Battle Royale Limited Edition 4K UHD Box Set, 2021.
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku/Kenta Fukasaku.
Starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Tarô Yamamoto, Ai Maeda, and Shûgo Oshinari.
4K UHD box set featuring the violent and hugely influential Japanese action shocker, along with its not-so-influential sequel.
It would take the hardiest of armchair grouches to grumble at the quality of the 4K releases that Arrow Video have been putting out since their loaded release of Pitch Black last summer, and that trend continues with the upgrade of one of their flagship Blu-ray titles from a few years back, which also happens to be one of the most controversial and celebrated movies of the 21st century – Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale.
Set in a future where chaos reigns, the Japanese government has come up with a solution for the unruly students that seem to be making the teachers lives hell. The BR Act is employed and a bus-load of kids are delivered to a military installation where they are informed by their at-the-end-of-his-tether teacher that they are to be transported to an island where they must kill all of their fellow students in a game of survival until only one remains as the winner.
Pretty simple and often imitated, Battle Royale was considered to be very shocking upon its release back in 2000 due to its ultra-violent depictions of teenagers massacring each other, and twenty years on it still elicits a reaction, although it is clear that the violence is very deliberately over the top in a way that more jaded viewers might see as being blackly comic in a similar way to, say, the deaths in RoboCop. That said, these kids seem rather adept at handling automatic weapons, which is worrying.
Anyway, as well as graphic gore and an obvious sense of humour Battle Royale has something that the movies that ripped it off seem to have missed and that is heart – the characters are very clearly defined so you know who is who and how they are going to handle the situation they are in, which makes you more invested as the names and numbers of the dead are displayed on the screen after every kill. The writing is such that you can take the movie at face value or you can delve deep into the subtexts and social commentaries that are at play but either way, Battle Royale still stands up two decades after its initial release as a fun and potentially disturbing (depending on your mindset) action thriller that really should be seen if you haven’t already had the pleasure.
However, what doesn’t really need to be seen but comes with the set anyway is Battle Royale II, the sequel that followed in 2003. Original director Kinji Fukasaku died during pre-production and so his son Kenta Fukasaku took over directing duties and, as Japanese cinema expert Mark Schilling says in the accompanying documentary Coming of Age: Battle Royale at 20, he did the best he could.
In the grand tradition of sequels Battle Royale II goes bigger by having more action, more kills, an expanded plot and loads more (CGI) blood but, as we all know, bigger isn’t necessarily always better because with this sequel things just don’t gel and what you are left with is groups of angry teenagers screaming and shouting at each other and at everyone else but not a lot of depth.
Set three years after the events of the original, one of that games’ survivors has become a terrorist who targets adults in authority and so the government has come up with a new BR Act that pits a new bus-load of students against said terrorist and his gang on their island hideaway, the ultimate winner being the student who kills the anarchic little monster. Naturally, he tries to convince them that they’re all being played and that the authorities are the enemy and so begins more gun fights, explosions and gory kills – what you tuned in for, right?
Battle Royale II is the cheap, exploitation knock-off version of the first movie which wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it wasn’t two-and-a-half hours long of constant noise with not a lot of content to justify it. Being released after the events of 9/1 there are obviously a lot of political messages throughout – all about as subtle as a brick to the face, such as the opening landscape shots – but it all feels ham-fisted, like a satirical sketch-show that doesn’t know when to stop and reign it in, and when the characters are pretty much all interchangeable and the humour broader and not as dark you have to wonder why nobody tapped Fukasaku Junior on the shoulder to tell him that it simply wasn’t working.
But made it was and here it is in this glorious five-disc set that, despite the dubious quality of the second movie, is very much worth picking up if your budget can afford it. Both movies come in two cuts – the Theatrical Cut and Special Director’s Cut for the first film and the Requiem Cut and extended Revenge Cut for the sequel – and although it is advisable to watch the extended cuts to get the full visions, with fleshed-out plots and more blood and action, just remember that means you get a whole extra 20 minutes of Battle Royale II, which may not be quite so appealing after already sitting through 130 minutes of the Requiem Cut.
But fear not as there are a ton of special features to bulk the package out, including a brand new audio commentary for Battle Royale by critics Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp, the aforementioned Coming of Age: Battle Royale at 20 documentary that features input from Mark Shilling, author and critic Kim Newman, filmmaker Yoshiki Takahashi, film critic Kaori Shoji and Tartan Films’ Paul Smith all discussing the film and its importance, plus several hours’ worth of interviews with cast and crew, special effects featurettes, audition and behind-the-scenes footage, music score documentaries, press footage, fake instructional videos for how to survive the game and the complete soundtrack on CD. As if all of that wasn’t enough the discs come housed in a fancy rigid slipcase box that also contains a reversible poster with brand new artwork, a 120-page monograph about Kinji Fukasaku written by Tom Mes, a booklet featuring new essays about the movies by Matt Alt and Anne Billson and exclusive collector’s cards – short of the cast visiting you personally that is probably as much Battle Royale content as it is possible to get.
So overall, this limited edition set is a must-have, despite the fact that Battle Royale II is very much a dud, although the supplementary material that comes with it makes it more interesting thanks to its production history. The first movie remains as vital and uncompromising as it always was, not losing any of its power in the two decades since it was first released, and owning it in 4K only sweetens the deal when it comes to revisiting it; hell, even Battle Royale II looks fantastic – better in fact, thanks to a slightly brighter colour palette – and given the setting and style of films they’re probably never going to look better than they do here. The set is retailing for around £60 so it is quite pricey for what is essentially only two movies but given how outstanding Battle Royale is then it is worth investing in if you can afford it, although it is advisable not to hang about as this one is likely to be snapped up pretty quickly.
Battle Royale – Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Battle Royale II – Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★