Blu-ray Review: BATTLE ROYALE: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION
For many years it has been pretty simple to determine just how dedicated an American film fan was by determining whether or not they'd seen Battle Royale. The film was released on DVD in the UK several years back by Tartan in both the theatrical and special edition versions. Tartan was even enterprising enough to release an NTSC version, specially created for export markets who've been starving for the film for over a decade. The film had earned such cache in the US that even the 7-Eleven of underground culture, Hot Topic, had taken to stocking Korean all region import box sets of the film and its sequel. In spite of that, having seen Battle Royale has remained a badge of honor among film geeks on this continent, and one that we'll soon have to give up, but it's all for the greater good.
Fukasaku's film, in its original theatrical version, remains incredibly effective in its aims and goals. It is still shocking, amazingly well-paced, and packed with well-realized characters with whom the audience can identify readily. From the bombast of the opening credits from Toei, through the jangling j-pop of the closing, Battle Royale doesn't let up. We are given just enough background on each character to live with them in the moment, and not more than that. Their minute to minute struggle for survival is vital and exciting, and made all the more visceral by the fact that you never know who is going down next.
Most reviews of Battle Royale focus on the violence, which is extreme to be sure, and not so much on the humanity of the film. However, in my recent viewings going back over the last couple of years, if human stories have come to the fore in my interpretation. The selection of a class of fifteen-year-old students as victims provides for an elevated level of melodrama that comes from the passion that only adolescents can muster. At no time during life do people feel more keenly than during those teenage years, and cranking up that already elevated hormonal level of emotional hysteria by throwing these students into a real life-or-death situation is incredibly effective.
Most of us have never been in love again the way we were when we were fifteen. Every breath brings a new challenge when you're that age. When your girlfriend broke up with you at fourteen, you literally thought that you'd never find anyone else and that you would literally die from the pain. Fukasaku, and author Koushun Takami of the source novel, understood this pain well, and used it to fuel the fires under these children, to whom the slightest disagreement was a betrayal of the highest order. To me, the story of Battle Royale is the story of those teenage years and just how wrong we all were about the extent of our emotional turmoil. Even the music, as subtle and sparsely placed as it is, plays like a melodrama from the '50s. I could hear strains of Herrmann's Hitchcock scores, or even Frank Skinner's work for Douglas Sirk in the score for Battle Royale, it is a brilliantly underplayed choice that lends emotional heft to these absurd moments on screen.
It's no secret that Anchor Bay have timed this release to capitalize on the phenomenon that is The Hunger Games. Granted, most school age children who've read the books are too young to have heard the stories about Battle Royale a dozen years ago, however, it is a smart move. However close the two films may (or may not) be in plot, this is hardly the first time a movie has focused on kids killing kids. In fact, I can even see shades of that other masterpiece of high school satire, Heathers, in Battle Royale's treatment of the teenage condition.
When Battle Royale was released in Japan in December of 2000, it was saddled with the R15 rating, effectively ensuring that only the most industrious of teenagers could see it. Fukasaku was satisfied with the result, however, and the film went on to become a craze in Japan, spawning what is among the very first theatrical releases of an extended edition in the modern era. The Battle Royale Special Version contains about ten minutes of new footage inserted into the film as flashbacks in an attempt to give the characters more background. The footage was shot six months after principle shooting concluded and gives the film a very awkward pacing and provides for unnatural and unneeded breathing room in a film that is so much about rapidly approaching doom.
The majority of the Special Version's additions come in the form of flashbacks to a school basketball game. We see some of the principal characters playing on the team, some in the stands cheering, some moping, etc... The effect is really jarring, and does nothing to improve or flesh out the film in any substantial way. If anything, the extra footage grinds the film's excellent pacing to a halt whenever it appears. There are a couple of other really brief bits of background designed to make the audience empathize with this character or that character, but again, it only serves to slow the film down. Add to that some really odd epilogue dream sequences, and a lot of slow motion and the Battle Royale Special Version accomplishes about as much as any modern extended version, nothing.
I am almost loathe to even mention the last major piece of this box set, as you're probably better off pretending that Battle Royale II: Requiem doesn't even exist. The film, begun by Kinji Fukasaku and completed by his son Kenta after Kinji's untimely death, is a disaster. I'm going to use the excuse that the plot synopsis involves spoilers for part one to avoid giving it any more space. However, it is a sloppy mess, and adds nothing to the Battle Royale experience or saga. The film is filled with messy editing, unsightly CG blood, a ridiculously over the top Riki Takeuchi chewing scenery like someone forgot to show him where craft services was, and stupid characters all over the place. I went in hoping to find something to hold on to, but the film got dumber with every passing scene. Avoid, by all means.
Anchor Bay's Battle Royale: The Complete Collection brings us all three of these films on Blu-ray, even though we only really needed the one. The thing that I find most disappointing is that AB decided to release a bare-bones Blu-ray of Battle Royale, but for some reason chose the Special Version to include in that disc and nothing else, so if you want the original, superior theatrical version, you have to get The Complete Collection. This is a bit disappointing, but I think that the rest of this review will help you to understand why that it not such a bad thing.
Battle Royale: The Complete Collection is a four disc set (3 Blu-ray, 1 DVD) with each film getting its own Blu-ray disc and all of the extras collected on the DVD. The Theatrical Version on Blu-ray advances in comparison to Arrow Video's Blu-ray edition from 2010 in a few ways, some minor and some significant. The color timing on Anchor Bay's discs is notably warmer, removing the cold blue that many home video editions of Battle Royale have had over the years. Whether this is what Fukasaku intended is somewhat debatable, but it has allowed the Anchor Bay set to brighten up just enough to bring out significant detail when compared to the UK discs. There are a few fleeting moments on Anchor Bay's disc when the color timing will shift noticeably from shot to shot within a scene that may distract the more eagle-eyed viewers, as well as a few moments of inherent softness in the transfer. However, overall the presentation is pretty fantastic.
Anchor Bay have presented the film with a DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix that is dynamic and sounds really incredible. I've seen this film a lot, including theatrically, and I've never heard it sound this good. I was very impressed and a bit surprised of the use of the sound field in the surround mix, and it really helped to create an immersive atmosphere that drew me in from the word "go". Well done Anchor Bay!
This is where the review gets a bit tricky, the extras. First of all, Anchor Bay have created a very cool bound book style case with a slipcover for The Complete Collection. However, Arrow Video's Blu-ray presentation out does the Anchor Bay by a mile when it comes to bonus material. Anchor Bay has included several short documentaries and featurettes about the film and its making, which are all very interesting, however, they fall well short of the park when compared to both the limited and regular editions of Arrow Video's set. Arrow Video has several featurettes on the music of Battle Royale, an interview with Takeshi Kitano, and a Fukasaku trailer reel on the discs. Then there are the extensive printed materials including a comic, essays, and interviews included with the limited edition. Anchor Bay lists two hours of bonus material on the cover of the package, but when compared with Arrow Video's presentation, that's nothing.
Film fans are used to the "double dip" by now. If you want everything, you're going to have to own both Arrow Video's and Anchor Bay's edition of Battle Royale. If you're just interested in The film and getting it in the best possible A/V presentation, Anchor Bay is the clear winner. However, if contextual material interest you, Arrow Video will also be a strong contender. In any case, avoid the standalone release of Battle Royale from Anchor Bay, the theatrical version is what you want and this is the only way to get it. Highly recommended!
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