If you like the Hunger Games, you’ll love Battle Royale

One more great thing to come from the Hunger Games hoopla: lots of press for a little-known but much-loved Japanese movie called Battle Royale, which also features a government-organized teenage death match…and it came out over a decade ago.  I’m not here to argue about which is better, because it has its own merits and does its own take on the concept.  And no, Hunger Games is not a “rip off.”  But the comparisons are inevitable, and I, for one, am willing to buy into the Hunger Games connection if it brings more attention to a seriously awesome movie.

BR the movie is based on a book of the same name by Koushun Takami, published in 1999.  I recently bought the 2009 translation of the novel but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.  There is also a manga series, but I have not found that readily available here in the States either.  The movie, directed by Kinji Fukasaku, came out in Japan in 2000, but never made the jump to American cinema, probably because producers felt hesitant about so much graphic teen violence in the wake of  Columbine and then Sept 11.  (The unfortunate sequel, BRII, is even less likely to be accepted by the American public, with its blatant themes about terrorism.)

But luckily, we Americans can all now get to experience Battle Royale: it is now available for purchase on Blu-ray!  The Complete Collection includes both the Director’s and Theatrical cuts, as well as the sequel, and bonus content, including commentary and documentaries.  The best part about this?  New and improved subtitles.  My current DVD copy of BR, the Hong Kong Special Edition version, has awful translations in the added scenes, including such wonderful gems of dialogue as “Anyone see this must be scribble.”  HUH?  Maybe now I can actually understand that last scene with Noriko and Kitano.

I first saw BR when I was in high school, about 10 years ago now (yikes!).  It is definitely one of those movies that has a major impact on your worldview.  In a dystopian Japan, the government is trying to subdue the rebelling youth by creating the BR Act: every year, one class is selected to fight to the death, until only one is remaining.  If there is no winner after three days, all the students die (a contrast to Hunger Games, where a winner is necessary, and Katniss relies on it).  One of the most interesting concepts is watching how people who have known each other for years react when they are suddenly placed in competition for survival.  The BR class brings to the island all the drama, bullying, secret crushes, and cliques that all high school classes have, and that influences how the game plays out.  My two high school friends who introduced me to the movie were mildly obsessed with scenarios involving our own class on the island.  It makes you think.  If your best friend came at you with a knife, would you shoot him?  Would you be willing to die for your friends, like Kawada’s girlfriend Keiko? And these kids did not get weeks for training, or time to plan strategies; they made split second decisions that showed their true essence.  What would yours show about you?

My favorite characters are the two transfer students (you can recognize them because they are not wearing the same school uniform).  Kiriyama, the volunteer, is just totally psycho-bad-ass, and I wish his showdown with Mitsuko had been more dramatic because I had been looking forward to it the whole movie.  Kawada, a returning champ, is the most “real” character of the students; great acting allows for complex motives and emotions to come through.  He also has one of the best motifs in the movie, explaining away his talents by saying his dad was a doctor, or a fisherman, or whatever.  Another great character is Kitano, the teacher running the game, masterfully played by “Beat” Takeshi.  I still laugh at the scene when he gets up off the ground to answer the phone, then ends the conversation by shooting it with a real gun, and slumps back over.  With such a large cast, and so many young actors, there is bound to be some bad acting, but overall, it’s really pretty good.

The movie does contain lots of graphic violence; think Tarantino (who is a BR fan himself).  All the players are given different weapons at random, from poison to a pot lid to a shotgun.  This naturally leads to some interesting and bloody methods of death.  The students also wear tracking collars, which will explode at the end of three days if more than one person is alive.  The blood-and-guts aspects are not overly realistic, but that doesn’t lessen the psychological impact of the violence.  And what could get you more excited for graphic violence than perky government PR people?  Effie Trinket and her oblivious fashion and catchphrases find a direction counterpart in the energetic girl with facial piercings in the BR introductory video that is played to the class to explain the rules of the game.  Gambatte, ne!  Let’s all do our best.

Because it’s just a game, right?


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