Japan at the start of the new millennium. The country is in a state of chaos, violence by rebellious teenagers in schools is completely out of control. The government hits back with a new law: every year a school class picked at random will be cast away on a desert island to fight it out among themselves. The rules are simple: it lasts three days, everyone gets water, food and a weapon and only one may survive. Then a class on a school trip is kidnapped. When they wake up, angry teacher Kitano tells them that the collar around their necks monitors their position and can be caused to explode remotely at any moment. They are then left to play the game, with only one of them allowed to survive.
Could you kill your best friend?
There can't be many things in life more horrible to imagine than having close friends, family or other loved ones dying, particularly if it is not of old age. Imagine if someone close to you were murdered, you would never see that person again. That's someone you cared for gone, forever. What if you were in a situation where it was you who killed them? How would that make you feel? Given a choice between you or your friends, whom would you rather have killed? It is a horrible thought, isn't it? And it's something that you probably wouldn't normally even spare a second thinking about because it is such a depressing subject. But those are the questions that Battle Royale shoves right into your face and you just cannot escape from them.
There aren't many films that I am shocked by at all. The opening battle scene in Saving Private Ryan was close, but it was more harrowing than shocking. Gore doesn't shock me, neither do horror films, so like I've said there isn't much that I'm shocked by in the film world. Battle Royale is one exception. Watching the film I was forced to imagine myself being put in the kids' situation, and I just couldn't explain the thoughts going through my head. What would I do? Run? Hide? Fight? Team up with people? Could I trust other people? Would I trust other people? Would they trust me? Would I kill anyone? Could I kill anyone? Would I trust my best friends? Could I kill my best friends? In a second in the game all those questions could be answered and the decisions could be made, but if I spent too long thinking about it, I could be killed. That is not a situation that anyone should ever have to be in. That is what is so shocking about Battle Royale. It shows you what you don't want to imagine. It is not a war where there is some explanation or cause to fight for, this is forced and the kids have got no choice and all they have to fight for is their life.
In case you aren't aware what the concept of Battle Royale is, then I'll give the basic run down of the film's plot, and indeed the rules of Battle Royale. Japan is in a relative state of chaos. Juvenile delinquency, crime, truancy and violence are raging out of control, and the government see only one way in which they can control it: The Battle Royale Act. The act has a randomly selected school class sent to an island, where they are given three days rations, a map and a random weapon. They are also fitted with a remotely controlled collar, housing an explosive around their throat, which can be set off at any point. They have three days, no rules and one objective - be the last one left alive. If there is more than one person left after three days, everyone dies. A class of 40 are chosen for the third execution of the BR Act, and they are whom this film follows.
Bleak, huh? Having not lived in Japan, nor visited it, I don't know first hand about what sort of social commentary this film is making about Japan, but apparently there is a message in there. I honestly wish I could talk more about that side of things, but basically I wouldn't have a clue what I'm talking about due to my lack of knowledge on that area.
This release of Battle Royale is the Director's Cut release, which features something like 4 minutes of extra footage. This extra footage is mainly flashback stuff, which gives more depth and background story to quite a few of the characters, and as a result this is a better film compared to the theatrical edit. Having this extra footage is very important for the film, as in the class there are about 40 students, which is quite a lot of characters for a 2-hour film. Clearly these students are not all given the same amount of screen time, and the film chooses to focus on about half a dozen of them.
The main two are Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), two students who are close friends, and the former has a crush on the latter. Trusting each other implicitly they stick together for the game, with Nanahara vowing to protect Noriko no matter what. These two, I felt, were portrayed quite realistically, as they do come across as scared kids struggling to come to terms with what is happening to them. In trying to stay alive, they show their naivety in being too trusting of others and it is clear that they are in way over their heads. Credit has to be given to the two actors here as at no point do you doubt the realism of their characters' behaviour.
The next main character in the film is Shougo Kawada (Taro Yamamoto). He is not part of the class that has been chosen to play in this BR Act, but was kidnapped and forced into playing and is described as an 'exchange student'. He is different to all the other students in that he has already had to endure the BR Act, and was the survivor from one of the previous games. He does come across as a bit of a mysterious person, someone who maybe is not quite the way they portray themselves. This perception is made more so by the fact that when he talks about his father, his job changes every time... he's a cook, he's a doctor, he's a sailor etc.
Of all the other characters, they all have their own distinct personality traits. There are the active aggressive ones, the passive ones who are in denial about what is going on around them, scared ones, confident ones, intelligent ones, quiet ones etc. Basically, pretty much the complete range of human characteristics is covered in this class, and the viewer sees how each of them copes. The one adult character that receives a lot of focus is that of the teacher, played by the well renowned actor and director, Takeshi Kitano. He is in charge of this BR Act operation, and from his actions early on the viewer knows he has got no warm feelings for the children at all, except Noriko. A little of his back-story is covered in the film, but for my liking, possibly not enough. We learn through one-sided telephone calls that he is having problems in his family life at home, but it could possibly have done with a little more fleshing out.
For most people who see Battle Royale, the characters and the social critique of the film are going to play second fiddle to the main attraction - the action and violence, of which there is plenty. Once the game gets going, the children are killed at a good pace, with many localised bursts of violence. There is lots of blood during the majority of these scenes, and in this Director's Cut version there is more blood, added in with computer graphics, than in the theatrical cut. When people are shot blood spurts out mini fountain like, and lots of people get shot! Where the action succeeds the most is that as far as the killings go, the film does not peak to early. The battle builds up and reaches its natural climax when there are only a few students left, keeping the viewer entertained all the way through. That is an aspect that the sequel failed on, as the most elaborate set piece in it was at the beginning of the action and the majority of the deaths were far too early. All the action and violent set pieces are well choreographed and imaginative, and are sure to entertain.
Battle Royale really is a class film. The film's subject matter is bound to be thought of as controversial by a lot of people, as children being killed so brutally always seems to touch a nerve somewhere in society. The story itself is engaging, the action is entertaining, and the acting by all is very strong. While it is not perfect, films like Battle Royale don't come along that often, and it is delightful to see films as original and well made as this.
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