Fellow Chiaki fan Max Sterling wrote this Film and DVD Review for the Chiaki Kuriyama Fandom.
Battle Royale is that rarest strip of celuloid that manages to entertain on a visual level while holding a deeper, more political meaning for those who like a little substance to go with their style. Adapted from Koushun Takami's already controversial novel by the late Kinji Fukasaku, the film went on to make a "killing" at the box office, despite it's R15 rating, and has since become a cult favorite in many corners of the world.
The premise is simple. In a Japan plagued with social ills and unrest, the government has passed the BR Act. Each year, a class of junior high school students is sent to a remote location, given weapons and provisions, fitted with explosive collars, and subsequently forced to kill each other off until only one remains. The lone survivor is then deemed worthy to join civilized society. For Japan, this carries a powerful message at a time when violent crimes are on the rise and there is a growing fear in some of the restless and violent youth. What the film does so brilliantly is to downlplay those fears by conjuring up a situation so severe and psychotic one can't help but come to the conclusion that things may not really be so bad in Japanese society. Never the less, it's an alluring concept, and the sheer audacity of this film that depicts young kids mercilessly slaughtering each other with weapons that range from sickles to switch blades to uzi 9mms is its strongest selling point. It is also the reason why this film will never see an official release in the United States. Yes - the movie is pervasively violent, often bloody, and even a little disturbing at times, but it's neither over-the-top nor gratuitous. What is shocking to most is not the violence itself but who is committing the violent acts. Ever wonder why you rarely, if ever, see a child killed in your standard Hollywood production? Well wonder no more, because unlike Japan, Italy, and other countries, Hollywood is fairly conservative when it comes to violence. Sure many directors use violence for pure shock factor, but in the case of Battle Royale, it's used as the foundation for a very viable critique of popular thought. It was designed to get attention, and it succeeded very well.
Like most films however, Battle Royale is not without its flaws. There are some plot holes which raise some very viable questions. For example, if the results of each game are televised, how do the kids not know about it? In addition, some of the dialogue comes across as a bit melodramatic and campy. But these are minor flaws and in no way detract from the impact of the film. Battle Royale is, after all, only a fantasy. Perhaps most sorely missed in the movie is the characterization that was so readily available in the book. The book format gave Takami a tremendous amount of freedom to develop each of the 42 students and to provide them with some sort of identity so we don't view their death with simple indifference. Were it five hours long, the film could easily do the same, but it would do so at the expense of pacing and the audience's patience. Instead we are presented with in depth characterization of the three main characters: Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya "Flying" Fujiwara), Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), and Shougo Kawada (Tara Yamamoto). Without revealing the movie's inner-workings, we learn about their histories, motivations, and desires and we witness their respective transformations as the game runs its three day course. The other characters, while they all don't get as much screentime as our three heroes, are not completely underdeveloped. Indeed the characters are such familiar types that we are able to learn a great deal about them, though we may only see them for five seconds, because we have all come across them before in our own lives. There are the popular girls, the outcasts, bullies, jocks, the nerd who had more gel in his hair than The Fonz, and that one promiscuous girl that your mother told you to stay away from. This quick characterization works perfectly in the film and is enhanced by the performances of the young actors and actresses who look and behave like a real class. As this is a Chiaki Kuriyama fansite, it would be prudent to single her role out for closer inspection. Chiaki plays Takako Chigusa, a headstrong loner who excels at running and wields a mean blade. Despite being a small part of a very large cast, Chiaki conveys a beautiful sense of confidence befitting her character and delivers her lines with the psychotic flare of someone forced to knife fight with Arnold Schwarzenegger (see Commando). Other standout characters are Mitsuko Souma, played by the gorgeous Kou Shibasaki, everyone's favorite gun-toting lunatic Kazuo Kiriyama, played by Ando Masanobu who looks suspiciously like Robert Smith of The Cure, and the always watchable Takeshi "Beat" Kitano.
Battle Royale has had a few DVD releases, only 2 of which are worthy of mention. The first is Tartan's 2 Disc Special Editon. Released in two separate incarnations (one with a tin case and limited edition film frame card and the other with neither), this is definitely worth your money. The first disc contains the extended cut of the movie that includes an extra eight minutes of deleted, extended, and newly shot scenes, digitally enhanced violence, and an extremely nice Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. The second disc boasts a whole truckload of special features, including (but definitely not limited to) behind-the-scenes documentaries, interviews and press conferences, auditions, special effects comparisons, trailers, and more. Now keep in mind that this is a British release. That means it's in PAL format, not NTSC. Check to make sure your DVD player can play PAL discs before purchasing this edition. The second worthy edition is the Korean release from Starmax. It's also a 2 disc special edition that contains the same extended cut of the film as seen on the Tartan release. The second disc contains essentially the same specials as the Tartan release as well. What makes this set special is the addition of a DTS track on the first disc. It sounds noticeably better than Tartan's 5.1 audio. So if you're not sure which version to buy, consider that the Korean Starmax release has NO English subtitles on Disc 2 while the UK Tartan release DOES have English subtitles for ALL of the extra features on Disc 2. Decide what's more important, English subtitles or DTS, and go from there. Or you could make it easier on yourself and buy both.
The Starmax 2 Disc release can be found at www.aznfilms.com ($26.99), www.pokerindustries.com ($29.99), and us.yesasia.com ($23.25). The Tartan 2 Disc release can be found at www.aznfilms.com ($39.99) and www.pokerindustries.com ($49.99). Battle Royale the novel (translated into English) can be found at www.amazon.com for $11.17.
Battle Royale is easily one of the finest films to come from Japan in a long time. The combination of a such a morbidly fascinating premise, expert directing, fast-paced action sequences, and a beautiful Wagnerian score by Masamichi Amano make for a cinematic event that is worth watching again and again. So buy it!