BATTLE ROYALE (2000)
In the future, the Japanese government captures a class of ninth-grade students and forces them to kill each other under the revolutionary 'Battle Royale' act.
In Japan, Kinji Fukasaku is revered as one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th-century. With a career spanning over five decades and over 60 directorial credits, his unique vision changed the landscape of Asian cinema. The filmmaker’s most notable work included the extremely violent gangster flicks Street Mobster (1972), Yakuza Graveyard (1976), and Graveyard of Honour (1976). However, it wasn’t until the end of his career that his work caught the attention of western audiences. In the year 2000, Battle Royale (Batoru Rowaiaru / バトル·ロワイアル) exploded onto cinema screens, inspired by Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel, which is best described as The Most Dangerous Game (1932) meets The Running Man (1987). Before his untimely death in 2003, Fukasaku triumphed with a cultural phenomenon regarded as one of the most influential films in decades.
In a dystopian future, a devastating recession has turned Japan into a turbulent nation. As a large number of adults become unemployed, juvenile delinquency has reached an all-time high, so a frustrated government initiates a new law called the Millennium Educational Reform Act (a.k.a the “Battle Royale Act”), designed to suppress the teenage rebellion running rampant across the country. Meanwhile, overseen by their former teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), a group of high school students are taken away to an uninhabited island. It’s here where Class 3-B will participate in the annual Battle Royale where, over the course of three days, the students are forced to kill their classmates until there’s only one survivor. Fitted with an explosive necklace that monitors their pulse and location, uncooperative participants will be killed, and each student is only provided with a bag of food, water, a map, and a random weapon. As the urgency leads to distrust amongst even life-long friends, some decide to play the game, but Shuya (Tatsuya Fukiwara) and Noriko (Ali Maedo) attempt to find a way to freedom.
Playing the ringmaster of the gruesome circus is perhaps one of the most recognisable contemporary Japanese actors, Takeshi Kitano. His weathered looks and trademark violence earned him critical acclaim as the sociopathic gangster in Boiling Point (1990) and Sonatine (1993). The actor delivers a fantastic performance as the students’ former teacher, Kitano-sensei. We first meet him as a sympathetic teacher, mocked and harassed by his students before suffering a vicious knife attack. Having witnessed the class become delinquents, he’s hugely entertained and determined to shape the experience as their final lesson. The actor’s trademark style as a comically calm presence capable of explosive acts perfectly fits the character perfectly. As the villainous orchestrator, he delivers reports every six-hours, announcing which classmates have been killed with a cracked smile. Within seconds he’ll begin to give lighthearted survival advice (“Life is a game. So fight for survival and see if you’re worth it”), while his violence provides some incredibly macabre moments. One particular highlight occurs during a scene when he casually apologises for breaking the rules after killing a student. His performance is a prominent example of the dark and absurd sense of humour that frequently appears in Kitano’s features.
Perhaps the most singular impressive feat is the beautiful performances Fukasaku manages to coax from the 42 teenage cast members. The young ensemble, comprising of a mix of professional and amateur actors, deliver realistic and emotionally palatable performance from start to finish. Tatsuya Fujiwara (Death Note) commands the screen as the unexpected hero, Shuya. Armed with little more than a pot lid, he attempts to protect his teenage sweetheart, Noriko (Aki Maeda). As the beating heart of the story, it’s incredibly endearing watching their romance blossom amidst the chaos. Shuya and Noriko’s suppressed attraction for each other unites them in a determination to survive the game. Additionally, Kou Shibasaki (47 Ronin) is arguably the highlight due to her restrained performance complemented by bursts of anger. As Mitsuko, she stalks the island feigning innocence and empathy, asking her classmates to invite her into their sanctuary. Then without warning, she steals their weapons, drawing blood like a vampire.
Thrillingly shot and edited, Battle Royale has the explosive energy of a young director. However, this masterful film was actually the 60th feature-length movie by Kinji Fukasaku. Without resorting to needless cinematic techniques, he successfully elicits a wide range of emotions. The filmmaker’s efficient pacing and intensity are matched by his operatic storytelling and commanding tone. From the opening scene, we see a media circus rushing to report the results of the latest Battle Royale, before cutting to a wonderfully disturbing image of a girl clutching her blood-soaked teddy bear, grinning into the camera. The appearance of the girl sets the tone for what’s to follow. Battle Royale is spectacularly violent, but Fukasaku never allows it to be exploitative. The director’s almost formal style and bleak humour enhance the violence in such a way it becomes intensely chilling—as demonstrated during an incredible scene where Kitano casually informs the students about their dire situation with a ludicrous instructional video. Parodying an old war propaganda film, we see an energetic woman wearing excessive amounts of glitter and makeup. As the comically cheerful presentation explains the nature of the game, the teacher brutally kills two students for interrupting. This combination of absurd humour and savagery evokes the nightmarish quality of Michael Heneke’s Funny Games (1999).
Battle Royale is elevated during moments we glimpse the personalities of the students. As each character finds their own coping mechanism, Fukasaku explores the psychology of each classmate as they’re forced to ensure their survival. Between each violent sequence, the director highlights their personalities using flashbacks, dream sequences, or subtle pieces of dialogue. One of the most memorable scenes features Chiaki Kuriyama as Chigusa. Her brief scene won her the role of Gogo Yubari in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003). During a flashback, we see the popular Chigusa barely interacting with her classmates and focussing on her athletic future. Following a morning exercise routine, she’s confronted by Kazushi (Hirohito Honda) who questions her about a rumour. Chigusa confesses she hates gossip with a passion and begins to confront her classmate. As he quickly raises his crossbow, she stares down the barrel of the weapon saying “you’re always blaming someone else. That’s why I hate your guts.” Chigusa then pulls out her knife and begins violently stabbing him, evoking Takeshi Miike’s Audition (1999). As the students’ trepidation quickly surfaces, we gain an understanding of their relationships and motivations that made them unruly.
One can’t help but admire Fukasaku’s resilience to replicate the outcome of William Golding’s iconic novel Lord of the Flies. While several classmates participate in the bloodletting, the majority of the students seek an escape for themselves and their friends. We’re introduced to a small group of hackers who work together to disrupt the army’s surveillance network. Along with two girls standing atop of a cliff and appeal for peace through a megaphone. In perhaps the most iconic scene, a harmonious group of classmates find refuge in a lighthouse, while acting oblivious to the clock ticking down on the explosive collar around their neck. However, following a spike of paranoia, one of the girls uses her randomly received weapon to poison a bowl of food. This act sets in motion a meaningless massacre, evoking the final sequence in Reservoir Dogs (1992) as the surrogate family implodes. Fukasaku refrains from transforming each character into a cold-blooded killer by injecting a unique personality into each student. Each classmate is individual enough that their dynamic never becomes repetitive, making the fate of the participants more powerful.
Battle Royale is a culmination of metaphors; the cruel hierarchies that control teenage life, a statement about the chasm between generations, and the rebellion against fascism and governance. What makes the message resonate so strongly is Fukasaku’s personal relation to Koushun Takami’s novel. The director sympathises with the youth in the story and appears enraged on their behalf. As a teen, the director himself worked at an ammunition factory during World War II. During an artillery strike, the labourers tried to save their respective lives by covering under each other. As a survivor disposing of the corpses of his friends, Fukasaku realised the Japanese government’s ideology was used to spread the support of the war amongst citizens of Japan. During a statement, the director wrote “adults could not be trusted. The emotions I experienced then, an irrational hatred for the unseen forces that drove us into those circumstances, a poisonous hostility towards adults, and a gentle sentimentality from friends”. The director depicts the students as compassionate, resourceful, and intelligent, resisting the labels placed on them by the sadistic government. Beneath the violence, Battle Royale highlights the teenage dreams fundamentally destroyed by the adult world.
Originally Battle Royale had a runtime of 113-minutes. However, following its release on home media, Fukasaku offered fans an additional eight-minutes as part of his Director’s Cut. As with Apocalypse Now (1979), there are advantages and disadvantages to both versions. While the Theatrical Cut’s pacing is superior, the Director’s Cut provides additional depth to the complexities of several characters. A reoccurring flashback of a basketball game establishes several student’s characteristics and makes their future reactions plausible. Fukasaku creates an incredibly heartwarming moment between Shuya and Yoshitoki (Yukihiro Kotani) that remained somewhat underdeveloped in the Theatrical version. During their final conversation Yoshitoki says “look after Noriko, okay? Promise you’ll protect her”. Additionally, there’s a disturbing flashback sequence from Mitsuko’s childhood. As she returns home to find her mother drunk, a strange man sitting beside her takes her into a bedroom. The disgusting man attempts to touch her inappropriately, but Mitsuko pushes him down the stairs and breaks his neck. A shattered family home accompanied by Mitsuko murdering a predator are an important indicator for her ruthless behaviour. While the Director’s Cut fixes several errors and provides more character development, it also adds unnecessary burden to the pacing. It’s a personal preference, but the Theatrical Cut works cohesively without the intermittent flashbacks.
The impact of Battle Royale can hardly be understated. It combines brutal axe murders with katana beheadings while depicting teen suicides and cold-blooded betrayals. Following its release, the Japanese government attempted to ban Fukasaku’s adaptation. After they failed, the Japanese media sought to blame it for every violent crime committed in the following years. This didn’t prevent Fukasaku from encouraging teenagers to watch it, saying “you can sneak in, I encourage you to do so”. Additionally, Battle Royale received a negative reception stateside. Due to the tragedies that occurred at Columbine high school the previous year, it was banned for over a decade. Regardless, the surrounding controversy didn’t affect Battle Royale’s theatrical run. In Japan, it became the third highest-grossing film of 2001 behind Spirited Away (2001) and Pokemon 4Ever (2001). Grossing a total of $30M worldwide on a $4.5M budget. Battle Royale’s cultural influence is unquestionable in contemporary cinema. A plethora of features have been influenced by Fukasaku’s swan song. The Hunger Games franchise mirrored the dystopian social injustice system, whereas The Condemned (2007) and The Belko Experiment (2016) adapted the influential narrative.
In his final solo directorial effort, Kinji Fukasaku’s cinematic explosion is something to be remembered by. Battle Royale is a harsh critique of a wide array of elements, including Japan’s obsession with authority and obedience. Admittedly, some viewers may find the explicit violence repulsive. However, beneath the surface remains the anguish of adolescent existence. Fukasaku may illustrate his themes in broad strokes, but the subtext is never anything less than intensely personal.
JAPAN | 2000 | 114 MINUTES • 122 MINUTES (DIRECTOR’S CUT) | 1:85:1 | COLOUR | JAPANESE
Utilising the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1:85:1, Battle Royale has been given a spectacular 4K restoration courtesy of Arrow Video. The 2160p Ultra HD images were sourced from the original 35mm camera negatives under the supervision of the late director’s son, Kenta Fukasaku.
In the description, Arrow states this 4K restoration is a brand new transfer and I have no reservations about it. This new picture has cleaned up extremely well and still maintains a suitable filmic veneer. The colour palette is as dark as the film’s content, but the island’s lush greens and landscapes are rich with depth. Facial tones remain clear while minor details such as hair strands, fabric textures, and blood splatters can easily be discerned. Black levels are inky with only minor signs of noise and the contrast remains consistent throughout. There are several occasional inconsistencies during the flashback sequences where the image appears softer. However, considering this transfer was supervised by the director’s son one can only assume these are intentional. Nonetheless, compared to my previous 2012 Arrow release it’s an incredible restoration making it a worthwhile upgrade.
The 4K Ultra HD release of Battle Royale features Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Japanese LCPM 2.0 stereo with English subtitles. Admittedly, there’s no discernible difference between the two audio tracks on either option. However, it’s a staggering upgrade from Arrow’s previous 2012 release. The 5.1 mix is incredibly robust, featuring aggressive and subtle use of the soundstage. The island’s background activity is evenly balanced throughout the rear channels, with distance gunshots and atmospherics creating nerve-shredding ambiance. Whereas the subwoofer is utilised brilliantly, deliver a serious kick to everything from the helicopter rotors to the crashing waves. Opening with Giuseppe Verdi’s classical piece “Dies Irae”, Arrow’s 5.1 mix handles Masamichi Amano’s score exceptionally well. Dialogue is wonderfully stable and remains consistent with no undertones of distortions. Both audio options provide a precise separation, creating an incredibly powerful, crisp, and immersive experience that benefits a great deal from the surround presentation.
director: Kinji Fukasaku
writers: Kenta Fukasaku (based on the novel by Koushun Takami).
starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maedo, Takeshi Kitano & Chiaki Kuriyama.