Hungering for a Great Movie?
Let’s play “Name That Movie”. Cue applause. “High school students are forced by the government to compete in a deadly game where the students must kill each other in order to win.” Who wants to buzz in with the answer?
I’m guessing many of you would say, “The Hunger Games”, opening today to what I’m sure will be millions and millions of dollars in box office revenue. I haven’t seen it yet, nor have I read any of the best-selling teen novels on which it is based; but, from everything I’ve heard about it, it sounds like a winning answer for our game.
Except that it’s not. The correct answer is Battle Royale, a 2000 Japanese thriller (also based on a novel) that became one of the country’s 10 highest grossing movies of all time. Amazingly, this movie became available in the United States on DVD and Blu-ray for the first time (legally) this week. And I can’t recommend it highly enough!
As the introductory subtitles of Battle Royale read, “At the dawn of the millennia, the nation collapsed. At 15% unemployment, 10 million were out of work. 800,000 students boycotted school. The adults lost confidence and, fearing the youth, eventually passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act, aka the BR Act. “
The movie then opens with a chilling scene as a reporter and other excited paparazzi race to greet the winner of the most recent game. Finally revealed, it is a young girl gripping a blood-stained doll and wearing a huge smile on her face. She looks more like someone who would have crawled out of a television screen in another Japanese hit, Ringu (The Ring), than someone capable of killing 40 (give or take) of her classmates in order to survive.
What follows is the story of the next “class” of contestants as they are abducted, taken to a deserted island, told the rules of the game and then released one by one into the wild. Every moment is brutal. Even something as trivial as not listening to their “teacher” can (and does) have deadly consequences.
It’s fascinating how the politics of high school play out in this gory game of survival. For some, their clique-tables are turned. The unpopular crowd may gain the upper hand and the mean kids may get what’s coming to them. No blood is spared in an abundance of graphic deaths. With everyone receiving one “weapon” at the beginning of the game, each player hopes they’re the one who gets the machine gun or crossbow and not the trash can lid or butterfly net.
I wasn’t sure through much of the movie if there was a particular character I was meant to cheer for. Some have flashbacks that reveal key elements of their stories prior to their abduction. I suppose you can choose your favorite. (Mine was the kid with the crazy hair who gunned down five or six other kids and stole all their weapons.) By the end, it becomes clear.
For a little relief from the tension, Battle Royale gives us the teacher, Kitano. I wouldn’t call it “comic” relief, because nothing he does is funny. However, he is a bizarre character whose unpredictable behavior every time he’s on screen provides some head-scratching laughs. He’s obviously mentally disturbed by something that has happened to him and it’s fun to imagine exactly what that might be.
This is one dark movie. Even though you expect there to be a winner/survivor, it’s not something to celebrate in this world. Battle Royale is not exactly satire, although it pulls no punches in commenting on a not-so-unimaginable future. It’s fast-paced and backed by a terrific score, part original and part recognizable classic music. (In one specific scene, the use of music reminded me of Apocalypse Now.)
Audiences seem to love stories where kids are forced to kill other kids. Twelve years ago, Japan made Battle Royale a huge hit. Today, The Hunger Games seems positioned for similar success. But my hope is that Battle Royale is acknowledged for being the true original. In fact, I can’t think of anything like it that came before. Maybe it’s reminiscent of The Most Dangerous Game, only on steroids… multiplied by 100… turned-up to 11. And it’s a must-see, for horror/thriller fans as well as true fans of cinema itself.
Hungering for a Great Movie?