Battle Royale (2000): “Life is a game. So fight for survival and see if you’re worth it.”

tumblr_munfn4YwGH1somppko1_500Around this time of year, film snobs all around the world are crying: “Why should I watch The Hunger Games when I can just re-watch Battle Royale?”. Well, you can watch both since they’re not 100% the same, and they both have their own, very distinctive message for viewers. Battle Royale (2000), directed by Kinji Fukasaku, is set in an alternate-universe Japan which is economically destabilised, and where children refuse school en masse. Adults have learned to fear this generation of children that are uneducated and lawless, and as a result, seek to cull their population to teach them some respect for their elders. Hence, it is the tradition that a class of Japanese kids is selected to participate in a three-day kill-a-thon, with only one student to survive. Battle Royale primarily follows the experience of one student, Shunya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara), as he participates in the competition.

It’s inevitable that the two films will be compared. The concept of “kids killing kids” for the entertainment of a certain class of people is the common denominator between the two. However, I believe that this is where the similarity ends. The political overtones are less pervasive in Battle Royale than they are in The Hunger Games, and there is no totalitarian government that wants to show dominance over its people. Battle Royale is about the social and economic issues that precipitate the “need” for a murdering competition. It’s not about political control; it’s about the perverse act of getting rid of a perceived social adversary.

The story of Battle Royale is fairly simple. We are told the setting, the actions, and the clear motivations of the characters in a clear way. As a result of the simplicity of the story, the film is very character driven, led by Shunya and a girl named Noriko (Aki Maeda), who Shunya vows to survive the competition with. Although Shunya and Noriko are the main characters, we are shown snippets of the experience of other students, and in most cases spend some time with them before they are killed off. Some students shine more than others; some are slightly annoying and don’t contribute much to the film. Chiaki Kuriyama (of Kill Bill (2003) fame) was my personal favourite in her portrayal of Takako Chigusa, a girl who gets her revenge when threatened by an overzealous admirer.

Special mention must be given to Takeshi Kitano, who plays the frustrated teacher-turned-instructor of the Battle Royale program Kitano. He is pretty great in Zatoichi (2003) as the eponymous blind swordsman, and in his role in Battle Royale he has the same brutal instincts but with a backstory that makes you think about him beyond face value. After working as a teacher and being assaulted by students, is it any wonder that he now leads the program responsible for killing them?

Battle Royale is much more violent than The Hunger Games and is not shy in showing its characters being brutally murdered. In the tradition of Japanese thriller-action-horror films, the blood and violence is often cartoonish and over-the-top. What I appreciated about the murdering in this film is that after each student is killed, there is text on the screen telling the viewer who was killed, and how many more students are left until the competition is finished. This helped to give the film some structure in the face of hard-to-identify students who are often killed in large groups.

tumblr_mwk2cfUsI21qzdclko2_500tumblr_mwk2cfUsI21qzdclko1_500The key difference between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, and what makes this one so special, is that the kids in this film don’t want to kill each other. They aren’t motivated by rewards or fame. They’re classmates and have gone through school together, they have defined social groups, and a history with each other. However, they must face that they have to kill each other, because once the third day is finished, if there is more than one person left alive they’ll all die anyway. This conflict of morals, and fight versus flight mentality, makes for a very compelling watch. Who will be the first to crumble and murder their best friend?

So many people are precious about the similarities between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games series. My intention with this review was to explain how the two are actually fairly different, and to reinforce the fact that both can be enjoyed on their own terms rather than getting involved in feelings of smug superiority about either one. I really enjoyed Battle Royale; as much as you can enjoy seeing an entire class of children being brutally murdered. The storytelling is concise, the characters are all fairly interesting in their own way, and the competition is fierce.

4/5
Watch the trailer here.

16 comments

  1. Sounds interesting. I remember hearing about this film once, and then forgetting about it. Now that you’ve reminded me of it, I’ll try to make a point of seeing it eventually.

    1. Definitely add it to the list! It’s very violent but it’s one of those cult films you can’t miss out on.

  2. Great review of a fun film 🙂 Love Zatoichi as well, nice to see that get a mention!

    1. Thanks! I really love Zatoichi too, Takeshi Kitano is such a badass.

  3. Great review although I must admit I didn’t care for this movie. Never even thought about its similarity with The Hunger Games until I came across some message board a while back discussing the matter. Personally, I think the two stories are very different, I’m surprised at how many people practically accuse Collins of plagiarism.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I watched this film with a big group of people and opinions seemed to be quite divided about it. In terms of the Hunger Games versus Battle Royale debate, I feel like people get so caught up in the main action and don’t pay the necessary attention to the nuance of both films. Which is a big shame!

  4. Popcorn Nights · · Reply

    Nice review and a great, great film. As much as I enjoyed the first Hunger Games film (haven’t seen the second yet) it pales in comparison next to this…totally brutal!

    1. Thank you! I love this film too. I haven’t seen the second one yet so maybe there’ll be a follow-up review for that one! The second Hunger Games film is pretty good though!

  5. Yeah I like both Battle Royale and the two Hunger games films and there are plenty of differences, especially with the role of the media. The less said about the Battle Royale sequel the better.

    1. That’s right, I think it’s really easy to appreciate both, considering their differences. I haven’t seen the sequel yet, but I’ve read plenty of comments on it and am wondering whether I should bother with it. I think I will, to calm my completist tendencies.

      1. I know the feeling, but the film was a mess. I saw it while at uni and it was an embarrassment. As for the completist tendencies I’m curious about Weekend at Bernie’s 2…

  6. The Heretic · · Reply

    Love this film, have the novel but haven’t read it yet. The sequel was lame.

    If you want to see some killer Kitano films check out Brother, Sonatine, Boiling Point, and Outrage (I am still waiting to see the sequel).

    1. I haven’t read the novel, but I did really enjoy the graphic novel version of Battle Royale! All this negative feedback about the sequel is paradoxically really making me want to watch it. Thanks for the Kitano recommendations! I really love him and I haven’t seen most of those ones. 🙂

      1. The Heretic · · Reply

        No sweat. He’s an awesome actor. 😀

        The sequel was pretty poor compared to the first movie, plus it didn’t help that the director of the first film died during filming. Plus the anti-American tone to the film was just stupid.

  7. As a fan of both movies I’ve always seen the resemblance but didn’t care much. They have their own charm for me. Loved your review!

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