Tatsuya Fujiwara - Shuya Nanahara
Aki Maeda - Noriko Nakagawa
Taro Yamamoto - Shogo Kawada
Chiaki Kuriyama - Takako Chigusa
Kou Shibasaki - Mitsuko Souma
Masanobu Ando - Kazuo Kiriyama
Takeshi Kitano - Kitano
Runtime: 114 Minutes
In the future, the Japanese government captures a class of ninth-grade students and forces them to kill each other under the revolutionary “Battle Royale” act.
One of the most controversial films of its time, 2000’s BATTLE ROYALE became a major box office success in the film’s home country of Japan, while also reinvigorating The Most Dangerous Game and the Lord of the Flies concepts for decades afterwards. Considering certain scenes shot in a so-called Americanized way, it’s obvious director Kinji Fukasaku intended the film to be released for Western audiences. Unfortunately, the timing was bad as 1999 was tragic due to the Columbine school shootings, meaning BATTLE ROYALE would have never seen the light of day in the United States due to the subject matter of teenagers murdering each other for survival in a realistic way. The film wouldn’t get a legitimate release until the end of 2011 in the States, making it a cult film that many consider ahead of its time due to continued school shootings and massacres that have occurred since 1999.
The film is also considered influential due to how many times its concept has been used for over two decades. BATTLE ROYALE uses its concepts by adding a sort of reality show element to broadcast this dangerous situation for an invested audience. The survivors of these games are considered celebrities to the public for just living by killing other people in a sadistic game. It’s ironic that the year this film was released, CBS premiered the first season of Survivor - a reality show taking place on an island where the winner and some of the contestants became celebrities just for trying to survive. Reality TV culture has blown up since then for better and for worse, but BATTLE ROYALE showed that the idea of celebrity has evolved into something that anybody can achieve as long as they know how to market themselves or are part of a famous [or infamous] situation beyond their control. BATTLE ROYALE also led to a sequel, as well as to a bunch of imitators from 2007’s THE CONDEMNED, 2020’s THE HUNT and even the popular 2010’s young-adult franchise THE HUNGER GAMES [which author Suzanne Collins claims wasn’t influenced by BATTLE ROYALE, but I call bull on that one]. You also wouldn't have gotten the popular video games like PUBG and Fortnite because of this film. It shows that Quentin Tarantino wasn’t the only fan of this movie.
As for the film itself, BATTLE ROYALE still holds up really well after twenty-plus years. The premise is still powerful after all these years, maintaining a sad relevancy that could be applied to today’s society. High school has been often described as a war zone, which this film portrays well. Bullies take advantage of the situation to kill those they see lesser than. The bullied either fight back, or just try to hide long enough for everyone else to eliminate the other. Some are so traumatized by the situation and the fact that they’ll always be targets in their minds that they end up committing suicide. A lot of people have felt like this during their school years, mostly with less murder.
There’s also a generational struggle going on in the film that’s not focused on enough unfortunately, but it’s pretty much the reason why these teenagers are part of this horrible game. The older folk feel disrespected by the youth, while the younger generation blame them for what’s going on in the world because they’re too set in their ways without looking for ways to progress for modern times. It just reminds me of this whole “Boomer” deal we see all the time now. The film never answers who is on the right here, as it seems there are both pros and cons to each side. But it makes the adults look bad as they just want to get rid of their problems by having the next generation fight over who gets the right to live, as if that’s going to solve anything. If anything, it would just make the youth more bitter and angry. I wish the film had delved into it more, but it’s clearly evident.
While the premise is great for a movie, I think it creates some problems. In particular, there are a lot of characters in this film - over 40 to be exact. While the film does focus on a certain few, it’s hard to care about a lot of these teens if they barely get any development or are just clearly there to add to a body count. There are even some scenes where characters do mundane things [like jogging for exercise - what??] during the three days of the game, as if their lives aren’t being threatened in any way. Editing these scenes out of the film probably would have helped the narrative, as well as the film’s tone and flow. The more focused characters don’t have much development either, but at least there’s an attempt to show why they act a certain way or feel the way they feel about the situation and those involved. The special edition of BATTLE ROYALE does a better job in fleshing out particular characters, revealing dark pasts that provide an insight to their psyche and their particular behavior within the game. And at least the more focused characters are easy to latch on to, both heroic and villainous, even though it would have been nice to have a surprise here and there since we know these are the ones who will most likely survive.
I also feel the film doesn’t know how to end its story. There are loose ends that I don’t want to spoil for those who haven’t watched the film yet, but they’re never really explained and just brushed aside. And while the main villain is great and fun to watch, his backstory is extremely convoluted and brings more questions than answers. Plus his characterization is all over the place. Am I supposed to take this person seriously, or am I supposed to be laughing with him? I think the Special Edition tries to flesh out his motivations a bit, but it just feels more like forced padding than development. This is one of those cases where I enjoy the story and its premise, but have a few issues with how it’s told and some of the corny dialogue it uses.
The direction by the late Fukasaku is really wonderful, even if some of the narrative choices slow down the pacing at times. The film never really lets up from the get go, providing a lot of action, tension, devastation and sadistic violence through its running time. Fukasaku never shies away from the violence, showing teenagers hurt each other in vicious ways. Guns, knives, explosions, swords and even poison are used, pleasing gore hounds while upsetting those who feel the film may be pushing it too far in having non-adults hurt each other. Fukasaku frames everything like a comic book movie, giving the film energy and a sense of humor at times when it comes to the whole situation. I think Fukasaku does a really good job not being preachy or too serious with the subject matter, making BATTLE ROYALE more fun than some might feel it ought to be.
The acting is also pretty solid, with some of them acting almost as anime characters to give a lighter feel to the premise. The younger cast do acquit themselves well, convincingly portraying all types of emotions [good and bad] during this “game”. Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda play the two innocent teens who refuse to participate in the game until they have to. Tara Yamamoto brings some complexity, mystery and maturity as foreign exchange student Shogo Kawada. And Kou Shibasaki brings a sympathetic performance as Mitsuko, justifying her sociopathic tendencies due to a tragic backstory. The highlight is Takeshi Kitano, best known as a Japanese comedian who hosted Takeshi’s Castle - or MXC for American audiences. As the film’s main antagonist, Kitano brings dark humor to his role, treating the whole situation as some sort of weird joke that happens more often than one is led to believe. He shares weird chemistry with Aki Maeda that probably leads to more questions than answers, while stealing the show in the last twenty minutes of the movie in a hilarious moment that fans of the film still talk about. The actors really make the story work and help maintain its entertainment factor, considering the subject matter that’s involved.
THE FINAL HOWL
2000’s BATTLE ROYALE still manages to hold up really well after twenty years due to a premise that has influenced other films since, as well as portraying a controversial subject matter that could still be considered relevant by many. Mixing The Most Dangerous Game concept with Lord of the Flies is pretty brilliant, giving the film a notoriety that keeps it watchable for movie audiences. While not the goriest film ever filmed, the violence doesn’t let up and some of the sequences are shot really well, still managing to make one feel sad or shocked even today. Late director Kinji Fukasaku maintains a great pace, making even the slower, more character driven and social commentary moments feel important and just as interesting as the comic book style action that’s presented. The teenage actors, as well as veteran Japanese personality Takeshi Kitano, give the premise it’s gravitas, making you care for the focused-on characters as they try to survive a deadly game. The script does present some goofy dialogue at times, and with over forty characters, you’re not getting as much character development as one would like for a movie like this. But even with films like THE HUNT and especially THE HUNGER GAMES franchise gaining more popularity and fandom in modern years, none of those films compare to the power, fun and technical greatness of BATTLE ROYALE.