Starring “Beat” Takeshi, Tatsuya Fujiwara (Shuya), Aki Maeda (Noriko), Taro Yamamoto (Kawada), Masanobu Ando (Kiriyama)
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku
**Editor’s note: This review first appeared on our old site back in 2002***
Battle Royale has become, among North American horror fans, one of those Holy Grail-esque movies. Whispered about in back alleys, revered by the lucky chosen few who’ve hunted it and bathed in its glories. It’s up there in notoriety with the Ring series, Wild Zero, Junk, Audition, and Uzumaki.
And rightfully so. Northern audiences are craving more and more of the stuff dreams or nightmares (as the case may be) are made of, and we turn continuously to those lovely Asians for our fix. And it’s not just the Easterners who are doing right by the genre of horror. The French are polishing their chops and delivering spectacular movies like Brotherhood of the Wolf, and then of course there are the classics from Argento, and Fulci. But these directors are still unknown to many audiences and are still coming into the limelight they deserve.
Now along comes Battle Royale, one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I seem to be saying that a lot lately in one way or another (think Ring, Brotherhood of the Wolf, or St. John’s Wort). The connection these movies have is that they’re are from foreign filmmakers. And why is that? Because Hollywood lacks balls? Yup. Because they have no sense of originality? Yup. Because the general public doesn’t seem to want to accept something that isn’t more than an inch thick? Yup. Even when Hollywood does deliver a fun-smart-popcorn-munching-take your girl with you so she can bury her face in your manly chest-rip ’em up monster movie like Jeepers Creepers, people still complain. It’s almost no wonder Paul Anderson got his paws on Resident Evil instead of Romero (sacrilege!). And ultimately no real surprise that a remake of Dawn of the Dead has gotten the go ahead (sinners!!!).
But those of us who are the true lovers of horror are not entirely lost. We can fortunately, in this day and age, and with a little footwork and research, acquire films that would put people like John Russo in the fruitcellar with Henrietta where he belongs.
The world of Battle Royale is not futuristic or located in a parallel universe. It is very much like today’s Japan (as far as I know…), except the country has undergone some serious upheaval concerning the state of education and their overall student population. Following a boycott by over 800,000 students, the BR (Battle Royale) Act was passed. Once a year, through “impartial lottery”, a class is chosen, kidnapped, and forced into the Battle Royale. Shuya, his best friend Nobu, Noriko (the girl they both love), and the rest of their class are headed to what they think is merely a class field trip. When they wake up it’s more of a bad acid trip.
Given a cold introduction by Kitano (a former teacher of this current class), the students are thrown into a nightmare. On an island in the middle of nowhere, they each receive a backpack containing food, water, a map, and a weapon. Fitted with electronic collars that track and monitor each student, they are booted out into the night. The game has only one winner; the last person left alive. The time limit is 3 days, and if by the end of 3 days more than one student remains, they all die. The collars they wear are equipped to kill ala The Running Man, perfect for keeping the kiddies in line.
If you think that Lord of the Flies (which BR has obvious similarities to) is an unpleasant cautionary tale about the darkness of human nature, you’re absolutely right, but Battle Royale is the same and so much more. It digs deeper into the petty hates and grudges people carry so much of. There are 40 students to meet and greet, and you will watch them all die. If you’ve ever wondered just how much you might want to survive if you were forced to, Battle Royale will give you an idea.
Using junior high students over adults is an ingenious plot device. Some may think this was decided upon because it would be more risqué and abominable than a movie full of grown ups running around and offing one another, and in part that’s true. But with teenagers, it’s easier to portray the baser side of human nature. They’re almost adult, not quite caught up in the protocols of day to day life, but they’re still young enough to bounce back quickly and fight instinctually, the way a toddler who falls and cracks his head on the floor cries for a minute and the next, is completely absorbed in Barney (a result of cracking his head on the floor I’m sure…) because it’s easier to forget the pain and move on. And each character moves on, whether nobly or in the most detestable manner.
Without light there can be no dark, and the moments between Shuya and Noriko are maudlin, tragic, and realistically portrayed. The brief glimpses of students committing double suicide to escape the murderous fate of their classmates are not easily forgettable. Neither are the severely graphic and nasty scenes of the students who immediately adapt to their predicament, picking each other off one by one or en masse. The violence is warlike, and again, extremely realistic.
If you’ve gone to some other website or message board and read “wicked gory man!” or ” blood and guts filled” you’re not being lied to, but this is not Dead Alive or The Story of Riki. Battle Royale is not a vehicle delivering gore for gore’s sake. It’s an account of slaughter, desperation, and the depths to which people can sink when there’s no reprimand for one’s actions.
4 out of 5
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