June 15, 2009

BATTLE ROYALE (2000) - If you only ever see one Japanese movie...

If you haven't been here before, the Black Hole blog recommends all sorts of movies, old and new, from around the world. But half the films are from Japan. I'm so impressed by the quality and freedom of the film-making, the style and imagination and, well, they come up with stuff that no one else does. Sometimes impeccably tasteful, other times, not so. A case in point...

(2000, Japan)

If you only ever see one Japanese movie...
...make sure it's this one!

In the near future, 42 schoolkids are abducted and taken to a remote island. They are given a weapon each and told that only one of them will be allowed to leave the island. They have three days to kill all their classmates...

An outrageous scenario with brutal violence that veers between tragedy and black humour. Not visually extreme by today's standards, but repeatedly shocking. It could easily be TV from the near future - as each teenager dies, a scorecard comes up of how many survivors are left. I first watched it in a state of continuous astonishment, and it's the best movie I can think of which would change someone's mind over watching a subtitled movie.

There's a grim introduction, as we see the winner of last year's tournament (clutching a teddy bear) and then the new batch of kids are all too easily kidnapped. We're then clued in to the film's dark humour with the tongue-in-cheek, chirpy video guide to the rules of the game. Their randomly allocated weapons range from machine-guns to kitchen utensils. Oh, and look out for that handheld rice sickle, guys.

As the slaying begins, the young contestants pick their initial victims based on schoolyard jealousies, or by bringing down the bullies. But this certainly isn't The Running Man. Not everyone instantly turns into motivated killing machines. The teenagers react realistically - some panic, some crack under stress, some can't face killing their friends.

The only flaw in this almost perfect cult movie, is the under-explained history of the game. There's a huge media frenzy around the winner of the previous game, but no good explanation of why there is a game. Televising it all would have made more sense, but there's no hint that it is. This would also repeat the themes of other legalised murder-sports moves, such as The 10th Victim, Rollerball and Death Race 2000.

After first seeing Battle Royale, I looked up the director's other credits, assuming it was a young film-maker wanting to cause a controversial splash. I was surprised to learn that Kinji Fukasaku was a seasoned veteran with a filmography packed with cult goodies such as The Green Slime and Black Lizard (both from 1968). Remembering his childhood in World War II, Fukasaku had intended Battle Royale to be a reminder of how adults can turn teenagers into killers in times of war. After a fascinating career, this proved to be his last complete film (he'd just started shooting Battle Royale II: Requiem when he passed away).

The hugely respected film star and director, Takeshi Kitano, heads the cast as the sinister supervisor of the tournament. Many of the huge, young cast have since sustained acting careers. Leading man, Tatsuya Fujiwara recently starred in the live-action version of the phenomenon that is Death Note. Actress Chiaki Kuriyama went on to steal her only scene from Uma Thurman, as the schoolgirl assassin in Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1
There are two versions of the film, the original and The Director's Cut - a revised version where Fukasaku added a little more blood to the film. There's an important additional scene that shows the class playing basketball together before they're abducted. It's the only opportunity to see them in a normal situation before the havoc begins.

But see either version. Whichever way, you won't forget Battle Royale in a hurry.

Check out more from the Japanese Blog-a-thon at Wild Grounds.

Here in the Black Hole, there are lists of links to Japanese horror films, anime, monster movies and TV... down the sidebar...


  1. I wouldn't say it is THE Japanese film to see, but it's one that any movie buff should watch to see what an old man with guts is capable of. And it's only the tip of the Fukasaku iceberg. Lots to explore there.

  2. The movie is *okay* but it seriously pales in comparison to the original novel. Easily one of the most thrilling reads I have ever had the pleasure of taking in and the film was (unsurprisingly) a bit of a letdown.

    The film version also waters down Mitsuko Souma from being one of the novel's most pitiful, tragic characters into a simple, raving psychobitch.

    It's a decent companion piece but I'd definitely recommend the book first to anyone who's never experienced the story.

  3. I know I haven't seen as many Japanese movies as you guys, but I'm pitching accessible movies for newcomers to Japanese cinema, and maybe even subtitles. BR certainly inspired me to look at more from Japan..

    I've read the book, but the movie still had more impact, and we're blogging movies here, not literature. The book wasn't translated into English until after the film was an international success.

  4. I actually gave up on the book--it wasn't bad, but it (or the translation, at least) was written at a 2nd grade level.

    Anyway, I was really surprised by how much I liked the film BATTLE ROYALE. I was expecting it to be much more of an exploitation flick, but really, if the actors involved had been adults, it would have been very similar (in tone, at least) to 80s/early 90s US action films, which were equally graphic and morally questionable. BR is just plain fun.

  5. Much as I love Battle Royale--and I DO love it--I don't know that I could pick any one movie to represent the whole of Japanese cinema. I mean, you could just as well pick Gojira and make a case for it.

    My own favorite of Fukasaku's movies is The Fall Guy, I think. Or maybe the second Battles Without Honor film. The one with Meiko Kaji and Sonny Chiba in it. I'm so indecisive, but fortunately, no one is holding a gun to my head to pick. Heh.

  6. Of course, my experience of Japanese movies is limited. But I'm just saying if you only try to watch one Japanese film, watch this one. After starting with Battle Royale, of course they'll come back for more.

  7. I agree with Dai. I'm not usually one to be like this (seriously), but this the movie is utter garbage compared to the book. There's no depth or character evolution. It's just a non-stop action flick, completely and utterly missing the point to the story. It should be about the psychology of the characters, which the movie hardly touches on as it's more concerned with the violence. Not to mention it ruins the best character of the book--Shogo--cutting him down to a bare minimum.

    And I felt that was the biggest problem with the movie. Everything was at its bare minimum. Was it enjoyable as a film rather than an adaptation? Sure. But even without looking at it as an adaptation, the movie is very rough and weak in a lot of areas. It's good, but it's definitely not 'THE' film to see from Japan.

    I find it's mostly overrated because people get caught up in the idea of it rather than the execution (no pun intended). In idea, it's brilliant. That I agree with. But in execution, it nearly fails. One of the only things I like about the movie version over the book is "The Teacher" character. I liked how the movie gave him more depth than the book did.

    I also recommend the Director's Cut over the original, as it adds more for Souma than the original has, giving at least more depth--closer to what the book had.

    Please, don't take this as an attack on your taste, though. It's just my opinion. I'm aware this is not a literature site, but a film site... however, in my opinion, the movie lacks even as a film outside of the idea it represents... which, in effect, is represented SO much better in the book.

  8. Crumbs, I thought opinion was universally behind this Japanese gem. How wrong I was! Still love it though.

  9. I remember coming across a copy of the novel at a goodwill store for a dollar and buying it based on the title and the great black and red logo. I read it in the same state of "continual astonishment" you mentioned. Later I learned of the movie. It's a great book and movie.But the movie's got Chiaki Kuriyama and Beat Takashi.

  10. After reading your review, I decided that I should give this one a look. I'd seen it up the video shop, but it seemed like such a silly idea I never bothered. Boy, was I wrong!


    I was gripped from the very beginning. I can't remember the last time I had so much fun watching anything! If this really is shit compared to the book, I guess that's next on my shopping list, too!

  11. I read your review and I'd like to add some info you didn't include in your article. Battle Royale is originally a book and there is more background detail in the book. The Japan in Battle Royale is based on Japan having won WWII and the contest started because teens were becoming too disrespectful and arrogant. Also the film was originally to be made by Kinji Fukasaku's son, Kenta Fukasaku, but because of the controversial nature of the book he couldn't receive funding and in fact the Japanese government discouraged the film's production. Kinji stepped in and took over production and because of his notoriety the film got made.