Cinophile: BATTLE ROYALE

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We might as well address the elephant in the room. The Hunger Games – either you thought of that immediately or you are now wondering what this modern classic of extreme Japanese cinema has to do with Katniss and her rebels.

There is no doubt The Hunger Games resembles Battle Royale: both involve teenagers killing each other down to one survivor, all at the behest of an autocratic government. But they share few other similarities. One is a serious-but-light action movie, the other was until recently banned in Germany.

A near-future Japan, fighting with rising unemployment and youth crime, enacts the BR act. Its solution to maintain youth control is to randomly select a school class and have them fight to the last person on a deserted island. The class is kidnapped during a school trip, given a brief but jarring orientation, and are sent packing with three days to kill everyone else.

Half of them probably die because they couldn’t quite grasp or accept what was going down. The result is a rather spectacular amount of violent deaths, a trend that weaves in and out as the movie reveals more about some of the characters. But there are over forty students, almost all of whom meet some kind of violent end.

It’s hard to call Battle Royale gratuitous today – it’s no more gory than the colour version of Kill Bill’s restaurant fight. It’s not violence porn, but more violence as a statement – kinda like Paul Verhoeven or Quentin Tarantino’s films. There is just quite a lot of it.

Director Kinji Fukasaku was an old hand at making movies and comfortably switched between different cinematic styles. He took what could have been cheesy violence porn and delivered something that has invited comparisons with A Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies.

Today Battle Royale stands alongside the likes of Oldboy as an Asian cult movie must-see. It staggers a little at the end, struggling with the weight of the story. But the acting, including a great cast of fifteen year olds and legendary actor Beat Takeshi, and the fine filmmaking carries this classic through.

Come to think of it, The Hunger Games could have used some plagiarism. Nothing ups the ante like a decapitated head bomb.

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Battle Royale is a novel and has also had a comic (manga) adaptation. Director Kinji Fukasaku decided to film the novel because it reminded him of his experiences as a teenager during World War 2.
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There was a short skirmish between the director and Japan’s ratings authority. They wanted to give it a mature age restriction, which would exclude fifteen-years olds – even though all the characters and actors were around that age. Legend has it that Fukasaku leaked a press release encouraging teenagers to sneak into screenings.
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Sadly the director died two years later while starting work on the sequel. His son completed the project, but it was vastly inferior and flopped badly.
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Battle Royale failed to secure any distribution in the U.S. Test audiences, watching it after the Columbine shootings, reacted negatively and studios wouldn’t touch it because of the violence. Germany blocked it until 2013 and Japan tried but failed to get it banned. Nonetheless the film frequents top lists, is one of Japan’s highest grossing movies and won numerous awards.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: August 17, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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