Over the past few months I had heard much about this Japanese-made film. Everyone I knew who had seen it before had told me what a great film this was, one of the finest to come out of Asia in recent years, and when I managed to get a hold of a copy, I wasn't disappointed.
The story is set in the near future. The youth of Japan are becoming dissatisfied with life, so much so that as many as 800,000 of them have boycotted school. Some of them have gone as far as attacking their own teachers. Couple this with other problems facing the government, including ten million unemployed, and something drastic was needed. So the Battle Royale act was passed as a way of controlling the nation's youth.
The idea was simple, but barbaric. Each year a class would be selected at random, and they would be placed on the island in the middle of nowhere, put there to play a game. The rules were simple. The only way someone could win the game was by simply surviving. Within three days, they had to help kill all of their classmates. It is a fight to the death.
The action mainly centres around two students. Noriko is your typical girl-next-door type of student, beautiful, intelligent, with a crush on her fellow student Nobu, unaware, at first, that Nobu's best friend Nanahara has a crush on her.
Nanahara is another of the central characters, a deeply troubled boy whose mother left him when he was just three years old and whose unemployed father killed himself on the first day of his 7th grade education. All but alone in life, the only people he really trusts are his classmates, but he is put into a situation when he has to kill the very people he trusts.
With the scene and premise set, it's soon into the action as their former teacher Kitano, with an excellent performance by Beat Takeshi, tells them just where they are and why they are here. Kitano is a bitter man. One of his former students assaulted him with a knife, and family problems at home meant that he is one unhappy bunny, and that's an understatement if ever there was one.
Two wild cards are thrown into the mix with the addition of two transfer students. The brooding Kawada, and the silent, enigmatic Kiriyama. Kawada is a veritable veteran of the game, having survived it three years previously. Kiriyama, on the other hand, is just plain nuts, having signed up for the game just to have some fun. He is probably the coolest bad-guy seen on film for years, a man, or rather, boy, who tells you just how much he hates you and how much he wants to kill you with just a simple stare - and a few rounds from whatever gun he manages to take off his previous victims.
Given the fact that the levels of violence in this film would put many off, it's a little surprising that the film is not overly-gory. There is a fair amount of blood, but guts aren't part of the deal as far as this film is concerned. While most of the deaths are graphic, director Kinji Fukasaku doesn't set out to shock his audience on a guttural level.
It's not surprising that when the film was initially released in 2001, many American distributors were reluctant to put the film out in the cinemas. Not many filmmakers in the west would be willing to make as film such as Battle Royal. But it's also not surprising that this film has become such a cult hit. Many have wondered what an American version of Battle Royale would be like. My personal opinion is that there isn't an American studio with the balls to even attempt such a project. It would be dumbed down, desensitised, and too many American-style stereotypes would
be inserted into the mix. It just wouldn't work.
This film succeeds on almost every level. The performances, particularly from the young leads, are outstanding. The film is well directed and visually stunning, and after watching this, it makes you wonder if the sequel, which was released in Japan this summer, will be just as good. After all, it has a lot to live up to. I won't spoil anything else by saying how this film ends or what happens in the sequel. All I will say is that if you're only ever going to see one foreign film in your life, then make it Battle Royale.