By Ruthie

So this week marks the big debut of the Hunger Games movie, a film which, if my Facebook feed is any indication, is insanely popular. But before the Hunger Games came along, there was another book/movie combo about teenagers brutally slaughtering each other, a Japanese franchise with a cultish following: Battle Royale. And guess what?

It’s coming out on (legal) DVD and BluRay! (The screenshots here are from the grainy and poorly translated copy that I bought when I lived in Japan, so yeah, I probably need to upgrade.)

In a lot of ways, BR and the Hunger Games are very similar. Both are about teenagers forced to brutally slaughter one another at the whims of a strange and sadistic government. Both follow a pair of potential love interests clinging to the hope that they can subvert the rules and both get out alive. Both have themes of trust versus uncertainty and man’s inhumanity to man. But that’s where the similarities end...
[More pics and the original trailer after the jump...]

While Hunger Games is PG, Battle Royale will never be anything less than rated R. It is gory and violent. Sure, its violence has a message—albeit one that is much more convoluted in film than it is in the book. But at its core, Battle Royale just enjoys celebrating the many graphic ways that artificial blood can be sprayed from a teenager’s body. The acting is melodramatic and cheesy, something that only adds to the effect. BR also takes place not in a distant future, but in a dark parallel present, a Japan in which unruly youths and failing morals led to an apathetic and violent society.

I can’t speak for the movie, but in the book, the Hunger Games spends the first third in a confusion of pretty dresses, public interviews, and decadent meals as the Tributes prepare for the Arena. BR doesn’t bother. The movie kicks off with a shot of last year’s winner, then moves directly onto the bus that’s currently driving a 9th grade class to their deaths. You know things have really gone wrong when the bus’s adorable, uniformed hostess suddenly turns around in a gas mask and bashes a student on the head.

Cute girls will kill you.
Deaths start fast and furious, with two students gone before the end of the instructional video (led by Oneesan or Big Sister, an energetic and adorable parody of the type of enthusiastic girl that hosts children’s programming in Japan). There’s no fancy arena in BR; instead, the government drops the kids on an evacuated island, complete with all the junk the residents left behind. Students are fitted with neck collars that track their movements and also explode. The only rule is that only one can come out alive, and after three days, if there is more than one student living, everyone dies.

Kiriyama is a big fan of The Crow
Part of the genius of Battle Royale the book is its confusion over the main character. Early on, it could be any one of a handful of characters, some good and some evil. It eventually settles on one boy as the likeliest and most heroic protagonist… only to have him abruptly slaughtered a few pages later. It’s an excellent device that keeps you guessing and lets you know that no one is sacred. Sadly, it’s kind of impossible to achieve that same effect in film. (Not having a clear protagonist in film makes it nearly impossible for the audience to engage in the plot, kind of the opposite of the effect it had in the book. See: the Phantom Menace.) So we spend much of the movie following Shuya Nanahara and his best friend’s crush, Noriko Nakagawa. They’re nice kids, but not very well suited to a survival situation, so they end up kind of muddling through and surviving more by luck than anything else.

As villains go, you’re spoiled for choice. There’s Kitano, the class’s former teacher and current leader of the games, but he’s more of a menacing background presence and ultimately kind of sad. (He’s played by famous Japanese comedian Beat Takeshi.)

Then there’s Kiriyama, a transfer student (read: volunteer for the games) who is essentially an unstoppable killing machine. He’s terrifying because he just keeps coming, no matter what you do to him. ( In the book he was an original member of the class rather than a transfer student, a boy who suffered a brain injury while still in his mother’s womb and lost his ability to empathize. He bases his decision on whether to help the others escape or whether to play the game on the flip of a coin.) He doesn't speak a single word in the entire movie, something that just amplifies his menace.

Then there’s my personal favorite villain, Mitsuko. Mitsuko was the leader of the mean-girl clique in the class, a pretty and popular girl who got all the guys. It’s clear she has self-esteem issues (the book slowly unravels a long history of abuse, although the movie doesn’t bother) and sees winning the game as her best chance of redemption. She’s terrifying because of her skill at manipulation, and fun to watch because of her cool and ruthless detachment. I don’t want to give away too much, but at one point you get awesome villain-on-villain action.
Mitsuko likes to be creepy

Once the Battle begins, the story unfolds in a series of vignettes, mostly of deaths or dealing with deaths or walking around trying to avoid deaths. The themes of trust and distrust are played out again and again, but none more poignantly than in the lighthouse scene. In the lighthouse, we find 5 BFF girls who have managed to find one another and hole up in what are essentially the most luxurious digs on the island. Unfortunately, the intrusion of an outsider causes one of them to panic, and in an ill-advised attempt at self defense, she accidentally kills one of her friends. In the resulting panic, each of the girls blames the others, and they quickly turn on each other. It goes from friendly lunch to grisly bloodbath in the blink of an eye. It’s a great scene and a nice little microcosm of the entire movie.

Hunger Games? Who has time to eat?
One of the best and most popular characters in the entire movie is Takako Chigusa, the class’s track star. (You might recognize her. Chiaki Kuriyama also played schoolgirl assassin Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill. I’ve read that Tarantino decided he needed her after seeing her in BR.) She’s cute and athletic, with the adorable habit of chatting with God. She’s remarkable for the fact that in the space of about a minute, she perpetrates what is arguably the grisliest murder in the entire movie, and just seconds later dies the saddest and most heart-wrenching death in the film. She kills a classmate by first repeatedly stabbing him in the junk, and then stabbing him over and over in the chest. In her defense, he did just threaten to rape her, and she did give him lots of opportunity to go on his way. (In the book, he actually attempts to rape her before she fights back.) And yet, even though she brutally kills this guy, a few seconds later I find myself actually crying over her death and unrequited love. There just plain isn’t enough Chigusa in this movie.

Bloody Blu-Ray package
I won’t give away the ending—because it’s too much fun—but I will say that before the conclusion of the film you have seen more pointless violence than a Tarantino film and more cheeseball acting than a high school musical. It is definitely not to be missed. I can’t say that if you are a huge Hunger Games fan that you’ll love this movie. I can’t say that if you hate the Hunger Games you’ll love this film. I will say that if you enjoy campy violence, movies about not trusting the government, or just watching girls in school uniforms walk around with guns, you’ll probably enjoy this movie. And, if you want something more thought provoking, try the book. It has the same gratuitous violence, but it actually has a strong and intelligent message about the dangers of being too obedient and too trusting of authority.

Battle Royale is finally available in the US.

Get your copy today.

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