So I told a friend of mine I was going through the Hunger Games franchise on Netflix to see what all the fuss was about, and he immediately responded with, "So...did you ever see Battle Royale?" To which I replied, "Next on my Netflix queue."
Battle Royale. The infamous 2000 Japanese film. The Hunger Games was accused by some of ripping off Battle Royale when it first came out. Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins said it was brought to her attention as she almost finished writing The Hunger Games. She asked her editor if she should take a look at it and change any similarities, and her editor told her to ignore it and just keep doing her own thing. In fact, many literary critics started pointing out that "teenagers made to fight each other to the death in a totalitarian regime" is actually quite a common tale. However, when Hunger Games became a global phenomenon, plans for an American remake of Battle Royale were scuttled, knowing that to do one now would be perceived as a Hunger Games knock-off.
I first became aware of Battle Royale in my final days in Japan. Its not-as-beloved sequel was about to come out, and promotion was starting to get pretty high. So, I started looking into it, and became fascinated with the concept. Didn't get down to my corner video store to rent it before I left, though. A friend gave me a pirated copy of it, but I deleted it before getting around to watching it. And now, with it on Netflix, there is no more excuse.
Whereas as The Hunger Games takes place in a futuristic, science-fiction dystopia, Battle Royale takes place in a world very much like our own. It reminded me of the first Mad Max. It just has that "society on the brink of collapse" vibe to it. And, as part of that, students have become more unruly than ever. Kids today show absolutely no respect whatsoever for their elders. Early in the film, we're shown an image of a lone teacher in a classroom. A lone student enters and is dumbfounded by the empty classroom. The kids have written on the blackboard "Class is canceled today because we don't feel like it." After giving up on the kids, the teacher goes out into the hallway where he's promptly stabbed. All this is shrugged off as normal. According to the opening narration, the final straw was one day when 800,000 students just up and walked out of class.
Clearly, the traditional methods of discipline in the classroom no longer worked. Hence, the government brought in the Battle Royale program. Every year, one of the more unruly and disruptive classes is abducted in the guise of going on a field trip, dropped on a deserted island, and made to fight to the death. So the students don't band together and rise up, each student is outfitted with an explosive collar. If a certain amount of time goes by with no one getting killed, someone randomly dies. If you wander into one of the island's "death zones," everyone in the zone dies. If more than one person is alive at the end of three days, everyone dies. Last person standing wins and gets to go home.
This is the story of one such class. Our hero is Shuya, who's had a rough life. At the start of the fourth grade, his mother walked out. At the start of the seventh grade, his father committed suicide. And now, as the ninth grade draws to an end, his class is selected for the Battle Royale. After the rules are explained by their teacher Kitano, Shuya is given his pack and sent out to kill or be killed. Shuya quickly forms a partnership with a girl in his class named Noriko. Shuya's best friend Nobu had a crush on Noriko. Nobu was the first one killed as he started acting up during the briefing, so as a final promise to his friend, Shuya vows to protect Noriko.
While Shuya and Noriko provide the main plot thrust, there's quite a few characters in the class who get their own moments. Some people quickly adapt to the game. One honors students is quickly seen gunning people down, muttering how passing this test will no doubt grant him entrance to a good college. The most deadly, though, becomes Mitsuko, the class's loner and occasionally bully. She quickly finds that collecting weapons and winning the game is the easiest way to prove she's not the loser who classmates perceive her to be.
We follow a trio of computer geeks, who manage to find some computers on the island and fire them up, with a plan of hacking the explosive collars and taking down the military running the program. There's a clique of schoolgirls who hole up in a lighthouse. At first, they've set up their own idyllic existence. But, when one accidentally ingests some poison and dies, paranoia gets the best of the girls and they wind up gunning each other down.
It's these vignettes that really make the film interesting, as most of the students in the class are given their moment to shine and just about every possible reaction to a kid being thrust into this situation is explored. There are some young lovers who chose suicide rather than kill each other. One goes up to the most popular girl in school and hits her with the ol', "You don't want to die a virgin, do you?" His proposal turns into a scuffle, which ends with her brutally stabbing him to death.
Fun trivia fact: Quentin Tarantino described Battle Royale as one of his favourite films of recent years. He cast that most popular girl in school to play Gogo in Kill Bill, and even based Gogo on her Battle Royale character. It's easy to see why Tarantino loved the film: society on the brink of collapse...bloody death after bloody death...a lot of the film is pure grindhouse gold.
But that's what elevates this film above exploitation fare. We're given just enough of the characters to feel empathy for them and how they're behaving in these situations. What always got me was how quickly the characters fell back into their old high school roles. The cliques group together and team up...high school gossip like who has a crush on who is still gossiped about, and in a life or death situation like this, it's amazing how it plays into which alliance you want to join.
While it may not have the Hollywood glitz of The Hunger Games, Battle Royale more than makes up for it with its rich characters and strong sense of suspense. I quite enjoyed it.