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Stop us if you’ve heard this movie plot before: A dystopian dictatorship keeps its denizens downtrodden and governable by randomly drafting adolescents to compete in a regularly scheduled winner-kills-all tournament. The kids are deposited in an outdoor arena, given various weapons, and ordered to slaughter one another or else be blown up by explosive collars. The heroine is a brave teenage girl, and the evil mastermind is a mysterious authority figure with whom she develops a complex relationship.
Yes, that describes The Hunger Games. But it’s also the plot of the 2000 Japanese cult sensation Battle Royale. With The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 hitting theaters, let’s take note of how Battle Royale laid out a premise, a setting, a series of specific themes, and some essentially identical story points that turned up in author Suzanne Collins’ young adult sci-fi book series, The Hunger Games. Fans of the latter should make a point of checking out the former. In fact, everybody should just check out Battle Royale, period.
Battle Royale begins as a typical high school drama that heats up when a student attacks a kindly teacher named Kitano (Takesho Kitano), who quits on the spot. One year later, barking soldiers corral the kids we’ve met into a classroom. Kitano enters, roughs up a few hooligans, and explains how wayward youth has ruined society, so this class has been selected for a Battle Royale. “Today’s lesson,” Kitano says, “is you kill each other off till there’s only one left. Nothing’s against the rules.”
Kitano then plays a chirpy, high-energy instructional video that’s played straight to deadpan perfection in the manner of the TV commercials throughout Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop. Mayhem commences immediately.
Battle Royale thereby announces itself as not just an action film punched up with political commentary, but as a pitch-black comedy willing to go where no film before has dared: to mine laughs from how society slaughters its young and/or wayward—and, therefore, itself—in the name of keeping order. To watch it is to thrill to the brilliantly executed hunt and to wince twice with each kill, once for the sheer savagery and then again over your own unexpected guffaws.
Battle Royale also taps into the viewer’s own haunted memories of youth. Conjuring an emotional storm, scene after scene delivers a mental blast backward as the mass skirmish immediately becomes a microcosm of high school horribleness.
Campus hotshots transform on impact into multitalented murder machines. The meek get mowed down and the slow get slain quick. Bullies succumb to bullets, but so, too, do the bullied. Teenage romance blooms amidst the bloodshed. When the smoke clears, a revolution may bloom. Or it may not. Regardless, nobody’s graduating.
In visual and technical terms, Battle Royale shares much with John Woo and the hyper-stylized Hong Action films of the 1990s. Not for nothing has Quentin Tarantino declared Battle Royale his favorite film since The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
And, oh yes, school shootings. Those happen out here in the real world too. Battle Royale presents the prospect of what life might be like if that’s all that happened, and it does so unsettlingly enough that more than a decade passed before the film could secure a home video release in the school shooting capitol of planet Earth, the United States.
No small part of the trial of teen years is the inability to look in a mirror and not hate what one sees. So most kids, at some point, just avoid mirrors. Battle Royale holds up a reflector so merciless and so piercingly clear that it seems many of us in America, still, all these years and all those lives later, can’t stand the reality that the film machine-guns back at us.
But watching Battle Royale is an experience you must have. The film’s visceral bleakness is at once familiar, exhilarating, and dire. You’ve been there. You know this. You’ve maybe even entertained fantasies of similar brutalism, but in those you’re still standing at the end. Not here. Battle Royale is where adolescent adventure goes to die—screaming and forever.