Back in 2000 Battle Royale
caused a bit of a stir with its uncompromising take on a Lord of the Flies scenario taking place in a near future Japan. I saw it at the cinema in 2001 and was both unprepared and completely blown away. Blackly comic and surprisingly affecting, it melded Japanese pop sensibilities, US high school bickering and operatic violence to alarming effect. Appearing at a time when extreme Asian cinema was just emerging in the UK, it was an instant cult hit.
Revisiting Kinji Fukasaku's film now, it inevitably doesn't feel quite as fresh as it once did, and at worst seems rather dated. Of course it's still a hugely distinctive movie, but its flaws are a little clearer and its shock factor considerably lower.
Unable to contend with growing unrest amongst the nation's youth, the Japanese government passes the Battle Royale act; each year a class of school children is selected to take part (against their will) in a contrived game that has them fight it out to the death on a secluded island. The only chance of escape is to kill every other classmate before the allotted time is up. This year, it's the turn of Kitano's (Takeshi Kitano) class to discover at what cost they've been disrespecting their teachers. Drugged and transported to the battle ground they awaken wearing explosive necklaces and surrounded by heavily armed militia. Disobedience is met with near instant retaliation and they fast learn that out here they're no longer untouchable minors. The class is inducted in the rules of Battle Royale via an ironically cheery video tape, before being sent on their way with a small bag of supplies, including a randomly chosen weapon. Ranging from pan lid to Uzi sub-machine gun they're of decidedly mixed efficacy. Within minutes the killing has started, as previously trivial school-yard feuds quickly turn lethal.
Wisely, Fukasaku centres his narrative focus to a handful of students, whilst other less development characters are disposed of early on. Although we're treated very much to 'types' there's sufficient engagement with core back stories for us to care about their plight. So when unrequited love is met with a burst of gunfire, to the strains of a beautiful orchestral accompaniment, there's poignancy to it beyond the gunplay. Although in the terms of high concept it's simply about 'school kids killing each other' there's much more going on here. Seeing bullied kids take revenge and meek ones called to arms is terrifying, funny and tragic all at once, and the film's success actually relies on this emotional wallop far more than the copious blood-letting. Operatic and crazed, the kills themselves are hysterical overwrought acts for the most part, followed by an onscreen message counting down who's been bumped off. It's a neat little device that pre-empts the inevitable audience gripes of "but what happened to..."
Some parts of Battle Royale
still work brilliantly - the bombastic classical score is incredible - but others, less so. The surreal conclusion with Kitano just doesn't sit well with me. I'm a big fan of Takeshi Kitano's directorial work but the ending here feels like it's from a different film, both an anticlimax and oddly misplaced in tone. Something else, which hadn't bothered me in the cinema back in 2001 but now does, is the unconvincing CGI blood. Also, though clearly not going for a realist aesthetic, the absence (or inconsistency) of physical holes appearing on people riddled with bullets became a little distracting too.
Perhaps watching it again was never going to live up to that first or second time, but it's still a hell of a movie and one that simply wouldn't get made in the UK or US, let alone become the huge commercial success it did in Japan.
A 3 Disc package, there's a lot to get stuck into here though not quite as much as it might seem on paper.
In terms of the transfer, this certainly isn't one of the sharpest or most detailed blu-rays out there, but it is streets ahead of my old Tartan Asia Extreme DVD. It's also not a film I feel would have benefitted from an overly clean transfer given the slightly choppy editing and generally lo-fi feel. Subtitles all seem to be in order, though you'd need a native speaker to confirm that.
The Special Edition is also included here with extra scenes shot after the original release, mostly focusing on extended back stories, and some enhanced/extra CGI work. Whether you prefer this to the original or not, it's nice to have.
The majority of the extras are sub 20 minute featurettes with plenty of behind the scenes footage both during the shoot and at subsequent festivals/screenings. The one lengthy piece is The Making Of Battle Royale: The Experience of 42 High School Students
, a solid document on the production. Other highlights include The Correct Way To Make Battle Royale
and Conducting Battle Royale with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra
which I found strangely compelling... Though it's an impressively complete package there is a large amount of repetition in the featurettes and some provide pretty limited insight.
There's also the typically lavish packaging from Arrow with a comic, booklets, poster and postcards included - sadly, none of which were available for review. Overall, it's a superior release and shows a good deal of respect for the film on Arrow's part.Battle Royale Limited Edition is out on UK Blu-ray and DVD from 13th December 2010 through Arrow Video.
Theatrical Cut; original theatrical trailer, the making of Battle
Royale: The Experience of 42 High School Students, conducting Battle
Royale with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra.
Special Edition (Director's Cut); Special edition trailer, TV Spot:
Tarantino version, shooting the Special Edition, Takeshi Kitano
interview, the correct way to make Battle Royale (Birthday version),
Tokyo international film festival presentation.
Special Features; Opening day at Maro No Uchi Toei movie theatre, the
slaughter of 42 high school students, premier press conference, the
correct way to fight in Battle Royale, Royale rehearsals, Masamichi
Amano conducts Battle Royale, special effects comparison, behind the
scenes featurette, filming on set, TV spots, promos and commercials,
Kinji Fukasaky trailer reel
32 page comic
36 page booklet including:
'A Battle Without An End' by Tom Mes, Author of 'The Midnight Eye Guide
to New Japanese Film', Printed interview with Director Kinji Fukasaku,
'Today's Lesson is...You Kill Each Other' by Jay McRoy, author of
'Japanese Horror Cinema' (LE Exclusive), extract from Koushan Takami's
original novel (LE Exclusive), original promotional material including
Director's statement, cast and crew biogs (LE Exclusive).
16 page booklet including: Concept artwork and drawing for the limited edition set (LE Exclusive)
5 x7" Postcards of stills from the film (LE Exclusive)
Fold-out reversible poster of original artwork