Seeing how “The Hunger Games” is still currently one of the most talked about releases of this year, even more so with the forthcoming sequel which will pointlessly split the second book of the Hunger Games trilogy in two what better time could there be to revisit the film which it essentially ripped off, despite Suzanne Collins frequently going on record to state that she “had never heard of that book until [her] book was turned in,” and unsurprisingly in return the fans of this film have continued to savage her book as a ripoff, while early promotional material for the book marketed it as “Battle Royale for Kids” only further questioning such shaky claims. So this week I essentially choose to add fuel to the fire and look at the original movie, which is undoubtedly one of my all time favorites. I should also warn that the videos do contain some scenes of violence which might be shocking for some readers and are used purely in the context of illustrating points raised, so if easily shocked do not view.
Set at the dawn of the millennium, Japan as a nation has collapsed and with unemployment on the rise and the youth boycotting the school system, the government makes the radical decision of passing the Millennium Education Reform Act, AKA the “BR Act”, Each year a class is chosen by lottery to take part and having been placed on a deserted island, the class are given three days to battle amongst themselves until only one student remains, with the survivor being used as an example of the lengths the government are willing to go, to maintain order in the nation.
Released as what could be marked as the start of the new Asian invasion were the interest in Asian cinema literally exploded at the start of 2000, with films like “The Ring”, “Audition” and of course this film winning huge acclaim from not only established fans of Asian cinema, but many non fans of foreign cinema aswell, with these films paving the way for the slew of titles with followed in their wake, as they proved that there was more to Asian cinema than Kung fu and art house samurai movies.
Based on the Bestselling pulp novel by Koushun Takami, the film directed by Kinji Fukasaku manages to take a novel which would have made a perfectly good exploitation movie and turns it into what could almost be considered high art with exploitation undertones, let alone the fact he managed to find a way to mould the multi-stranded plotlines of the novel into a filmable script. At the heart of the film though we have Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) who has been finding his life growing increasingly difficult since the suicide of his father, a situation which only gets worse when his class find themselves unwittingly elected to participate in this year’s Battle Royale with each member of the class finding themselves fitted with an explosive collar and assigned a bag containing supplies and a randomly selected weapon (to help remove any natural advantages). Seeing the chaos erupting around him he takes it upon himself to try and save his friend and secret crush Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) while forming an uneasy alliance with transfer student and BR Veteran Shogo Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), who also hides his own secretive past.
What is most interesting about the film is how it manages to focus on so many characters at the same time, finding a way to explore their individual goals while even more skilfully managing to make them all unique and individual which is certainly no easy task especially when you consider that there are 42 students to account for. True some of these are mere cannon fodder or choose to leave the game early, opting for suicide over the choice to killing their classmates, but within these students are those with their own engaging agenda’s and while most of the class are busy just trying to survive or team up with others for safety, we have characters such the psychotic exchange student Kazuzo Kiriyama (Chiaki Kuriyama) and the beautiful and deadly Mitsuko Souma (Kou Shibaski) who happily kill friend and foe alike with Mitsuko especially using it as a chance for revenge against her former gang members and tormentors.
Meanwhile others pursue more legitimate goals, with Shinji Mimura (Takashi Tsukamoto) and his friends plotting to hack into the game’s military mainframe, while we also get a surprising love triangle on the battlefield between Hiroki Sugimura (Sosuke Takaoka), his best friend Takako Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama who is probably best known as “Kill Bill’s” Chain Whip / Meteor Hammer welding Gogo) and his love interest Kayako Kotohiki (Takayo Mimura) all adding surprising levels of depth to the film, which contains a lot more heart and emotion than you would usually expect from a film of it’s type, with director Fukasaku frequently managing to surprise the viewer with moments of real emotional intensity.
Although the film has characters who could be considered the villains, the real main bad guy here is Kitano, the former teacher turned government agent, played by the always amazing “Beat” Takashi Kitano who is once again on great form, as he provides a running commentary of the dead and acts as an unquestionable supporter of the government’s actions, no doubt due to his own fractured home life, which is highlighted through a phone call with his estranged daughter, who would later appears in a more pivotal role in the sequel “Battle Royale: Requiem”. Needless to say Kitano’s laid back and mysterious motives make him another fascinating character, especially when he chooses to involve himself in the game, while showing an especial fondness for Noriko.
Though incredibly violent, Fukasaku still manages to capture several moments of genuine humour from the day glow coloured training video complete with bubbly presenter, to the students which receive the more useless weapons from Pan lids to paper fans, which really puts them in a worse position considering that their fellow students could be armed with any one of the nasty weapons available from scythe’s and stun guns to shotguns and machine guns.
The soundtrack is comprised of popular classics and original music performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and composed by Masamichi Amano, who previously has composed music for anime classic’s “Urotsukidoji” and “Giant Robo”, aswell as more recently “Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games”. Here though he turns Verdi’s Requiem into the official “Battle Royale” theme which never fails to get me amped up for this film whenever I sit down to watch it, while also effectively using Bach’s Air from orchestral Suite No.3 In D Major and Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz, which will no doubt have a whole new set of imagery attached to it after seeing this movie, in much the same way that Oliver Stone did for Barber’s Adagio for Strings or what Quentin Tarantino has done to a number of pop obscurities.
A classic in every sense from the skilful direction, choice casting and superb soundtrack, it’s a brutal non stop ride, that only further highlights why film goers shouldn’t be narrowing their cinematic world view to just the English spoken productions, while no doubt opening a doorway for many into the exciting world of Asian cinema.