Most of your sense of a flick really does come down to context and expectations. If, for instance, ads, friends and (*AHEM*) critics build a movie up too high for you, you’ll react far more harshly to its shortcoming then you would’ve going in blind. With that in mind, it’s a little funny watching BATTLE ROYALE on this 12th anniversary director’s cut disc that’s being put out to coincide with THE HUNGER GAMES’ release and hopefully capitalize on a resurgent interest in movies about teenagers killing each other.
(Granted, the concept was probably around since well before even the writing of ENDER’S GAME, so I don’t know how valid anybody’s armchair accusations of HUNGER GAMES “totally ripping this off” are. Let’s not digress, though…)
BATTLE ROYALE came out around when the internet really started aggregating into the pop culture playground it is today - - an early foreign import for savvier-than-thou writers on entertainment sites like this to champion. It was touted as dangerous filmmaking; a flick that unflinchingly handled material American cinema was too chickenshit to even touch. Hell, it was so extreme, it was banned in the US!
Except it wasn’t banned. A bungled distribution deal was simply spun to sound a lot more titillating than it actually was. Likewise, if you saw this edge-kissing flick after buying all the hype, you got the real “peak-a-boo!” of finding a goofy, goofy movie waiting behind all the hoopla. Despite a butting-pushing (and utterly preposterous) premise, this is a grand guignol satire in the mold of gore-filled, over-the-top, gleefully outrageous cult classics like DEATH RACE 2000 or THE WARRIORS. If you honestly see serious futurism in the notion of the Japanese government instituting a secret program that randomly kidnaps misbehaving high school classes and plops them on an island to kill each other over a weekend, then you might as well accept the prospect that Manhattan’s eventually going to be taken over by gangs of make-up wearing Baseball Furies, too.
Go into this expecting a bloody black comedy and you’ll have a better time. Trust me. You will still think that the flick runs a half-hour too long (pushed over by re-inserted material?) and that it could’ve used more lethal slapstick in place of schmaltzy flashbacks. However, you’ll spare yourself the befuddled feeling that this thriller’s killed its mood when a bad guy, like an uncooperative pro-wrestler opting to “no sell,” inexplicably sits up after getting gunned down at a climactic moment.
The movie’s still got its points to make, but they’re not the kind to be included in the supporting arguments of your mid-term paper on LORD OF THE FLIES. To hazard a guess, the movie’s likely ridiculing parents groups’ hysteria about dangerous youngsters by illustrating their anxieties with the most absurd literalism conceivable. You really have to believe that’s the intent in a movie containing an image like the one right above. If it isn’t, somehow - - if this movie actually thinks it’s making profound statements about man’s inhumanity to man - - then the only thing keeping it from clumsy, direct-to-video sci-fi flicks in Target’s discount bin is the fact that it’s foreign and, therefore, cool.
Let’s go with the first interpretation, then, and appreciate this for its wickedly-funny subversion that's as dry as STARSHIP TROOPERS’ similar “Ha! Let’s put the cast of 90210 to war!” conceit. It’s funny recognizing Tatsuya Fujiwara as the lead in this after he played Light in the DEATH NOTE movies (although there’s not much to say other than that it’s funny to recognize him.) He and the other two parts of the main trio of kids elicit an immediately-appealing sympathy in their performances that transcends language barriers. While the other students’ flashbacks more often feel like padding digressions, the backstory of their love and lost loves slides just the right thickness of pathos under all this mayhem.
The real star, of course, is the multi-hyphenate artist Takeshi Kitano playing essentially an evil version of himself as genre cinema’s drollest villain ever - - an irritated teacher working the system to get payback on these bratty kids for stabbing him in class that one time. His performance is deadpan enough to actually get you to laugh over the prospect that this whole death game’s just a bucket list wish he's scratching off right putting himself out of his own, dryly humorous misery. Yes, the movie can be that kind of morbid funny.
If we must bring this back to THE HUNGER GAMES, then BATTLE ROYALE perhaps presents a less self-serious and more perversely amusing vision of the whole teenage gladiator idea. When you come out of that guaranteed blockbuster in a couple weeks, you can be just like the e-columnists of 12 years ago and talk this lesser-known shocker up to any of your uninformed friends who thought that big Hollywood movie was intense. Just be sure to present it as a comedy, though. Seriously.