Battle Royale got a lot of press when the first Hunger Games movie came out. Hipsters were up in arms with protestations of “Rip off!” and “It’s been done!” I like to give The Hunger Games the benefit of the doubt. It’s not exactly the same movie. Don’t get me wrong, the similarities are striking: both based on a novel about a bunch of kids thrown together and forced to kill each other. There the similarities end, though. I know; I know. Those are big similarities, practically the entire premise of both movies being identical. True. True. But, The Hunger Games is a YA movie about Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth looking really hot in melodramatic circumstances. Battle Royale isn’t about heartthrobs. The Hunger Games is also a meditation on the nature of reality television. Battle Royale is about discipline, about keeping children in order, which I’m all for. I wouldn’t say I’m all for letting them go at each other with automatic weaponry, but I’m all for keeping them in line.
But, back to melodrama for a moment. Both of these movies thrive on melodrama. Where The Hunger Games uses melodrama in the District Twelve—the gray tones, the glory of being a baker of stony bread—Battle Royale uses melodrama in flashbacks fit for a Lifetime movie. These flashbacks, however, are used to establish and deepen characters. Does it work? Hard to say. The flashbacks are shot with enough feathered filtering to make Robert De Niro look like Nicole Ritchie. It works in that we now know more about the characters, thus making us more invested than we were before. Could the flashbacks be better? Oh, sure. But, then again, this is Japanese horror we’re talking about. Character development is hardly a subtle venture.
I’d be remiss to discuss the violence in Battle Royale. Talk about melodrama! People are gettin’ sliced and shot all over this island. You’re definitely expecting it, but it’s still totally unnerving when they shoot the first kid in the briefing room. Once out in the wild of Okishima, the blood and flesh fly like a haircut by Edward Scissorhands. Operatic in its ubiquity, the violence of Battle Royale starts off unnerving, moves into being almost humorous with its schlocky goriness, and then, which I’m assuming was director Koushun Takami’s ultimate point, becomes everyday, natural.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Stellan Skarsgard discusses his latest controversial take as Seligman in Lars von Trier’s much-hyped Nymphomaniac films. Discussing the ubiquitous body parts, he states, “Showing body parts…eventually becomes as normal as eating porridge in the morning.” And so it is with the violence in Battle Royale. It’s exciting at first, disturbingly graphic, but by the end, you understand that these are the rules. This is the world. People kill each other, and they’ll do it to survive, and they’ll do it to love whom they want.
While a meditation on the discipline of children and a statement on the numbness we experience in the face of constant violence, Battle Royale is also about how children hold the passwords to the future. It’s a beautiful comment on the technological gap between the current first-world youth and the generation before them. In any school in the world, in any family, it’s the nerdy kid who has the power. He or she instinctively knows what their adults will never master when it comes to using modern-day technology. Have you ever tried to teach your father how to use Instagram? I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s the nerdy kids that will save the world. They’re the ones who will override the security system and beat the game developers at their own game.
Battle Royale hits all the notes The Hunger Games didn’t. There are no heartthrobs or politically disenfranchised hillbilly’s trying to scrape a life together coal mining and studying mushrooms in the Appalachia . Battle Royale is about uniformed children learning to fend for themselves on a deserted island, an island whose natural beauty is the perfect backdrop for the kinds of exquisite murders and suicides that are the meat and potatoes of any self-respecting Japanese fairy tale. Currently available on Netflix live, Battle Royale deserves a night of your attention. Just make sure you’ve already eaten.