid evolution of a kooky Japanese game show, complete with a score card being displayed on screen each time a student is killed, that gives the “player’s” name as well as a tally of how many children remain alive. Unlike in The Hunger Games where it is mostly a bunch of strangers killing each other, I really liked the whole dynamic that existed around the fact that all of these kids know one another, which means that when one student does eliminate another it feels that much more cold-hearted and callous. Issues of trust arise as people no longer know if they can rely on their friends to not stab them in the back (literally), feuds between different cliques escalate to deadly levels, and girl-fights over stolen boyfriends take on a whole new level of brutality.
So many scenes in this movie featured tense moments where I was glued to the screen to see what would unfold, as many interactions between the different students could literally go in any direction. Some of the kids stay true to each other and form alliances while others look out purely for themselves. Some of the children try to rally together to find a way to beat the game without having to kill each other, while others take the honorable escape of committing suicide. And then there are a select few who simply lose themselves to the carnage and relish their transformations into becoming mass murderers…
Some of the more interesting scenes in the film are a result of the fragile emotional states of some of the characters being pushed to the very edge, as they lash out at their classmates and former friends. There are two psycho killers in particular that need to be watched out for: Takako Chigusa, a crazy bitch who uses deception to kill her prey when they least expect it (one scene even alludes to her having lured two boys to their demise by using the prospect of sex as bait), and Kazuo Kiriyama, the silent-but-violent transfer student who achieves the hugest body count by far (thanks in large part to his Uzi and sword combo). These two take on the role of the “villains” of the story, and they do a fantastic job of making you hate them.
Another aspect that I loved was how the film wasn’t just centered around one or two people, but would constantly cut back and forth between different groups, meaning that several characters get adequate screen time to allow their own scenarios and stories to play out, as we see how a range of different groups each try to find their own unique way to escape the battle. I loved the way that each person’s own set of morals and values are explored, particularly how students like Shuya are in disbelief about how the others can kill their friends so easily and without remorse.
The camera work in this film is of an excellent standard, and I really enjoyed how varied the sets were, with locations ranging from cliffs and forests to sheds and houses. Sound effects are over-the-top yet stylish, and the music used really complements the movie’s tone. Some of the special effects for bullet ricochets and blood splatters were implemented digitally and look a little false as a result, but overall this film was very well made indeed.
As this particular version of the film was a director’s cut, there are a bunch of “requiems” that follow the proper ending that I assume weren’t included in the original cut, which basically just tell a little bit more of the narrative even after the story has finished (which I found to be interesting but perhaps a bit unnecessary). Special features include a swag of behind the scenes segments, footage from rehearsals & auditions etc, coverage from the Tokyo International Film Festival 2000 and a whole lot more.
Battle Royale is a superb example of how a creative idea masterfully executed can really create something special and thoroughly entertaining. I’m kicking myself for not having experienced this movie earlier, but on the plus side since I saw it after seeing The Hunger Games I got to appreciate how much better and more original this movie truly is. If you liked The Hunger Games but were hoping for more action and mayhem, then do yourself a favor and grab Battle Royale: the original, and still the best.
ComicsOnline gives Battle Royale 4.5 out of 5 knife stabs to the junk.