In the not-too-distant-future, population and unemployment are at an all time high. Desperate times lead to desperate measures, so the Millennium Educational Reform Act is passed. One class of schoolchildren is chosen to complete in the Battle Royale, a three day competition on an island in which they are given one random weapon (tracker, stun gun, uzi, knife, shotgun, binoculars, and so forth), an exploding tracking collar around their neck (different areas are danger zones, where the collars will go off, so the kids are forced to move near each other rather than hide), and told that only one of them can survive.
This years class of 42 fourteen yr-old students think they are on a field trip. They are drugged, wake up in a run down building, and are confronted by an army of soldiers and the supervisor, their former 7th grade teacher (Takeshi "Beat" Kitano- Sonatine, Violent Cop, Zatoichi '04), who makes the seriousness of the situation very apparent. When let loose on the island, the children all behave differently to the game of survival, some going mad, some giving up, some bonding, others plotting, some out for blood. Two young lovers, Shuya and Nuriko, try to remain sane and protect each other, wondering who can they trust in all the madness. Also, there are suddenly two new students, two ringers in the competition, the deadly cold killing machine Kiriyama and the mysterious Kawada.
Veteran and master director Kinji Fukasaku's (The Yakuza Papers, Legend of the Eight Samurai, Triple Cross, Under the Flag of the Rising Sun) swan song, Battle Royale is without a doubt one of the most controversial films of the past decade, not only in its home country of Japan but in a post–Columbine America. In Japan the controversy arose not so much because of the violence, although a less violent edit was made for kids, but because of its symbolic stabs at Japanese society. Whereas in the US, the most often written thing about Battle Royale is- "It will never be released in the US", because of the justified open nerve we American's have pertaining to the tragedies with kids killing each other in our schools... And, while it is controversial, it also must be taken with a grain of salt, because we all know when you label something as taboo, dangerous, and forbidden, there are more people out there, the cinema extreme lovers, who will latch onto it and heap praise upon it. It is a controversial film, but only the most thick-headed will not be able to see its relevance and label it as pure exploitation. I'm somewhat reminded of the people who saw Starship Troopers and failed to see it as a satirical film about war propaganda and fascist patriotism and just thought it was a big sci-fi action film about people fighting alien bugs.
As I see it, Battle Royale is a great little suspense-horror allegory about the Japanese school/class system. Japan is well known for its Study- Work-and Die ethics with rigorous demands within its educational and business system. This is a society where people will often live in their office buildings, businessmen suffer from chronic fake smiling injuries, and where being a family man and spending weekends with your kids became a novelty "trend" a few years back. Battle Royale takes this climate and amplifies it, putting the children into an even more desperate situation than getting an A-Plus. It effectively lampoons the culture within its opening moments as eager tv reporters struggle to interview a Royale winner (a bloodsoaked smiling girl), and in a campy training video the class watches where an enthusiastic, pretty, patronizingly cheery model gives the students the run down on the game (roughly- "Everyone's survival gear is different. Maybe you'll get lucky and get an ax!", she smiles). Their teacher (the legendary Kitano in perfect casting) still speaking to them like they are his students, notifies them over loudspeakers of the danger zones, those killed, and exuberantly urges them to continue. When a student dies, title cards inform us of who died and how many kids remain. The music too, is in a master stroke, orchestral themes that add a disturbingly spirited, patriotic, and cultured contrast to the barbarism.
I'm not going to spend too much time on Battle Royale 2: Requiem (2003) because it is, in no small terms, a terrible movie. Kinji Fukasaku died during post production and the film was left in the hands of his son, Kenta. And you know what? As a Kukasku fan, if this is truly what they planned, I'm damn glad he died so this wasn't legitimately his last film. Of course, maybe if he would have made it through the production, there would be a better film, but it feels flawed at its core. Kenta wrote the script for the first film and shows a good eye for direction. Unfortunately the sequel film feels like a cash in on the first films popularity and was thinly built around a concept with little rational when it comes to message.
Taking place three years after the first film, Shuya has become a terrorist leader, guiding a pack of teens and children who operate under the name "Wild Seven." In the opening title sequence we witness a 9/11 conjuring image of several skyscrapers crumbling in an unknown city.
The first half of the film plays like a retread of Battle Royale. Another class of freshman misfits is abducted by the government and their suddenly creepy teacher (this time cult, v-cinema icon Riki Takeuchi instead of Beat Kitano) informs them that they have to take part in the new BR Act, the BR2. It is measure for measure just like the first film, panicking kids, menacing teacher, only it doesn't have the charm of the training video. The BR2 forces them all to be soldiers and their explosive collars are linked to one another, so if one dies, someone else will. Once again they will be going to an island, only this time it is the compound of the "Wild Seven", and their assignment is to kill Shuya. It doesn't make much sense (in many ways), the logic being that Shuya has declared war on adults so he'll feel kinda' bad about killing kids around his age. Ooookaaaayyyy?
A Saving Private Ryan-style assault takes place, with the harrowed 42 student strong class vomiting, freaking out, being fired upon, and loosing a fourth of the class before they can even hit the beach. As different kids get knocked off, they gradually make their way into the compound and come face to face with Shuya, who has gotten a Dokken makeover. He releases them from their collars and lays out his cryptic philosophy to them. Meanwhile, the soldiers are coming and the "Wild Seven" will make a stand; the latest BR class will have to decide which side they are on.
Whereas the first film went for sly allegory, BR 2 goes for grand soapbox. Problem is, it takes a bunch of stabs but comes up empty. The master stroke, plotwise, seems to imply they were going to go the Col. Kurtz route with Shuya, but the script fails to have a clear message or make him the slightest bit charasmatic or, for that matter, coherant. Instead you get hammy dramatics, thinly veiled attacks on US politics (referred to as "that country" by the actors, but clearly it is the US), and a silly polemic about globalism. It comes across as incredibly stupid and cannot manage a single tangible or thoughtful idea about what leads to terrorism. I get infuriated just thinking about how badly they dropped the ball conceptwise. I mean the most they can muster for why the group fights is, "adults are bad... terrorists are dedicated... so many of us have died anyway, we might as well keep on." It is pretty sickening since, productionwise, the film looks ot have about ten times the budget of the first film and has some great sets and action scenes, which continue the trend of the kids dying in grisly ways. Only this time, it has nothing to say.
The DVD: Universe, HK, Region 3
Picture: Battle Royale gets a soft and dull non-anamorphic transfer. Overall details are muted, from sharpness, to contrast levels, to the color hues. Battle Royale 2 looks better and is anamorphic widescreen. Sharpness and color details are well-rendered. The only real fault is in the contrast depth, which has a lean towards grays, and the technical glitches of some blocky compression artefacts.
Sound:Battle Royale has three options, DTS, 5.1 Surround, or 2.0 Stereo Japanese language tracks with optional English or Chinese subtitles. Battle Royale 2 has 5.1 Surround or DTS Japanese language tracks with optional English or Chinese subtitles. Soundwise both film are real winners. The orchestral score in particular is strong, booming, and intense. The action fx mixing on BR 2 is appropriately ear splitting when it comes to the choatic sounds of warfare which give the surround channels get a real workout.
As far as the subtitles go, both films have their fare share of flaws. BR 1 has the most mangled translations while BR 2 has spelling misstakes in spades, like "I'm staying her."
Extras: Battle Royale has a Trailer and bio for Kitano, that's it.
Battle Royale 2 contains a second disc of extras: Behind the Scenes Featurette around 8 mins). Interesting, mainly a look at the audition process, so we get to see Fukasaku Sr. Working on the film.— "Making of" Featurette (around 7 mins). Brief, not really technical, just general behind the scenes footage.— BR 2 Gala & Orchestra featurette (around 20 mins). Cool footage from a lavish screening of the film, complete with orchestra and the film makers addressing the audience.— Trailers— Star Bios— Photo Gallery.
Conclusion: Now, the first film is a masterpeice. The second film is well directed, worth it for the battle scenes, but a mess when it comes to the political text. Now, this Universe set is actually not the best technical presentation of BR 1. Tech-head cinephiles will want either the UK or Korean editions which offer better image quality. But, as a cheap way to get both films, this is certainly worth a cult film fans dollar (I did give the single Universe BR 1 a recommendation based on this fact), so I'll give it a guarded recommendation.