Battle Royale II. Oh, boy! This is a tough film to review, as the mere mention of the 2003 sequel automatically generates a flood of war cries from fans across the globe.
Kinji Fukasaku’s original Battle Royale stands as a modern-day masterpiece — a heavy-handed but confrontational film with a perfect blend of drama, exploitation, and satire. It was greeted in Japan with massive political and social controversy and eventually gained worldwide notoriety. To this day the film remains unavailable in the United States (although mostly due to distribution squabbles).
The long-awaited follow-up faced an even tougher road. In 2002 Kinji Fukasaku announced that he was dying of bone cancer but that he would forge onward and complete his final film. After several months of intense pre-production and rehearsals, Kinji collapsed just days into principal photography. He died weeks later, handing over the reins to co-writer and son Kenta, who completed the filming. After a lengthy post-production period, Battle Royale II: Requiem was unleashed into theaters under a wave of widespread hype and anticipation. Critics and fans were outraged at the final product, even going so far as to blame Kenta for destroying his father’s vision. It’s pretty safe to say that, in the annals of motion picture history, no sequel has incurred worldwide wrath quite like BRII.
Now I’m gonna say something that may discredit me upfront: It wasn’t that bad.
Don’t get me wrong; Requiem was an uneven film to be sure. But it had ambition and a serious pair of balls. And underneath its flaws there was more going on than most people were willing to see. Revenge, the re-edited “Fukasaku Army” version, restores over 20 minutes of character scenes and intimate moments that help bring these ideas to the surface. Does it redeem BRII? I guess that depends on the viewer. But it sure as hell makes for a vastly superior film.
Three years after the original, survivor Shuya Nanahara is an internationally renowned terrorist trying to bring down the corrupt Japanese government. As the leader of Wild Seven, a militia group comprised of previous BR survivors, he helps launch a Christmas Day terrorist attack, killing thousands and declaring “war against all adults.” In response, the government rejects his declaration and kidnaps Class 3-B under the amended BRII Act. “If you kids want to fight a war,” shouts their crazed teacher, “you can do it amongst yourselves!” The youngsters are promptly equipped with weapons and explosive collars and forced to engage Wild Seven on their island stronghold.
To elaborate on BRII‘s intentionally muddled politics would be an essay unto itself, so I’ll avoid it in this review. But it should be noted that it takes more than a few potshots at America’s “War on Terror,” which will definitely have an influence on the viewer’s overall opinion. However, I think most would agree that Requiem‘s major drawback was a severe lack of character development — something that was abundant in the original film. The battle sequences didn’t help things either as the action would often grind to a halt for the overly dramatic death of a totally random character, prompting the universal audience response: “Who the hell was that guy?” Thankfully, the new material in Revenge adds weight to a few of these moments. The opening rugby game comes back into play several times, which expands on the film’s themes and adds importance to several of Class B’s minor characters (much like the basketball game in the extended Battle Royale: Special Edition). Every actor gets more screen time here. Even Sonny Chiba!
Granted, these character moments aren’t balanced nearly as well as in the original BR, but this film doesn’t have the luxury of its predecessor’s formula. Instead of a basic class survival game, we’re treated to all-out war with a giant collective of kiddies.
The performances, for the most part, are top notch. Tatsuya Fujiwara (who garnered a “Best Actor” nod at the Japanese Academy Awards) expands on his role as Shuya Nanahara, who has since transformed from an innocent doe-eyed schoolboy into a tortured and morally conflicted killer. Cult cinema icon Riki Takeuchi delivers as the film’s maniacal pill-popping teacher, and while his over-the-top performance is the most criticized, it arguably fits the destroyed child-like state of his character. Also memorable is the tragic Haruka Kuze, who, in this new version, evolves from a random face in the crowd into a full-blown individual. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Shûgo Oshinari, who turns in a relatively one-note performance as Taku, Class B’s angst-ridden protagonist.
But the most interesting character is once again Shiori Kitano, who goes to war to confront Nanahara and her feelings toward her murdered father (Beat Takeshi, who reprises his role in flashbacks). Revenge largely shifts the focus to her (hence the subtitle), with several new scenes helping to flesh out the father/daughter relationship and her overall mindset. These are the most welcome additions, as they even put events from the first film in a new light.
Several more additions can be found in the film’s blistering action sequences, which remain the most impressive aspect. Even with the obvious shades of Saving Private Ryan, the battles are bloody and expertly staged as the frightened and inexperienced kids freak out and fling themselves into war like wild banshees. It’s truly a sight to behold.
At over 2½ hours, Revenge contains some pacing problems as well as the same lapses in believability (we’re still asked to accept that armed children can take down a squad of trained commandos). And of course, the melodrama is piled on a little thick in several places (Riki Takeuchi’s final scene comes to mind). These problems aside, this Royale is undoubtedly a more successful exercise and a much truer sequel. It won’t win over any conservatives, but its unflinching satire is thought provoking to say the least.
Was this the film the great Kinji Fukasaku set out to make? It would be arrogant to try to answer that question. But make no mistake, the late filmmaker’s presence is felt here. Whether Revenge reverses the critical consensus is a different story. Most fans may be hesitant to revisit one of their greatest disappointments, but this new BRII arguably stands as a worthy follow-up — an inherently flawed but fascinating piece of cinema full of heart, guts, and spectacle.
Battle Royale II: Revenge (2003)
(Tartan Video, UK Release)
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku and Kenta Fukasaku
Starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ai Maeda, Shûgo Oshinari, Ayana Sakai, Haruka Suenaga
Two-disc special edition box set (PAL)
166 minutes of extra material including deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, as well as tributes to Kinji and Kenta Fukasaku
4 out of 5