At the dawn of a dystopian, crime-ridden alternative Millennium in which Japanese society is irreparably breaking down and the adult population live in mortal fear of escalating juvenile delinquency, an endemic moral panic has led to the Millennium Educational Reform Act -- AKA the BR Act -- being passed into state law …
This is the starting point for the late Kinji Fuykasaku’s at one-time controversial but now acknowledged action-cum-splatter-fest classic, “Battle Royale” -- in which forty-two members of Japan’s high-spirited student population, from Shiroiwa Junior High, 9th Grade Class B, are forced to fight each-other to the death after being knocked out by the sleeping gas that’s released into their school bus while they’re on a field trip. They’re shipped off to a remote uninhabited island, randomly issued with a diverse selection of weapons (ranging in their usefulness all the way down from sub-automatic machine gun to the lid from a tin pot) and told to get on with slaughtering each other within the allotted three day time limit – or else the steel collars clamped around their necks, and which monitor their movements and vital signs, will explode taking their wearer’s heads with them! There can be only one winner in this total war initiation into the values of a crumbling adult-centric society – one winner or no survivors at all.
A simple premise for what seems on the surface a simple, straightforward exercise in sensationalised, gore-soaked, Manga-themed, splatter-core ultra-violence -- and was condemned as such by some outraged sections of both the Japanese Government and the international media upon the film’s initial release. (Although the furore in English-speaking territories always seemed like good PR hype to me.) In fact, the film is a masterful exploration of Japan’s post-imperial legacy of hyper-capitalism and individualism, cast in a futuristic guise that echoes the themes of the veteran Fukasaku’s many violent Yakuza flicks; these are indeed battles without honour or humanity, in a social system that values neither in the struggle for economic survival. Like many apparently futuristic visions, this one is deeply indebted to the past: the director’s experience of the Second World War as a teenager, in which the traditional Japanese codes of honour and obedience were warped in an adolescence that saw the young high school Fukasaku made to work in a munitions factory with his fellow school students, and having to hide beneath their bloodied bodies after the class was caught in artillery fire. The film is a satire that imposes similar conditions of total war on a group of modern-day Japanese junior high school students. Some enthusiastically conform, others do so only out of fear; a few opt out of the system by committing suicide (already then considered an increasing social problem among young Japanese people), while some rebel with cybercrime and terrorism. The tone of the movie is deeply ambiguous despite the brash use of splatter imagery and the ramped up action sequences; the farcical humour and heightened romance in the film often seems distanced through ironic intent, signalled by Masamichi Amano’s diverse orchestra-based score.
The ostensible main protagonists among this 42-strong band of students are an impossibly cutesy pair (Fukasaku’s casting is impeccable: each of the actors has exactly the right facial characteristics for the type of Japanese youth they are each meant to represent): Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is an apple-cheeked innocent who only wants to escape with his friends and cannot understand how everyone can suddenly become sworn killers so easily. The female lead is the equally doe-eyed Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), whom Nanahara vows to protect in memory of his best friend Nobu (Yukihiro Kotani), the mop-haired truant who was secretly in love with her, and who became the second student to die even before the game had begun during a demonstration of the workings of the steel collars the group has been forced to wear for the duration of the lethal game.
The film features many instances of scenes that toy with the inherently satirical, semi-comic possibilities contained within the concept of countless petty squabbles, rivalries and jealousies of the schoolyard, as well as the intensified feelings of first love in a stereotypical high school romance setting, now being played out in the arena of a war game, within a system where the only allowable resolution of these everyday problems is that of death. The most blatant and enjoyable example of this comes during a long mid-film section during which an injured Nanahara is rescued and cared for by a group of girls who have established an all-female collective inside a lighthouse painted bright white against an azure blue sky, as a sort of fairy tale symbol of their purity and innocence. Nanahara is installed at the top of the white tower in a locked room because some of the girls ‘did not want to let guys inside’. The mere presence of a male in this paradise of female solidarity leads to suspicion and jealousy and soon enough, results in a gloriously protracted and dynamically shot sequence in which the once all-smiling and united schoolgirls end up machine-gunning each other to bloody death over their rustic kitchen table.
Alongside the comic book fun to be gained from the humorous splatter-based imagery the film revels in, with shots of axes protruding from baseball caps at loopy angles and a bomb made from a severed head with a grenade stuffed in its mouth, and other such crazy instances of schoolgirl on schoolgirl killing frenzy -- there is a more serious side to the film, and complexities of character and theme which are much more oblique and hard to pin down. The film’s tone often shifts into a more considered, quieter and reflective area. We see flashbacks to the apparently superficial hero Nanahara’s past that reveal a history of parental neglect, suicide and an adolescence spent in ineffectual foster care, all of which have bred a chronic mistrust of adults. One of the more seductively evil characters in the film is the remorseless ex-bully and sexual predator Mitsuko Souma. In the special edition, another flashback has been added (one of the few that actually adds any new information) which reveals the infant Mitsuko’s difficult upbringing as an explanation for her ruthless method of playing the death game. Perhaps the most ambiguity revolves around the relationship between the likable and reserved figure of the schoolgirl Noriko and the ostensible bogeyman of the piece, the class’s ex-schoolteacher Kitano (played brilliantly by ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), who turns out to be the brains in charge of the whole Battle Royale project. Noriko is always a somewhat conflicted figure, although the film always portrays her in a positive light. Kitano, meanwhile, actually gets some degree of audience sympathy the first time we see him sitting forlornly, alone in his empty classroom, class B having decided en mass to abscond for the day, leaving a message to that effect scrawled on the blackboard. Tellingly, Noriko (who is often bullied by Mitsuko and some of the other girls) is the only student who still turns up. Yet when Kitano is humiliated by Nobu stabbing him in the backside in the school corridor, she hides the knife and protects the young delinquent. We learn that Kitano left his teaching job soon after.
So when Kitano turns up as the man in charge of the island’s Battle Royale game, helicoptered in with platoons of soldiers and military vehicles as backup, the film for a time actually embraces the notion of adult vengeance on delinquent youth, enjoying the idea of this previously ineffectual schoolteacher shown being now able to wield total power over his once unruly charges. The kids are told of the BR act and the fate that awaits them in the form of a pseudo school lesson, presided over by Kitano in an island mock-up of a classroom flanked by machine-gun toting military personnel, and with the aid of an educational video during which there is to be no whispering. At first, the film portrays Kitano’s harsh treatment of the class’s inveterate time-wasting humorously and not entirely unsympathetically. But at a certain point, the stocky schoolteacher reveals the level of power he now possesses has unleashed a vengeful and psychotic side in his character as he begins murdering students almost indiscriminately and with evident glee.
Still though, the film chooses to emphasis a connection between Kitano and Noriko in the form of an ambiguous, almost mystical shared dream in which they are shown eating ice lollies together by a riverside; and later Noriko even seems to suggest that the experiences she has had on the island may not be an entirely bad thing for helping her to question the otherwise inevitable conventional social trajectory of her life after high school. Kitano, dressed like a school sporting coach, appears to want only the respect once inherent in his previous profession; but, hated and humiliated by his own children as well as his pupils, he has become as much a victim of his country’s postwar emphasis on competition and ruthless ambition as the lost youth itself. The unrealistic and somewhat tragi-comic end of the film, in which Nanahara, Noriko and their older friend Kawada confront Kitano one more time in the island’s classroom (now decked out with a colourful poster made in a child’s scrawl, that portrays all the deaths that have occurred across the film’s two hours) somewhat redeems Kitano as he manipulates the game in order to help Noriko, yet ultimately sacrifices himself. “Battle Royale”, then, is neither a total condemnation of Japanese youth and its delinquency, nor of adult corruption and Government anti-youth policy. Instead it seems a much more nuanced and thoughtful allegory of the state of Japanese society at the turn of the century. In its style, the film has much in common with Stanley Kubrick’s cinema -- the director having tackled similar subjects from western society’s point of view in films such as “A Clockwork Orange” and Full Metal Jacket”. The use of the music of Strauss, Verdi and Bach cannot help but recall their similar usage in Kubrick’s films, and eerie interludes of stillness in which the military forces that enforce the boundaries of the game are pictured in strangely static images while Kitano blasts out western classics on the compound Tannoy system, might even be meant as deliberate film references.
This limited edition 3-disc set from Arrow Video presents a high definition version of the original theatrical version of the film on the first Blu-ray disc, and a high definition version of the extended edition, which includes 8 minutes of extra footage that was shot six months later by Fukasaku and a reconvened cast and crew, on the second. Both Blu-ray discs also include a large amount of extras, while a third DVD disc is devoted entirely to a copious amount of extra features. “Battle Royale” is a film which has never been particularly well-served in the home viewing market. The previous DVD versions have all been pretty poor, with murky transfers and burned-in subtitles. The high definition transfers of both the theatrical and the extended editions included in this new set look pretty much equivalent to each other and are undoubtedly the best home viewing representation the film has yet received. Debates will no doubt rage about the amount of digital noise reduction that has or hasn’t been used here, but all I can say is that, while these may not be the most fantastic HD masters ever struck, I for one have certainly never seen the film looking anywhere near this good before. The daytime island sequences are particularly sharp and clear with nice naturalistic colours and convincing detail. The darker sequences sometimes lack shadow detail and definition – a problem anyone who has seen any previous DVD version will have had to put up with for near enough the entire film. Here, it is only an occasional problem and not a hugely distracting one. Over all, I found this to be a pleasing effort and I would be surprised if any better version comes along too soon. Both versions of the film come with two audio options: a stereo Japanese language track and an extremely dynamic Japanese language 5.1 DTS HD master audio that will give your home system a properly good working over. No question over if “Battle Royale” has ever sounded better.
DISC ONE EXTRAS-
Disc one also includes the original Japanese theatrical trailer, which hypes the source novel as the ‘most controversial book of the century’ above the bombastic Verdi music cue used at the very start of the film, and which, ironically enough, has since become the de rigour musical backing in every gladiatorial X Factor-style reality show going during the ten years since the film’s release.
The 51 minute making of feature “The Experience of 42 High School Students” is an engrossing documentary made up of extensive behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews with the various cast members as well as the silver-haired 70 year-old Fukasaku himself, most of the time pictured in dark shades, loose-fitting basketball shirt and combat pants, barking commands at the young actors through a megaphone! Fukasaku’s directorial style seems to involve him orchestrating every last movement and expression of his cast to the nth degree by examining their performances minutely on monitor screens. One amusing scene has a nervous Takeshi Kitano pondering if he should really throw a piece of chalk at a young actor’s head. ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ he asks, hesitantly. ‘No Problem!’ barks the director. ‘She was chosen especially for this!’ Interestingly, while the actors playing the high school students are meticulously directed, Kitano himself mentions that Fukasaku’s only instruction to him as to how he should play his somewhat inscrutable character was ‘to just be yourself’! This probably explains why the school teacher character and he share the same name, although Kitano insisted that the spelling be changed. Along the way, the film captures some charming little off hand moments between the young cast members, whose lack of guile reminds one that most of them are actually no older than the characters they’re playing in the film.
The second Blu-ray disc features the Extended Edition from 2001, with extra footage and slightly rejigged special effects. I really can’t say that I’ve ever found the extra footage adds that much more to film. It slows things down to a small degree, but not by so much that it adversary affects the film in my eyes. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the added scene of Mitsuko’s troubled childhood and the triple ‘requiem’ tacked on at the end of the film leaves things with a note of ambiguity that further emphases the connection between Noriko and Kitano.
DISC 2 EXTRAS-
A Japanese trailer for the special extended edition kicks off proceedings, followed by a short TV spot featuring a few words of praise from Quentin Tarantino in the man’s customarily enthusiastic style.
“Shooting the Special Edition” is a 9 minute featurette in the same style as the documentary on disc one. Namely, lots of video footage from behind the scenes interspersed with on-set cast interviews shot on location. This time it covers the shooting of the extra footage for the special edition, when the cast was reconvened six months after the original shoot. We see them rehearsing and then shooting the basketball game sequence that is returned to throughout the film. Ironically enough, Fukasaku seems a bit quieter on set in this segment. It turns out that he’d lost his voice!
“Interview with Beat Takeshi” features the actor who plays the schoolteacher Kitano being asked about his reasons for accepting the role, how his character changes over the course of the film, what he was like as a fifteen-year-old and how his own style of direction differs from that of Kinji Fukasaku, among other things. It runs for nearly 12 minutes.
“Conducting Battle Royale with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra” is an eight minute collection of video clips of the film’s composer and conductor Masamichi Amano conducting some of the western coral pieces from the film’s soundtrack, as well as his own self-composed pieces used in the film.
“The Correct Way to Make Battle Royale: Birthday Version”: a birthday tribute on Fukasaku’s 70th birthday, with the hyperactive girl from the Battle Royale instructional video parodying the style of said video to deliver a short speech on how a film like “Battle Royale” needs to be directed, before some video footage of the director being presented with a birthday cake on the set by cast and crew.
“Tokyo International Film Festival Presentation”: The principle cast members and Kinji Fukasaku line up on stage to each deliver a short presentation before the film’s gala screening. This runs for 4.37 seconds.
DVD DISC 3 EXTRA FEATURES-
A third DVD disc full of extra features starts off with a 12 minute piece featuring the press conference which was given the day before the film finished shooting, where the director, the author of the novel Koushun Takami and some of the main members of the cast talk to the press about the film and their feelings about working on it with such a distinguished director.
“Opening Day at the Marunouchi Toei Movie Theatre”: video footage of the Japanese opening of the movie, with press camped outside and an eager young crowd all pumped up to see the film. The piece lasts for nearly fifteen minutes and, once again, the director and cast members talk to the expectant audience (who scream as they come on stage) about the film and its message, and are then joined by a selection of the young actors who play some of the high school students dressed in their on-screen school uniforms.
“The Slaughter of 42 High School Students”: More video from behind the scenes of the making of the original film. More shots of Fukasaku terrorising his young cast into submission! This interspersed with some more interview footage of the director answering an oddly cooing female interviewer’s murmured questions. It runs for just over 10 minutes.
A selection of low quality adverts, promos and TV spots is also included.
“The Correct Way to Fight in Battle Royale”: the full instructional video played to the students during the film, but without the cutaways and reaction shots.
“Royale Rehearsals”: a video montage featuring the director ‘researching’ for the film at a real-life Tokyo high school and then rehearsing several scenes from the script with the cast before the actual shooting began. Fukasaku can come across as quite fierce sometimes on the actual set of the film, but the time spent alongside the actors, meticulously working out what he wanted from the cast in these rehearsal periods, evidently built up a lot of loyalty and respect which allowed him to be quite a strict taskmaster when it came to the actual day-to-day shooting of the film.
“Masamichi Amano conducts Battle Royale”: another selection of music from the film played by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, this time concentrating on the orchestral pieces rather than those involving the choir. It includes both the conductor’s own compositions for the movie as well as an excerpt by Strauss and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Air on a G String.
“Special Effects Comparison”: A four minute piece comparing the special effects from the original movie to those of the 2001 special edition, showing how new elements and composite shots were combined to create the differences.
“Behind the Scenes Featurette”: yet another behind-the-scenes compilation of clips, this time with a Japanese voice-over. It only lasts about 12 minutes but about half of it seems to be filled up with flashy graphics and funky music. A slight and inconsequential piece of promotional fluff that doesn’t tell you anything you haven’t already found out in the other extras.
“Filming on Set”: More of the same, but this does include some new footage of a stunt sequence being filmed that involves the young actors taking direction for a scene where a small explosive charge is to go off. (It comes from the part of the film in which the grenade lodged in the severed head goes off!)
Trailer Gallery: A selection of Japanese trailers for ‘genius’ director Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battles without Honor or Humanity” series. These were violent Yakuza flicks Fukasaku shot for Toei Films during the ‘70s. You get some gloriously violent and over-the-top trailers that string together endless shots of people being stabbed, shot and beaten and (if they’re a woman) slapped about and raped into the bargain -- they come with great tag lines such as: ‘they keep on stabbing, stabbing, stabbing!’. This runs for a cool 23 minutes.
As ever, part of the joy of Arrow Films’ releases comes with the attention paid to their packaging and the freebies included with the disc. “Battle Royale” looks to beat all of the company’s previous efforts yet in this area (I say ‘looks to’ because I haven’t actually seen them myself – an internet reviewer’s life is a hard one indeed!) with the following list of goodies (and I’m quoting from the press release, here) to be made available to purchasers of this rather comprehensive set:
A 32 page Comic Book
A 36 page Booklet including: “A Battle Without An End” by Tom Mes, author of ‘The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film’; printed interview with director Kinji Fukasaku; “Today’s Lesson is … You Kill Each Other” by Jay McRoy, author of ‘Japanese Horror Cinema (LE Exclusive); extract from Koushan Takami’s original novel (LE exclusive); original promotional material including director’s statement, cast and crew biogs (LE exclusive)
16 page Booklet including: concept artwork and drawing for the limited edition set (LE exclusive)
5 x 7” Postcards of stills from the film (LE Exclusive)
Fold-out reversible poster of original artwork
… And there you have it!
Limited to 5000 copies, this set is sure to become a much sought after item. Now all the hype and the controversy have dissipated, what remains is a beautifully crafted movie that contains satire, allegory and a rare thoughtful quality alongside a set of exciting, brashly executed action set-pieces. This is another essential cult purchase from Arrow Films.