With “The Hunger Games” mania, it’s no longer just edgy auteurs who can get bootleg copies of “Battle Royale,” the controversial hard-core 2000 film that was considered unsafe for teens in Japan for its depiction of middle-school students slaying other students on a remote island. With a simmering Takeshi Kitano as a teacher who’s been dissed one time too many at work and at home, the cult classic shares a death match for cuties plot with “The Hunger Games,” and is finally available on DVD. Here on Yahoo!, searches for “Battle Royale” rose 2,696% this past week, apparently by riding the “Hunger Games” wave. But before you sit down to watch the Japanese film with your Jennifer Lawrence-besotted tween-ager, be aware that this movie pulls no punches.
The first and primary difference between the two films is that the Japanese version is set in a recognizably disturbing near-present and the adolescent gladiators battle in school uniforms. This isn’t a futuristic dystopia like Panem where the evil government selects and grooms 24 children to fight in a televised pageant to atone for past revolutionary activity. This is a chaotic contemporary Japan in which old values of respecting elders have been thrown out. Tweens gone wild in a disintegrating society have, in a sense, brought this Armageddon down around them.
[Related: A Mom’s Eye View of ‘The Hunger Games’]
“Battle Royale” answers a criticism that has been leveled at “The Hunger Games,” which is that the first half preparing for the conflict in the field goes on too long, and that the jungle death fight is not long enough or original. That structure mirrors the novel, and I personally don’t have a problem with it. Still, in contrast and true to its title, “Battle Royale” sets up the conflict in short introductory sequences — kids misbehaving in school, on the bus, and then, suddenly, in a classroom where their old teacher (Kitano) tells them the rules and uses corporal punishment to silence the rowdy pupils. From then on, it’s all blood and games.
The ongoing violence among the kids in “Battle Royale” is random and graphic. Each student receives a bag with a map and a weapon. The weapons include a pot lid, crossbow, scythe, and pistol. The resulting mayhem is intense and relentless, and victims tend to linger long enough to reveal their school crushes amid the blood bubbles. The movie’s tone is at times giddy if not downright gleeful, a risky stance in a post-Columbine, Virginia Tech world, and possibly one reason that a U.S. remake did not emerge.
Claims have been made that Suzanne Collins ripped off Koushum Takami’s 1999 novel, which was made into the 2000 film. While Collins has repeatedly denied reading Takami’s book before she submitted her original manuscript, there are definite echoes. Collins (and the “Hunger Games” filmmakers) is not Quentin Tarantino, whose 1992 film “Reservoir Dogs” was a shot-for-shot “homage” to Ringo Lam’s 1987 “City on Fire.” The most significant difference between the conceptually similar books-turned-movies is how Collins uses their death-match situation to delve deeply into the central character of Katniss, including her world on and off the battlefield. Both the novel and the movie chart her sentimental education, scene by scene and arrow by arrow. By the end, the readers/viewers believe that they know this ethical, self-sacrificing young woman, and they have their humanity reaffirmed, rather than shaken, as is the case with “Battle Royale.”