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Battle Royale   A+

Toei Studios

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writer: Kenta Fukasaku (based on the novel by Koshun Takami)
Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamato, Masanobu Ando, Kou Shibasaki, Chiaki Kuriyama, Takeshi Kitano.

Review by Jim Harper

If you're at all in touch with the underground movie scene, you will probably have heard of Battle Royale. You know the one: the Japanese film where school kids are given weapons and told to kill each other. That sentence alone should be enough to indicate why the film hasn't been given a U.S. release, despite performing well throughout Asia and Europe. Toei, the studio that financed the picture, have so far refused all offers from American distributors, fearing a media backlash. As much as I'd like to believe otherwise, I think there's an element of truth in their fears.

The film takes place in the near future, in a Japan riddled with unemployment and suffering rising levels of crime. One of the main concerns is the behavior of teenagers, who have become increasingly disruptive and violent, with several attacks on teachers and a general reluctance to conform. In an effort to control this trend, the government has instituted the Battle Royale Act. A class of children is selected at random and taken to a deserted island. They are given a variety of weapons and an explosive collar that will be triggered should there be more than one survivor after three days. The aim is for the children to fight until there is one victor, who will be freed and returned to his or her family.

The film centers on one particular class of 42 students. We observe the conflicts and relationships that take place, as well as their deaths. Lesser directors might have turned this into an exploitative killing spree, but here the viewer is given glimpses of the motivations and personalities of the main combatants, so we're unable to simply view them as cold-blooded killing machines. A handful throw themselves into the slaughter with barely concealed grins of delight, but the majority try to avoid killing, only turning to combat or confrontation as a last resort. Eventually survival instincts take over, and it's not easy to condemn everyone involved.

One of Battle Royale's strengths is that it does not immediately focus upon an obvious hero, allowing Fukasaku to switch focus from one student to another, without the audience simply waiting for the obvious lesser characters to die. By halfway through we know who the main characters will be, and their quest to get off the island alive -- and together -- becomes the main focus of the story.

Although the central premise might sound ludicrous to some viewers, the presentation of the students is brutally realistic. Alliances and feuds are formed on the basis of petty schoolroom squabbles, and it often makes you wonder how your own classmates would have reacted to you in a similar situation. Rather than the typical Hollywood presentation of teenagers -- getting someone a few years older to play the parts -- Battle Royale's 14-year-olds are played by actors of the same age, adding depth to their portrayal. The extreme gore and violence on display might seem like pure exploitation to some, but as the director said, the film had to be realistic. Children grow up with the semi-cartoon violence of Schwarzenegger movies, but Battle Royale aims to teach youngsters the real cost and consequences of violence; for that, we need gritty realism.

Behind all the controversy, there is a definite message to Battle Royale. Friendship, love, and loyalty are important qualities, and it's possible to triumph by refusing to compromise your principles. There are important political lessons too: increasingly conservative measures are not the way to deal with society's problems. Fukasaku experienced such extreme measures as a child during the Second World War, but it's easy to find examples from almost every period of history, including our own.

Without wishing to exhaust the superlatives, Battle Royale is an exceptional film. It's exciting, intelligent, touching, and bleakly humorous. It's also the most original film you're likely to see for many years to come. The 60th and last film directed by a 70-year-old man, it's the kind of final statement I'd like to leave behind.

Review published 01.17.2004.

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