Thursday, July 19, 2012

DVD Review: Battle Royale

When everybody was talking about The Hunger Games, inevitably there'd be one person somewhere in the crowd that would say "Ugh, it's such a rip-off of Battle Royale." To be honest, those people were pretty annoying. But they had good reason to bring it up.

For people who aren't familiar with it, Battle Royale was a book first, published in Japan in 1999. It was adapted into a feature film in 2000. It was also turned into a manga around the same time. The three versions have some big differences in the plot and the mechanics of the world, but the premise is generally the same. In it, a totalitarian government suppresses teenage rebellion by selecting one middle school class every year to compete in the Battle Royale. Which is, as you may have guessed, a fight to the death with only one student left standing.

I have known about Battle Royale for years, since 2001 or so. At the time I was working on a documentary about cosplay, and the school uniform from the film was one of the most popular costumes. Of course I read what I could about the story at the time, because I wanted to know what it was. A few years later, the manga was translated into English. It was gruesome, violent, disturbing, and yet compelling at the same time. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, but not because it was bad. Just because I'd have to know someone really well before I said "Yeah, you should read this comic where they illustrate people's heads exploding in detail."

People like to say that the similarities between the two works (Battle Royale and The Hunger Games) are just superficial. And I'll be clear, I don't think that Suzanne Collins plagiarized anything. But for me the thing is that The Hunger Games could never be that great a book to me because I had already read the manga of Battle Royale. The themes were extremely similar, and more than just superficial. The authors were making similar conclusions about where our society is heading, and where it is now. They seem to draw on a lot of the same sort of cultural influences.

And in the end, Battle Royale made me think more, made me care more, and was more willing to push limits to make it's point. It's not that The Hunger Games is a rip-off, it's just that somebody else did the same story in a way that worked much better for me.

So after I saw The Hunger Games movie, I really wanted to watch Battle Royale. As much as I knew about the film, it was very hard to find in the U.S. for many years. It suffered from unfortunate timing because it was released not long after the Columbine Massacre, which colored it with a very different lens than it is seen with today.

To be honest, much of the film's lauded violence feels tame by today's standards, and it's only 12 years old. The story isn't as subversive, and it really doesn't live up to it's hype. But that isn't a bad thing, because the hype was obscuring the fact that it's just a really solid film. It is a Japanese film, and so some American audiences will just be generally confused by the pacing, structure, and some of the acting (which is a little different than what we're used to, not bad, just different). But the characters have some real depth, and even though I knew everything that happened I still cared about everyone.

It's major flaw is the same problem I had with the book of The Hunger Games-we don't know enough about who is making the children fight, and we need to. This isn't some macguffin that can get swept under the rug. It's no longer revolutionary to have children fighting to the death (sadly) but what is still relevant is the social commentary, which can only be made by revealing more of the machine.

I can't hold that against Battle Royale because in 1999, it was a different world and a different place to be telling this kind of story but it still affected my reaction to it. What amazes me is that it doesn't hold back. While the movie is far less violent and graphic than the manga, it still doesn't hesitate to have heads cut off and axes go through skulls. American movies are violent, and everyone talked about how violent the Hunger Games was. But those stories feel bloodless in a way, even if they aren't literally. Part of this is because in Battle Royale, the students aren't strangers to each other. They're classmates and friends. Boyfriends and girlfriends, cliques with mean girls and victims of their bullying. The characters come in with baggage, not just their own, but with each other. And that matters, it makes it feel more personal and more terrible.

Overall, I actually wouldn't recommend this movie to fans of The Hunger Games, unless you already thought the book could have gone further and you wonder what it would be like if it wasn't YA. But if you like Japanese action movies, horror movies, or you want to think about how messed up our society can get, then it's worth a watch.