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At the dawn of the millennium the nation of Japan has collapsed. At fifteen per cent unemployment, ten million citizens were out of work, eight hundred thousand students boycotted school, and juvenile crime rates soared. The adults lost confidence and, fearing the youth, eventually passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act, AKA the BR Act. Every year, one ninth grade class is selected to participate in the programme and this year it is the turn of Shiroiwa Junior High School’s Class B. Under the watchful eye of their former teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), the forty-two students are taken to an uninhabited island and forced to fight to the death. If after three days of combat a winner has not emerged, the electronic collars fitted to each student will explode, killing them all. Some of the students refuse to fight, banding together for mutual advantage, while others embrace the programme, using it as an excuse to exorcize their demons in the bloodiest way imaginable. Amidst the carnage one boy, Nanahara Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara), struggles to keep a girl, Nakagawa Noriko (Aki Maeda), safe from harm by teaming up with Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), an exchange student who won an earlier round of the game and has returned to avenge the death of his love. (From Chris Gould’s plot synopsis)

 Arrow UK Blu-ray
 Achor Bay US Blu-ray
Some reviews are really intimidating, and the discs just sit on the stack mocking me and my inability to discover something unique to say about them. Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray release of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale is one of these discs. Honestly, what can I say about such a juggernaut of a film? More than that, what can I say about such a leviathan of pop culture? Not much, so I’ll just revisit stuff others have said better. It’s kind of my thing.

Battle Royale’s American cult following is impressive considering the fact that it’s never been officially available on home video in the region (well, until right now). Somehow, its power has seeped into a relatively mainstream place in the American psyche. What I’m pretty sure most American and European fans don’t understand is that Battle Royale wasn’t some random genre release that found an audience, it was a bit of a prestige picture, or at the very least a bit of an event picture in Japan that was nominated for best director, best screenplay, best actor, best music, and best picture at the Japanese Academy Awards. It won best editing and the ‘Popularity Award’. Fukasaku wasn’t an out of the box, young director, or a one hit wonder either. He was a well-respected filmmaker, best known for Yakuza classics Battles without Honor or Humanity series, Graveyard of Honor and Yakuza Graveyard, a series of Sonny Chiba samurai flicks, including Shogun’s Samurai, The Fall of Ako Castle and Samurai Reincarnation, and for being one of the three directors of Tora! Tora! Tora!. He also directed less well known genre films like The Green Slime, Black Rose Mansion and Message from Space. In adapting Battle Royale to the big screen, Fukasaku drew upon this lifetime of violent and stylized filmmaking to create a modern film with a classic, Japanese new wave and exploitation base.

 Arrow UK Blu-ray
 Achor Bay US Blu-ray
Battle Royale is a unique entry in recent cult film history in that it actually lives up to the hype. Unlike Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, or even my beloved Ichi: The Killer, which lose bite and appeal upon subsequent viewings, Fukasaku’s film works better with better understanding of its unique filmic and storytelling qualities. It’s operatic in both a manner befitting the subject matter, and a manner befitting the greatest Japanese melodrama. The analogies were, and somewhat remain, hyper-relevant when the film was released (stateside the Columbine massacre was still very fresh in the public’s mind), and generally speaking, Fukasaku and the actors treat the material with a straight face. On the other hand, Battle Royale is no prestige project, it’s a violent and angry exploitation film when it wants to be, and it’s perfectly willing to embrace its grotesque side. Fukasaku’s B-samurai and yakuza pedigree comes in handy as children hack, slash, and shoot each other to blood-spraying ribbons. It was this child on child violence that kept all the major studios away from a Hollywood remake of Battle Royale, despite the film’s popularity and provocative concept, which is unexpected given the remarkable popularity of Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel series, Hunger Games, which was arguably inspired by Koushun Takami’s original novel, and features children killing children. Even more unexpected is the fact that Hunger Games has been adapted into a movie, and Anchor Bay has timed Battle Royale’s first official US Blu-ray/DVD release to coincide with the theatrical release of Gary Ross’ big budget movie adaptation.

This single disc release represents the ‘special edition’ cut of the film, also called the director’s cut or extended cut, which I understand pays better homage to Takami’s book, but in general overstays its welcome compared to the tighter and more enigmatic theatrical cut. The theatrical version throws the audience violently into the deep end of the story, sure, but the mystery and crazy tone are already a take it or leave it situation. I’m sure the average audience member would prefer more time with most of the characters in order to better understand their motivation and humanity, but I kind of enjoy the more streamlined, somewhat faceless version of the story. Kitano in particular gets more character development in the director’s cut, making the character’s odd change of heart throughout the film make a bit more sense, but generally speaking this stuff stifles the narrative and tone, and is better left on the cutting room floor. Besides, it’s not like any of the additional material really let us in on the dynamics of the characters pre-combat anyway, they just hint at a larger world. The addition of ‘Requiems’ is even less necessary, over-explaining things better left unsaid (similar to what Richard Kelly did to Donnie Darko with his director’s cut).

 Arrow UK Blu-ray
 Achor Bay US Blu-ray

Video


Despite owning three different official releases of Battle Royale over the years I’ve never seen a particularly good transfer, and was starting to think that Fukasaku had shot the film to look purposefully video-like. Even Arrow Entertainment’s UK Blu-ray suffered generally the same digital artifacts as the various DVD releases. Now Anchor Bay has secured the first ever official US release rights, and promised a beautiful 1080p Blu-ray transfer. Comparing the two transfers back-to-back, Anchor Bay’s release is the slight frontrunner. At the very least, this disc is brighter and features slightly sharper contrast levels. The basic problems found on every release of the film I’ve seen are still here, but like the Arrow Blu-ray the image quality is just generally cleaner. These problems begin with telecine wobble and other scanning artifacts. There are also basic print damage artefacts, usually in the form of white flecks, and usually more visible during brighter, daytime shots. Edge enhancement is also a consistent issue, but I’m more concerned with what appear to be DNR enhancement effects. Some of the back set details are mushy, and some of the foreground details appear waxy and flat, all common side effects on other known DNR-effected releases. I also expected more fine black grain based on the less defined grain I’d seen on DVD releases, and suspect something was done to smooth out some of the inconsistencies. For the record I (not to mention Chris) assume the same thing of Arrow’s Blu-ray, so the better brightest and contrast levels still mark this as the preferred release. The big difference between both Blu-rays and every 480i/p release are in the clarity of previously muddy night shots and background details on the more expansive shots of the forested island. Colours are more natural and consistent than those of the DVD versions, but Fukasaku and cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima’s patented blue filters are still well established, especially in darker scenes. I was hoping for warmer skin tones, richer reds, and more lush greens, and was left slightly disappointed. Once again, generally speaking the darker scenes show a bigger uptake in overall vibrancy.

 Arrow UK Blu-ray
 Achor Bay US Blu-ray

Audio


This Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track (Japanese, naturally) is more or less the same as Arrow’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, with a slightly better LFE presence, and a slightly weaker dialogue presence. I don’t have a 7.1 set up, but I’ll assume the extra two channels are a slight upgrade as well. Considering that most folks reading this review will be reading the subtitles anyway, I don’t think the difference in dialogue will make a huge difference, but the performances do suffer a tad, and there are a few odd audio artefacts over some of the dialogue. The overall effect of the mix is that of hyper-reality, where discussion and everyday noises are soft and centered (with a few obvious exceptions, usually off-screen characters attempting communication), and anything deadly is impossibly loud and hugely directionally enhanced. There’s nothing natural about any of the battling sound effects. Gunshots boom with massive bass force, bullets whiz throughout the channels, and blades clang and swiftly zip from side to side. There are also a handful of large explosions that give the LFE a slightly more long-winded chance to throb. Masamichi Amano’s Verdi-infused musical soundtrack is positively humungous, and looms quite heavily over the entire film, especially action sequences, where it is sparingly used as an exclamation point. The music sounds a little out of place with the generally less bombastic natural soundtrack, but this jarring differentiation actually kind of works in accordance with the film’s already jarring style.

 Arrow UK Blu-ray
 Achor Bay US Blu-ray

Extras


This single disc release features only the director’s extended cut of the film only. There are no extra features outside a few trailers for other Anchor Bay Blu-ray releases. Unfortunately for me (boo hoo, I didn’t get a free copy of an expensive Blu-ray set, pobrecito), but fortunately for fans, there is a collector’s edition coming out the same day, featuring the superior theatrical cut, the director’s cut, and an additional DVD worth of featurettes and other goodies.

 Arrow UK Blu-ray
 Achor Bay US Blu-ray

Overall


The first official home video release of Battle Royale is reason enough to celebrate, and a 1080p Blu-ray release is just a cherry on top. I’m left disappointed by the overall picture quality, but will admit that it’s a better looking release than Arrow’s UK Blu-ray, if only slightly, and that the audio quality is quite sharp. Extras are non-existent, and I’d prefer the option of the theatrical cut, so I’m going to have to suggest folks with the money to blow take the three-disc collector’s edition option, even though I haven’t seen a great many of the extras that don’t overlap with my Arrow disc.

 Arrow UK Blu-ray
 Achor Bay US Blu-ray

 Arrow UK Blu-ray
 Achor Bay US Blu-ray

 Arrow UK Blu-ray
 Achor Bay US Blu-ray

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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