Not a Movie Snob - Battle Royale

Posted on Saturday, March 24, 2012 at 06:00 PM

"Class war"

Battle Royale (2000)

Let's get something straight here shall we? Battle Royale is a Japanese horror film from 2000, based on a book of the same name from 1999. The story is that of a class of 15 year olds, who, thinking they are headed out on a field trip, are drugged and taken to an island where they are each given a weapon and small bag of provisions and told they must kill each other. The last one to remain standing will be granted their freedom. Sound familiar?

Although she has said she never heard of the book or the movie before she wrote her own, Suzanne Collins is lying. She may not want to admit and take the flake for ripping someone else's great idea off, or it may have to do with legal reasons, or both, but The Hunger Games is a YA version, at times beat for beat, of Battle Royale. I mean by now everyone's heard of this movie have they not? Even if you don't know anything about it, you've heard the name mentioned I'm sure. Whether anyone buys Collins' attempt at saving face or not, she ripped this story right off.

That said, the book and new film of Hunger Games is different in one very important aspect. It's a PG (PG-13 in the States) version of a very hard R film. What is a 'hard R?' A hard R refers to a film that is rated R (Restricted to 17 and up) by the Motion Picture Association of America. But this is not a Planes, Trains and Automobiles R, which has a single scene of naughty language to thank for its rating. And it's not an Air Force One R, which features some violence from and against very bad men and maybe some naughty language on top. A hard R is a Restricted movie that earns its rating by taking its naughty bits to the maximum allowance. Boogie Nights and Blue Valentine are hard R's for sex. Spun and Requiem For A Dream are hard R's for drugs and drug use. At the time of its release Scarface was a hard R for language (the violence didn't hurt either), the redonkulous Crank movies are a hard R for pretty much everything, and Battle Royale is a hard R for violence, with a very controversial twist.

The twist being that all the other movies I mentioned feature the naughty bits happening to adults. In Battle Royale, the graphically violent deaths and images feature a cast of fifteen year olds. Not twenty somethings playing fifteen year olds, fifteen year olds playing fifteen year olds cutting and shooting and maiming and hanging and decapitating and strangling each other to death. People tend to take less offence to that sort of business when the characters and actors are at least of legal drinking age. In fact, the violence in the film was so shocking that Battle Royale, despite being one of Japan's highest grossing blockbusters of all time, was either banned outright in most countries, or the countries' distributers (like Canada and the U.S.) were too afraid to show it on screen's or even release it officially on DVD or Blu-Ray for many years, doing nothing I'm sure but adding to the film's infamy and cult status.

Of course, today the film maybe isn't as shockingly violent to the desensitized masses of Saw, Hostel and Last House on the Left as it would've been at the crack of the new millennium. But even if it was made today, it's a pure hailstorm of violent allegory and oddly placed humour. Said humour being one of the only things I haven't been too keen on with the film over the years. Amidst all the gore and brutality and senselessness of this game, the kids can't go ten minutes without discussing who likes who in the class and why didn't you tell me before I plunged that blade into your chest that you had a crush on me, and so on. You would think these concerns would take a backseat to the task at hand, but that isn't always the case in Royale. Then again, these are teenagers at the height of their blossoming of hormones and to tell someone you 'like' them and be met with rejection is a sting worse than death at fifteen.

The film moves quickly, so quick in fact that the first brutal death happens in the first fifteen minutes and the pace and body count don't let up for the next hour forty five.

The other thing about this film and a big reason why, despite all the controversy, it has attained such a high critical appreciation, is that it's really quite fun. It is. What's happening is brutal and sick and violent and sad, but director Kenji Fukasaku orchestrates it all with a whirlwind slap dash sensibility that makes the film compulsively watchable, rather than something like Hostel or Saw 47 or whatever number they're at, in which the violence just makes you feel like refunding your terribly overpriced popcorn to the porcelain ticket puncher.

The acting is quite good in the film considering most of the kids were untrained and had not acted before. The only real veteran was Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano, who played the sadistic teacher who organizes the game. Kitano is a Japanese film legend, actor and filmmaker of many great gangster and horror flicks who's success has not made it across the Atlantic. Yet.

By the end of the film you feel pretty drained, a little exhilarated and almost completely blown away by what you just experienced. If you're not into heavy violence, especially of the senseless variety, then you won't like it. You won't, because you won't be able to look past it and enjoy the ride. If you don't like reading then you won't like it because it's in Japanese. But if you want to give something a chance and see what all the fuss is about, or more importantly, if you liked The Hunger Games but felt it was a little on the watered down side, seek this out, it's finally available in Canada and the U.S. in whatever format you like (probably don't bother looking for a VHS copy).

I read an interview once where Fukasaku, when asked what inspired him to make the film, recounted a story from his childhood that he said reminded him of what the kids in the novel go through: During WWII, Fukasaku worked in a factory with many other kids around the age of the kids in Royale, and one day the Americans began bombing the area the factory was in and a bomb hit the factory and all the kids dove under other kids for cover and the strongest ones who were able to get to the bottom of the pileup survived and the weaker ones on top didn't. When the bombings had finished it was up to the survivors to dispose of the dead, the survivors' friends and classmates. That's a true story.

Rating: ****½



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