Directed by: Kinji Fukasaku || Produced by: Masao Sato, Masumi Okada, Teruo Kamaya, Tetsu Kayama
Screenplay by: Kenta Fukasaku || Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto, Masanobu Ando, Kou Shibasaki, Chiaki Kuriyama, Takeshi Kitano
Music by: Masamichi Amano || Cinematography: Katsumi Yanagishima || Editing by: Hirohide Abe || Country: Japan || Language: Japanese
Running Time: 113 minutes
Like most snobs contend that The Man from Nowhere (2010) is the much better, much more Asian (Korean) version of
Hollywood’s France’s Taken (2008), just as many snobs claim that Battle Royale (BR) is the much better, much more Asian (Japanese) version of Hollywood’s The Hunger Games (2012). The comparisons between these films and snobbish attitudes toward the Westernized versions are not surprising, especially in the case of BR, where the more violent Asian piece preceded its Hollywood “counterpart” by over a decade. BR, based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Koshoun Takami, a movie about a class of high-school students forced to fight each other to the death by dystopian government rule, easily wins the hearts of hardcore fans due to the film’s and the novel’s cult status, its infamous banning in many countries, its graphic nature, and the fact that it came out “way before The Hunger Games was cool!“
As far as gory action goes, BR will satisfy even the most hardcore Quentin Tarantino-junkie (including Tarantino himself), while also making any squeamish, violence-adverse moviegoer squirm uncomfortably in their seat. The bullet-ridden action and in-your-face, blood ‘n gore displayed by the most mentally unstable high-school classroom ever delivers time and time again, serving as effective pacing mechanisms that keep the movie’s rhythm varied and its excitement fresh.
The best parts of the film though, are the ways director Kinji Fukasaku’s son, screenwriter Kenta Fukasaku, paces dialogue with hardcore violence. He stages intense, foreboding confrontations between the competing classmates, cranking up the anticipation for the bloodshed and making the action hit harder when it occurs. These intense confrontations between students also give valuable insight into the minds of these characters and reveal plenty of instances of emotional instability that, in turn, lend more believability to their over-the-top antics. Other positive writing touches include flashback sequences of the protagonist (Tatsuya Fujiwara) that flesh out his character, as well as multiple points where the conflicted, confused students refuse to participate in the mindless violence, and either form alliances to combat their grave situation or choose to “opt out” entirely.
Where the narrative stumbles is how we discover most of the aforementioned information on the fly. These key moments of character development are crucial, but there is little prologue where we get to know the class before all the shit hits the fan. Thus, the story takes a while to build up steam, and much of the initial bloodshed is confusing, cartoonish, and silly. I’m sure the violence’s suddenness was meant for shock-value, but in reality, the introduction of the Battle Royale rules and introductory kills feel forgettable and awkward with hardly any character development to precede them. We don’t get to know any of the students (save for perhaps the protagonist) until about halfway into the movie. That robs the introductory violence of its tension and impact. This lack of explanation and buildup also test suspension of disbelief, as the kids engage in mindless killing almost as soon as they are told what the stakes are by the adults.
Additionally, a key force in the movie, Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), also known as “the Uzi kid,” has no personality or growth, and functions as a mindless antagonist. Until the film’s climax, he is the primary threat to our heroes’ survival, and yet he is given no memorable character traits, lines, or qualities of which to speak. He is more or less a characterless villain, and is a big missed opportunity of the movie.
Finally, the ending is a disorganized mess. The staging of its penultimate scene is awkward, various character motivations are poorly explained, and the acting is nonsensical. This is one of a handful of sequences in Royale that are unintentionally funny, and undercut much of the tension, excitement, and character goodwill built throughout the movie. It’s not the movie’ Achilles Heel, but it’s a baffling scene worth criticizing.
With all that said, Battle Royale rides high on its expertly orchestrated violence and intense scenes of paranoia, insanity, and revenge. Its strengths outshine its weakness, although perhaps not as definitively as I would’ve liked. It has its fair share of writing inconsistencies, what with the awkward ending, the missed opportunity with “Uzi kid,” and of course the lack of any substantial prologue, but ultimately, it can still be enjoyed for what it is: A fun, hyper-violent, Japanese version of the “kids-killing-each-other” story archetype. I still find it hard to believe that that archetype even exists. Now I have to see The Hunger Games and read Lord of the Flies (1954) to have full literacy in this argument.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Intense scenes of paranoia and confrontation between frightened (and often mentally disturbed) high school classmates make Battle Royale worth watching. The violence itself is Tarantino-esque and, for the most part, bloody brilliant. Fujiwara’s protagonist is likable and sympathetic.
— However… the lack of a drawn-out prologue means the story has to build momentum. The film’s primary antagonist is uninteresting and forgettable. Various story elements and plot-holes are confusing and left entirely unexplained. This culminates in the awkward ending.
? So I guess nobody will be going to a class reunion, then?