The Hunger Games have been all over the news lately. In one of the many articles a critic discussed Battle Royale, a year 2000 Japanese film about a class of teenagers forced to fight to the death in an arena. The writer pointed out the similarities between the two films. The greater violence of Battle Royale was emphasized, a fact which drew my husband like a magnet. We watched the movie one rainy Saturday night and I have to admit to being disturbed on many levels. But mostly, I was impressed – because much of the heart that I felt was missing from Hunger Games (the movie) appeared in this movie.
In the future, the Japanese Government finds itself with growing numbers of disenchanted youth. Disrespectful in school, violent in some cases, they represent to the adults a break down in society and the culture they have always known. In retribution and an attempt to hold some form of power over these kids the Battle Royale Act is instated. Battle Royale is a fun little game played every year in which a random class of young people is chosen to fight to the death in an arena. Each person is given a back pack with a weapon but don’t be fooled, there’s nothing fair about the fight. Some backpacks contain frying pans, others machine guns. To add some spice two ringers are added to the field called transfer students. One ringer is a former winner being punished for attitude, reminding the kids that they are never safe from vengeance. The other is the equivalent of what the Hunger Games called a career – a seasoned, trained fighter who likes to kill. Everyone on the island has only three days. If at the end of three days more than one person is alive, all are detonated and no winner is declared.
Because these kids all went to school together, relationships have already been formed. That plays out in some interesting ways. For example, some are happy to have a sanctioned chance to kill those who have wronged them before. Crushes have to determine just how strong their love for the significant other is. Friends have to decide if they want to die together or kill each other. There are forty kids involved so we get to see a little of each and how it plays out.
We meet our hero Shuya and heroine Noriko at the start of the film, on the bus which is carrying them to the arena. They think they are on a class trip. Sweet, shy Noriko gives Shuya some cookies which his flamboyant friend immediately confiscates. Moments later, everyone is asleep from gas. Then the arrival on the island where they are told what is really going on by a former teacher, someone who quit the school shortly after one of the charming students had stabbed him in the butt. Guess whose one of the first two kids to die? Yep, teach is now in charge of the games and an infraction by his mouthy former nemesis results in the child having his head blown off. But I get ahead of myself. The students are being treated to an educational film on how the games are played, a monologue being delivered by a girl in sexy camouflage gear who is far too chipper given her subject matter. As she simpers, flounces and giggles on screen while discussing demolition areas a young girl whispers to a friend. Teach is no longer held back by the unreasonable laws which made him play nice with the kids before and stabs her through the head with a knife. Between this and the boy who complains and has his head blown off, teach now has a quiet, respectful classroom. The children are then handed their backpacks with some food, water and a weapon and are sent out into the arena to live or die. Mostly die.
One thing I liked was that right away one girl refuses to play. She throws her back pack at the soldier who hands it to her and heads to the arena unarmed. When her boyfriend meets up with her they die with honor rather than try to pretend and kill with it. That decision is made by several other students as well.
Another group decides to try to get back at the government. They work together on a plot to overthrow the people forcing them to play in the games. I really liked the attitude and initiative shown by this group. Some of the kids show the murderer that had resided in them all along. I was always glad when these kids got it. But most are decent human beings who stay that way in spite of near insurmountable odds. This is shown by no one more than it is by Kawada, the kid who won the games once and was forced back in for “attitude problems”. Yes, he can kill and does so as needed. But that’s it. He doesn’t troll the arena looking for victims. I loved that about this movie. At least a good few of the people in there tried to rise above their situation. The film could have been a depressing statement about the depravity of society. It wasn’t. It showed there is still good among us, even if that good has to flourish amid great evil.
I also enjoyed that the director did not cut away or flinch from what was occurring. The deaths, while not shown in accurate detail, were shown in such a manner that we had to face them. In case we didn’t get the cruelty of what was happening, the director ends with a tribute to those who died. It shows them at a school basketball game in much happier times. This moment sort of broke my heart. It emphasized how very young the people who had died were.
The director had an advantage over an American director – sex is not considered more evil there than murder so he was free to mix a small bit of that in as well. I found that appropriate, all during WWII the “I may die tomorrow, shouldn’t we get together while we can?” line was used and I can’t imagine teen boys not at least trying it in this situation. I can hear them thinking, “If I’m going to die anyway, why go out a virgin?”
I didn’t expect to like this film at all. In fact, I liked it quite a lot. The message is simple – if kids are less than they should be it is probably the adults who betrayed them first – but we are not beaten over the head with it. Yes, it has some incredibly silly moments where you want to yell at the screen and tell someone to die already (one moment at the end is especially ludicrous) but it rises above that. Fast pacing and strong characterization make this a riveting, don’t take your eyes off the screen thriller. I expected the sub-titles to be distracting and pull me away from the action but they didn’t. If you can handle a movie rated R for violence, I can’t recommend this one enough.
– Maggie AAR