Earlier than The Starvation Video games, Fortnite, or Squid Sport, the idea of the “battle royale” got here from a pulpy 1999 Japanese novel by Koushun Takami. The film, directed by Kinji Fukasaku and launched only a yr later, slims down a number of the e book’s context (scrubbed is the alternate historical past of Japan profitable World Conflict II), however the setup is kind of the identical: a category of 15-year-old college students are randomly chosen to be made an instance of. They’re dropped on a distant island, given some weapons, and compelled to kill one another off till a single particular person stays — the victor. Children murdering one another? How merciless! However that’s the purpose. The violence of the battle royale is meant to scare the authoritarian regime’s residents into productive submission. As the scholars die, the film counts down the remaining ones, like sport. Battle Royale is imply, and it’s not delicate.
(Some very mild spoilers to observe.)
Like many nice thrillers, it’s additionally quick, humorous, and harsh. Battle Royale streams on the Criterion Channel right now as a part of a monthlong “High School Horror” series. It is a excellent excuse to revisit a piece that holds up remarkably properly 20 years later. It’s straightforward to see why the film is a cult hit: Battle Royale is provocative, violent, and possibly extra memorable for its affect on movie than the standard of its precise filmmaking. (An endorsement from Quentin Tarantino didn’t harm, both; he favored one of many actors, Chiaki Kuriyama, a lot that he forged her because the meteor hammer-wielding mini-boss in Kill Invoice Vol. 1.) It’s , deranged time and extra dedicated to its conceit than the numerous issues it later impressed.
Battle Royale is bloody — generally comically, different instances brutally, with vivid pink sprays of corn syrup capturing throughout the display. In the meantime, the highschool archetypes listed below are much less alongside the strains of jock, goth, and nerd and extra strongly imbued with adolescent motivation: the loyal romantics, the jealous frenemies, a handful of sexy boys, the outsider who learns to be cutthroat (she actually cuts a throat). The development is nice, as every pupil reveals how prepared they’re to take part with a view to survive.
The children’ performances aren’t precisely memorable. Fortunately, Japanese legend Takeshi Kitano facilities the film as the category’s former instructor, now working the battle royale from a command heart. Solemn, sarcastic, malicious, and, but, soulful — Kitano is so good you’ll want there was extra of him within the film. In the beginning, when the principles of the sport are defined, one pupil asks if they’ll go dwelling in the event that they win. “Sure,” Kitano replies, “however provided that everybody else is useless.”
Even with the barbarity, an earnestness exists in Battle Royale. It has all the trimmings of YA earlier than that was even a typical advertising time period for literature: elevating the petty melodramatic stakes of highschool, which generally really feel like life or dying, by making them truly lifetime of dying. Cliques kind. Rivalries renew. Characters band collectively, believing teamwork can get them off the island in a single piece. Nevertheless it’s the egocentric ones, who will do something to outlive, that make it the furthest. As one loner places it, “Why not kill? Everybody has their points.”
Rewatching Battle Royale in 2023, it’s straightforward to see the strains of affect. It’s additionally clear that not one of the later iterations have been fairly as profitable.
Suzanne Collins’ Starvation Video games trilogy, each the books and movies, eschewed Battle Royale’s loud satire of Japan’s stagflation nervousness and swapped it for a extra common political parable, increasing the scope of the event into full-on class warfare (although its dystopian setting is drawn so broadly that it’s exhausting to really feel any specificity or connection to our world). Later, Fortnite took the elimination system and turned it right into a monstrous success, although it reworked Battle Royale’s notion of “youngsters killing youngsters” right into a recreation for youngsters: cartoon characters; brand-licensing offers with Disney, MrBeast, and Ariana Grande; and a foolish, goreless competitors that removes itself from its bloodsport origins. (There’ll all the time be one thing disturbing to me about capturing somebody to dying and dancing over their physique, even in a online game.)
Squid Sport, Netflix’s greatest Korean sequence, saved the Battle Royale stakes however, as an alternative of placing its contestants on a battlefield, ran them by means of a sequence of foolish, non sequitur video games — deathmatch by means of Mario Get together. In contrast to the grim, generally drab look of Fukasaku’s film, Squid Sport is lavish with neon colours and wealthy iconography. It’s no marvel it grew to become a cultural touchpoint and the stuff of memes. The sequence’ late reveal feels underdeveloped (wealthy folks… dangerous!), however in some methods, Squid Sport carries out the promise of Battle Royale much more faithfully than the unique or something that got here after it by giving us the tragic ending of a lone winner.
Criterion is streaming the director’s lower of Battle Royale, which provides an additional eight minutes. It hardly looks like sufficient. Possibly that’s the one factor that this film has over the three Starvation Video games books (and 4 films), infinite dwell service updates of Fortnite, and the numerous seasons of Squid Sport which can be little doubt in growth. For all of the carnage, Battle Royale will go away you wanting extra.