"The Hunger Games" and the Bloody Legacy of "Battle Royale"

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We had a show of hands first. 

"Who hasn't seen this film?" asked Subway Cinema’s Daniel Craft to the 250 or so people seated in the sold out screening. Two-thirds of the audience raised their hands. I was flabbergasted. From the Battle Royale t-shirts and caps that were present, I was expecting this to be a fan screening. There was a rumbling of amusement among us fans when the hands went up. "Oooh. Wow. This is going to be fun," said Daniel. He was right.

This was at last July’s New York Asian Film Festival, where Subway Cinema and Japan Society collaborated on a retrospective screening of the Japanese cult classic. In hindsight, the number of first timers was understandable. It is only this Tuesday that we will see Battle Royale officially released on DVD and Blu-ray in the United States for the first time. It’s a release long overdue for a modern masterpiece.

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The release date coincides with the opening of The Hunger Games movie, which hits theaters on Friday. This is no coincidence; the two films, after all, share the same premise, at least superficially. Ever since the release of Suzanne Collins’ massively popular novel about a group of teenagers who are forced to brutally murder one another in a last-man-standing deathmatch, the Battle Royale comparison has not let up.

Hunger Games fans are quick to point out the differences, of which there are admittedly many. For one thing, Hunger Games is futuristic, and has a bleaker dystopian tone than Battle Royale’s contemporary satire. That is, if we’re comparing only the movies.

Though it is more popularly known as a 2000 Kinji Fukasaku movie, Battle Royale was originally a 1999 science-fiction thriller novel by Koushun Takami, first published in English in 2003 after the movie was already an underground sensation in the US. It bears more similarities to Hunger Games than the movie adaptation, which is stripped of the novel’s leftist, anti-patriotic, pro-Bruce Springsteen sentiments. In the movie, the Battle Royale Program was started at the dawn of the new millennium as a response to an increase in delinquent youths. In the original novel, it is a 50-year old program that was started after Japan won World War II and became a new country called The Republic of Greater East Asia, which is ruled by a totalitarian government. After crushing homegrown insurgents, the Republic started these annual killing games where they select teenagers to ship to booby-trapped outdoor arenas equipped only with bags filled with random tools and weapons, as a reminder to the general population to never rebel against the government. The novel follows one of these games, featuring main characters who not only try to survive the program, but also fight back against the regime.

Sound familiar? In The Hunger Games, we follow an almost identical bloodsport decades after it was started in the aftermath of a great war, in a new country called Panem ruled by a totalitarian government that was born out of the ashes of North America. Collins maintains that she'd never even heard of Battle Royale until after she turned in her manuscript, at which point somebody inevitably mentioned the similarities to her. Though it’s conceivable that Collins did not intend to rip off Takami, her work is still undeniably derivative of his, and as I was reading The Hunger Games, the coincidence seemed astonishing.

To Collins' credit, her novel does have two strong elements going for it that Battle Royale never attempted. One is the first-person narrative that follows Katniss Everdeen’s emotional rollercoaster during the Hunger Games. Battle Royale has an inventive, thrilling countdown nature to its “40 kids enter, only 1 will leave” chain of events, but it never delves too deeply into the characters’ larger worldview; more about the uncertainties and fears in social adolescence than the way Katniss has to always examine and second-guess what each of her actions in the arena would mean to her family, her home, her country and her enemies. The other compelling thing is the first half of the book that details the lead-up to the Hunger Games, where the usually modest and grimy Katniss is given a complete makeover to turn her into a television star.

The commentary on the disparate lives between the upperclass and the proletariat, the extreme contrast of hunger versus gluttony, the detailed inner workings of a propaganda machine, Katniss’ discomfort and innate guilt with being pampered, her uncertainty and rejection of Peeta’s love for her... These are the components that grabbed me the most; so interesting are they that when the decapitations and exploding rib cages begin, my enthusiasm for the story actually wanes. It’s for the same reason that the sequel Catching Fire, which puts less focus on the Games, and the conclusion Mockingjay, which doesn't feature it, are superior novels. They break away from the original pitch that made the concept a Battle Royale clone, and rely on its biggest strength, which is putting Katniss through the emotional wringer of being a reluctant savior.

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For the benefit of those at the New York Asian Film Festival who raised their hands, Daniel offered an introduction to Battle Royale prior to the screening. "This is the one that got away," he said with a measure of regret. Truer words have never been spoken.

Twelve years ago, when Battle Royale was released in Japan, it sparked a controversy not because of its graphic depiction of violence, but because the violence involves 15-year-old teenagers gunning each other down. The Japanese ratings board wanted to give the film an 18+ rating, but director Kinji Fukasaku, adamant that the message of the film should reach the teenagers that the story is about, argued for a 15+ and won (if Fukasaku was still alive today, maybe he could give the makers of Bully some tips on how to handle the MPAA). It was argued that the kid-on-kid violence is a byproduct of a far-fetched premise, therefore not being imitable in the real world—the same logic that is probably being used to excuse The Hunger Games movie.

But while that made the film provocative in Japan, it was downright unmarketable in the US. It was the early 2000s, and the specter of the Columbine shootings was still hovering close to the ground. Until recently, Battle Royale never received any kind of distribution in the US, thus making it a bonafide cult phenomenon through bootlegs and region-free imports (such was the DVD copy that Netflix carried for years). For a while, many incorrectly believed it was banned in the US, but really the issue had more to do with production company Toei expecting a big distribution payout because of the film’s international notoriety, which the American video companies that wanted to brave the potential post-Columbine backlash could not possibly afford.

Had things not turn out the way it did, who knows? Battle Royale could have enjoyed a healthy run in the early aughts US market that was widely embracing Asian movie releases like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero and Oldboy. Instead of Americans slowly seeking it out through cult channels, maybe it would have been one of those films controversially talked about—at least just enough that Suzanne Collins would have heard of it.

If so, would we still have The Hunger Games as we know it today?

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Maybe it’s just as well that Battle Royale’s appeal is limited to those who seek it out. Talk of an American remake has been buzzing at low volume for a decade now, never serious enough to actually get off the ground. It seems moot now that we have The Hunger Games.

One problem with the remake suggestion is that the true tragedy of the premise would seem a bit foreign to replicate with American teenagers. The various people I introduced the film to in college could attest to that. Part of it is cultural: homeroom unity and academic competitiveness are not as common in US grade schools as it is in Japan. I went through the Asian school system in middle school, where I took all my classes with the same people, mostly in the same room all day, five days out of a week for three straight years. In The Hunger Games, the kids who participate in the killing are mostly strangers, and the case against murder is made only by the general "thou shalt not kill" morality. In Battle Royale, there's the added weight of having to kill close acquaintances you grew up together with and gotten to know a lot about, to say nothing of the friendships (or rivalries) formed.

Variations of this theme are repeated throughout the movie, showing the different ways teenagers betray their own convictions. At their age, the film theorizes, they operate only in extremes: they either conceal their feelings entirely, or go above and beyond in expressing them. A source of gallows humor and danger in the film is how these kids are constantly risking their lives for ridiculous puppy love crushes, by announcing them at inappropriate times or act too embarrassed to say them until it’s way too late—or not even then, like when one girl wants to tell her secret crush how much she likes him with her dying breath, but could only muster a “You’re so cool.”

It also applies the same flat-footedness to friendships, both in big set pieces (like the stellar lighthouse sequence where a group of best friends turn on each other over a misunderstanding) and in subtle moments (like the two BFFs who refuse to play the game at the beginning of the movie, but the next time we see them, they’re lying dead next to each other with their backs literally stabbed). “Could you kill your best friend?” the film’s tagline asks. Some, it seems, don’t really know the answer to that question until it’s answered for them.

One of the things that makes Battle Royale so special is how versatile it is in the kind of enjoyment one can get from it. As black comedy, there are some great giggle-inducing moments thanks to the absurdity of it all. It works as an action-thriller, too, with a how-exactly-are-they-gonna-get-outta-this-mess dread running rampant and characters who you think are going to last longer checking out without notice. Fukasaku was not exactly an action director, though. Previously best known for his intense yakuza flicks, Fukasaku’s lensing of fights and shootouts emphasized more on consequences than actions, basking in the violence of the violent acts. The showdowns aren't epic and built-up, but quick and shocking. He's less interested in making a kill look exciting, more inclined to linger on a schoolgirl writhing in pain as her stomach is sponged by bullets.

That's why Battle Royale, as a straight action movie, is anticlimactic. It's a bunch of kids handling weapons for the first time, shooting worse than Imperial Stormtroopers. Kiriyama, the student who supposedly volunteered for the program, is presented to be evil incarnate and the kids’ biggest threat, but he’s still shown shooting people with a sub-machine gun from three feet away and missing. Because despite the silent, scary psychopath that he is, he's still only fifteen. All the awkward interactions, dumb priorities and incompetent brawls are how the film makes sure you don’t get lost in the excitement and forget that these are kids that we’re watching being slaughtered.

Fukasaku's movie is half cautionary tale and half satire, with an immediacy that he intended as a commentary on contemporary Japanese society. When Fukasaku was the same age as these kids, he was living in constant terror during World War II, with no say in his government’s war against the US of A. Once, he had to endure an American air raid by hiding under a pile of his dead classmates. Putting his own life experience into it, Fukasaku posited with Battle Royale that youths in Japan are always going to be unfairly jerked around by the insane whims of insecure adults, so the next generation better shape up, stop fucking around, and figure out how to better their future. He passed away at the age of 72 with Battle Royale as his last completed film, a golden example of social commentary left behind to ensure his legacy as one of cinema’s greats.

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For the US release, Anchor Bay will offer Battle Royale in two different editions for both DVD and Blu-ray. A single-disc edition of the theatrical version of the film is available, and it is probably the best introduction to what the film is all about. For the more hardcore fans, there's also a four-disc Collector’s Collection set that contains the theatrical cut, the director’s cut (with new footage that makes it 8 minutes longer, some color correction, and additional CG enhancements for the gore), the pointless sequel directed by Fukasaku’s son Kenta, and a special features disc.

It’s funny—I’m aware that for a lot of film buffs, there tend to be a lot of hemming and hawing when asked what their favorite movie is; even just of the year, never mind of all time. Usually, it would be in a constant flux, and they’d have to name at least three or five to show off the diversity in their taste. For me, Battle Royale has always been a solid go-to answer.

The film perfectly represents that small area where art house films and weird genre flicks overlap. It looks raw in places and polished in others; sometimes respectful of death and sometimes gleefully over-the-top; both discerningly emotional and hilariously campy. It is a mish-mash of ideas and tonal shifts that make it feel alive and unpredictable, all packaged in a bold, uncompromising manner that seems thoughtfully calculated but doesn’t really give a shit how offensive it comes across as. Its themes are political and heavy, yet so absurdly fun to watch over and over and over again.

A few years back, I randomly bumped into Quentin Tarantino in a biker bar in San Francisco and I told him that Battle Royale is my favorite movie of all time. He excitedly yelled over the noise of the bar that it’s one of his, too—in the exact manner you’d expect him to—and gave me a big hug, just for liking the same movie. A die-hard Fukasaku fan himself, for the past twelve years, Tarantino has been one of the film’s biggest champions. In 2001, he recorded a TV spot praising the film to promote the director's cut re-release in Japan, now included on the special features disc of the Complete Collection Blu-ray (which also has an endorsement from him on the packaging).

The best way for a filmmaker to pay tribute is through their own film, of course, so Tarantino did just that in 2003, when he cast Chiaki Kuriyama in Kill Bill as the memorable Gogo Yubari, recalling her fan favorite turn as Chigusa in Battle Royale. The film achieved a following among pop culture tastemakers pretty quickly. In Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg made sure a big Battle Royale poster is prominently displayed in Shaun’s living room. Jason Reitman also seems to be a fan, inserting references to it in both Thank You for Smoking and Juno. Since then, we’ve seen references pop up on shows like LOST and Community.

Then, of course, there’s The Hunger Games—whether or not it’s an intentional allusion, the strong interest in Collins’ novels and the movie adaptation has rejuvenated the conversation on Battle Royale, and I suspect this magnificent film will keep demonstrating its continued relevance.

Mar
19
2012
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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