Based on a novel — and subsequently incorporated into projects as disparate as The Condemned and The Hunger Games — the first Royale imagines a near-future Japan of economic devastation. With a 15 percent unemployment rate, adults fearful of being leapfrogged by the next generation pass the Battle Royale Act to take care of that.
Under guise of a class trip, 42 ninth-grade students are drugged and brought to an uninhabited island to "play" the Battle Royale, the government-sanctioned, anything-goes "game" of winner takes all. They're given exactly three days and one random weapon to take each other out — simple as that! Electronic tracking collars around their necks keep them in line, lest they want their heads to explode.
More interesting than who will be killed and how is seeing the kids react to the do-or-die situation. The cruelty of cliques either washes away immediately or amplifies by a power of 10, but both for the same goal: survival. Some kids opt for suicide, while others reveal long-secret crushes or declarations of love, or what they perceive to be love.
A couple of the students stand out amid the large cast, but the juiciest role belongs to renaissance man Takeshi "Beat" Kitano (writer/director/star of 2003's excellent The Blind Swordsman: Zaitoichi) as the kids' teacher. Long used to taking their abuse and disrespect, his educator character relishes being able to turn the tables and give them the metaphorical finger as he introduces them to the BR concept, and gleefully announces the names of the dead along the way via loudspeaker from the safety of his command post.
The controversy that continues to dog the film is understandable, but Fukasaku's point is well-taken, because the tale is so well-told. That's not to say it's perfect; just shy of two hours, it's longer than need be, and would be more effective with half the student body (or bodies, as the case may be). The movie is so energetic, ballsy and youth-centric that it's surprising to learn it is not the work of a fresh film-school grad, but a 70-year-old man. Then again, he did make many a Sonny Chiba movie back in the day.
Battle Royale II: Requiem takes place three years later; the survivors of the first film and previous games have formed a terrorist organization in protest of the BR Act, setting up shop on an island. The government's solution is to create a twist on the BR game: Instead of having middle-schoolers to off one another, they're drafted to kill the leader of the Wild Seven group within 72 hours.
Oh, and those neck collars? If your partner's explodes, so does yours. One would think this new rule would speed things up, resulting in a tighter film. Quite the opposite: Requiem runs 20 minutes more.
Despite initial sequences to the contrary, it isn't simply the same movie with an all-new cast; it aims to do something different in its subversion. Unfortunately, that means becoming preachy vs. satirical (“There are 6 billion kinds of peace, 6 billion kinds of justice ...”) and scenes of war so elongated and repetitive, they become a crushing bore.
Once more, the most joy comes from the role of teacher, here played over-the-top by Riki Takeuchi (Big Man Japan), so crazed he chews prescription painkillers like Certs.
Among items too numerous to list, the aforementioned disc four contains:
• a 50-minute, fly-on-the-wall documentary on the first film's production;
• its amusing and comedic instructional video tweaked as a birthday greeting for Fukasaku;
• a cast and crew intro for the film's 2000 Tokyo International Film Festival, where just about everyone who takes the mic addresses the violence and, I think, makes it out to be far worse than it actually is;
• a 2001 reunion of the original cast to shoot a basketball scene for Fukasaku's director's cut;
• a Japanese 30-second TV spot touting that "Special Edition"'s theatrical re-release; and
• another that inserts footage of Quentin Tarantino yammering about his Battle Royale love, which is to be expected. —Rod Lott