Film Review: BATTLE ROYALE (2000)

Film Review: BATTLE ROYALE (2000)

Jun 4, 2016

IMDb: Battle Royale (2000)
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Stars: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Tarô Yamamoto

Director Kinji Fukasaku’sBATTLE ROYALE” is one of the most unsettling and riveting experiences I’ve had watching any foreign film, horror or otherwise. And that’s even counting CITY OF GOD and PAN’S LABYRINTH!

The bracing, shocking result of what you’d get if you crossed a Japanese version of BEVERLY HILLS 90210 with LORD OF THE FLIES and THE RUNNING MAN, BATTLE is set in a bleak near-future Japan, where unemployment is at an all-time high, and close to a million students are running wild, boycotting classes and generally telling their elders to ‘piss off’. In a jaw-dropping attempt to restore order, the government has created the “Battle Royale Act“, passing it into law.

This law calls for the random selection of 40 ninth-grade school students who are drugged, whisked away to a deserted island off the Japanese coast, then given an array of weapons with which they must kill each other in order to survive. Every student is fitted with an exploding neck bracelet that will detonate if they “misbehave” or wander into any designated “danger zones” which will set them off. After three days of carnage, if more than one student is left, the collars will still be detonated, killing the remaining survivors, so they have no choice but to fight to the death.

You’d think from the sound of it that this film is far too derivative of other films to be good or even mildly interesting, but that’s where you’d be wrong. As much as it’s about bloodshed on a massive scale, BR is also irresistible for two reasons: the featured cast is not made up of twenty-somethings trying hard to pass for grade school students, but are actors who actually are the ages of the characters they’re portraying.

The other reason is because where other films of this kind might have the students wiping each other out indiscriminately, here the development of the characters has carefully been integrated into the scenario. Realistically, everyone reacts to the situation in a different manner, and most surprisingly of all, they do so in the same way they would if they were still in school, more or less. Certain cliques stick together, while others fall apart; some couples remain together, even in death. Some unexpected alliances are formed, while some classroom rivalries take on a deadly new dimension.

Plus an emotional and heartbreaking layer is added; as each student dies, either by suicide, accident or at the hand of someone who might have even been a friend once upon a time, the BR number and name is shown like a gruesome scorecard, along with a flashback of some event in their lives that led them to their fates, whether what happened to them was happy or not. Also shown is their epitaph, which usually fits the person who said it.

It’s pretty long at just over two hours, but it moves with an amazing speed, as you root for some characters and hope that others die first. Front and center is the alliance/romance between Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and the girl he’s had an unrequited crush on, Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), who was also admired from afar by his best friend.

Unknown to anyone until it’s far too late, a crazed ‘ringer’ contestant, Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando in a chilling performance) has been thrown into the mix – a kid who enjoys murder just for the sheer pleasure of the kill. And the responsibility for putting this maniac in the game falls squarely on the shoulders of the students’ mostly unsympathetic teacher, played with gusto by top Japanese writer, director and action star Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano, (who starred in a hit remake of ZATOICHI).

Also worth noting is a striking turn by Chiaki Kuriyama as Takako Chigusa, who treats the murderous contest like she would a school election, mowing down the competition while barely ruffling a hair on her pretty head. Is it any wonder that Quentin Tarantino selected her to play Go-Go Yubari in KILL BILL?

It’s deeply affecting to see how these kids, who were wasting their lives as rowdy delinquents, now won’t even have the chance to turn themselves around. Their lack of experiences are usually only revealed at the moment of their deaths – boys and girls who never had their first kiss, their first date or even the chance to tell someone how they really felt about them…and now many of them never will.

It isn’t very often you get an emo-teen drama mixed in with what’s very nearly a pubescent snuff film, and the fact that it can mix the two genres without missing a beat is amazing. All the while, the stunning photography and the use of classical music in contrast to the mind-bending violence gives it a very “Kubrickian” flavor, which is probably just what director Fukasaku intended.

I strongly suggest that anyone who thinks they’ve seen the best sci- fi/horror/thrillers that Japan has to offer, needs to check out BATTLE ROYALE, and I mean YESTERDAY!