Awhile back, my fourteen year old nephew came over for a visit with his usual knapsack full of teen essentials, including an X-box, an I-pod, several games, and a stack of books. One of the books was the third chapter in Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular Hunger Games series; a series I’m very familiar with as I’ve spent the better part of its existence telling everyone who will listen that it’s nothing more than a tween-friendly rip-off of Koushun Takami’s masterful 1999 novel, Battle Royale. My nephew scoffed at the suggestion that this series that he and his friends couldn’t get enough of was anything less than a bonafide original concept, so I told him I’d prove it to him. I went to my office and retrieved my import DVD of Battle Royale, told him to take a seat on the couch, and prepare to be schooled. Fifteen minutes into the film, my nephew looked at me as though his dog were run over by an ice cream truck.
“Shit,” he said. “You’re right.”
As the movie went on, he took some solace in the fact that The Hunger Games only lifted the concept of Battle Royale, and was quick to point out that it was much more involved in terms of characters, romance, and the reasoning behind the existence of the games, themselves. I backed off a little at that point because, to be honest, rip-off or not, I’m just happy the kid reads anything at all, and, while I’ve personally not read any of The Hunger Games books, I do know enough about them to say that, yes, Collins has apparently expanded upon the basic concept of Takami’s story (at least enough to avoid any messy litigation).
Still, many have pointed out that the similarities are too glaring to be overlooked, and, while Collins maintains the she’d never even heard of Takami’s book until well after The Hunger Games was published (something I highly doubt), and I think that, with the imminent release of movie adaptation of The Hunger Games, I think it’s important that the series’ legions of fans should at least be made aware of the existence of both Takami’s book and the cult smash film it spawned. Anchor Bay, apparently, agrees! On Tuesday, March 20th (three days before The Hunger Games opens in theaters) the company unleashes both the DVD of Battle Royale, as well as its deluxe four-disc edition, Battle Royale: The Complete Collection on Blu-ray; the first time the film has been released in any format in North America!
Battle Royale opens with a brief prologue describing a Japan in a state of economic ruin. Nearly a quarter of the population is out of work, and a youth uprising, in which 800,000 students boycotted school in protest, has led to the government passing the Millennium Educational Reform Act (aka; the BR Act). The BR Act sees fifty high school classes a year chosen at random to take part in a three day battle in which there can only be one winner.
The film focuses on one such class – the students of Shirowia Junior High School, whose bus is gassed en route to what they believed was a field trip into the country. The students awaken on a remote island, where they are welcomed by Kitano (Takeshi “Beat” Kitano), a former teacher who now serves as something of a government overseer on the project. Kitano turns the frightened students’ attentions to a slickly produced instructional video that goes over the rules of Battle Royale, and then explains that the students have three days to kill one another. If more than one of them survives at the end of that time frame, the tracking collars around their necks will explode, killing them instantly. With that, the students are each given a bag containing food, water, and a random weapon (some of them hilariously inefficient), and sent off, one by one, to partake in the game. Many of the students - like Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda) - seek a nonviolent way of getting off of the island; others, however, have no qualms about killing to survive.
Directed by the late Kinji Fukasaku (Battles Without Honor and Humanity), Battle Royale deviates a bit from the source material (in Takami’s book, Japan is actually part of a totalitarian regime known as The Republic of Greater East Asia, and the games - referred to as “the project” – are a means of keeping the citizens docile through terror), but is no less effective in its jarring portrayal of once-innocent youths forced to kill their friends and classmates in order to survive. The depiction of violence is unflinching and, for some, may be difficult to take, but, while the controversial nature of said violence is what made Battle Royale so infamous upon its release, the film (like the book) is actually sort of pacifistic in nature, with many of the characters opting to try to find a peaceful resolution (or, in some cases, killing themselves rather than cause harm to others). Granted, most won’t care as they’ll be too busy munching on popcorn and rooting on the film’s heroes (or colorful baddies – the smoking-hot Mitsuko and the sociopatic Kiriyama).
Anchor Bay’s brings Battle Royale: The Complete Collection to Blu-ray in a four-disc set that comes encased in a faux textbook shell, and features the director’s cut and theatrical versions of the original film, along with the inferior (yet still entertaining) sequel, Battle Royale II: Requiem on three Blu-rays, while a huge assortment of bonus goodies are included on DVD. All three films look very good, with both versions of the 1999’s Battle Royale showing minor signs of wear and the occasional bit of excess noise, as well as some softness in the image at times, but it’s a massive improvement over my Region 2 DVD version! Battle Royale II: Requiem fares slightly better, with a sharper overall image and more evident fine detail, but the production values of this lower-budget sequel are somewhat lacking, giving the film something of a cheaper, less cinematic look.
All three films excel in the audio department, with Battle Royale sporting a nifty 7.1 Dolby True HD track that offers crisp and clean dialogue (albeit in Japanese with English subtitles), and wonderfully mixed sound effects. Poor Battle Royale II has to make do with a mere 5.1 Dolby True HD track, but it’s no less impressive as this busy track makes the most of its 2 track handicap, with really smartly mixed surround effects and satisfying bass.
The extras on the DVD are presented in standard definition (of course), but the sheer volume and quality of the bonus features almost make up for the lack of HD (almost). The extras include:
• The Making Of BATTLE ROYALE
• BATTLE ROYALE Press Conference
• Instructional Video: Birthday Version
• Audition & Rehearsal Footage
• Special Effects Comparison Featurette
• Tokyo International Film Festival 2000
• Battle Royale Documentary
• Basketball Scene Rehearsals
• Behind-The-Scenes Featurette
• Filming On-Set
• Original Theatrical Trailer
• Special Edition TV Spot
• TV Spot: Tarantino Version
It’s been a long time coming, but Battle Royale is finally available in North America, and Anchor Bay’s presentation sees it arriving in fine style. While many fans, like myself, have been importing the film since its original release, it’s high time we had a version of it released on these shores, and, with The Hunger Games movie literally days away (as of this writing), it couldn’t come at a better time!