Almost a decade before the debut of Suzanne Collins' novel, "The Hunger Games," a Japanese book and its film adaptation depicted a dystopian society in which teenagers were deposited in an isolated outdoor setting to battle to the death for the cameras.
Dubbed "the most controversial book of the century" by Japanese publicists, author Koushun Takami's "Battle Royale" appeared in 1999. The bloody film version arrived a year later, and became a box-office sensation in Japan, where — unlike the PG-13 filmization of "The Hunger Games," which can be viewed by a ticket-buyer of any age in America — it was restricted to moviegoers 15 and older.
The movie was condemned by some members of the Japanese legislature as being crude and harmful to minors. The outrage increased its notoriety, and it became an almost instant cult classic internationally, although it received no legitimate distribution in America. In 2009, Quentin Tarantino (who else?) named it his favorite film since 1992, the year his directorial career began with "Reservoir Dogs"; the mace-wielding lethal schoolgirl in "Kill Bill — Vol. 1" is almost a direct lift from "Battle Royale."
Timed to ride the killer-teen coattails of "The Hunger Games," "Battle Royale" last week made its long overdue official North American home video debut via Anchor Bay Entertainment. The movie is available via digital download, as a "Battle Royale Director's Cut" DVD or Blu-ray, or as part of a four-disc DVD or Blu-ray "Battle Royale: The Complete Collection" box set.
The "Complete Collection" includes the 113-minute theatrical release and 122-minute "director's cut" versions of Kinji Fuakasku's "Battle Royale"; the less impressive, terrorism- inspired 2003 sequel, "Battle Royale II: Requiem," credited to veteran Japanese action helmer Kinji Fukasaku but completed by his son, Kenta Fukasaku; and a "special features" disc that includes more than two hours of trailers, documentaries and so on.
In press conference footage on the bonus disc, Fukasaku describes "Battle Royale" as a film that "connected to the firsthand experience of death and annihilation I had at age 15 during the Second World War." Perhaps that's why the movie is more violent and cynical and sardonic than director Gary Ross' film version of "The Hunger Games," which is motivated by the tough, hopeful idealism of its determined young heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Unlike Collins and Ross, Fukasaku, the director of numerous samurai and yakuza films (not to mention the 1968 monster movie known in the U.S. as "The Green Slime"), seems to believe ruthlessness is mankind's natural inclination, not an aberration.
If "The Hunger Games" views events more or less through Katniss' eyes, "Battle Royale" is more diffuse, and makes no real effort to develop a convincing future society. The filmmakers present only what information is necessary to support their simple premise, a sort of "The Most Dangerous Game" rewrite for the manga generation.
"Battle Royale" takes place after the passage of "the Millennium Educational Reform Act," at a time of 15 percent unemployment, when "adults had lost all confidence" and had begun "fearing the youth." The focus is on 42 middle-school students who are essentially kidnapped during a class trip, transported to an uninhabited island, equipped with unremovable explosive collars, and told they have three days to kill one another until only one survivor is left, who will be feted on national TV as the survivor of the "Battle Royale" competition.
With such a large cast (each death is counted down via an onscreen graphic), the characterizations are sketchy, but vivid. In their increasingly disheveled school uniforms, the kids are like parodies of various teenage types: the "bad" girl, the nerds, the juvenile delinquent, and so on. As they poison, shoot and slice each other among the trees, rocks and abandoned buildings of the island, they seem to be working out longstanding campus rivalries and crushes.
Unlike "The Hunger Games," "Battle Royale" wastes little time before devoiting itself to action-adventure. The set pieces are dynamic, composed and edited with a neatness that is missing from the shaky-camera esthetic Ross brings to "The Hunger Games." Fukasaku's mastery is perhaps most evident in the film's "lighthouse" sequence, which degenerates in mere minutes from cutesy schoolgirl banter to paranoid mass murder.
Even the prebattle scenes are scary: The teacher who tells the kids the rules of the game is played by Beat Takeshi, himself a master director (under his real name, Takeshi Kitano) of bloody gangster movies. When a student speaks out of turn, he throws a dagger into her head.
The teacher's world-weary presence confirms that the film — unlike "The Hunger Games" — is as much an adult as a teen fantasy, even if it sympathizes with its young victims. "The country is now good for nothing," the teacher says, exasperated by the wildness of what a sitcom grouch might call "kids today." Even so, the film's energy and inventiveness shame the efforts of directors decades younger than Fukasaku, who died at age 72 in 2003, six months before the Japanese release of his final film, "Battle Royale II," actually helmed mostly by his son, when the elder Fukasaku died during shooting.