Every few years or so, there seems to be a movie that epitomizes what is wrong with both society or film in general… whether it’s because of extreme sexuality, violence or your basic moral decay. In 2000, Japan had itself a genuine scandal on it’s hands with the release of Battle Royale. The Japanese government had already waged an unsuccessful battle to ban the original Battle Royale novel, written by Koushun Takami…. then the manga…. and finally the film, directed by Kinji Fukasaku. In all of it’s incarnations, these were all massive best sellers. And the Japanese government could not be less amused.
The premise is that at the dawn of the new millennium, society has crumbled and youth gangs have been running rampant. As a means of control, the government created the Battle Royale program…. where one 9th. grade class (fortunately an Asian friend of mine informed me that 9th. grade in Japan is equivalent to senior year of high school for us in the US) is chosen to participate in the program. They must travel to an island… where they are given a backpack with some food and water and one item… this item may be a weapon of some sort… it may be a pot lid…. and the object is to be the sole survivor in a three day free for all where 42 kids must kill one another, lest they be killed first. If more than one person survives at the end… then all will be killed. The basic plot is brutal… the execution of said plot, even more so.
Because this film is Japanese, I don’t know much about the cast. I found that to be quite a breath of fresh air. It was really great going into a film not having any preconceived notions about the actors and actresses performing. I recognized two actors, Takeshi (Bito) Kitano (Kitano-sensei), from a few American films (Johnny Mnemonic) and the classic Japanese film Zatoichi… as well as Chiaki Kuriama, best known as Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Other than those two… I was clueless as to who these people were. Possibly as clueless as I would be if you were to pluck a high school class out of obscurity and tell them to fight to their death. However, if I were Japanese, I understand I would have know who most of them are because most of them are pop stars and movie stars. I had no idea that this film is populated by the most famous young stars Japan had to offer… it would be like taking all Disney and Nickelodeon stars… mix them up with Taylor Swift and Justin Beiber and send them off to murder one another.
The film opens with the creepy visage of the previous years winner… smiling on her way from the battlefield (I’ve read this in other reviews… otherwise I had no idea who I was looking at) as well as a scene from a classroom shared by the protagonist and antagonist of the story and giving us a glimpse of youth violence. Rationalizing all of the horror that is to follow. From there, the class is gathered and told what awaits them. The tension is immediate. The fear these kids experience is palpable. And the violence… unrelenting. Around each of their necks is fitted a collar…. if at any time anyone steps out of line or tries to escape, the collar will explode… leaving you sans head.
Part of what makes this film so amazing is how each of these characters behave. All of those school yard politics are played out… the fat kid… the geeky girl… the hot manipulative girl (phenomenal role)… and of course, the love sick couple who are always smarter than most. In addition to the classmates (quick aside… that’s another great aspect of this story… most of them are friends… these are strangers) are two young men who are unknowns. First is the previous winner forced to go back for reasons that are explained later in the film and second, the ringer. He is the wild haired blonde guy (I’ve heard he is the uber pop star) who says nothing and is in this for the fun of murder. Nice guy. As I mentioned before, some are given real weapons… guns, knives, etc… other are given crap like a pot lid. And each night, each death is announced… each student is assigned a number and that number is announced. On the screen we are given the name and number as if it were a video game… and following that is an update as to how many are left.
Yes, it’s violent and a bit bloody at times… but I was pleased to see that it wasn’t over the top in terms of it’s gore. Don’t get me wrong though… this is not a movie for the kids or the sensitive. In my first post for The Bookshelf, I mentioned The Hunger Games trilogy. I don’t have any idea if this movie was an inspiration for the novel, but if it wasn’t, I would be shocked. The basic structure is so similar…. I will be curious to see the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. I don’t imagine it will be as brutal, but I wouldn’t be totally surprised.
Perhaps you are thinking that you don’t recall ever hearing about this movie playing here. Well, that’s because it never did. There have been all sorts of theories as to why it didn’t show here. Some thought it was censorship due to the similarities with the Columbine shootings… others just thought we wouldn’t allow it because it had kids killing kids. The reality is far more banal. There were distributorship issues. That’s it. You can get this through Netflix (not instant view, but DVD) or as I did, through amazon.com. I was told someone saw it for sale at Target, but I never saw it there.
I cannot in good faith say this movie is for everyone… but if you are so inclined, I highly recommend viewing this. Thought provoking, frightening, brutal and riveting. Enjoy the trailer below…. So get out there and either buy it, rent it or stream it… just see this movie!
Please vote me off of this island,
Cornelius J. Blahg