It’s no surprise Quentin Tarantino named Battle Royale as his favorite movie released since 2000. Brazen, brilliant, and unabashedly frenetic, this film feels like a cinematic cousin to his own oeuvre. And much like QT, the makers behind Royale pull from countless influences to create something new and weirdly beautiful: The savagery of Lord of the Flies mixed with the teenage satire of Heathers and the lean suspense of The Most Dangerous Game. This has often been hailed as a proto-Hunger Games, but it’s ballsier, smarter, and more assured than that franchise could ever hope to be.
It’s also more unsettling. That opening paragraph probably feels like the beginning of a five-star review, but it’s not. Something steers me away from wholeheartedly recommending this movie. I admired it, but I never enjoyed it. Royale‘s strange mix of socio-cultural commentary and operatic violence provoked a deep sense of discomfort within me. It was supremely unpleasant, and I didn’t need long to figure out why: In 2000, this must’ve had the feel of gonzo satire–a cautionary tale for something on the distant horizon. Now, that dystopian disintegration–that withering dehumanization–feels more inevitably imminent. We’re still not there, but we are hurtling in that direction.
More on that in a minute. First, a brief plot summary: It’s the dreaded near-future. Japan has fallen into financial and cultural chaos. Who gets the blame? Those damn teeangers, of course! They’re lazy, entitled, and mouthy. Accordingly, the government hauls 43 kids to a remote island and pits them in a deadly contest. Over the course of three days, these teens must kill or be killed. Only one can survive. If multiple kids survive, they will all be killed.
Each combatant gets equipped with a backpack of potential weapons. These survival kits are not created equally: Some kids get pistols and swords, while others get screwed with pot lids and flashlights. Several previous “winners” get added to the competition as ringers. One by one, the contestants are sent into the wilderness, panting and terrified.
Naturally, a large chunk of the population gets mowed down immediately. More get picked off over time. The master of ceremonies (Takeshi Kitano), who has both the bearing and shiny tracksuit of a football coach, announces the fresh kills each morning. We also get a subtitle with each death, helpfully counting us down to zero.
Along this journey on murder island, we get to know a few of the combatants. Most of them are archetypes: The Popular Bitch. The Jocks. The Tech Nerds. As they wipe each other out, the kids use this opportunity to settle old scores. “You never talked to me!” A lovesick girl screams at her crush, as he drowns in his own blood. In these moments, Royale unfurls its macabre sense of humor: Even in a Thunderdome death match, kids are still kids.
It’s not hard to see why Battle Royale has been an immense source of controversy: The film’s body count is very high, and almost all the killers and victims are underage. This fact helped it get banned in the States until 2010, when it was released to video. Unsurprisingly, Royale has attracted a cult following, particularly from highfalutin aficionados like Tarantino.
Still, the film’s potent violence pushed me away. Something similar happened when I recently watched a few clips from Kindergarten Cop on YouTube. (I was scanning for future podcast episodes.) It’s mostly a cute flick: Schwarzenegger is a super cop who transforms into a teddy bear around a rascally batch of five-year-olds. But then the film turns ugly in the final act. The bad guy shows up at school, sets the school on fire, and marches room to room with an Uzi. Such a scene was outlandish in 1990. In 2023, it’s soul-crushingly commonplace. The intense dread of these scenes ruined the entire film.
Battle Royale suffers the same fate. Kids forced into a violent, apocalyptic situation, soaked in blood and screaming from panic–it just doesn’t play like it used to. My mind drifted to real events, and it was difficult to dial back into the picture. That’s probably on me more than the filmmakers (or Koushun Takami, who wrote the source novel), but I just can’t get in the headspace to recommend Battle Royale. It’s clever, gripping, and thought-provoking. I just didn’t enjoy where those thoughts took me.
113 min. R. On demand.