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VIDEO - THREE REASONS: BATTLE ROYALE, a HUNGER GAMES for Grownups

Video
by Robert Nishimura
March 20, 2012 12:49 PM
9 Comments
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[EDITOR'S NOTE: Contributor Robert Nishimura's video series Three Reasons continues with Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale. He feels this film - a Hunger Games for Grownups - deserves release on the Criterion label.]

With Hollywood poised and ready to drop the next big book-to-screen adaptation on March 23, The Hunger Games will be the latest tween sci-fi/fantasy franchise to wipe moviegoer's minds of wand-waving witches and vapid vampires.  Frankly, if my editor hadn't informed me of this fact I would've been blissfully unaware of the whole thing.  I had no idea that Suzanne Collins had written a series of insanely successful young adult novels, thus dubbing her one of the most influential people of 2010.  I didn't know that Gary Ross had directed the film adaptation featuring a star-studded cast of younglings (plus Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland to make the film tolerable for parents). Fans of the novels had camped out hours before an early screening at LA Live, anxious to have the book retold to them. It has already broken records in advance ticket sales, beating out Twilight: Blah Blah Blah.  

I have no doubt that the movie franchise of The Hunger Games will be as insanely popular as the books. Whether we like it or not, the next three films are already in pre-production.  Lionsgate has tailor-made "youthful, edgy, exciting high quality entertainment," so it will be guaranteed to thrill and tantalize preteens across the globe.  Perhaps bows and arrows will come back into fashion.  Maybe the film will inspire some kids to kill each other, or in the very least grow wacky facial hair.  Now that I've been inundated with all the hype for The Hunger Games, I feel like I've already seen it, and not because the trailer spelled it out for me. 

The blogosphere was quick to point out the similarities between Collins' Hunger Games Trilogy with Koushun Takami's 1999 novel, Battle Royale, going so far as to call it a bold-faced ripoff.  Suzanne Collins admitted to never having heard of the book, nor has she read it since continuing the series.  So it goes without saying that Collins has never seen Kinji Fukusaku's film adaptation of Battle Royale, which will undoubtedly bare a striking resemblance to Gary Ross' The Hunger Games.  Both sources portray various degrees of a dystopian future, where teenagers are forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the government/home-viewing audience.  

Beyond that, it would be a waste of time to defend Battle Royale from plagiarism, since The Hunger Games has an entirely different set of cultural baggage, as well as being a disservice to countless other source material that deal with the exact same subject matter.  Collins just happened to tap in to the creative collective consciousness, drawing on ideas that have played out many times before, in addition to her intentional reference to Greek mythology.  There are elements of Orwell and Huxley at work here, but just enough to pander to its target audience.  The trailer for The Hunger Games focuses on defining the characters of Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, and the rest of the primped up cast, but showed me very little of what I'd really like to see: these pretty people killing each other.

Takami's Battle Royale is set in an alternative universe in which Japan was victorious in the Second World War, making it an authoritative world power.  It's the turn of the century, and society is falling apart with an economy on the brink of collapse, a rise in unemployment and in teen delinquency.  The government reacts by installing the Millennial Reform School Act (BR Act) as a means to thin out the numbers of juvenile delinquents.  Every year one 9th grade class is randomly chosen to compete in Battle Royale, forced into a game of survival in which there can only be one winner.  The unknowing selected class is then kidnapped, whisked away to a de-populated island, and each student is given a unique weapon, a map, and enough provisions to last three days.  Each participant is fitted with a metal necklace that monitors their whereabouts, exploding if they attempt an escape.  

As the game progresses, sections of the island become "forbidden zones," to keep the students moving closer to each other.  If you are caught in a forbidden zones your necklace explodes.  If there is more than a single survivor at the end of the three days, all the necklaces will explode and the game is forfeited.  If one person does survive he/she is allowed to return home, or in some cases, be allowed to play again.  To make things more interesting the BR Committee will plant "transfer students" in certain schools months before the class is selected.  Having these seasoned killers among the 40 student class helps speed the game along and forces the other students to play.  Takami's original novels reveals much more about this universe and the relationships of the students, whereas the film adaptation of Battle Royale very quickly establishes the setting and introduces this year's lucky participants, Shiroiwa Junior High School, Class B.

The man responsible for selecting this year's class is Kitano (brilliantly cast with "Beat" Takeshi Kitano), who used to work at Shiroiwa Junior High School years before becoming the mouthpiece for the BR Committee.  His calm demeanor is especially off putting as he describes the rules to the game, pausing occasionally to kill a student to set an example for the rest of the class.  It's especially poignant to see Takeshi Kitano in this role since it would ultimately be Fukusaku's swan song.  Fukusaku had a long established career as a genre filmmaker, responsible for some of the most energetic and innovative yakuza exploitation films.  His crowning achievement could be the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, known in the West as The Yakuza Papers.  

Takeshi Kitano's directorial debut, Violent Cop was originally intended for Fukusaku, who passed the film along to Kitano because he was too ill at the time.  A few years later, Kitano would (re)pay homage to Fukusaku's Sympathy for the Underdog (1971) with his film Sonatine (1993).  Kitano's films are largely indebted to Fukusaku and his generation of filmmakers.  Reaching the end of his career, Battle Royale brought Fukusaku back into the limelight, garnering several Japanese Academy Award nominations in addition to some well deserved controversy.  After 40 years in the business, Fukusaku still had the moxy of a young exploiter.  He managed to shoot only one scene for Battle Royale 2: Requiem (coincidentally, with Kitano) before passing away, leaving his son Kenta to complete the film in his father's memory.

In The Hunger Games contestants are chosen in pairs from various districts, some of whom seemingly have been training their whole lives to enter the game.  They are complete strangers to each other, the only attachment (as for the viewer) is purely physical.  The students in Battle Royale have known each other for years, and in some cases quite intimately.  This has a profound effect on the game and how it is played.  Some students try to form alliances to avoid any violence, while other students immediately start playing as soon as they leave the gate, desperate to to be the winner or seeking revenge for past grievances.  Most of the students are frightened beyond belief, questioning themselves and suspicious of even their closest friends.  The couple that we are meant to identify with are Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda), who now must confront their feelings for each other as well as frequent attacks from their fellow classmates.  

One notable assailant is played by Chiaki Kuriyama, who basically reprises the the same role in Quentin Tarantino's love letter to J-sploitation, Kill Bill.  Fans of QT will recognize the tone that Fukusaku maintains throughout the film.  Realistic violence pushed to the point of absurdity, sometimes even cartoonish.  Shuya and Noriko witness all their friends (and enemies) unravel from fear and paranoia, either killing each other out of spite or suspicion.  As the student body dwindles away, they form an alliance with Shogo, one of the "transfer students" who had played the game before.  Together they devise a way to end the game and seek revenge on Kitano, who is surveilling them from the center of the island.

Contrary to popular belief, Battle Royale was never banned from US distribution.  The file was released soon after the Columbine incident, which wasn't the best time to be promoting a film that glorified killing your classmates.  Why the film hadn't be picked up since is the real mystery.  For years the film had garnered a cult following in the US, and still no distributor would touch it.  Even after Tarantino had given it his hipster seal-of-approval, he could have at least put it out under his Rolling Thunder label.  Criterion had already released David Lean's Lord of the Flies and Ernest B. Schoedsack's The Most Dangerous Game, so Battle Royale would have fit snugly betwixt those classics.  If only Criterion had picked up Battle Royale years ago it could've quite possibly saved us all from The Hunger Games.  

Criterion missed their chance to nab this title, and now that The Hunger Games have begun, another company has stepped up to finally bring Battle Royale to the US.  It would appear that my Three Reasons video is already an empty gesture since Anchor Bay is set to release the long-awaited special edition of Battle Royale 1 & 2 on DVD and Bluray, three days before The Hunger Games hits theaters.  It's loaded with features on Fukusaku's career and the impact Battle Royale had on cinema in Japan.  We can certainly trace the line from Battle Royale to The Hunger Games without too much difficulty, even though the film was never released in the US until now.  Its influence on Western cinema over the past decade has justified having our own kiddy-porn death-match. The level of violence in cinema has caught up to speed that we can now have our The Hunger Games, so it seems the US is finally ready for Battle Royale. For anyone who has not seen Battle Royale, it will not disappoint, but it may steal the "edge" that The Hunger Games is so desperately trying to project.

Robert Nishimura is a Japan-based filmmaker, artist, and freelance designer. His designs can be found at Primolandia Productions. His non-commercial video work is at For Criterion Consideration. You can follow him on Twitter here. To watch other videos in his "Three Reasons" series, click here.

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9 Comments

  • lian92 | April 6, 2012 6:27 PMReply

    Sorry not a fan of Battle royale movie , liked the book , but thought Shuya the most boring Garystu ever and coudnt overlook some of the jaring plot holes, but i learned about Japanise Coulture thanks to the novel and no Battle Royale wasnt that original either the plot reminded me of the Long Walk and the writing of Orwels 1984, even some of the Distopien structure seemed simmiler.

  • bill pannifer | April 2, 2012 11:16 AMReply

    that would be Peter Brook's Lord of the Flies...

  • Xenos | March 26, 2012 4:13 AMReply

    I remember seeing the president of Media Blasters / TokyoShock at an anime con in like 2006. He said they'd been trying to get the Japanese studio to license through their smaller label for bizzaro Japanese cinema for years. (Ichi The Killer, Tokyo Gore Police, Calamari Wrestler, Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad, Versus, and various other oddball, shocking, or just plain schlocky Japanese films have found a home there.) He said the trouble was that they had first shopped it to the major Hollywood studios for a wider release. And the studios and their legal departments were aghast. The response was so negative and fearful, that the Japanese studio itself became fearful of ever releasing it in the states in fear of getting sued in America and lose tons of money. So even with a smaller company like TokyoShock / MediaBlasters was hounding them for a smaller release, they were still too scared of a lawsuit.

    Well, now that Hunger Games is a bigger fish and more likely to get sued or maybe cleared the path for such films, we can finally get a Region 1 US release of Battle Royale. Though funny enough technology has advanced and BluRay is the same region in Japan and US now anyway. Still, nice to find a US release.

  • justinslot | March 28, 2012 10:47 AM

    I'm kinda glad it happened this way then...I mean, I love the Japanese cult releases, but I'd hate to see BR permanently associated with stuff like Tokyo Gore Police and Onechanbara--nothing against those! It's just that BR is a film for a wide audience, and now it's gotten as close to a wide release as it could get. And thanks to The Hunger Games, everyone's talking about it. (Not EVERYone everyone. You know what I mean.)

  • walt kovacs | March 23, 2012 5:00 AMReply

    if part of the collins defense is that there is a plethora of source material (which she denies using) please....cite it.

    the woman clearly stated that the idea for the book came from channel surfing...not from prior literary works....seems the woman doesnt read

    and this isnt the first time she has been accused 0f plagerism...her first ya series of novels bares an eery resemblance to gaiman's neverwhere. oh, but she doesnt read...and of course never saw the bbc mini series

  • Steven Applebaum | April 1, 2012 12:49 AM

    "Collins says that the inspiration to write The Hunger Games came from channel surfing on television. On one channel she observed people competing on a reality show and on another she saw footage of the invasion of Iraq. The two "began to blur in this very unsettling way" and the idea for the book was formed. The Greek myth of Theseus served as basis for the story, with Collins describing Katniss as a futuristic Theseus, and that Roman gladiatorial games formed the framework. The sense of loss that Collins developed through her father's service in the Vietnam War also affected the story, whose heroine lost her father at age eleven, five years before the story begins."

    That sounds completely believable.

  • Zinjo | March 22, 2012 7:38 PMReply

    Toho Studios was going through an anti-American phase early in the millenium where it wouldn't sell the rights to any of its films to US distributors up until a couple of years ago. It was during this boycott that Tarantino was desperately trying to buy the Western distribution rights to Battle Royale. Toho sold the UK rights to Tartan back in 2004, but no American distributors were considered, including Taratino. After a while most distributors abandoned Toho titles until Anchor Bay's acquisition of the title signalled a change in heart at Toho Studios.

  • Robert N. | March 25, 2012 10:54 PM

    But Toho lisenced dozens of films from their early catalogue throughout the early Naughts. Criterion alone had acquired a big chunk of Kurosawa films during that time.

  • Bob Westal | March 20, 2012 4:02 PMReply

    Great article but a quick factual point. As I understand it, while "Battle Royale" was, it's true, not banned in the U.S. (the 1st amendment would make that pretty difficult), it was effectively blocked from theaters outside of the festival circuit and maybe museums, etc., since no distributor even dared to pick it up in the wake of Colombine. I certainly was aware of its existence and I think I would have remembered if it popped up in Los Angeles area theaters at the time, even in a very limited way. It has, however, been available here for years on an all-region DVD, which is how I saw it.

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