Directed by the late, great Kinki Fukasaku and based on the novel of the same name by Koushun Takami, 2000's Battle Royale proved to be quite a controversial film but few who saw it would deny its power. For various reasons, from rights and contractual issues to a wariness to release it in a post-Columbine world, the film and its sequel were never released domestically. It was shown sporadically here and there at a few festivals and released on DVD in Europe and Asia but until now the only way to see it on home video in the United States was to import a legitimate release or snag one of the countless bootleg copies that have been floating around for years (despite no official release the film really hasn't been all that difficult to acquire). With that said, Anchor Bay has finally stepped up to the plate (conveniently enough, just before the theatrical release of the uber-hyped debut of The Hunger Games, which seems to have much in common with this movie) with this four disc set. So here's the run down for this much anticipated release...
Battle Royale: Theatrical Cut
NOTE: This is actually disc two in the set, but for review purposes it makes more sense to talk about the theatrical cut first, so that's' what we're going to do.
Set during an unspecified time in modern Japanese history, a text scrawl tells us that what we're about to see happened 'at the dawn of the millennium' after Japan fell into social and economic ruin. Fifteen percent unemployment and dwindling school attendance began to result in a society where the old were starting to fear the young. As such, the government put into place the Educational Reform Act, also known as the Battle Royale Act, where a class of high school students is chosen to compete against one another in a survival game where they can be only one winner.
So with this in mind, we know exactly where the students of Shioroiwa High School's 9th Grade class are going when, supposedly out on a bus trip, they're gassed. When they wake up they're on an island where the find their former 7th Grade teacher, Kitano (Takashi Kitano) standing in front of a rack of computers surrounded by armed guards. He explains to them that they've been selected for this year's Battle Royale competition and explains how the chokers around their neck will blow their heads off if they try to remove them or if they are in one of the island's 'danger zones' during a specified time. From here, each kid is given an item - it could be a shotgun, it could be an uzi or it could be a pot lid or it could be a pair of binoculars - and a bag with some food, some water and a map, and then they are let loose on the island to kill or be killed. They have seventy-two hours to find the winner out of the forty-two different students. Allegiances are formed and broken, trusting friends are stabbed in the back by those they put their faith in, and before it's all over, almost all of the students who wound up on this island will be dead.
Giving away anymore of the plot details for this film would result in a big disservice by effectively neutering the picture's shock value and while the film has a lot of truly great qualities to comment on, shock value does play a big part in its effectiveness. Some will no doubt be uncomfortable with the subject matter, particularly American viewers who seem to be inundated with news reports of school shootings on a frighteningly regular basis these days, but there's more to this story than just countless scenes of fifteen year old kids murdering one another in increasingly gory ways. Keeping in mind the fact that the late director was inspired to make this story based in no small part on his own experiences during the Second World War (where during an attack he and some other child laborers had to hide underneath one another to avoid being killed, something which inspired in him a deep seated distrust of adults) and has gone on record describing the film not as a warning but as a fable, a cautionary tale of sorts. As such, Fukasaku was careful enough to make sure that there were likeable characters in the movie, characters that we could relate to and latch on to and characters that we could root for. In short, there are some 'good guys' in here and some 'bad guys' in here too, even if the bulk of the characters fall into sort of a sticky grey zone.
The film also has a fairly obvious romantic subplot involving two of the main characters, Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda), and it ends on an interesting note that you can't necessarily call blatantly pessimistic or nihilistic. The film chooses who it lets us get to know - some of the students exist merely as cannon fodder, others are more fleshed out and presented as living, breathing, feeling human beings. Kitano, well played by Kitano who seems to be, in many ways, just sort of doing his own thing here, has also got his own set of problems as made perfectly obvious in the final moments of the film and so we wind up with an adult character just as screwed up as any of the younger characters are and reinforcing the film's adage of not trusting those who paved the way for the younger generations. Fukasaku is also smart enough to allow a couple of disruptive forces into the storyline here, with two 'exchange students' who aren't part of the original class. Polar opposites, one serves as an agent of chaos, the other of order and calculated reason and they each play a very important role in how all of this plays out in the end. It's all mixed in with more teenage drama and angst than you can shake a stick at, as those faced with their own fleeting mortality confess their love to long time crushes or set out to exact revenge on those they feel have wronged them throughout their school career - just as real teenagers might (and have) done in recent tragic events.
Ultimately, yes, Battle Royale is as violent as you've heard and it is as fast paced and furious as you've likely been told but it is in no way without its own pensive and cerebral moments. It's an intelligent film, the kind that makes you think about the way that society has developed and, probably more importantly, where society may very well be heading. You can call it pure entertainment or you can look at it as a cautionary tale for a world with a very short attention span and you can also look at it as a glimpse into what might very well happen should the rules of society, such as they are, ever do crumble to the point where it's everyone for themselves. There's enough black humor here and enough tense action that the film never quite feels bleak or depressing (though it does come close) - but most importantly it makes you think.
Battle Royale: Director's Cut
The Director's Cut, also known as the 2001 Special Edition Cut follows the same basic plot as the theatrical cut of the movie but runs roughly eight minutes long and includes the following additions (VERY MINOR SPOILERS BELOW):
-Framing this version of the movie are a multitude of flashbacks scenes that show the entire class participating in or observing a school basketball game. What this does is show how many of the classmates we've just seen brutally murder one another once had fun together but it also shows how others didn't quite fit in with the rest, a theme that's exploited very well in the movie.
END OF VERY MINOR SPOILERS!
How does this compare to the theatrical cut of the film? Honestly, it hurts the pacing. The added dramatic footage slows down the run of the film - not to the point where it ruins it and parts of it help to make a few points that were maybe not quite as obvious in the theatrical version by helping to focus on the camaraderie seen in the basketball game sequences, but in terms of tensions and suspense, the theatrical version is the one to go for. The three 'requiems' at the end of the film also feel a little out of place, almost as if they were tacked on at the end.
Battle Royale II: Requiem
Discussing plot points for Battle Royale II: Requiem requires some minor spoilers from the first film be revealed.
When it was announced in 2002 that Kinji Fukasaku was going to get back behind the camera to film a sequel with Takashi Kitano returning to his role and this time joined by Japanese V-Cinema star and Takashi Miike stalwart Riki Takeuchi in a prime part, fingers tingled with anticipation. Add to that the fact that Sonny 'The Bad Man From Japan' Chiba was going to have a cameo and a lot of us figured that there was no way that this couldn't be hands down the coolest movie of the year. With Kinji returning as director and a cast like that, how could it go wrong? It almost seemed like a no brainer.
Unfortunately hopes were very quickly dashed when pretty much everyone who saw it agreed that Battle Royale II is weak.
The basic plot behind the storyline is this. Set three years after the grisly events in the first film, BR Act survivor Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara returning to his role) is now a world famous terrorist. His goal isn't too different from that of most terrorists operating below the radar - he wants to take down the Japanese government. How does the Japanese government respond to his actions? They create a another Battle Royale program to train and breed another group of high school kids to hunt down and kill him.
That's the story in a nutshell, and on the surface, given the current state of world affairs, it sounds like an interesting premise. Couple that with the ballsy move of showing two twin towers crumbling in what is obviously supposed to replicate the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001 and the sheer guts it would take to put a terrorist in the lead of an anti-hero, and again, it sounds like Battle Royale II really could have been an interesting film.
The movie does get a few things right - the action scenes play like a cross between those seen in Kinji Fukasaku's infamous Yakuza films of the 1970s, and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. The camera work is chaotic and erratic and it does a good job of putting you in the moment. These scenes are intense and gripping and when the bodies start falling, and they do, you're almost waiting to get hit by a stray bullet yourself. The actions scenes are handled very well - sadly, this needs to be more than just a nasty action movie. If it had been just that, we might have been able to at least enjoy it on a superficial lebel, even if it lacked the symbolism, and nihilistic social commentary that the first movie so perfectly played upon.
Instead, and here's where the movie goes painfully wrong, it tries to up the ante in that department. Here the symbolism becomes so heavy handed that it ceases to be symbolism or a social critique of any kind and instead morphs into this bizarre sympathetic portrayal of terrorists fighting the good fight. When one character gives a speech about the glory of the AK-47 and the video in turn shows images of Afghani citizens, it's hard not to miss the anti-American sentiment of the film. It's about as subtle as a brick to the head, and rather than let the viewer draw his or her own conclusions about the morals of the film, it smacks you over the head with them until you start to numb to it all and desperately want it to stop.
And you know what? This would have been easy enough to deal with all of this if it were handled well. Many of us are well aware of some of the hypocrisies of American foreign policy and the current War On Terror. Some of the chinks in the armor do very much open themselves up for criticism and great art always seems to imitate life, doesn't it? But unfortunately the heavy handedness and fact that the multiple speeches are so contrived, drawn out, and just plain boring mire the film in its own politics, taking away any entertainment value or artistic merit that it should have had.
It's a well known fact that Kinji Fukasaku died during the early stages of production on this film. What should have been his swansong was instead finished by his son, Kenta Fukasaku, who co-wrote both of the Battle Royale films, the first one an adaptation of the excellent novel by Koushun Takami (now available in an English language edition from VIZ). This has worked in a similar situation in the past, when Lamberto Bava did a great job of finishing up his late father Mario's final film, Rabid Dogs. Here, however, Kenta Fukasaku shows his inexperience as a director and while there are some great 'Fukasaku Sr. moments' in the film, it ultimately ends up a jumbled, drawn out mess of a film that really could have been a winner. But hey, at least it's got a Sonny Chiba cameo and lots of explosions in it.
It should be noted that the alternate cut of Battle Royale II: Requiem known as Battle Royale II: Revenge is not included in this set, and neither is the 3D version of the first film that was recently released in Japan. Revenge is reportedly twenty minutes longer and includes a fair bit more character development.
In regards to the 'movie' rating for this review, let it be known that it's not possible in the review system to rate each film individually and that this rating is an average. The first film would score 4.5/5 in its Theatrical Cut, 4/5 in its Director's Cut and 2/5 for the sequel.The Blu-ray Set:
Both versions of the first film are presented in AVC encoded 1.78.1 widescreen 1080p high definition, with the sequel presented in AVC encoded 1.85.1 widescreen 1080p high definition. If you've seen Battle Royale before you might recall that it's kind of an odd looking film in the sense that while it was shot on 35mm, it has a strange sort of hazy/milky quality to it. The DVD versions that this reviewer has seen have reflected that as well (though in the interested of full disclosure I've never seen it projected from film). It wasn't so surprising to these eyes then when the transfer didn't pop the way that you might want it to or show every single razor sharp detail the way some of the best high definition transfers can. It certainly improves on the DVD versions in terms of detail and compression, and the colors look good if slightly muted (again, the film has looked this way on home video presentations in the past) but don't expect this to look like a regular Hollywood production because it doesn't. It doesn't even look like a good restoration of an older film and by most standards it's definitely on the soft side - BUT - the film has always had that sort of look to it. Outside shots look better than indoor shots where detail does tend to get lost in the shadows sometimes, fine object detail won't floor you and some noise reduction looks to have been applied as does some edge enhancement, but these are minor issues though it should be noted that contrast fluctuations aren't so hard to spot. It all probably stems back to the source materials that Anchor Bay were given to work with but you will definitely notice an upgrade over previous DVD presentations on this Blu-ray release, even if what's here leaves room for improvement transfer wise. There's no discernible difference in the transfers between the two cuts of the first movie.
As luck would have it, the movie most people probably don't care about as much, Battle Royale II: Requiem, looks considerably better than the two versions of the first movie. Detail is considerably more impressive here in close up shots and long distance shots while that haziness that plagued the first movie in both incarnations isn't nearly as problematic. The contrast issues aren't a problem here and shadow detail is vastly improved. Overall, actually, this one turns out looking pretty good in high definition, with great color reproduction, strongly realistic skin tones and solid blacks. There's no justice in the world...Sound:
The audio options for the three films in the set are as follows, with English subtitles provided for each of the three movies:
Both cuts of the movie fare far better in the audio department than they do in the video department. The Director's Cut sounds fantastic. The 7.1 track is amazingly aggressive hitting you hard with every gunshot, slap and stab wound while delivering the instrumental score (made up of original compositions and a lot of great classical pieces) with incredibly moving clarity. At the same time, while all of this is going on in the surround channels, the dialogue is delivered with excellent clarity (usually from the front of the mix, which is appropriate). The English 5.1 track sounds a bit hokier but if you're one who prefers dubbed tracks to subbed tracks, you should be plenty happy as it offers a similarly impressive mix. Bass response is strong across the board and there are plenty of great directional effects to keep you on your toes and channel separation is consistently clear and distinct. The Japanese 7.1 mix on this disc is the way to go if you've got the hardware to handle it, as it sounds excellent. As far as the Theatrical Cut goes, it too sounds very good, just not quite as immersive as the 7.1 mix on the Director's Cut of the film - though damn close. In regards to Battle Royale II: Requiem, it also sounds great with plenty of wizz-bang directional effects present throughout the movie, properly balanced levels and no issues with hiss or distortion and given the frequency of the action scenes in this sequel, it's not surprising that it's as aggressive as it is. The English subtitles offered throughout the set are clean, clear, easy to read and free of any obvious typos. If there are some issues with the transfer, Anchor Bay hasn't left much room to complain about the audio.Extras:
The first three discs in the set contain no extra features outside of some slick animated menus and chapter stops but the fourth and final disc in the set does contain some pretty solid supplemental material. All of the extras are in Japanese with English subtitles. This fourth disc is a DVD, not a Blu-ray, so obviously all of the extra features are in standard definition.
The Making Of Battle Royale is a fifty-two minute documentary on the creation of the first film and hands down the most interesting and thorough extra feature on this disc. Some might find it a bit long for what it is as it isn't the most structured piece ever made but Fukasaku junkies will appreciate the chance to see the late director at work here. Interviews with the director as well as the cast and crew make up a good portion of the running time but some welcome behind the scenes footage is also included here and quite interesting to see. From there, check out the twelve minuteBattle Royale Press Conference featurette, which is basically just some footage of the conference held at the debut of the film. Fukasaku is joined here by some of the cast members and it's fairly superficial and promotional in nature, but that's how press conferences tend to be.
There's also a twelve minute Battle Royale Documentary included here. This is a mix of cast and crew interviews and clips from the film and despite the fact that visually it's all over the place, it's worth a watch for a bit of insight into what the cast went through here. The three minute Instructional Video: Birthday Version is also included and it's a fun take on the instructional video that we see in the film where the students are told what's going to happen. This time around, the actress schools us on the director's 70th birthday - it's humorous and touching and a nice tribute to Kinji Fukasaku. The seven minutes worth of Audition & Rehearsal Footage shot before the production started is pretty self explanatory - it's test footage shot to see who was right for what part.
The four minute Special Effects Comparison Featurette shows us CGI was used to 'enhance' some of the traditional effects used in the film, resulting in a gorier film than would have been otherwise possible. Some of these effects work better than others but those with an interest in this type of thing will certainly enjoy it. The Tokyo International Film Festival 2000 clip is four minutes of the cast on stage at a showing of the movie at the festival. It's not deep, nor is it all that interesting but it's here for those who want it. The Basketball Scene Rehearsals segment is an eight minute section that shows how the cast were brought back together a few months after principal photography was done in order to shoot the basketball game sequences that were put into the movie. The Behind-The-Scenes featurette is a random assortment of ten minutes worth of footage shot on set while various scenes from the movie were in production. It's moderately interesting but not given a whole lot of context, which detracts from its value. The eleven minute long Filming On-Set featurette is similar, starting off with a talking head interview clip culled from one of the other extras and then segueing into more footage shot on the set documenting the production of the first film..
Rounding out the extras on the disc are the Original Theatrical Trailer for the first movie, the Special Edition TV Spot for the first movie and the TV Spot: Tarantino Version promo for the first movie. There are no extras included for the second film for some reason. Granted, it's not a great movie but there's a lot of supplemental material out there for it, you'd think some of it would have been included here, but nope. That didn't happen. The set is also missing some extras that appeared on the Tartan Video special edition release including an interview with Takashi Kitano, a section on the orchestral music used in the film, and a few more bits and pieces as well as the book that came with that release. So while there's a lot of stuff here, there's still quite a bit of material that wasn't carried over for this release, which is a decision bound to irk some fans who were hoping that this would be a definitive release.Final Thoughts:
This isn't a perfect set. It's a good set, but the transfer could have been better and it's missing the alternate version of the second (and admittedly vastly inferior) film as well as quite a few extras relating to the first movie and any extras relating to the second one. With that said, yeah, it's a pretty good set. The first movie still holds up incredibly well as a bold, daring, and through provoking film that never skimps on entertainment value and, well, think of the sequel as a bonus and you won't be too disappointed. This could have been better, but it's still a solid showing from Anchor Bay and Battle Royale: The Complete Collection (which isn't complete) comes recommended.