Judge Patrick Bromley wrote this review while camped out for Hunger Games tickets.
Forty-two students. Three days. One survivor. No rules.
Just in time for the film adaptation of The Hunger Games comes the original Hunger Games: Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, finally arriving on Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray for the first time as part of Anchor Bay's four-disc Battle Royale: The Complete Collection.
Facts of the Case
Based on a novel by Koshun Takami, Battle Royale takes place in a kind of alternate timeline Japan, in which the nation has collapsed and a totalitarian regime has sprung up. The adults, fearing a revolution by the young people of Japan, enact the Millennium Educational Reform Act, otherwise known as the "BR" act, which takes groups of young people and places them on an island, where they are fastened with exploding collars and forced to murder one another until only one remains. That person is the "winner" and becomes a national celebrity.
In Battle Royale II: Requiem, a group of rebels (led by a survivor of the game) has been branded as "terrorists" by the Japanese government. A new group of teenagers is kidnapped, only this time, instead of being forced to kill one another, they are tasked with hunting down and killing the rebels who have taken refuge on a deserted island.
It's not a surprise that Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku's 2000 cult classic never received a proper release in the U.S., relegated instead to midnight shows and foreign or, more typically, bootleg DVDs. It is, after all, a movie that's single-mindedly devoted to showing school children murder one another in horrible, bloody ways. In this, it is relentless.
The movie is the work of a madman, and I mean that in the best way possible. There's no denying that Battle Royale is, first and foremost, an exploitation movie, drawing the viewer in with its insane premise and ultraviolence. But even though Fukasaku never misses an opportunity for true exploitation movie shocks and thrills, there is a beating heart at the center of the movie that makes it resonate more than many of the Asian genre movies of the same era. We are constantly reminded that these are just kids. Some have to watch their friends die. Some have to murder their friends. Yes, there are those students who take to murder all too quickly. A few have even signed up specifically to kill others. That's the part of human nature that the movie is satirizing—because, indeed, much of Battle Royale can be read as comedy. Horrible, bloody comedy, but comedy nonetheless. Maybe it was the only way to make this material at all palatable. Maybe Fukasaku understood just how ludicrous the very idea of the movie was, and chose to pitch the tone accordingly.
There are so many ways in which Battle Royale could go wrong—and, to be fair, there are plenty of people who will think that it does go "wrong." It's a polarizing movie, and certainly not for everyone. No movie about kids killing each other could possibly be. But it is at once real and "hyper"-real; like so many Japanese films, the emotion on display is so feverish it reaches operatic heights. At the same time, a great deal of time is spent on the love lives and crushes of so many of the characters; they are constantly discussing who they "like," and some even seek to lose their virginity before they die (one girl is only too happy to oblige, but those boys must wish they hadn't taken her up on it). What's best about the movie is that it doesn't ignore the fact that these are children who are realizing all too quickly that they will never have the chance to grow up. They won't even get an adolescence. They have crushes but will never date. There will be no first kiss. No more basketball games or time spent with friends. There will be only these two days on this island, and whatever child wins will no longer be a child. It's this that takes Battle Royale from good to great.
I wish I could say the same for 2003's Battle Royale II: Requiem, also included in this collection. Director Kinji Fukasaku died during production on the sequel (reportedly after shooting just a single scene), so directing duties were taken over by his son, Kenta Fukasaku, who also wrote the screenplay for both films. The younger Fukasaku just doesn't have the same feel for tone, and Requiem never achieves the same delicate balance of horror, comedy, satire and sadness of the original. That's largely a result of the screenplay, though, which takes the story in directions it simply does not need to go. To Fukasaku's credit, he's not content to just rehash the first movie all over again—things begin that way, but quickly make a significant departure so that Requiem can carve out its own space. Unfortunately, that space isn't all that interesting, despite everyone's good intentions. Part of the problem comes from messing too much with the formula; instead of making a movie about students being forced to kill one another, the sequel pits all the students together against a common enemy. The first third of the movie is one long, frantic, violent battle sequence that owes equally to Saving Private Ryan (it's essentially the Normandy invasion) and Starship Troopers, and, while I appreciate what the director is trying to say about how young people are turned into soldiers and sent off to essentially be cannon fodder, those ideas are dropped shortly after the battle sequence resolves. The movie's masterstroke—that the students are paired off into teams, and when one is killed or gets too far away from the other, both collars explode—is also never really explored beyond being a means to up the body count early on and get down to a more workable number of characters.
It's an interesting—and even daring—notion to make a movie that's pretty much told from the point of view of a terrorist, particularly when that terrorist is a character we've gotten to know (over the course of the first film) and who is completely sympathetic. Again, there are a lot of good ideas at work in Battle Royale II, but they never really come together in a satisfying way. As visceral and violent as the first third of the sequel is, the middle act is almost unbearably slow (though I suspect the filmmakers were going for "meditative"). Things pick up somewhat for the finale, but by then it's gotten too far away from what makes Battle Royale great. It's a respectable effort, but the movie just doesn't work.
Anchor Bay's four-disc Battle Royale: The Complete Collection doesn't just offer the two movies on Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray for the first time (legitimately, anyway), but even goes and extra step and contains both the original theatrical cut and longer (by eight minutes) "director's cut" versions of the original Battle Royale. The differences between the two aren't incredibly significant, mostly amounting to a) some flashbacks to a basketball game played between the students that are woven throughout the director's cut, b) some additional CGI gore and c) a series of "requiems" at the very end of the film designed to fill in some of the character gaps. While the additional violence may sound appealing (especially for a movie like this, which is incredibly violent to begin with), the digital manner in which it's done is distracting and cheap looking. Worse, though, are the "requiems" in the director's cut, which play more like deleted scenes that have just been tacked on before the credits and which step all over the original ending. I'm glad that Anchor Bay has seen fit to include both versions—making the set as complete as it can be—but it's the theatrical cut that I'll most likely be returning to in the future.
The first disc of the four disc set includes the theatrical cut, while the director's cut can be found on Disc Two (if not for the additional violence and a few small changes, both versions probably could have been housed on a single disc and accessed via branching). Both are presented in a 1080p HD transfer in their original 1.78:1 theatrical aspect ratio, and while the transfer is far from the best the format has had to offer, it gets the job done. The image is bright and naturalistic with satisfying detail, even if there are some visible scratches and specks and occasional softness, which owes more to the source material than a disappointing transfer. It's difficult to say if the 1080p transfer on Battle Royale II: Requiem is a step down from the first movie or if it's just that the sequel's cinematography is way more dull; whichever the case, the sequel (found on Disc Three) isn't as much fun to look at as the original. It's a totally satisfactory transfer, though, and shouldn't disappoint even the most fervent of fans.
The director's cut of Battle Royale comes equipped with a lossless 7.1 TrueHD Japanese audio track that's powerful and immersive, showcasing the fantastic score and really playing up the more violent sound effects. A second option, which is a 5.1 mix dubbed in English, is also available on this version. The theatrical cut has no English dub option (which, let's face it, is just as well), instead featuring only a 5.1 lossless Japanese track. Battle Royale II is given a 5.1 TrueHD mix which, despite the loss of two channels, is actually stronger than the one on Battle Royale. Again, that may just be a function of the movie, as at least the first third is a nonstop assault of gunfire and explosions owing a lot of Saving Private Ryan. Things do quiet down after that, but the Japanese dialogue (presented with English subtitles) is always clear and audible.
The fourth disc of Battle Royale: The Complete Collection contains all of the bonus features for the set, and it's a pretty extensive offering. There's a nearly hour-long "making of" documentary, as well as a shorter, more EPK-style doc and a "behind the scenes" featurette which all cover a lot of the same territory. Also included is some footage from a press conference, some "on set footage" (which is essentially just another repurposed behind the scenes collection), some video taken during a celebration of director Kinji Fukasaku's 70th birthday, a special effects featurette, a piece filmed at the 2000 Tokyo International Film Festival, a few audition tapes, rehearsal footage for both the movie and the basketball game that was added for the director's cut, the trailer and two TV spots, one featuring director Quentin Tarantino, who has long been one of Battle Royale's biggest champions. There is so much repetition and shapeless footage found in the supplemental section that it can't help but disappoint. Fans of the movie who are interested in every single aspect of production will likely find something to like, but everyone else is destined to be let down by the fourth disc.
Anchor Bay is also releasing a "film only" version of Battle Royale on DVD and Blu-ray, though it's the director's cut version and contains no special features. Seeing as how the bonus disc on The Complete Collection contains hardly any "must see" special features and how disappointing Battle Royale II is as a movie, casual fans or those on a budget may want to consider picking up the "film only" version. The problem there is that it doesn't contain the theatrical cut, which is the preferred version as far as this reviewer is concerned. Still, for the diehards who want everything Battle Royale-related they can get their hands on, the Complete Collection is the only way to go.
One dead. 41 to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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