‘Battle Royale’ (2001) 4K Blu-ray reviewed

❉ This is an action film with depth and intelligence, with a buffet of extras in true Arrow fashion.

Battle Royale is well and truly a cinematic grenade the impact of which is still ringing in the ears of cineastes today. Based on the novel of the same name that landed in 1999; it is a film whose title became the namesake of a sub-genre of films and other media that depicted last-man-standing kill ’em all tournaments that would follow through the years – The Hunger Games books and films being the most mainstream, with others such as WWE movie The Condemned (2007). It was a film that shocked a nation when it landed on British shores just after the turn of the millennium. It carried the same kind of playground patter controversy that Reservoir Dogs did several years before.

The very idea of pitting school kids against each other in a bloody battle for survival was probably always going to be a difficult one for us here. After tragedies such as Dunblane and Jamie Bulger and the subsequent blame on violent horror films that soared throughout the nineties – it’s a miracle the film caused the sensation it did when it was released unscathed in 2001 let alone the constant reports of mass shootings of the young in the USA. Columbine occurred in 1999 and as a result one test screening of the film in the States saw such negative reaction that the film wouldn’t be released over there in a wider format for another 11 years. The film was not without its native controversies too – the Japanese National Diet thought the film was tasteless and created debate over government action on violence in the media.

The concept borders on the outrageous several times – but more often than not – in the believable. This is thanks to so many well rendered character dynamics and nuances that put us right in the thick of the action with more than a few points of relation we share with nearly all of the characters. As a result, the film is often terrifying and always gripping. Battle Royale has become such iconic piece of popular culture that even those who haven’t seen the film know what it’s all about, and what happens. It takes The Most Dangerous Game and Lord of the Flies and throws in the tradition of Japanese garden hose splatter seen in films as far back as 1962 in Kurosawa’s Sanjuro. The dystopian sci-fi bent applied here has been likened frequently to the violent parable of A Clockwork Orange.

Without retreading through the well-known plot of the film – let’s acknowledge its main concern: in futurist Japan the nations youth are said to be showing contempt and disrespect to their adults superiors – so the government introduces the Battle Royale act; the random picking of classrooms of students and sending them off to a deserted island so they can murder each other over three days until the last one standing is declared winner. It is a terrifying and nihilistic answer to a broken societal system that seeks to address its epidemic of violence and disobedience. It is an absolute behemoth of a concept and one that presents us with so many elements to consider: the relationships of the students and how their former classroom politics are meted out in severe and deadly consequences, the adult characters themselves – how flawed and damaged they really are and how their behaviours towards the new generations lack just as much respect and are destructive.

Pervading over the classroom of the damned chosen for the tournament of focus is the unforgettable and embittered presence of Takeshi Kitano as the jaded former teacher of the class. He is a fascinating and complex character. At one moment via flashback – we see that he is stabbed by a student at school which enforces his growing resentment towards the uncontrollable young. He takes pleasure in revealing the impending fate of the confused class of kids. He initially projects a ruthlessness with no hesitation to kill, and kill he does -two students are murdered at his hand before the battle commences, but as the film progresses he quietly reveals himself; his broken family life and estranged daughter, his affectionate tenderness shown to the pure and innocent student Noriko (Aki Maeda), his sense of emptiness offered up each time we cut to him in scenes that are quiet and meditative in contrast to the carnage outside. His connection to young Noriko is almost metaphysically deep – she dreams of him and knows he is lonely and a hollow shell of a man. He knows she is pure, innocent and she reminds him of his own daughter who is lost to him. A particular scene shows Kitano appear amidst the battlefield to offer Noriko an umbrella so she doesn’t catch cold in the rain – scaring off the predatory Mitsuko (Ko Shibasaki) in the process. It is a glimmer of empathy and protectiveness. It is one of the more dreamlike moments of the film – was it even real? Does it even matter? You could glue all Kitano’s scenes together and they’d even resemble the arthouse side of Kitano’s own directorial efforts.

The doomed students offer up such amazing sub-plots of melodrama. The deadly Mitsuko in particular; damaged and abused sociopath who finds her natural calling in the deadly sport. The ‘special edition’ of the film – included here in the Arrow set shows that she had killed before – an unknown man who paid her mother so he could molest her in a revealing scene. The lone transfer student Shogo Kawada (Taro Yamamoto); who it is revealed has played – and won – the Battle Royale before proves to be the wary ally of the two protagonists Noriko and Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara). The psychopathic Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando) who has joined the tournament for fun – spices things up as he ploughs himself through the students with glee, but for me the film is at it’s most powerful when the students themselves struggle with the reality of their situation. One student asks himself what the hell is he doing after he has shot an arrow through a girls neck. Others choose suicide as they refuse to face their situation. Groups of them band together to try and beat the system they have been thrown into – attempting to avoid the inevitable reality of having to murder their best friends. There are amazing scenes where cabals of friends fall apart due to a seed of paranoia or placing the blame of carnage on innocents.

This is an action film with depth and intelligence – you are left imagining the continuous possibilities of a world that practices the Battle Royale act and the circumstances surrounding it’s fallout after the film is over because it offers up so many mind expanding ideas – and that is before you get to the lesser, overzealous and more overtly outrageous sequel Battle Royale 2: Requiem (2003) that inevitably followed afterwards and is included here in the five disc deluxe set.

The extended cut of the film – initially released shortly after the original theatrical cut offers up nearly 10 minutes of extra scenes and is included here on disc 2. Among countless extended shots and added blood we are also treated to more context behind some of the characters such as the aforementioned scene with Mitsuko. A scene involving a basketball game at the school shows the students predominantly working together as a unit – happy in their blissful ignorance. These scenes cast ominous beats. Mitsuko; again – sits bored and detached from the group activities as she sits on the sidelines. The game progresses as a framing motif – occasionally cutting back to it in slow motion to highlight characters we have just seen killed excelling in their former lives. The basketball hall returns in a later scene where Shuya’s best friend Kuninobu; one of the first to die at the hands of Kitano asks him to protect Noriko – which underscores an arc taken up by pacifist Shuya in the face of such danger in their fight for survival. Whilst these basketball hall scenes provide some nice added framework and dramatic flourishes among the other extras the ‘Special edition’ have to offer, I wouldn’t call it essential like the theatrical cut.

The extras offered over both discs of the original film are plentiful and contain some of interest such as the behind the scenes and on location making-of documentaries on both the theatrical and special edition versions, interviews with screenwriter Kenta Fukasaku, Takeshi Kitano and others, insight into how the bloody special effects were rendered. Others, such as the newly commissioned audio commentary from film critics Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp and the 40 minute retrospective documentary celebrating the films legacy on its twentieth anniversary aren’t so essential and I could honestly live without them – but in true Arrow fashion they have given us a kitchen sink package of all things Battle Royale here and it’s a buffet with something for everybody. Even the sequel gets more than its fair share of extras treatment on discs 3 and 4; particularly a lesser seen longer cut titled BATTLE ROYALE 2: REVENGE adding 20minutes to an already bloated runtime.

Fans of the films will love it and the set will likely take pride of place next to their copies of the original novel and Manga adaptations. Battle Royale is a bona fide modern day classic and whilst many Japanese films that carried transgressive weight were released around the turn of the millennium – Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) being another prime title of the era – this is one example that has aged beautifully and serves as a final statement from director of the old guard Kinji Fukasaku; a man with credentials rich in bloody yakuza and crime thrillers, samurai fantasies and beyond who passed the baton on to a younger generation and changed the course of popular culture before bowing out.

❉ Battle Royale – Limited Edition 4K UHD Blu-ray was released 26 April via Arrow Video ((BR)FCD2063). Certificate: 18. Running time: 114 / 122 / 133 / 155 mins. RRP £79.99.

 Thomas Lee Rutter is a director and editor, and creator of Carnie Films folk horror short Bella InThe Wych Elm (2017), acid western Day of the Stranger (2019) and upcoming feature The Pocket Film of Superstitions (2021).

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