Battle Royale: The Complete Collection Review

A four-disc set aimed at those already fans of Battle Royale despite this being the first time it’s released in the US, the release comes with perfect timing, now that the much anticipated The Hunger Games movie is about to open (I’ve already written about the similarities of the two films and source novels extensively here). It contains the original version, the extended “director’s cut,” the sequel, and a bonus disc.

The basic premise of this cult hit should be familiar to everyone by now: an entire 9th grade class is kidnapped by the government and forced to kill each other until only one student remains. Pretty straightforward, really. As with any heinous premises, the film follows a pacifist character who initially refuses to participate. In this case it’s Shuya (Death Note star Tatsuya Fujiwara in his breakout role), a boy who just wants the killings to stop, but will do anything to keep Noriko (Aki Maeda) alive, to honor the dying wish of his best friend who had a crush on her.

Takeshi Kitano plays a former teacher of the selected class, who now works as some sort of game master for the Battle Royale program. It’s beguiling to see Kitano play a character basically molded on his eccentric and deadpan celebrity persona, and also named after him. This is yet another example of how Fukasaku aimed his movie adaptation at something entirely different from Koushun Takami’s novel, namely the generational gap between the older and younger citizens of Japan that Fukasaku deemed damaging to society. Kitano’s understated acting style that he’d honed to perfection in his own films contrast greatly from the greener teen actors who emote with anime-like bombast.

Theatrical Cut vs Director’s Cut

Released in theaters in Japan four months after the original, it’s rather misleading to call it a Director’s Cut, since that would imply a mere alternate editing. There’s that, but Fukasaku also shot a couple of additional flashbacks in that four month period, making this cut eight minutes longer. These scenes are hit and miss. The inclusion of ruthless Mitsuko’s traumatic childhood turns the audience perception of her into a cliched damaged female as opposed to the heightened “mean girl” archetype she stood in for in the film's satire on schoolyard social interactions. It’s especially tacky since there’s a much better flashback to a basketball game, showing these kids in a moment of classroom camaraderie, that sparingly shows Mitsuko’s sense of alienation from her peers, without resorting to the molestation angle.

Originally dubbed a “Special Version,” this cut is closer to the Star Wars special editions in that it features a new sound mix and some CGI enhancements (added blood to make the deaths even gorier). Naturally, the fan reaction was similarly unkind for the most part. The consensus is that it’s an unnecessary addition, but there are detractors to that idea—mainly people who had problems with the theatrical cut to begin with. That makes sense, since a lot of the changes appear to be implemented just to address certain criticisms. One example is how when two minor characters’ deaths are shown, this version would cut to their introduction from the beginning of the movie, to point out the tragic irony. I find it superfluous because this is something that’s best caught on repeated viewings, but maybe it’s necessary for some people because there are a lot of characters in this movie that just whizz by.

The most extreme example is how in the original, there’s a scene where Noriko and Kitano share a common dream of them having a friendly a conversation on a riverbank, which is silent for the audience. In this cut, we actually get to hear the conversation in one of three epilogues that close the film. In it, Kitano briefly complains how different the kids are these days. Fukasaku presumably muted it because the conversation simply verbalizes a thought the film already tries to convey through actions: that there’s a dangerous communication breakdown between adults and kids. Noriko and Kitano's ability to symphatize each other is the reason for their amnesty in this war. There's an open communication, even if Kitano has to ask her, "What do you think an adult should say to a kid now?" Again, the added clarity seems to stem from a desire to correct audience misunderstanding that Kitano has an icky special interest in Noriko, when there's actually a larger theme at play.

As such, despite the individual merits of the added scenes, the Director’s Cut feels too much like Director’s Hand-Holding, where the purpose of the cut is to explain the messages for you. 

Battle Royale II: Requiem

Some spoilers for the first movie ahead.

There is a reason why, when the hardcore Battle Royale fans talk about the movie to the uninitiated, they almost never mention the fact that it spawned a sequel directed by original director Kinji Fukasaku's son Kenta Fukasaku after Fukasaku Senior passed away from cancer during pre-production. Battle Royale II is the Staying Alive to its Saturday Night Fever. Though it has some amusing moments (mostly involving B-movie actor Riki Takeuchi, the Bruce Campbell of yakuza movies), it misses the original’s heart and appeal by a wide margin, so most people prefer to just pretend it doesn’t exist.

I love Takeuchi, I do, especially his Dead or Alive series and Fudoh, but there’s no denying that going from a statesman like Takeshi Kitano to him is a significant downgrade, and it’s not entirely his fault, either. His teacher character, also named after him like Kitano was, takes the camp up several notches with his wild gestures and Kubrick stares. Kitano was dressed like a middle-aged phys ed teacher and addressed the students with authority; Takeuchi is clad in all-black leather trench coat and pompadour, pacing around the room and munching on pills. At one point, he even bizarrely changes into a rugby uniform. It’s not that it’s not entertaining... It just doesn’t carry the kick that it should as a continuation of the first film.

The good news is that the filmmakers weren’t just in it for a cash grab by rehashing the same premise and message that made the first film so great. The bad news is that the original material they came up with is completely asinine. The story takes place three years after the events of the first movie, and Shuya is now the leader of a teenage terrorist group made up of Battle Royale survivors that fights back against the government through public bombings. In response, Japan creates the Battle Royale II Program, a modified initiative where instead of forcing 9th graders to fight each other, the government strongarms the kids into becoming a military squad and forces them to work together to invade the terrorist group’s island base (because that would stop terrorism... somehow) and assassinate Shuya. Same teen-on-teen violence, but with a whole new dynamic, effectively making this sequel more of a war film. By the end of its first Normandy Beach-inspired scene where they storm the island by rafts, the number of students is already cut down in half. These battle scenes go on and on, full of indistinguishable bullet storms, explosions and screamings. It’s a lot of noise with zero impact, the direct opposite of the first film’s approach to its violence.

Opening with a shot of two towers crumbling to the ground in the Tokyo skyline, this 2003 film, made even before the United States entered Iraq, aspired to be edgy and topical by playing devil’s advocate for Al Qaeda, offering a criticism of America’s foreign policy both pre and post 9/11—even going so far as to bring up WWII. Battle Royale II seems to condemn the misery that war causes, yet it’s clearly endorsing Shuya’s terrorism, framing one of his many “fight for a better world” speeches over documentary footage of smiling children in war-torn Afghanistan and uplifting music.

It’s as if it’s really motivated to be a thoughtful political film, but can only muster yelling like a petulant child begging for a controversy in order to gain the effortless attention the first movie received. Is it just me or is it absurd for a movie to be so anti American jingoism and then take its visual cues from a movie like Saving Private Ryan?

Bonus Features

Not much effort went into the special features DVD, as Anchor Bay simply cribbed years-old features that have been around since early incarnations of various overseas DVD releases, including a 50-minute making of/sneak peek video, previously released in Japan prior to the movie’s theatrical release as a home video called “Gaiden.” There are also various alternate behind-the-scenes video, one of them showing the cast and crew singing happy 70th birthday to Kinji Fukasaku on set—bittersweet to watch now that he’s passed. Then there’s the infamous TV spot featuring Quentin Tarantino saying nothing more than “I love Battle Royale” and “go see it,” shot on what looks like a 90s handycam.

Not that I was expecting some brand new feature with the history of the film’s slow American release or anything (though that would be awesome, obviously), but a couple of years ago Arrow Video released a Battle Royale Blu-ray set in the UK that had plenty of much better features, like a Kitano interview, a feature on the soundtrack’s orchestra, and footage from the film’s premiere in Japan—not to mention a cooler menu screen. It would have been nice for those features to be ported over too.

What this release excels at, though, is packaging. Even beyond the great cover image, this set has a gorgeous design that simulates a school notebook, with full-page prints of stills acting as the book’s pages, housing the four discs. I’ve seen a lot of different imports of Battle Royale releases, and this certainly gets my vote as the best looking. It’s guaranteed to stand out on a shelf. For a hardcore fan, this set might be worth it just for this packaging.

"Battle Royale: The Complete Collection" is on sale March 20, 2012 and is not rated. Action, Thriller. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku. Written by Koushun Takami (novel) and Kenta Fukasaku (screenplay). Starring Chiaki Kuriyama, Riki Takeuchi, Takeshi Kitano, Tatsuya Fujiwara.

Mar
22
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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