Battle Royale is riding the wave of good fortune surrounding The Hunger Games to its first proper home video release in America. Kept at bay for many years due to its original proximity to the Columbine High School shootings, this modern masterpiece about a group of junior high students forced to fight to the death has gained a tremendous worldwide reputation. The original novel from Koushun Takami spawned an award winning film adaptation, a controversial sequel, a popular manga series, and a strong reputation for shock value and sci-fi innovation. The Blu-ray set, subtitled The Complete Collection, feels like a no-brainer purchase for fans of the series. I didn't give it a second thought when I shelled out the extra fifteen bucks on Amazon to get four discs of goodies. But does the largest release constitute the best value? It turns out that The Complete Collection is a decidedly mixed bag beyond the single best transfer of Battle Royale released in America.
Disc Two: Battle Royale (2000, theatrical release)
Director Kinji Fukasaku turned a lot of heads when he decided that his 60th feature film would be an adaptation of uber violent dystopian/teen romance/coming of age/social satire novel Battle Royale. What could a 70 year old man bring to a story about young teenagers fighting to the death with their friends and classmates? Anyone who doubted Fukasaku's relation to the project was shut down as soon as the film began screenings.
Battle Royale is one of the most heart breaking and fully realized visions of an alternate future to grace the world of cinema. After WWII, Japan and China formed an alliance that reset the balance of power in the world. Now, at the dawn of the millennium, young society is in chaos. Children refuse to go to school and actively fight against authority.
The government's response is the Battle Royale Act. This increasingly popular program sees a randomly selected classroom of 9th graders dropped off on an abandoned island with weapons and explosive devices strapped to their necks. If more than one of them is alive after 72 hours, they all die. Only one victor can emerge to reach the honor of adulthood.
As grim as the premise sounds, Battle Royale is as sensitive as it is bloody. Kinji Fukasaku did an incredible job getting 42 teenage(ish) actors to develop motivations and react in realistic manners. The result is a film that elicits laughs as often as shock value. The story only works because Fukasaku made sure we care about the children.
In a wise decision, Fukasaku had screenwriters Koushun Takami and Kenta Fukasaku (his son) play up the importance of the most shocking stories. The first couple to commit suicide have a beautiful and meditative moment on the edge of a cliff before jumping to their doom. A young track athlete gets to confront the boy who ruined her reputation in a satisfying moment of justified revenge. Most important of all, the two most cold-blooded killers in the game--a silent transfer student and a charming bad girl--get to show off just how dangerous the motivation of a life or death battle can be. While Takami's original novel contains these moments, they are given equal weight with the other students' experiences in the story. Fukasaku was not afraid to play favorites in order to make the best film he could.
The emotional core of the film is the love story of Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa. The two TV veterans--Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda--make the relationship feel real. These are two young people who were afraid to approach each other romantically in school. Drawn together by a shocking twist early in the game, Shuya and Noriko team up with their terrible weapons (a pot lid and a pair of binoculars, respectively) to find a way out of the games together. They never lose faith in each other because they know that neither one of them would survive on their own. It's a beautifully realized arc that is edited within an inch of its life to never overwhelm the all consuming presence of the game.
Battle Royale has never looked this beautiful in America. I was practically crying at some of the visuals on the island. Though the tension played a role, the juxtaposition of the beautiful cinematography and the unimaginable violence shocked me into responding. By the end, I was numb and exhausted. The film is overwhelming in the best way possible, forcing you to experience every moment without a chance at escape.