Disc Spotlight: Battle Royale

Japan has seen a virtual tsunami of quality films leave their shores over the years to touch down in foreign lands and convert innocent and unaware film lovers into lifelong fans. Most of these movies accomplish this after being picked up for domestic distribution in theaters or on DVD, but sometimes it’s not that straight forward. Battle Royale is a critically acclaimed, stylistically violent, and visually exciting satire that is more than a decade old… and it has yet to see an official release in the US.

Until n– well no, it’s still not available domestically.

But thanks to the wonderful Brits over at Arrow Video fans of the film can finally see Kinji Fukasaku’s final film in all its remastered glory. The film may not pack the some visceral punch it did ten years ago, but there’s no denying its entertaining mix of the satirical and the exploitative. Both the Blu-ray and DVD versions look better than it ever has before, and it’s packed with special features across three discs. Three beautifully region free discs…

The Movie:

At the dawn of the millennium, the nation collapsed. At 15% unemployment, 10 million were out of work. 800,000 students boycotted school and juvenile crime rates soared. Adults had lost all confidence, and now fearing the youth they eventually passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act. AKA: the BR Act.”

That text crawl introduces the viewer to the world of Battle Royale, and it’s quickly followed with a frenzied press trying to get a shot of the latest winner. A small girl, bloodied and motionless, sits in the back of a military Jeep and stares straight ahead while an icy smile forms on her face to match the crimson-stained one worn by her doll. We can only imagine what she has endured…

But we won’t be imagining for long. A new class is introduced on a bus for a school trip, but they’re gassed en route and awaken in a dark room with thick, metal rings secured around their necks. Blinding lights suddenly fill the room and soon soldiers in combat uniforms file in alongside Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), one of their teachers from the previous semester. He attempts to explain the situation to the disbelieving students with the help of a blackly comic video tutorial, the bullet riddled body of their current teacher, and a demonstration of what the necklaces are for. The students will be given a bag containing food, water, a map of the island they’re on, and a “weapon” before being sent out into the night with a singular goal.

Be the last one standing in three days time.

Kill or be killed, live or die. The last one breathing is free to return home, but if more than one of them are still alive when the deadline strikes they will all see their throats blown out in impressive arterial sprays. And with that the countdown begins. Three days, forty two students, and a race to see who can survive and how. Some of the teens immediately jump into the fray while others refuse to play along and instead join forces in the hope of escaping. Bullied kids strike back at their oppressors, loners come out of their shell with murderous intent, young lovers choose suicide over combat, and then there are the two transfer students who seem to already have experience with the game…

What follows is a film of two minds. At its most obvious the movie is pure exploitation as it places teens into a bloody blender of violence and cruelty and forces us to watch as they die gruesome deaths at each others hands. Adding to the exploitation angle is the fact that half of the student body are wearing schoolgirl outfits which gives the film an arousing– no? Just me? Okay, well there are still kids killing kids in cartoonishly violent style. Some of the teens are given brief flashbacks to accentuate their current predicament, but for the most part the characters are surface level types only. Viewers are left identifying and placing them in the social strata based on dialogue, appearance, and facial expression instead of through any real onscreen depth. The kids are little more than cannon fodder in khaki.

The other side of the coin here is the film’s not so subtle commentary on cliques, social attitudes, and the country’s youth growing less and less respectful of Japan’s long history of tradition. Some of them join together, but many of them descend into an every man for himself attitude where anarchy and self-preservation take precedence over friendships and loyalty. There’s also something to be said for the adults choosing to fight the youth violence problem… with more violence.

As great and original as the film once was (and to a degree still is) there are issues that seem more apparent ten years later. CGI blood is used for most of the gunshot victims, and while it’s merely noticeable in the theatrical version it’s excessive in the director’s cut. Both versions feature kids shot up like Swiss cheese but with no visible bullet holes. Repeat viewings wear thin on the logic of it all too… the BR Act is clearly public knowledge yet these kids have never heard of it before? What exactly is the goal of it all anyway? How is killing forty teens per year accomplishing anything?

Battle Royale was wonderfully shocking a decade ago, but in a world that has since seen the likes of A Serbian Film and Yogi Bear it’s lost a considerable degree of edginess. The subtext and over the top entertainment value remain though making this a must own film for anyone serious about international cinema and murderous teenagers. It’s a fun flick even if you choose to ignore the social commentary and just enjoy the little bastards turning on each other in gloriously murderous fashion.

The Blu-ray:

Arrow Video has remastered the film for both DVD and Blu-ray, and while they both look fantastic the Blu is an obvious improvement. It’s still far from reference HD, but that’s clearly a source material issue. There are two audio tracks, one DTS 2.0 and one DTS-HD 5.1, and both sound clear and sharp.

The best thing about the set is the film, obviously, but a very close second is the selection of extras that Arrow has included. In addition to the special features listed below the set contains numerous physical extras including four reversible sleeve choices, a 32-page comic set in the BR universe, an interview booklet filled with photos and illustrations, and a fold-out poster.

Disc one is a Blu-ray featuring the theatrical cut (109 min) and the following special features:

  • Trailer
  • The Making of Battle Royale: The Experience Of 42 High School Students (52 min)

Disc two is a Blu-ray featuring the director’s cut (117 min) and the following special features:

  • Special Edition Theatrical Trailer (1 min)
  • TV Spot: Tarantino Version (1 min)
  • Shooting the Special Edition (9 min)
  • Takeshi Kitano Interview (12 min)
  • Conducting Battle Royale With the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra (7 min)
  • The Correct Way To Make Battle Royale: Birthday Version (3 min)
  • Tokyo International Film Festival Presentation (5 min)

Disc three is a DVD featuring the following special features:

  • Premiere Press Conference (12 min)
  • Opening Day At Marunouchi Toei Movie Theater (14 min)
  • The Slaughter Of 42 High School Students (10 min)
  • TV Ad, TV Promo, TV Commercial, Promo 1 & 2
  • The Correct Way To Fight In Battle Royale (3 min)
  • Royale Rehearsals (7 min)
  • Masamichi Amano Conducts Battle Royale (10 min)
  • Special Effects Comparison (4 min)
  • Behind the Scenes Featurette (12 min)
  • Filming On Set (11 min)
  • Trailer Gallery

Bottom Line:

This is the best version of Battle Royale currently available, and that goes for both the DVD and Blu-ray. If you haven’t seen the movie but are a fan of Japanese cinema and/or near-future action films then I’d say this is a worthy blind buy. And if you have seen it? I trust you’ve already placed your order…

But if you’re at all interested you should buy this limited edition Blu-ray set now. Arrow has just announced that the non-limited Blu-ray edition hitting shelves after the 1st of the year will be locked to Region B.

Rob is the Chief Film Critic of Film School Rejects. He doesn't eat cheese on weekdays.

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