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Crouched in some bushes, you feel around in the bag they gave you. You find what you are looking for and grab it – its cool handle warms rapidly in your tight grip. Hopefully watching all those action movies helped show how these things really work…
You see your best friend of eight years approaching, they see you and wave.
…Oh God, just please keep walking…
Too late now, you take a deep breath and pull the pistol out of the bag and take aim, closing your eyes as you squeeze the trigger three times – all too fast for them to comprehend what is happening…you hope…
As your best friend lies dying, you run over to them and grab their bag. They plead to you with bloody words and broken gestures, but that’s not important anymore…none of it is.
You take their bag and run, leaving them to die, and increase your odds of winning by one.
Enter the world of Battle Royale – a three-day kill fest comprised of a randomly selected class of junior high students. The rules? Kill or be killed. The prize? Life.
Released in 1999, Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale quickly became one of Japan’s bestselling novels, EVER. The book focuses on the forty-two classmates of Third Year Class B of Shiroiwa Junior High School and how they were forced to kill each other to survive the unthinkable Battle Royale Act – an insane government program designed to combat the oh-so-rebellious youth of an alternate time-lined Japan – which instead of the constitutional monarchy it is today, is an authoritative state. The Battle Royale Act or BR-Act basically allows the government to kidnap a random class of kids – place them on one of the 6,852 islands that make up Japan, place explosive collars on them, give them a random weapon, and pretty much say “You have three days, GOOD LUCK!”
That’s it – three days to kill all of your classmates: the same kids you grew up with, the girl you have a crush on – the best friend you spent every weekend with – the bitch who bullied you for years – the kid you never talked to – and the fucking weirdo that always talked to himself and licked coins – they are all fair game in this hunt. The tragedy is that if you don’t kill them, they will most assuredly kill you. How does one cope with the gravity of the situation?
The 616-page book does a fantastic job balancing out all 42+ characters – you actually feel something as they are picked off thanks to some amazing dialogue and character development – the deaths are extremely violent and they don’t just pluck the strings of the reader’s heart, they yank violently and twist, however, dark humor abides –
“He gave up trying to close Tatsumichi’s eyes. His left eyeball and eyelid was split, and the eyelid shriveled and swollen so badly it couldn’t be shut. His right eye was probably manageable, but who’d want a winking corpse? It was in bad taste given the circumstances.”
Of course not everybody plays the game – just look at Sakura Ogawa (Female Student No. 4) and Kazuhiko Yamamoto (Male Student No. 21) – the class lovebirds. Their little 9th grade minds decide there is a better, more poetic way to go out and Takami really triggers some heavy emotions with his writing –
“They hugged in this position and exchanged kisses. Was it just a few seconds? Was it a minute? Or was it eternity?…Nothing was more important to him than her. There was no room for compromise. If this is what her trembling soul wanted, then he would follow her…Their two bodies danced in the air beyond the cliff, the black sea in the background, their hands still clasped together.”
Just one year after the book was released, there was already a movie in the works with the respected Kinji Fukasaku directing. How exactly does one compress all the emotion and character development of 42+ characters into a 114-minute movie? Let’s look at the triumphs first…
The movie is a punch to the stomach – actually seeing children work the nerve up to kill each other is a rather difficult task – remember this is Japan, they have been classmates for many years, not just this year – this isn’t just somebody they met this year’s throat they are slitting, no, they grew up with these people – something akin to killing 40 brothers and sisters….or cousins…whatever, you get it. Every actor does a phenomenal job conveying the confusion and fear that these kids (well, anybody really) would feel faced with this ultimatum; there is not one weak link on the chain of a cast of over 50 people, and that alone is a stellar achievement.
Another aspect the film excels in is timing and pace – this film has a LOT of characters to follow and each character gets so much screen-time PLUS the main characters – that is a lot of balls to juggle. The film flows wonderfully and the viewer is never bored – however, this is also where the film seems to fall short –
The book was a brilliant look into the thoughts, emotions, and dialogues of every character – you see their fears, hear their thoughts and words, and actually FEEL what they feel. The movie however lacks most character development – sans the main characters – and therefore many of the deaths come with a “Oh, that sucks, who’s next?” kind of attitude as you really know nothing about who the student was. The film tries to eliminate this by interlacing scenes and flashbacks in-between the carnage showing them being kids – asking who somebody has a crush on, playing basketball, or showing old hobbies – however this is done in such a way that none of the 38 tertiary characters really have an identity – as the flashbacks are seemingly random and not every character gets them. Fault, yes, however, I cannot offer a better way to convey individuality with 38 characters that have an average of less than three minutes of screen time.
Both the book and the movie convey a sharp allegory of life after school, mainly, that competition to get that job over former classmates – the fact that you are in a way killing them and trying to get to the top the mountain to get noticed. The beauty of the message is that it is universal – no matter what country you grow up in, there will always be competition for the better jobs, and this may mean stepping on the heads of friends, classmates, and former lovers to get that job – dog eat dog.
Of course a movie with this subject matter would come face to face with controversy – multiple members of Japanese Parliament fought to get the novel banned, and when that didn’t work, they tried to get the film banned, and of course these efforts intrigued the population and they wanted to see what the fuss was about – thus making the book one of the country’s best sellers and the movie one of the 10 highest-grossing films of Japan – EVER. Oops!
The film was also met with controversy here in the land of the Free – however the facts have been a little exaggerated. The film was never banned in US, as many thought – no, there were multiple snags that delayed the release, such as Toei refusing to licensing the film (why would you do that?) as well as independent distributors not being able to pay the insanely high licensing fee once Toei realized the success and charged an arm and leg. Add to that this is 1999, and the Columbine High School shooting JUST happened – one can put 2 and 2 together and see a movie about schoolmates killing fellow schoolmates probably wasn’t the best thing the country needed at that time. That adage about how ‘time heals all wounds’ seemed true in 2006 when New Line Cinema was trying to secure remake rights…annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd then the Virginia Tech massacre happened in 2007 and old wounds were opened once again and the project was immediately and indefinitely suspended. Short of some mumblings of a TV show in 2012 – on the fuckin’ CW (!?) there really hasn’t been any word on any type of revival of Battle Royale, and the 2012 release of The Hunger Games seemed to really seal the deal, due to the similar structure.
Many people, myself included, grew up on a bootleg copy of Battle Royale, seeing as how until 2011 there were no official US distributors of the film – this resulted in region-free copies…however, there were problems – mainly with translation – “Be sure to fight with gusto!” – but that wasn’t enough of an issue to sway anybody away, and in March of 2012, a BEAUTIFUL 4-disc blu-ray box set came out courtesy of Anchor Bay.
So there you have it, Battle Royale is a fun ride – an excellent book and a fast-paced, and exciting movie…just…stay away from the sequel…
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