Battle Royale is The Hunger Games stripped of all the superfluous fat. It's leaner, meaner, and a helluva lot more thrilling. There's no time wasted on establishing life in some boringly-generic work collective. There's no mandatory, up-front love triangle to wade through. There are no WTF? moments provided by a decadent ruling class and their improbably prissy haute couture. There's only a bunch of teenagers killing the shit out of one another.
Since time immemorial Japanese youths have been expected to follow obediently in the footsteps of their parents. This societal norm went along all clickety-boo until sometime in the late Eighties / early Nineties, when kids started to call this rigid paradigm into question. Looking at their own stressed-out, unfulfilled, bitter parents, many young people refused to become an unthinking cog in society. To the established old guard, this minor rebellion was practically inconceivable.
Novelist Koushun Takami picked up on this trend and, duly inspired, he crafted the novel Battle Royale. His story is set in the not-too-distant-future. Japan has been swallowed up by a totalitarian collective called The Republic of Greater East Asia. In order to tamp down youth rebellion, the government decides to institute the draconian BR Act.
Under the pretense of a simple field trip, the students in the 3-B class are rendered unconscious and then wake up in an assembly room presided over by their beleaguered and exasperated former teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano). During the odd lecture that follows, one of the students makes the mistake of talking out of turn and Kitano casually and brutally murders her with a thrown knife to the skull. A similarly nasty fate befalls Kuninobu, who attacked Kitano a year ago with a knife.
With the students now completely pacified, Kitano shows them a deceptively-cheery instructional video which explains what's about to happen. The forty-two students are to be armed with random weapons of various usefulness and then set loose on a deserted island. Their goal: to kill each other off until only one is left alive.
To ensure complicity, each student has been fixed with an exploding collar. At certain intervals, huge swaths of the island will be designated as "Danger Zones". If a student is caught in these sectors at the wrong time their collars will lethally activate. If there isn't a sole survivor at the end of competition, all of them with detonate. The balance of the story documents how alliances formed amongst social cliques don't always hold fast and how easily people will resort to murder if given the right incentive.
Despite a few changes to the assigned weapons and some of the character's backgrounds, the script by Kenta Fukasaku is actually quite faithful to the original novel. Thanks to a brief title card establishing the dystopic setting and a few economic flashbacks, Battle Royale avoids the expository crush that hobbles the first act of The Hunger Games. I'm sure that all of the establishment, selection, and training of Katniss will eventually pay off in the next two films, but Battle Royale dispenses will all of this and just goes right for the jugular.
With The Hunger Games we always know that Katniss is the primary character is. Given all of the screen time invested in her, we know that her chances of being "Janet Leighed" are pretty slim. In Battle Royale, the audience only gets a few brief recollections to flesh out the major players. As a result, there's no way to assume that certain characters are immune to the whims of this insane scenario.
Director Kinji Fukasaku keeps things moving with some brutal and intense action scenes that makes The Hunger Games look like Splatalot. Since these kids aren't trained in combat, their battles are frenetic, desperate and decidedly messy. Witness the "do-I-trust-you-or-do-I-gank-you" early encounter between Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki) and Megumi, the implied sexual violence between Kazushi and Chigusa as well as the inadvertent axe job that Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) performs on Oki.
But it's the infamous "Spaghetti Incident" towards the end of the film that really sums up the film's ethos. It's ugly, it's nasty and it involves six heavily-armed Japanese girls screaming at each other like banshees. Thanks to some tight editing by Hirohide Abe, the scene is positively nerve-rattling.
During the stark daylight scenes, cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima does a great job capturing the rugged environs, to the point where the island itself becomes a character. Shots of the surf pounding the jagged rocks just off shore really makes the setting feel like a natural Alcatraz. On an unconscious level, the interiors are interesting but inert enough to keep our focus locked on the combatants. Unfortunately the film frequently stumbles during the night-time scenes. Even while watching the film in high-def, the light is often so low that it's difficult to tell what's going on.
The performances are also somewhat scattershot. Most of the cast is young and inexperienced and many of them stray dangerously into melodrama. It's almost as if the kids have based their performances on anime characters. Tatsuya Fujiwara as Shuya and Taro Yamamoto as Shogo are generally quite good but even they're guilty of some pretty hammy acting at times. Unfortunately I've seen this hyper-kinetic acting style infect more then one descent Japanese film. In my opinion, it isn't engaging, it's distracting.
There are some bright notes, however. A crazed, manic performance actually fits nicely on Masanobu Ando's Kazuo. Aki Maeda is cooly measured and sweetly sympathetic as Noriko. And although Kou Shibasaki is comically villainous as Mitsuko, she's so gleefully homicidal that I really don't care. More then once I almost jumped out of my skin after catching a glimpse of her skulking around in the background.
Towering head and shoulders above the rest is Takeshi Kitano as the teacher. Given his status as a veteran thespian, I'm sure it comes as no surprise that his performance is the best in the film, but even I sat up and took notice. Via the script's clever use of periodic phone calls to reveal his crippled domestic life, Kitano gives us a character who's spirit has been completely and utterly crushed. His last few moments on screen represent some of the most intense and darkly bizarre sequences in cinema history.
Although some may argue that The Hunger Games does a better job with world-building and giving a us a central character tho care about, I firmly believe that the absence of these elements actually makes Battle Royale a better film. The outcome is more in doubt, the action sequences are more thrilling, the violence is more vicious and the thematic relevance is closer to the surface.
Indeed, Battle Royale makes The Hunger Games look like a bloated, sanitized, rambling mess in comparison.