While Kinji Fukasaku’s adaptation of Koushun Takami’s best selling novel is not a very good movie, it stands head and shoulders above its over-marketed, long-winded American knockoff. The premise is basically the same. At some time in a fictional totalitarian state, there is a rebellion, which is crushed. As punishment, the state sets up an annual contest where a group of children, 42 in Battle Royale, and 24 in The Hunger Games, are required to fight to the death until there is only 1 survivor.
The idea of having children fight to the death for the entertainment of the ruling class, needless to say, is fairly perverse. As far as I know, not even the Romans did it. But unlike Hunger Games, which casts the 20-something Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role and spends more time on the build up than the actual Hunger Games, Battle Royale dives right into its pornographic spectacle with the shameless glee of a Larry Clark scoping out skateboard kids at Washington Square Park.
Battle Royale also has more concision and consistency. Instead of constructing an elaborate narrative scaffolding, which includes 12 districts and an imperial capital, Fukasaku gets the premise out of the way with a brief introduction. The Battle Royale Law was passed in response to a violent youth rebellion. The master of ceremonies is a junior high-school teacher who hates kids. Finished. Said. Done.
The fight scenes in Battle Royale are far superior to the fight scenes in The Hunger Games films. The gladiatorial contests in The Hunger Games are an overproduced, bloated mess, overly long and convoluted, mainly so that Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen can be turned into a folk hero. She only kills when its absolutely necessary. The kids in Battle Royale, on the other hand, are thrown into a terrifying, cacophonous, violent maelstrom. They are all guilty because none of them are guilty. They’re simply lab rats in a cruel experiment fighting desperately to survive.
Battle Royale can be as tedious in its own way as The Hunger Games. After a brilliant setup, where the 42-kidnapped children are made to watch an orientation video hosted by a irritating, menacing yet beautiful perky young woman, and where two of them are murdered for their disobedience with a shocking dispatch nowhere to be seen in The Hunger Games, Battle Royale bogs down. You can only pump up a viewer’s adrenaline for so long. After awhile, the shocking, perverse, violent fight scenes blend into one another in a tedious sameness that’s not so much numbing as it is confusing. Who is killing who? Why? While Battle Royale has some excellent young actors, who have an expressive physicality that make Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson look clumsy and one-dimensional, their characters aren’t developed to the point where they can fully use their talents. There are simply too many kids on the island. They die too suddenly and too fast, and while that may be the point — life is short and violent and then you die — Fukasaku contradicts himself by padding their stories out with long flashbacks. Battle Royale is only 2 hours long, but it felt much longer.
All that being said, Battle Royale has the kind of uninhibited romanticism that The Hunger Games intentionally suppresses. The “will they or won’t they” relationship between Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, the love triangle between Katniss, Peta, and Gale just try the viewer’s patience. Suzanne Collins apparently forget that if you throw a group of teenagers together into a life or death situation, they’re not going to pussyfoot about sex like a group of hipsters in Brooklyn. Nowhere can you see the rules of American puritanism spelled out more clearly than you do when you watch The Hunger Games and Battle Royale in succession. Somehow, in the Hunger Games, the “friend zone” gets carried over from blasé middle-class reality to the dystopian future.
In Battle Royale, by contrast, we move have a little trouble telling the characters apart, but when one of them actually does something to stand out from the blood spattered tapestry of the film as a whole, it’s vivid and compelling. The boy and girl who decide not to participate in the Battle Royale, and jump to their deaths, the boy who hacks into the state’s central computer system and disables their tracking devices, the menacing “transfer student” with his bullet proof vest, machine gun, and seemingly endless supply of ammunition, all of them resonate long after the film is over. Above all, Battle Royale is true to the idea of the young rebelling against an oppressive patriarchy. There are no good adults in Battle Royale. Shuya and Noriko, the boy and girl who survive and who escape back to the Japanese mainland are now wanted by the authorities, a Bonnie and Clyde waiting to hit the road, a Romeo and Juliet who decide to run away from Verona, together.