Film Review: Battle Royale

Before <i>The Hunger Games</i> there was <i>Battle Royale</i>, which, while more than living up to its reputation as a bloody provocation predicated on the spectacle of adorable Japanese schoolchildren in neat uniforms being forced into a sadistic game

It's the not-too-distant future and it's dystopian: Japan's economy has collapsed, 10 million people—15% of the workforce—are unemployed, and students are rebelling against being good little learner bees…800,000 of them are boycotting school altogether. The government can't do much about the larger socioeconomic problems, but if there's one thing they know how to do, it's crack down on kids. So they created Battle Royale. Every year one randomly selected ninth-grade class is shipped off to a secret location and compelled to participate in a three-day game, whose rules are explained in a battered classroom ringed with military personnel equipped with heavy ordnance.

Instructed by a perky video hostess (the pitch-perfect Yuko Miyamura, with her kewpie-doll mannerisms and high-pitched giggle) and their seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Kitano (played by Japanese pop-culture icon Takeshi Kitano), the 42 boys and girls of Zentsuji Middle School No. 4, Class E, are randomly armed with an eccentric supply of weapons, clipped into shiny collars that can be detonated remotely if they refuse orders or try to subvert the game, and told to go out and kill each other until there's only one left. "Nothing's against the rules," says Sensei Kitano, except not following the rules, as he demonstrates brutally by killing a pair of students who show signs of not getting with the program.

It's 1:30 a.m. when the students—plus two ringers, boys a couple of years older than the ninth-graders, one a previous winner, the other a sociopathic thrill-seeker and the kids aren't told which is which—are sent out into the darkness in their neat khaki uniforms: skirts for the girls and pants for the boys, jackets, white shirts and striped ties for both. By two a.m., several are already dead and the rest beginning to strategize according to their natures. Some band together, the more optimistic secretly hoping that maybe by cooperating they can all survive, the pragmatic figuring that safety in numbers might keep them uninjured and relatively well-fed and rested for the final countdown. Best friends promise they'll never turn against each other and fledgling couples swear they'd rather die than commit an act of betrayal.

Battle Royale's Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark are Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) and Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara). Shuya is a survivor, though he doesn’t yet realize it—he's still reeling from the loss of both his parents at the beginning of the semester: His mother abandoned her family and his unemployed father committed suicide, consigning Shuya to a group home. Noriko always thought of herself as ordinary—just a girl destined to finish school, get married and have children, just like her mother; now she realizes she was more privileged and pampered than she could have imagined. But she's capable of more than she knows, and even "armed" with items that seem like cruel jokes—a pair of binoculars and a large metal pot lid—Shuya and Noriko have a fighting chance if they stick together. "Fighting" being the operative word.

Battle Royale opened briefly in a handful of art-house venues in 2001, and by and large non-genre critics were so shocked—shocked—by the premise that the film's nuances went unnoticed. While it at first appears to reduce the students to tidy ciphers—the uniforms gloss over individual differences, which is, of course, the whole point of school uniforms, the norm in Japanese schools—the main characters quickly come into focus, mostly through their actions, though as the story progresses flashbacks begin to fill in pieces of their pasts, like the sad secret that drives Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki), who's not the natural-born killer she appears as she cuts a wide swath through her classmates; the reason Shuya is so devastated by the death of Nobu (Yukihiro Kotani), a thoroughly annoying kid who's killed before the game even gets going; and the heartbreaking innocence of Utsumi (Eri Ishikawa), a girl who briefly cares for the wounded Shuya and shyly admits that before she washed and bandaged his bloody torso, she'd never even a touched a boy.

Fans of The Hunger Games probably won't want to check out this variation on a theme—they're too invested in their Peeta and Katniss—but it's well worth seeing nonetheless.