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In the near future, Japanese society is beginning to crumble. As a way of teaching a lesson to their disrespectful youth, the authorities pass the ‘BR law’ – each year, a high school class is selected by lottery to be taken to an island where they will participate in a ‘Battle Royale.’ Each student is allotted a weapon and fitted with an electronic collar that will explode if he or she tries to escape. Over the following three days they are forced to fight to the death, until only one is left standing.

Review by Jake Wilson:
It sounds like comic-book stuff, but played out relentlessly over two hours the concept of high school students fighting to the death has a nightmare logic that’s all the more oppressive for its glib tongue-in-cheek presentation. The use of The Blue Danube at one point may be a homage to Stanley Kubrick, whose more disreputable side was clearly an important influence: with its perfunctory near-future setting, distancing zooms, and regular updates on the body count, the film deliberately conflates the psychopathic rules imposed on the characters with the pulp cruelty of its own formal system. 

This comes through above all in the brilliant use of Takeshi Kitano – an iconic authority figure who seemingly plays ‘himself,’ overseeing the gory action like a film director barking orders. For long stretches the film is so boring and unpleasant that the viewer is tempted to switch off, but ultimately its mixture of sadism and childlike whimsy (even more systematic than in Kitano’s own films as director) transcends simple cynicism to become genuinely and puzzlingly upsetting. While the violence is too cartoonish to be horrifying in itself, the real ace card here is the heartbreaking vulnerability of these doomed kids, as they respond to an impossible situation according to their various natures - petrified and resourceful, noble and duplicitous, tender and cruel. 

They’re less like the all-but anonymous victims in a modern Hollywood gorefest than the doomed teenage lovers in a Nicholas Ray movie, too innocent to survive in a heartless world. Although the film can be seen as a satire on everything from the Japanese education system to reality TV, ultimately its absurdism resists easy interpretation: towards the end the narrative machine starts breaking down, spewing out dream sequences, baffling intertitles and a series of weirdly affecting last-minute plot twists. For all my ambivalence about Battle Royale as a whole, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the final scene with Kitano, where this jaded torturer unexpectedly becomes a greater figure of pathos than any of his victims; as if adolescence were the last moment of possible humanity, and adulthood always a kind of death.

Published September 18, 2003

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CAST: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto, Masanobu Ando, Kou Shibasaki, Chiaki Kuriyama and Takeshi Kitano

DIRECTOR: Kinji Fukasaku

SCRIPT: Kenta Fukasaku (novel, Koshun Takami)

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

PRESENTATION: widescreen



DVD RELEASE: (rental) August 4, 2003; (retail) February 2004

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