Director: Kinji Fukasaku

In the long existence of the medium, motion pictures have not been without controversy. It's always been that way, it'll always be that way. Though we here in the United States have our fair share of movies that have rubbed people the wrong way, they're not exactly limited to North America. In fact, a thorough search will lead you to Japan. A lot of ire-raising movies have come out of the Land of the Rising Sun, with one movie particularly standing out. Based on a popular yet equally controversial novel written by Koushun Takami, Battle Royale hit theaters in Japan on December 16, 2000, and was met critical and box office success. In addition to winning the praise of critics and the money of moviegoers, Battle Royale also got people talking primarily about its content. If there's any reason why the movie has never been officially released in the States in any format, it would probably be due to the content. And although the movie does have something of a cult following, I just don't believe that Americans at large would be ready for a movie like Battle Royale.

BATTLE ROYALE (2000)At the turn of the twenty-first century, Japan is falling apart. Unemployment is at an all-time high, and students are boycotting school en masse, sometimes going as far as to physically assault their teachers and other adults. To combat the growing number of juvenile delinquents, the Japanese parliament passes the Millennium Education Reform Act, otherwise referred to as the BR Act. Under the BR Act's provisions, a program known as "Battle Royale" is created. Once a year, a ninth grade class is randomly chosen and forced to fight one another to the death until only one student emerges victorious.

The movie tells the story of one such class. When they embark on what they believe is a run-of-the-mill field trip, they're gassed and shipped directly to a deserted island. There, they are reunited with their embittered seventh grade teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), who will be serving as this year's referee. Each student is provided with a duffel bag containing some basic survival tools — food and water, a flashlight, a compass, a map — and a randomly assigned weapon. While some get lucky and pull things like machine guns, hatchets, sickles, and crossbows out of their satchels, the less fortunate ones end up with seemingly useless objects like pot lids, paper fans, and binoculars. Yeah, some weapons those are. Might as well has handed them some rolled-up newspapers and a bullseye to stick on their foreheads. Anyway, the students have also been fitted with irremovable collars laced with explosives. If they try to flee or enter one of the island's numerous forbidden areas, the guilty party's collar will detonate. And just to make sure they play along, all of them will detonate if more than one student remains alive at the end of seventy-two hours.

Once they've been briefed on the rules, they're sent out and told to kill or be killed. Some resign themselves to their fates, preferring suicide over being forced into mortal combat with their friends and classmates. Others just try to stay alive as long as they can. Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), both of whom were shafted when the weapons were distributed, team up to take a defensive stance, and are eventually befriended by Shogo Kawada (Taro Yamamoto). A former Battle Royale winner, Shogo has entered himself into the game a second time as a ringer in order to avenge the death of his girlfriend, who sacrificed her life for his so he could win.

Other students decide to give "The Man" the finger and take a more proactive role against those that have stuck them in this situation. One in particular, anarchist computer hacker Sinji Mimura (Takashi Tsukamoto), has gathered his friends to formulate an intricate plan that would bring down the system and liberate their classmates. But then there's the two participants who get way too into the game: Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), a frighteningly silent young man who has willfully signed up for Battle Royale in order to commit a few government-endorsed murders, and troubled femme fatale Mitsuko Souma (Kou Shibasaki), who will use anything and everything at her disposal to systematically dispose of her rivals.

Battle Royale isn't the only film to have been made with a story like this. Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Running Man and, more recently, The Condemned both feature characters that are dropped into a remote location and forced to fight for their lives against their will. But what sets Battle Royale apart is that all but one of the characters is a teenager. That's probably why it's earned the reputation it has developed over the years. Its "Lord of the Flies with guns" vibe not only adds to its notoriety, but to its potential to offend people. Aside from the unreasonable terms that have supposedly been quoted by Toei Company for American distribution, I'm sure that the idea of a movie featuring 14- and 15-year-olds killing one another is something that some distributors wouldn't want to touch with a ten-foot pole, lest they incur the wrath of the conservatives and the bleeding hearts evoking the memories of the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres. And while both of those tragedies are horrific, it's a real bummer that copies of Battle Royale are hard to find in the United States, because it's an amazing movie.

The movie, oddly enough, could be viewed as something of a collaboration of the styles of John Woo and John Hughes. It's both an unpredictable action movie and a "teen movie." The characters all have their own relationships, their own ways to cope, and their own lives that have been thrown into turmoil, just like the classic teen movies that Hughes directed in the '80s. It's also evident that the high school clique system is still very much in effect, even as the characters mow one another down. The cool kids try to prove their dominance, the bully tries to take people out, the misfits try to stake their place, the rebels try bucking the system, and everyone else just tries to get by. It's that sort of thing that makes the movie that much more compelling and that much more disturbing. Plus there's all that wild bloody violence.

Just about every part of Battle Royale is well done. The direction is top notch, the score is fantastic, and the acting is superb. Respected Asian filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku — perhaps best known to Western audiences for co-directing Tora! Tora! Tora! — sits in the director's chair and crafts a visually enticing film. Battle Royale would mark the final film helmed by Fukasaku before his death due to prostate cancer in 2003, and he handles the material well. The restraint he shows really helps the movie, because had it been too stylized, it would take the viewer right out of the movie. Assisting him is cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima, whose camerawork is absolutely fantastic. Even in the most violent moments, the movie retains a poetic look throughout, setting a somber mood that truly benefits the story being told. It also helps that the movie boasts a powerful score composed by Masamichi Amano. Combining his own original material with classical compositions from Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Strauß, Amano's music makes the events of the movie much more effective.

Up next is the screenplay, penned by the director's son, Kenta Fukasaku. Having never read Koushin Takami's novel, I really can't compare the movie to its source material. But what I can say is that the screenplay goes above and beyond the call of duty, taking material that could be a typical exploitation movie and rising to a higher plateau. Battle Royale has characters that we can like and care about, and situations that can shock and terrify while leaving we the viewer emotionally drained. If this were any other movie, it would just be nothing but soulless violence that wouldn't accomplish anything other than numbing the viewer's senses. But because the script boasts such intriguing, watchable characters, each death bears a strong emotional resonance.

I also got the feeling that Quentin Tarantino also served as something of an inspiration during the writing process, as evidenced by the lighthouse scene. Those of you who have seen it know what I'm talking about. To the uninitiated, I'll try and set it up without spoiling too much. In this scene, a number of girls have taken refuge in an abandoned lighthouse. Things go pretty well for a while, but when a spark ignites mistrust, the mistrust ignites paranoia, and the paranoia ignites violence. It's a moment that feels as if it were lifted from Reservoir Dogs, an intense scene that highlights the fantastic job that the Fukasakus and the cast do.

The only real problem I had with the screenplay — and the movie as a whole — is that the logistics of the BR Act don't make a whole lot of sense. First off, the opening scene seems to evidence that the Battle Royale program is a major newsworthy event. But then why haven't any of the participants the movie centers around heard of it? One could argue that they're so caught up in their own self-serving lives that they pay little to no attention to the world around them, but that completely defeats the entire purpose of Battle Royale. You'd think that if your program is supposed to scare kids straight, it would help if they knew what it was and what it was supposed to accomplish.

Secondly, I don't get the whole "random selection" thing. If Battle Royale was established to thin out the ranks of the hoodlums overrunning Japan, what happens if you randomly pick a class full of students with bright, promising futures? It's like picking a class full of Nobel Prize winners when a class full of gang members is right there. And why would you encourage someone to win Battle Royale to begin with? Whoever wins will probably walk away with severe emotional scarring, perhaps some latent homicidal tendencies, and most certainly a big ol' bucket of other issues. Would you want to let someone like that loose in society? Reverse Darwinism doesn't seem like all that great of an idea. Yeah, the movie does lose some of the entertainment value when you start thinking about the sociological effects of the events depicted, but it's hard to overlook this stuff sometimes.

Moving on, let's talk about the cast for a little while. Every single member of the cast brings their A-game, no matter how minor and inconsequential their character is. Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda, as the emotional centers of the movie, work well together and handle what's asked of them. However, at times I felt that they were outshined by other members of the cast. Taro Yamamoto is fun, hitting all the right notes and playing his role quite well. Kou Shibasaki and Masanobu Ando stand out as well, committing acts of cold-blooded violence like it was second nature to them. Ando is especially notable, playing his role almost as if he were the Terminator. The scene where he shoots two girls in the back, then uses their megaphone to project their dying cries across the hills... I get chills thinking about it. I'll also give honorable mentions also go to Eri Ishikawa, Takashi Tsukamoto, Chiaki Kuriyama (who you may recognize as Lucy Liu's schoolgirl bodyguard from Kill Bill: Volume One), and Sousuki Takaoka, who all turn in fine performances.

But it goes without saying that the best contribution comes from Takeshi Kitano. Credited here as "Beat Takeshi," Kitano is wonderfully intense as Battle Royale's master of ceremonies. His character brings a lot of dark humor to the movie, and he is up to task. Take, for example, the scene in which he introduces the students to the concept of Battle Royale. The students are informed of the program's rules and regulations through an unsettlingly energetic instructional video, and Kitano's reactions to that video are worth the price of admission alone. Alternating between spiteful and upbeat, Kitano's performance nearly makes the movie worth seeing all by itself.

Numerous reviewers, both in print and online, have noted that Battle Royale is supposedly a scathing commentary on Japanese society. The thing is, I know very little (if anything) about Japan's society or culture, so I really can't judge anything like that. However, I'm not so ignorant that certain things went unnoticed. The movie very much speaks of the ever-broadening generation gap, how the adults fear the youth and how the youth have little respect for the adults. But even when viewed at its most shallow, as a complete and total orgy of violence tinged with dark humor, Battle Royale is actually a fairly solid action movie. Of course, the fact that all the characters are teenagers creates something of a quandary; is it wrong to be entertained by a movie that is essentially about forty teenagers being forced to kill one another? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that not only is it entertaining, but it's a damn fine film. Just because I live in a country where school shootings happen as often as the seasons change doesn't mean I can't let myself like a movie. So I'm going to give Battle Royale four stars and a seal of approval. If you can track it down — be it through an imported DVD or VCD, or downloading it with your favorite file-sharing software — it's definitely worth your time.

Final Rating: ****