Classic Movie Review: Battle Royale (2000)

April 10, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I understand I have it backwards. I watched The Hunger Games, which I thoroughly enjoyed, then decided to check out its Japanese predecessor, which many say Suzanne Collins’ novel takes from quite liberally.

I must admit, for the longest time I thought Battle Royale, the movie, was based on the manga (of which I had read chunks) as opposed to the novel written by Koushun Takami. In fact, I didn’t really even know the novel existed.

Nonetheless, the premise is strikingly similar to that of The Hunger Games. Set in a fictional Japan where the structure of society has more or less broken down, a class of junior high school students find themselves in a contest called Battle Royale, created under the BR Act, which forces the 42 students to kill each other until only one remains. Each contestant is fitted with an electronic tracking collar, and anyone who resists the contest or walks into a randomly designated “death zone” (added as the game progresses) will have their collar detonated. Students are each given a bag of necessities and a weapon. Sounds familiar?

I don’t intend to get into a debate about whether Collins (who claims she never heard of the book until her publisher told her) copied Battle Royale, but I will say that both film versions stand up rather well independently of the other.

Battle Royale’s strength is in its relentless brutality, which starts right from the beginning and doesn’t ease until the very end, making The Hunger Games somewhat mild by comparison. Unlike the American film, which takes a long time to set up the contest, Battle Royale gets into it very quickly and efficiently.

The most amazing thing about the 114-minute film (there is also a 122-minute extended version) was how tight the script was. The story may have focused on handful of the 42 students but almost every single one had their own personality and served a different purpose. In fact, I found it incredibly easy to identify each of the characters despite the film jumping a fair bit, and this was notwithstanding that all the names were in Japanese!

Compared to The Hunger Games, Battle Royale had a much wider range of identifiable characters, which is quite a remarkable achievement considering the latter’s contestants are all from a single class, whereas the former’s are from various districts scattered across the nation.

Battle Royale’s lead protagonist would have to be Shuya Nanahara, who is played by Tatsuya Fujiwara (as soon as I saw him I was like, “Isn’t that Light from Death Note?”). The standout characters would have to be the sexually provocative Mitsuko and the psychotic Kazuo, both of whom are the main antagonists of the film.

Despite the similar ideas, I found Battle Royale to be a very different experience to The Hunger Games. The Japanese film was relentless its carnage all the way through, even though some of the violence appeared somewhat (and perhaps intentionally) fake, whereas the American film was more measured in its depiction of visceral violence and had a brooding kind of tension. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the different cultures, but the Japanese film also had some totally WTF moments (that bordered on horror or comedy or both) that underscored its “surreal” feel.

I guess that’s the way I would describe Battle Royale – terrifying in a “surreal” kind of way. While The Hunger Games was arguably more “realistic” from a technical perspective and in feel, I found the films to be equally satisfying but vastly different experiences. I’d definitely recommend the other film for those who have seen one of the two.

As for a rating, I suppose it would only be fair if I gave Battle Royale the same, though if I had watched it first, I think I might have given it a higher score.

 4.25 stars out of 5!