The immense success of The Hunger Gamers has prompted the seemingly inevitable rerelease of Battle Royale, a 2000 Japanese film with a similar theme and an immense cult following. That’s cause for celebration; the decision to release it in 3D isn’t. Battle Royale needed no such tricks to sell us the first time around, and jacking up the theater price for a movie that’s readily available on DVD won’t win it any new fans. But the movie industry is nothing without its wild unfounded hopes, and with the 3D conversion finished for Japan in 2010 (right after Avatar sent the whole concept into orbit), they basically lose nothing but a little extra gravy.
If you haven’t seen the film, I’d urge a DVD or Blu-ray screening rather than trudging out to the theaters. It scale remains surprisingly intimate and a decent HD TV should give you a wonderful experience without submitting to obscene ticket prices. And it absolutely demands a look if you haven’t yet seen it. While The Hunger Games gained a certain measure of inspiration from it, the two films spin the same basic concept into wildly different directions. Specifically, The Hunger Games took it all extremely seriously, while Battle Royale views it as a huge opportunity for social satire. The gender gap is on the rise in Japan, as young people strain against the expectations of traditional cultural mores and their elders wonder what civilization is coming to. Battle Royale pokes merciless fun at both sides.
In the movie’s dark future, society selects a single classroom at random for the titular conflict. The students are gassed and fitted with exploding collars, then set loose on an island with an array of weapons and three days to finish each other off. One survivor will be allowed to return home. If more than one person still lives at the end of the three days, then everyone’s collars explode. The collars also explode if caught in any randomly shifting grids on the island, forcing the combatants to move around rather than hole up and wait.
The class’s put-upon teacher (Beat Takeshi) explains it all to them with the help of a phalanx of armed guards, then serves as master of ceremonies while his former pupils hunt each other down. The film constantly shifts between combatants: focusing on four or five key individuals but breaking away to detail the grisly fate of all 40 participants. Our sympathies naturally fall on two good-hearted kids (Ntatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda) who want no part in any killing and merely seek a way to survive. Those attitudes don’t translate well with their classmates. The more ruthless ones do much better, from an apparent queen bee (Kill Bill’s Chiaki Kuriyama) with a taste for double crosses to a psychotic “transfer student” (Sôsuke Takaoka) who actually volunteered to participate. A few hopefuls plot to strike back against the people who put them here, while the rest simply last as long as they can.
Director Kinji Fukasaku takes a Ten Little Indians approach in detailing every one of the kills. All the inferred slights and cruelties of teenage life come raging to the fore as, divested of their social niceties, former classmates devolve into vicious beasts. A few twists and turns keep the formula from becoming repetitive, and Fukasaku brings enough compassion to the deserving to keep the grizzly deaths from numbing our moral sensitivities. A sharp sense of humor assists him: aimed towards insight and ridicule rather than the nihilistic glee to which it might have succumbed. It chills us even as we snicker, and the resulting mayhem ultimately reads as a condemnation of our own violent tendencies rather than a tacit celebration.
The underlying messages combine with sharp filmmaking for a gloriously entertaining ride, provided you have a taste for dark material and don’t mind the occasional poke in the ribs. Battle Royale completely engages us without losing track of its anti-violence message, a tricky balance that has sent many lesser productions spinning into hypocrisy. Here, the two elements work in congruence: allowing us to enjoy the spectacle without skipping the cost of looking.
In light of that, the 3D release becomes an unnecessary distraction. Granted, the filmmakers have shown no compunction about milking the film for all its worth in the past, with a director’s cut that actually weakens the original and a sequel that won’t grace the annals of brilliant Part 2s anytime soon. 3D thus can’t do much harm, and the reconfiguring can’t remove the film’s marvelous manic energy. It’s simply an afterthought – another reason to rake in some extra cash – and the presumption involved rankles what should be an otherwise sublime experience. Battle Royale represents must-see viewing for any fan of cinema. Just try to ignore the producers reaching quietly for your wallet in the process.