Battle Royale (Japan, 2000)
A black comedy; a horror film; an action-thriller; inspiration for The Hunger Games novels and films (2012–onwards); yet Battle Royale is perhaps most known in relation to the latter, as well as being a major part of the post-1990s Asia Extreme trend. Kinji Fukasaku’s film was also a literary adaptation, as the popularity of Koushun Takami’s novel is one of the reasons that the film was made. The translation of the novel for countries outside of Japan means that international fans of the film can now compare and contrast these versions of the story. Hopefully, they will be pleasantly surprised – because Battle Royale stands as one of the most faithful book-to-film adaptations in cinema history.
The backstories of the two central protagonists, Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda), are almost entirely transferred from the page to the screen – as well as those of the other students, such as the unfortunate Nobu (Yukihiro Kotani). The blunt insertion of the BR Act into a very near-future scenario is also carried over from the book, and acts just as effectively in introducing the film’s premise. What if you were forced to fight to the death and had to kill your friends? After introducing the environment of a deserted island, weapons picked at random, and exploding collars, Fukasaku’s final film forces the audience to confront this dilemma. Another attempt would be made to depict the same situation, but on a larger scale, in the 2003 sequel, completed by Fukasaku’s son Kenta when his father passed away after directing just one scene. However, the first film is infinitely superior for several reasons.
Although the story is perhaps limited in its impact by the fact that it is teenagers who have to deal with this situation, and not a cross-section of various ages, this focus gives some of the events a darkly comedic feel – right from the students’ inability to use certain weapons, to having petty arguments that end in bullet-ridden bloodshed. After laughing at first, the viewer then realizes that a high school class provides a perfect microcosm for this scenario: everyone from the cold-blooded and determined survivalist, to the person that commits a suicidal protest against the situation, is present and correct. Thoughts on how you would react in the same situation will arise in the back of anyone’s mind as they watch.
Takami’s book added depth to this situation with flashbacks to the students’ lives at high school, and this is carried over to some scenes in the film (even more so in the 2001 special extended edition). However, the film has one trump card over the book – ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano. He is cast as the students’ former teacher who agrees to also supervise their battle to the death (the only major deviation from the book’s characters). After seeing them all grow more and more delinquent, he is not only glad to see them kill each other, but is hugely entertained and determined to shape the experience as their absolute final lesson. Kitano revels in the role, and steals every scene, from apologizing for breaking the rules (and killing a student), to facing the few that remain at the film’s climax.
The enduring popularity of this concept is not only evident in its inspiration of The Hunger Games franchise, but also in the creation of its own. Arrow Video and other distribution companies now re-release the film on a regular basis every few years; the film has had a 3D makeover in Japan; and it also has its own manga spin-off series. The basis of the story often remains the same in all these incarnations. For that, we should thank Koushon Takami. However, it is Kinji Fukasaku who deserves equal credit for taking this blood-chilling and darkly humorous premise and making it so startlingly real on-screen.