[EDITOR'S NOTE: Contributor Robert Nishimura's video series Three Reasons continues with Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale. He feels this film – a Hunger Games for Grownups – deserves release on the Criterion label.]
With Hollywood poised and ready to drop the next big book-to-screen adaptation on March 23, The Hunger Games will be the latest tween sci-fi/fantasy franchise to wipe moviegoer's minds of wand-waving witches and vapid vampires. Frankly, if my editor hadn't informed me of this fact I would've been blissfully unaware of the whole thing. I had no idea that Suzanne Collins had written a series of insanely successful young adult novels, thus dubbing her one of the most influential people of 2010. I didn't know that Gary Ross had directed the film adaptation featuring a star-studded cast of younglings (plus Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland to make the film tolerable for parents). Fans of the novels had camped out hours before an early screening at LA Live, anxious to have the book retold to them. It has already broken records in advance ticket sales, beating out Twilight: Blah Blah Blah.
I have no doubt that the movie franchise of The Hunger Games will be as insanely popular as the books. Whether we like it or not, the next three films are already in pre-production. Lionsgate has tailor-made "youthful, edgy, exciting high quality entertainment," so it will be guaranteed to thrill and tantalize preteens across the globe. Perhaps bows and arrows will come back into fashion. Maybe the film will inspire some kids to kill each other, or in the very least grow wacky facial hair. Now that I've been inundated with all the hype for The Hunger Games, I feel like I've already seen it, and not because the trailer spelled it out for me.
The blogosphere was quick to point out the similarities between Collins' Hunger Games Trilogy with Koushun Takami's 1999 novel, Battle Royale, going so far as to call it a bold-faced ripoff. Suzanne Collins admitted to never having heard of the book, nor has she read it since continuing the series. So it goes without saying that Collins has never seen Kinji Fukusaku's film adaptation of Battle Royale, which will undoubtedly bare a striking resemblance to Gary Ross' The Hunger Games. Both sources portray various degrees of a dystopian future, where teenagers are forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the government/home-viewing audience.
Beyond that, it would be a waste of time to defend Battle Royale from plagiarism, since The Hunger Games has an entirely different set of cultural baggage, as well as being a disservice to countless other source material that deal with the exact same subject matter. Collins just happened to tap in to the creative collective consciousness, drawing on ideas that have played out many times before, in addition to her intentional reference to Greek mythology. There are elements of Orwell and Huxley at work here, but just enough to pander to its target audience. The trailer for The Hunger Games focuses on defining the characters of Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, and the rest of the primped up cast, but showed me very little of what I'd really like to see: these pretty people killing each other.
Takami's Battle Royale is set in an alternative universe in which Japan was victorious in the Second World War, making it an authoritative world power. It's the turn of the century, and society is falling apart with an economy on the brink of collapse, a rise in unemployment and in teen delinquency. The government reacts by installing the Millennial Reform School Act (BR Act) as a means to thin out the numbers of juvenile delinquents. Every year one 9th grade class is randomly chosen to compete in Battle Royale, forced into a game of survival in which there can only be one winner. The unknowing selected class is then kidnapped, whisked away to a de-populated island, and each student is given a unique weapon, a map, and enough provisions to last three days. Each participant is fitted with a metal necklace that monitors their whereabouts, exploding if they attempt an escape.
As the game progresses, sections of the island become "forbidden zones," to keep the students moving closer to each other. If you are caught in a forbidden zones your necklace explodes. If there is more than a single survivor at the end of the three days, all the necklaces will explode and the game is forfeited. If one person does survive he/she is allowed to return home, or in some cases, be allowed to play again. To make things more interesting the BR Committee will plant "transfer students" in certain schools months before the class is selected. Having these seasoned killers among the 40 student class helps speed the game along and forces the other students to play. Takami's original novels reveals much more about this universe and the relationships of the students, whereas the film adaptation of Battle Royale very quickly establishes the setting and introduces this year's lucky participants, Shiroiwa Junior High School, Class B.
The man responsible for selecting this year's class is Kitano (brilliantly cast with "Beat" Takeshi Kitano), who used to work at Shiroiwa Junior High School years before becoming the mouthpiece for the BR Committee. His calm demeanor is especially off putting as he describes the rules to the game, pausing occasionally to kill a student to set an example for the rest of the class. It's especially poignant to see Takeshi Kitano in this role since it would ultimately be Fukusaku's swan song. Fukusaku had a long established career as a genre filmmaker, responsible for some of the most energetic and innovative yakuza exploitation films. His crowning achievement could be the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, known in the West as The Yakuza Papers.
Takeshi Kitano's directorial debut, Violent Cop was originally intended for Fukusaku, who passed the film along to Kitano because he was too ill at the time. A few years later, Kitano would (re)pay homage to Fukusaku's Sympathy for the Underdog (1971) with his film Sonatine (1993). Kitano's films are largely indebted to Fukusaku and his generation of filmmakers. Reaching the end of his career, Battle Royale brought Fukusaku back into the limelight, garnering several Japanese Academy Award nominations in addition to some well deserved controversy. After 40 years in the business, Fukusaku still had the moxy of a young exploiter. He managed to shoot only one scene for Battle Royale 2: Requiem (coincidentally, with Kitano) before passing away, leaving his son Kenta to complete the film in his father's memory.
In The Hunger Games contestants are chosen in pairs from various districts, some of whom seemingly have been training their whole lives to enter the game. They are complete strangers to each other, the only attachment (as for the viewer) is purely physical. The students in Battle Royale have known each other for years, and in some cases quite intimately. This has a profound effect on the game and how it is played. Some students try to form alliances to avoid any violence, while other students immediately start playing as soon as they leave the gate, desperate to to be the winner or seeking revenge for past grievances. Most of the students are frightened beyond belief, questioning themselves and suspicious of even their closest friends. The couple that we are meant to identify with are Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda), who now must confront their feelings for each other as well as frequent attacks from their fellow classmates.
One notable assailant is played by Chiaki Kuriyama, who basically reprises the the same role in Quentin Tarantino's love letter to J-sploitation, Kill Bill. Fans of QT will recognize the tone that Fukusaku maintains throughout the film. Realistic violence pushed to the point of absurdity, sometimes even cartoonish. Shuya and Noriko witness all their friends (and enemies) unravel from fear and paranoia, either killing each other out of spite or suspicion. As the student body dwindles away, they form an alliance with Shogo, one of the "transfer students" who had played the game before. Together they devise a way to end the game and seek revenge on Kitano, who is surveilling them from the center of the island.
Contrary to popular belief, Battle Royale was never banned from US distribution. The file was released soon after the Columbine incident, which wasn't the best time to be promoting a film that glorified killing your classmates. Why the film hadn't be picked up since is the real mystery. For years the film had garnered a cult following in the US, and still no distributor would touch it. Even after Tarantino had given it his hipster seal-of-approval, he could have at least put it out under his Rolling Thunder label. Criterion had already released David Lean's Lord of the Flies and Ernest B. Schoedsack's The Most Dangerous Game, so Battle Royale would have fit snugly betwixt those classics. If only Criterion had picked up Battle Royale years ago it could've quite possibly saved us all from The Hunger Games.
Criterion missed their chance to nab this title, and now that The Hunger Games have begun, another company has stepped up to finally bring Battle Royale to the US. It would appear that my Three Reasons video is already an empty gesture since Anchor Bay is set to release the long-awaited special edition of Battle Royale 1 & 2 on DVD and Bluray, three days before The Hunger Games hits theaters. It's loaded with features on Fukusaku's career and the impact Battle Royale had on cinema in Japan. We can certainly trace the line from Battle Royale to The Hunger Games without too much difficulty, even though the film was never released in the US until now. Its influence on Western cinema over the past decade has justified having our own kiddy-porn death-match. The level of violence in cinema has caught up to speed that we can now have our The Hunger Games, so it seems the US is finally ready for Battle Royale. For anyone who has not seen Battle Royale, it will not disappoint, but it may steal the "edge" that The Hunger Games is so desperately trying to project.
Robert Nishimura is a Japan-based filmmaker, artist, and freelance designer. His designs can be found at Primolandia Productions. His non-commercial video work is at For Criterion Consideration. You can follow him on Twitter here. To watch other videos in his "Three Reasons" series, click here.