By Tom Wilmot.
Of the thousands of films released every year, few are subjected to a high level of controversy, critical acclaim, or commercial success, let alone all three. Yet with Battle Royale, director Kinji Fukasaku was dealt a full house. Even those unfamiliar with Japanese cinema are sure to have at least heard of the late auteur’s notorious project that has had a lasting impact.
While hundreds of Japanese movies have found an international audience over the years, only a select number have shared the mass appeal of Battle Royale. The movie has been discussed to death at this point, with the majority of commentary centred around its violence, shock-value, and social subtext. However, if Arrow Video’s comprehensive new boxset is anything to go by, there appears to be plenty left to say. This exhaustive release, featuring a gorgeous 4K restoration and a mouth-watering number of extras, offers even the most avid Battle Royale fan a whole host of new information.
One of the most remarkable features of Battle Royale is how well the film has aged. Whether you’ve never seen the movie before or are re-visiting it for the umpteenth time, it’s a testament to its enduring quality that it remains a frightfully entertaining affair even when stacked up against today’s exorbitantly budgeted blockbusters. Unless you’ve been fighting to the death on an abandoned island for the past twenty years, you’ll know that the film concerns the struggles of 42 teenagers who, as part of a government initiative known as the Battle Royale Act, are kidnapped and tasked with killing each other in any way they see fit until a sole victor emerges.
Kinji Fukasaku made his name by revolutionising Toei’s yakuza flicks of the 1970s, and his refined skill for helming action is in full swing here. Though it’s challenging to look at the film through untainted eyes, if you strip away the subtextual social commentary and domestic controversy, it’s still a pulsating affair from start to finish. There’s a beauty in the simplicity of the premise, which has been dumbed down from Koushun Takami’s similarly scrutinised source novel of the same name. The idea of a mass, all-out battle to the death is enticing in itself, which is perhaps why the concept has proven popular in professional wrestling for so many years and has more recently found its way into numerous video games.
Naturally, Battle Royale is not as shocking as it was upon its initial release and would surely not be so controversial if it landed in theatres for the first time today. However, this isn’t to say that the film isn’t still impactful, as there remain several sequences that drive home the barbarity of the twisted game. Years away from the early uproar surrounding the film, along with the emergence of lacklustre Battle Royale wannabes, allows us to appreciate other aspects of Fukasaku’s swan song, other than its boldness. For example, it’s easy to forget just how funny the film is, with off-kilter humour coming from jack-of-all-trades Takeshi Kitano and the comic nature of certain deaths. As the experts who feature on this set will attest, there’s plenty more to Battle Royale than the soulless splatterfest some have disregarded it to be in the past.
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the names Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp, collaborating here on their first joint audio commentary. The former editors of the website Midnight Eye (an excellent resource for Japanese film lovers) offer a wealth of information on the film itself and the state of Japanese cinema at the turn of the millennium. As well as making several recommendations of underappreciated Japanese movies, the two also discuss the explosion of ‘Asia Extreme’ in the early noughties. There’s also plenty to learn here in terms of the subsequent acting careers, or lack thereof, of the many child actors in Battle Royale, who, for some, the film marked their personal peak. Towards the backend of the runtime, Sharp observes that Fukasaku’s final movie has the quality of timelessness, making for an astute observation given that twenty years on, we’re still here discussing a re-release.
Both the theatrical and special edition cuts of Battle Royale are available in this set and are accompanied by a myriad of behind the scenes footage and archival featurettes. What’s most striking about these special features twenty years later is seeing just how invigorated Kinji Fukasaku was during the making of the film. The director was seventy at the time of production, yet he’s a picture of youth in this footage. This was a deeply personal project for Fukasaku, and it shows through his enthusiasm throughout the production. As much is implied in a new interview with Kinji’s son Kenta, who first raised the idea of an adaptation after reading Takami’s book. Kenta speaks fondly of his father and notes the way he always empathised with Japan’s youth and made an effort to understand them. The younger Fukasaku leaves the impression of a son who is nothing if not proud of his father’s legacy.
Arrow has produced several new features to join these older featurettes, one of which being the newly filmed Back to School: Battle Royale at 20. This 40-odd minute retrospective sees a handful of knowledgeable industry figures, including author Mark Schilling and journalist Kaori Shoji, discuss the lasting impact of Battle Royale and provide some welcome context as to why it caused such a ruckus upon release. Bullying in Japanese schools, debates regarding censorship and fears of unruly youths all played into Kinji Fukasaku’s film as well as inform the vitriolic political reaction it garnered. Perhaps the most interesting segment of this particular extra, though, is the discussion about the critical reaction to the film in the UK, as the press screening date coincided with 9/11. The impact that real-world violence and tragedy had on the critics’ perception of the film can be felt in many of its early reviews.
Arrow has also included both cuts of the much-maligned sequel Battle Royale II, which has not improved with age. Kinji Fukasaku only managed to shoot one scene before his tragic death from prostate cancer in 2003, leaving his son, Kenta, to pick up the reigns. The result is a messy, overindulgent hodgepodge of anti-American sentiment and domestic criticisms blended with what is essentially a sub-standard war film. The changes to the Battle Royale Act are interesting at first, but paper-thin characters and mind-numbly repetitive shootouts mean it loses everything that made its predecessor so compelling. The image of terrorist leader Shuya Nanahara handing a young boy an AK-47 alone seems to betray a lot of what the first film stood for. Kenta Fukasaku is frank about the film’s shortcomings himself in a new interview in which he cites his immaturity as a director during production.
Rounding out this stacked set is two sets of writings on the film. The first, a paperback booklet, contains a series of essays discussing everything from the distribution challenges Battle Royale faced in the United States to where the movie stands in relation to similar features involving humans as game. However, the stand out piece here, and the jewel in the crown of this limited edition set, is a 117-page hardcover book covering the career of Kinji Fukasaku by Tom Mes. This collection of essays provides a sweeping overview of Fukasaku’s entire filmography, touching on everything from his fondly remembered yakuza series Battles Without Honor and Humanity to his period pieces of the 1980s and even some of his television work. Mes’ book would be a worthy purchase on its own, let alone as part of this already comprehensive boxset; such is the quality of the insight offered into the career of one of Japan’s most commercially successful filmmakers. Accompanying both of these books are interviews with the late director himself, where his clear passion and enthusiasm for Battle Royale practically bursts off of the page.
Arrow Video have gone above and beyond to include as many extras as possible in this set, both new and old, many of which offer valuable insight and perspective that reinforces Battle Royale’s status as a crucial movie in the now-not-so-recent history of Japanese cinema. While it would have been nice to have some contemporary interviews with the child actors involved, particularly those who have faded from the limelight, there’s still plenty on this release to keep any fan of the film occupied. Battle Royale may be over twenty years old, yet anyone re-visiting this deserved modern classic will find that its message to question any and all authority remains as pressing as ever.
Battle Royale is released on UK Blu-ray by Arrow Video.