Around 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.
The 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.
Watch the trailer here.