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Battle Royale (2001)
Director: Kinji Fukasaku

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Prior to the rise of the DVD, foreign films were seen as inherently questionable. Scarred by generations of European art house imports and cheap exploitation films, English-speaking audiences retreated further and further into a bubble of cultural insularity smug in the knowledge that any decent films actually made by foreigners would most likely be remade anyway thereby allowing most English-speaking film fans to live out their cinematic days without ever having to read a subtitle. But then something wonderful happened...

Drawing on the huge cult popularity of films such as Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (2003), Takashi Miike's Audition (1999), and Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs (2002), ambitious British and American DVD distributors set about creating a mass audience for foreign films. For the first time in a generation, audiences were seeking out subtitles and unfamiliar faces not because they thought the films might be 'good' for them or because they thought that they 'really ought' to widen their horizons but because foreign films were violent, sexy, imaginative and fun.

One of the foundational texts of this 21st century cinephilia was Kinji Fukasaku's adaptation of Koushun Takami's hugely influential manga serial Battle Royale. Over ten years after it first appeared in western cinemas, Battle Royale is re-issued on three DVDs including a boat-load of extras and a somewhat questionable 'director's cut'. Promotional gubbins aside, Battle Royale is a film that continues to impress even as its special effects begin to age. This is a film that speaks to the problems of our day; this film is a foundation stone not only of 21st century cinephilia, but also of 21st century science fiction.

Some time in the near future, the long-suffering Japanese government will snap and decide that enough is enough and that someone needs to show these bloody kids who is boss. The result of this snapping will be the Millennium Education Reform Act also known as the 'Battle Royale Act'; a piece of legislation that selects a high school class at random and transports it to an isolated island where the students will be forced to fight to the death until only one student remains.

The film begins with the kids being given a bag full of equipment and released into the wilderness of the island as their long-suffering teacher played by Beat Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano, who was reportedly the model for the character in the original manga) swaggers about teaching them 'the rules' with a degree of authority that he never managed to achieve without the backing of soldiers and the power to kill his students on a whim. As the film develops, the kids split off into a series of groups whose stories dominate the body of the film.

Some of the kids hole up in an old office building and plan a counter-attack against their government oppressors, some of the kids hide and look after each other, some of the kids use their weapons to exact vengeance for old grievances and other kids rend at their clothes and howl at the Moon in a series of increasingly operatic attempts to stave off death through the acquisition and maintenance of true love or reconciliation. 'Operatic' is the key term here as the film sees Fukasaku routinely emphasising not only the savagery of the violence but also the power of the emotions that run through the student. Whether they are machine-gunning each other with a dead look in their eyes or professing love amidst exploding buildings and severed heads, the details of the students' lives are invariably accompanied by sweeping orchestral music and an emphatic visual style that somehow never quite manages to tip over into outright comic absurdity despite coming close in a number of places. Indeed, despite the years, Battle Royale remains a well-paced, visually inventive and emotionally complex look at the relationship between Japan's generations.

Thematically, Battle Royale paves the way for films and manga such as Motoro Mase's Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit (adapted for the screen in 2008 by Tomoyuki Takimoto), Noboyuki Fukumoto's Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji (adapted for the screen in 2009 by T�ya Sat�), and Tetsuya Nakashima's Confessions (2010) in that it presents the youth of Japan as scapegoats for the problems of the Japanese state. What is particularly interesting about this trope is that, while the works that make use of it generally accept that Japanese society is behaving in an immoral manner, the works seldom allow the reader's moral outrage to translate into sympathy for the characters. Indeed, instead of casting their scapegoats as heroic underdogs who battle against the status quo or as saintly victims who die tragically and teach us all a lesson, these works typically suggest that the kids may well, on some level deserve everything they get.

For example, in Sat�'s Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler, the protagonist allows himself to get into a terrible situation because of greed and stupidity. Similarly, in Takimoto's Death Notice - Ikigami, the young who are sacrificed for the 'good of society' tend to accept their fate or channel their anger into lashing out at their families rather than taking to the streets to protest the fact that the government is murdering them by the thousands for no good reason. Again, in Nakashima's Confessions, the children are destroyed by the adults that surround them simply because they are too stupid and cowardly to refuse to accept the ways in which their elders treat them. Again and again, Japanese genre writers depict modern Japan as a hellish place where the old lash out against the youth in ignorance, fear and hatred but the youth refuse to organise and refuse to do anything about their treatment thereby suggesting that no matter how immoral these old people might be, they are not entirely wrong about Japan's passive, consumerist youth.

Battle Royale explores this idea by presenting us with a cast of characters who simply cannot work together. In one powerful scene, a group of girls have set aside their weapons in order for work together until they encounter a wounded boy. Worried that this interloper might betray them, one of the girls puts poison in his food only to watch with horror as one of the other girls tastes the food and winds up vomiting blood all over the kitchen table. Within minutes, paranoia and violence have slipped their leashes and the air is full of bullets and gizzards.

The contempt that the film has for its youthful protagonists is also evident in the melodramatic character of many of the students' relationships, as though the director and writers are mocking the students for being in love when they should be hunting down and murdering their demented teacher. The only time this thick veil of contempt is lifted is when the students actually go on the offensive either by trying to attack the soldiers or by cheating the system in order to engineer a daring escape. The film's final frame consists of nothing but the Japanese characters for the word 'Run!' suggesting that the message from the filmmakers to the film's audience is clear: Get a fucking move on a do something!

This edition of Battle Royale boasts three DVDs that include the original theatrical cut of the film, a director's cut and a veritable armada of promotional featurettes, interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, special effects shots, trailers and adverts. Sadly, the bulk of these extras are of very little worth as they are mostly made up of promotional material designed to sell you a film that you already own. There are no intelligent, probing interviews or discussions of the film's importance and meaning, instead we have half a dozen TV adverts and some footage of actors being very polite at press conferences. Also deeply problematic is the expanded version of the film that is referred to here as a 'director's sut'.

The phenomenon of the director's cut is grounded in the supposition that most films have an ideal form and that this ideal form is the form intended by the director. However, because of financial wranglings or production difficulties, there are times when the version of the film that is initially made available to the public is not the version of the film that the director preferred thereby creating a demand for a second cut of the film that does constitute the director's preferred version of the film. There are a number of problems with this picture.

The perceived value of a director's cut is derived from the increasingly widespread belief that, in cases where more than one version of a film exists, the version that is closer to the director's original vision is necessarily better. This belief stems chiefly from the multiple releases of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), and Peter Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. In the case of Blade Runner, disastrous test screenings prompted studio executives to step in and produce a version of the film that proved to be not only less cinematically powerful but less coherent from a narrative point of view. In the case of Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy, the films were given an initial theatrical release that served almost as a teaser for the extended editions of the films that arrived later on DVD. In both cases, the extended editions of the films are not only closer to the original directorial visions, they are also much better films.

However, for every Blade Runner: Director's Cut (1991), there is an Apocalypse Now Redux (2001), or a Star Wars: Special Edition (1997), which suggest that there are times when directors are better off not being indulged by their producers. Conversely, as in the case of films such as Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), and John Cassavetes' The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976), there are times when the original directorial vision of a film is actually shorter than the film that eventually finds its way into cinemas. The picture becomes even more complex once you come to realise that many 'extended editions' exist solely as an excuse to re-package and re-release an existing film by including as much supplementary material as possible. These versions of films pander to scholars and fans but they are not intended to be better films or more authentic versions of a director's vision: they are simply longer.

The truth is that the process of film production necessarily involves a lot of waste and duplication and that many films only really come together once the director sits down in an editing suite and begins the process of sifting through the thousands of feet of film shot during production. There is no such thing as the 'ultimate version' of a film, there are only alternate edits that select different footage and arrange it in different configurations so as to produce different effects. The director's cut of a film is not necessarily the best version of a film, and nor is it even necessarily the version that is most true to the director's original vision, as many directors either shoot without a singular vision in mind or only assemble a clear vision once they are in the editing suite and begin to hone their vision through discussion with other people. The so-called director's cut of Battle Royale muddies these treacherous waters even further by virtue of the fact that it contains additional scenes that were never intended as part of the original film but were actually shot six months after the film's theatrical release.

Whether you prefer the original edit of Battle Royale or the extended edition is, of course, ultimately a question of individual taste but I would personally argue that this is one of those films that benefited hugely from a desire to keep things tight and focused. Yes, the additional scenes flesh out many of the characters but much of the film's political power flows directly from the fact that the melodramatic treatment of the characters' relationships feels completely undeserved. By giving us more insight into the characters' back-stories and their lives prior to their arrival on the island, the filmmakers rob the film of its uncanny ability to walk that fine contemptuous line between comedy and tragedy.

Battle Royale boxset




Beat Takashi in Battle Royale




video rules in Battle Royale




knife killing in Battle Royale




dead kids in Battle Royale




Battle Royale on blu-ray



copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press