Retro Review: Battle Royale (2000)

I know it sounds crazy to call a movie from 2000 a “retro review”, but sometimes you have to take a long hard look in the mirror and realize that was 17 years ago! Crazy, I know!

I first heard about Battle Royale through message boards. I was really big into Japanese horror in the late 90’s. I had imported Ringu and a few other titles, and I was hooked. Ju-On: The Curse had me in the fetal position, only able to take the shallowest of breaths. The Japanese horror craze hadn’t quite started here yet (The Ring would start that in 2002), so I was left scouring the internet for anything that looked good to import. One title kept coming up. Battle Royale.

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What was this mysterious film that the Japanese government had tried to ban? I dug deeper and found out more about the plot. A group of students are trapped on an island and must fight to the death until only one is left. The program is government funded by Japan to get the youth of the country back in line and the worst classes are nominated to compete. If the survival of the fittest plot isn’t enough, each student also has an explosive collar on. If they try to escape? Boom. They also worked as a way to corral the students and force them to fight. Zones of the island are closed off one by one and if you stay in the area after it is closed? Boom.

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If you’re thinking to yourself, “this sounds a lot like the Hunger Games”, you’d be absolutely right. Battle Royale is based off of a novel of the same name, released in 1999. Suzanne Collins started her Hunger Games trilogy of books in 2008. Collins claims she’d never even heard of Battle Royale but I find that to be quite dubious. The similarities are far too close, though Battle Royale is a more brutal experience by a long shot. Her books also ruined the potential of an American Battle Royale remake that was in the works. The producers said the public would just see it as a Hunger Games rip-off even though it wasn’t. It’s currently shelved for the foreseeable future.

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The movie was a roaring success in Japan against pretty stiff odds. Their government tried to ban the book and failed. Then they tried to ban the film, and also failed in that attempt. On a four million dollar budget it did a return of twenty-five million. Critics here in America in and in the UK were floored. It was widely heralded as a modern day Clockwork Orange, a critique on the disillusionment of the youth of the time, and as a work of creative genius. The resounding question asked by almost every critic was, “What would you do in that situation?!?” Despite the critical and monetary success, Battle Royale wasn’t released theatrically here in the States. It was rumored that Toei, the Japanese distributor was warned that they’d face legal action if it was released widely in America, especially coming out on the heels of the Columbine shooting. As a result Toei added lots of legal fees, rules, and costs to the film making anyone who picked it up for distribution in America liable for any fallout. Needless to say, it didn’t get picked up.

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Though the film was hard to get a hold of, bootleg copies did exist. Tartan Video released a region-free version on dvd and this is how I saw it the first time. I was blown away, no pun intended, and it was well worth the price to import. It’s funny now to have it readily available on-demand after all the fervor to keep the film suppressed nearly two decades ago. It was banned in Germany, though it was eventually lifted, and it’s still banned in South Korea. Do yourself a favor and give it a shot. It’s not for the weak at heart or the squeamish. Blood flows and it flows freely, but it’s a film that demands to be watched.

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