Notorious cult classic Battle Royale has been making a rare repertory appearance on an American screen all week at New York’s own IFC Center. Despite what you may (or may not) have heard, Battle Royale has never exactly been banned in the United States. It’s an incredibly controversial work, enough to give the normally hardy and unflappable movie maniac (like yours truly) some hesitation at recommending it to just anyone. But it’s never been impossible to track down a copy of Battle Royale in America. It hasn’t always been easy, but there’s always been some form of import DVD floating around. What is true for sure is that, as Time Out New York noted, Battle Royale “never received a proper theatrical release in the U.S.”, so this is quite literally a unique opportunity to see one of the most elite of cult films.
The film’s director, Kinji Fukusaku, had a prolific career in Japan, spanning forty years. Battle Royale was his last film. It was based on a novel by Koushun Takami, which has been compared to both Lord Of The Flies and A Clockwork Orange, and contains several references to Springsteen’s “Born To Run” (!!!). The story focuses on a speculative Japan of the near future, where social and economic conditions have gotten so dire that the government establishes a yearly competition wherein high school students are selected and flown to a remote island to compete in a literal fight to the death. This epic fracas is televised as a cultural event which all Japanese rally behind, and in so doing, forgetting their own problems.
If you read that previous paragraph and started thinking of The Hunger Games, trust me, Battle Royale will ruin you for Hunger Games. As captivating as Suzanne Collins’ young-adult series (first book published in 2008, allegedly with no foreknowledge of Battle Royale) has been to many Americans – I’ve read and enjoyed the first book myself – it’s hard to imagine that Collins’ more mainstream sensibility could ever have more visceral impact than Takami’s novel (published in 1999) or Fukusaku’s movie (released in 2000).
These Japanese schoolkids, quite frankly, do not fuck around. Fitted with electronic collars that can and will explode at the whims of their captors, most of these kids go fully medieval, using AK-47s, sniper rifles, shotguns, revolvers, boomerangs, crossbows, machetes, nunchaku, baseball bats, poison, and hammers in their desperate struggle to survive the competition. As per human/animal nature, some of the kids find they enjoy perpetrating the carnage. Others fit a more tragic profile.
This material arguably suggests a more sensitive subject to those bred in the United States, considering some of the dramatic flare-ups of violence that have made national news over the past decade. We can only project how director Gary Ross will approach his upcoming adaptation of The Hunger Games. It’s well-cast, but is it possible that the finished film will be anything harder than a PG-13? [NOTE: I first posted this piece in 2011 and my prediction wasn't far off the mark.]
This much is clear: As a fimly-established veteran filmmaker in Japan, Fukusaku clearly felt little trepidation towards going all-in on this premise. Battle Royale as a movie capitalizes and underlines the “ultra” in ULTRA-violence. It’s stylized and cartoonish, yet also believable and momentous. The body count in Battle Royale is uncompromising, and unrelenting, yet the film’s presentation treats most of the losses as weighty and hardly comical. The sweeping orchestral score and intense emotionality of the majority of the performances certainly see to that. Takeshi Kitano, legend of the modern Japanese cinema, anchors the film with a somewhat arch but generally sober performance as the teacher-turned-gamesmaster who is as close to a mentor as these kids get.
Battle Royale takes a pulpy, unfilmable premise, and turns it into a surprising, surprisingly well-written, ferociously entertaining piece of cinema. It’s not a thing that anyone who sees it can exactly forget. It was a massive success in Japan and its cult following here in America is formidable. I certainly recommend that you try to make the screening tonight, but that theater only seats so many people. You may have to fight it out for a seat. Bring the fine familynunchucks.
For another take, read A.O. Scott’s great piece in the New York Times.
And start up with me on Twitter at: @jonnyabomb