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Like many of you I have eagerly been awaiting the release of Fukasaku Kinji’s classic Battle Royale on Blu-ray ever since I bought into the format. While I own the early Universe region three disc and Tartan’s Special Edition DVD I think it’s fair to say that the quality of both leaves a lot to be desired. For one thing, the Universe disc is non-anamorphic and terribly drab, although this is offset somewhat by the awesome DTS track. Tartan’s release of the special edition of the film suffered from a problem that affected far too many of the late distributor’s titles, that of NTSC to PAL standards conversion. This created all manner of artefacts that were ‘hard coded’ into the transfer, so no amount of deinterlacing in the player could get rid of them.

Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition [html]Battle Royale: Limited Edition
After Tartan’s collapse I wasn’t hopeful for a Blu-ray release of Battle Royale, especially when it failed to materialise on the release schedule of the new Palisades Tartan label. Thankfully Arrow Video has come to the rescue with a three-disc, limited edition Blu-ray set that includes both the theatrical and special editions of the feature, along with a host of supplemental features. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know anywhere near enough about the socio-political climate in Japan at the time the film was made, so I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to offer the sort of insightful commentary that you might get from a ‘proper’ film reviewer, but I am going to do my best to assess the quality of the Blu-ray set as fairly and thoroughly as possible (which is, after all, the purpose of Blu-ray reviews).

Feature


The opening credits tell us that at the dawn of the millennium the nation collapsed. At fifteen per cent unemployment, ten million 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, 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 exercise their demons in the bloodiest way imaginable. Amidst the carnage one boy, Nanahara Shuya, struggles to keep a girl, Nakagawa Noriko, safe from harm by teaming up with Kawada, an exchange student who won an earlier round of the game and has returned to avenge the death of his love.

Disc one features the original 2000 theatrical release of the film, with a short introduction explaining how it was originally released with an R-15 rating and is not suitable for younger viewers (no kidding). Disc two includes the 2001 Special Edition re-release, erroneously labelled as the 'director's cut'. This version runs around eight minutes longer. Here's a brief run-down of the additions as summarised by Wikipedia (because I’m too lazy to do it myself).

Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
  • Flashbacks to a basketball game which is used as a framework for the entire story
  • A flashback that explains Mitsuko's personality
  • Three epilogues (referred to as 'requiems'). The first is an extension of the basketball scene. The second is a vision of Nobu telling Shuya to take care of Noriko. The third is a scene between Kitano and Noriko, who talk casually by a riverbank
  • Added shots of the lighthouse after the shoot-out
  • Added reaction shots in the classroom, and extensions to existing shots
  • Extra CGI throughout the film

The extensions fill in some of the characters’ backstories (particularly Mitsuko) and the CGI enhancements generally take the form of additional blood during the numerous death sequences. There seems to be a fair amount of debate amongst Battle Royale fans as to which version is the best, but after watching both back to back I have to say that I prefer the theatrical version because of the tighter pacing. However, that's not to say I don't appreciate some of the additional material in the Special Edition, and whichever version you decide to watch you’re going to be in for an entertaining ride.

Video


Trying to accurately assess the visual quality of this release proved to be trickier than anything else I've tackled in recent memory. Wherever possible I attempted to use one of the older DVD versions of the film to establish whether perceived issues with this release are due to problems with the transfer(s) or inherent to the source. As always there's an element of guesswork involved, but hopefully there's enough information here to give you a reasonable idea of the quality on offer. I've also included up-scaled captures from the UK Special Edition DVD along with the theatrical and Special Edition (in that order) Blu-rays for comparison purposes.

Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Both versions of the feature are included on separate discs and each is presented at 1.78:1 (1080/24p AVC), opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1 theatrical ratio. Both transfers are fairly similar in the quality stakes, and that quality is best described as variable largely due to the fact that they appear to have been taken from an old master. I'd prefer to get the negative stuff out of the way first, so let's start with some of the problems. Both versions open with a considerable amount of telecine wobble, but thankfully this becomes less obvious as the film progresses. There's also a lot of dirt on both versions (although more so the SE), with black and white flecks and other film artefacts (such as lines) popping up a little too frequently for my liking. I also spotted some blocking artefacts at various intervals, mainly in the darker areas of the screen. The most contentious issue is most likely that of DNR, and to be honest I had a little trouble accurately establishing whether or not the transfers suffer in this regard. Because I never saw the film theatrically it's hard to say whether Battle Royale should feature heavy or fine grain, and while some grain is present it's much lighter than I was expecting. It’s possible that the master was filtered, but it’s just as likely that the film never looked particularly grainy to begin with. Either way, there’s not much Arrow could do about it because Toei supplied the master. Edges also look a little odd, almost like they have a ghost outline, but again this appears to be an issue with the original materials as the same artefact is visible on the DVDs (it’s just harder to discern because of the lower resolution).

With all of that said there are some definite positives to take away from this release. For one thing, the level of detail offered by both versions is better than any DVD release of the film. Another major bonus is the absence of the hideous interlacing artefacts that marred the DVD releases, rendering them almost unwatchable at times. The aforementioned issues excepted, the Blu-ray transfers are also generally much better than any of the DVDs when it comes to compression. Colour rendition is more natural than the DVDs, staying closer to the cooler, gloomier Japanese versions of the film than the warmer European releases (e.g. the French and German DVDs). There are slight variations between the two colour-wise, but nothing drastic. While some of the shortcomings are lamentable, I still feel that this release offers an appreciable upgrade over the standard-definition versions of the film is the visual department. Given that the sort of money spent on high-profile restorations of American films simply isn’t available for something like Battle Royale I’m inclined to forgive many of the deficiencies, which are less obvious in motion than these captures suggest. If you can do the same you should be fairly happy with what’s on offer, even if you know in your heart that better results could probably be achieved with access to the original film materials, a truck load of money and a lot of TLC. Even so, I’m actually quite pleased with the visuals all things considered.

Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition

Audio


It’s fair to say that I’m not an audiophile so this portion of the review will be somewhat shorter than the last, but hopefully it should tell you all you need to know about Battle Royale’s sound. Both versions of the film are accompanied by Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks. Whatever my thoughts about the video I have no such concerns about the audio, which is simply fantastic. You know you’re in for a treat with the opening musical number, a rousing piece that completely fills the soundstage and actually put me in mind of Basil Polidouris’ Starship Troopers score (no, honestly). In fact the score continues to impress throughout and is an almost constant presence. Moving on, the track continues to impress with some genuinely great atmospheric effects during the initial report on the previous year’s BR winner, particularly the crowd noise and associated sounds.

As we move into the story proper the atmospheric treats continue, with the chatter of the schoolchildren during the bus journey giving way to the deafening sounds of helicopters arriving at the island. Directionality is also impressive, with sound effects and dialogue effortlessly traversing the soundstage as they leap from speaker to speaker. There’s a particularly neat moment when Kitano is giving his speech and you can hear his voice in the centre channel accompanied by the faint chatter of some of the kids in the rear right, which acts as a cue for the teacher to hurl a piece of chalk at the offending students! Speaking of dialogue, it is well-prioritised, never becoming muddied or lost amongst the other elements of the mix. Bass is also pretty ferocious, and nowhere is this more obvious than when the soldiers fire their rifles as a warning to Class B. As the sound of the shots echo around the soundstage you can really feel the power coursing through the sub, and this continues throughout. Yes, it’s fair to say that Battle Royale’s soundtrack is pretty awesome.

Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Before I wrap this section up I should probably say something about the subtitles. According to the press release Arrow commissioned brand new subtitle translations for this release, the result of which is clear, grammatically correct subs without any glaring spelling errors. Obviously the usual compromises have been made, in so much as not everything is translated exactly as spoken (such as full character names), but sometimes it’s simply not practical to offer unabridged subs. Even so, only the pickiest of nit-pickers will find cause to complain.

Extras


Jeez, where to start? Arrow has assembled an impressive collection of bonus material for this three-disc release, most of which was featured on Tartan’s DVD various releases. Let's break the extras down disc-by-disc:

Disc One
Trailer (01:51 HD): The film’s original theatrical trailer is presented in 720p, but like the rest of the extras on the Blu-rays it appears to have been up-scaled from standard-definition so the quality isn’t brilliant.

The Making of Battle Royale: The Experience of 42 High School Students (52:32 HD): This lengthy making-of featurette includes a lot of behind-the-scenes footage and is probably the single-most entertaining extra in the collection. Short on-set interviews with the cast are peppered throughout the piece, which offers a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ view of the creative process  that makes a change from the usual staged documentaries and featurettes found on most releases. There is a down side though —thanks to the standards conversion there’s frequent ghosting throughout, which can be a bit distracting. Some chapter stops would have been nice as well.

Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Disc Two
Special Edition Theatrical Trailer (01:05 HD): Yep, you guessed it, this is the theatrical trailer for the Special Edition of the film…

TV Spot: Tarantino Version (00:32 HD): This is a very short trailer in which Quentin Tarantino pops up a couple of times to say that he likes the film.

Shooting the Special Edition (09:01 HD): This featurette takes a look at the re-shoots that took place six months after the release of the original theatrical version of the film. It consists of on-set footage of the reassembled cast rehearsing and shooting the new scenes, along with interviews with the principal cast members.

Takeshi Kitano Interview (11:51 HD): This short featurette sees Kitano answer questions such as why he decided to appear in the film, what he thinks about the violent themes, the changes undergone by his character, and what he was like when he was fifteen years old. It makes for an interesting watch, but I did start to get annoyed by the way the interviewer kept repeating ‘mmm’ after every answer.

Conducting Battle Royale with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra (07:27 HD): This piece features composer and conductor Amano Masamichi working with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra to create the film's amazing score. We see and hear a variety pieces played by the orchestra, all without interruption. It's great for fans of the film's music.

Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
The Correct Way to Make Battle Royale: Birthday Version (03:09 HD): This is a cute little featurette in which the girl from the BR instructional video parodies said video in celebration of Fukasaku Kinji’s seventieth birthday. It actually a pretty funny extra, and various other people pop up throughout the piece to wish him well before we see the assembled cast and crew present the director with a cake on the set.

Tokyo International Film Festival Presentation (04:37 HD): The cast and crew are on-hand to introduce a Gala screening of the film at the Tokyo International Film Festival in October 2000. Each person says a little about the film, with some having more to say than others.

Disc Three (DVD)
Premiere Press Conference (12:02 SD): Writer of the Battle Royale novel, Takami Koushun, is on-hand with Fukasaku Kinji and several of the cast to talk about the film and answer questions. Fukasaku talks about his desire to adapt the novel being rooted in his wartime experiences, while the actors talk about their experiences working on the film and their admiration for their director. The thing that really struck me about this piece is how formal Japanese press conferences are the ones we usually see on DVD/BD releases of US films.

Opening Day at the Marunouchi Toei Movie Theatre (14:26 SD): Filmed on the 12th of December 2000, this piece features the director and cast of Battle Royale as they attend a screening of the film and talk about the film. It's not hugely informative thanks to the shyness of those involved, but it's nice to see the cast out of uniform, so to speak (although half of them are actually wearing their uniforms).

Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
The Slaughter of 42 High School Students (10:09 SD): This short featurette is basically a cut-down version of the full ‘making of’ documentary found on the first disc.  It has plenty of on-set footage, including Fukasaku berating one poor actor as he continually stuffs up his lines. There's also some interview footage with the director and shots of the cast relaxing and hanging out during their down-time.

Next up we have a TV ad (00:34 SD), a TV promo (01:49 SD), a TV commercial (03:41 SD) and two promos (00:16 SD and 00:37 SD respectively). The quality of this material is among the poorest in the set, but it's watchable.

The Correct Way to Fight in Battle Royale (02:35 SD): Watched the film? Remember the instructional movie hosted by the ridiculously peppy girl in the orange shirt? Well here she is in all of her glory. Yes, this is basically the complete version of the video without the cut-aways to the actors. The colour timing is also considerably different, which is interesting if you notice such things.

Royale Rehearsals (07:09 SD): Filmed in June 2000, this featurette takes us behind-the-scenes at the rehearsals with the director and cast. Together they act out a series of scenes from the film, working through various permutations on their way towards finding what works and what doesn't.

Masamichi Amano conducts Battle Royale (09:46 SD): This is very similar to the featurette on the second disc, although this one runs a little bit longer. There’s not much to say beyond what was said about the first piece.

Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Special Effects Comparison (04:17 SD): This short featurette examines how some of the new special effects shots created for the 2001 special edition were achieved. We see composites of Kuninobu's exploding necklace, Kitano being shot and Fujiyoshi's untimely death-by-knife (among others), along with various CGI enhancements like scenery removal, the creation of sunsets and the fixing of gaffes.

Behind the Scenes Featurette (12:09 SD): This is a straight-ahead making of featurette, with short talking-head segments interspersed with footage from the film, all narrated by a generic voiceover man. A lot of the footage will seem familiar if you’ve watched the other making of material, but this piece is much fluffier in tone.

Filming On Set (11:00 SD): Opening with an interview with Mai (the winner of the previous Battle Royale), this featurette then proceeds to cover much of the same ground as the other making ofs. By this time I’d grown a bit tired of watching the same old footage over and over again, but there are a few new bits scattered throughout.

Trailer Gallery (23:09 SD): The trailer gallery includes clips from a bunch of different Fukasaku Kinji films, such as Battles Without Honor and Humanity and its sequels and Graveyard of Honor. They don't half go on a bit.

Of course my review copy of the set didn’t include the thirty-two page comic, the thirty-six page booklet, the other sixteen page conceptual artwork booklet, the 5x7” stills postcards, or the fold-out reversible poster of original artwork. Those things will just add to what is already a comprehensive set of extras and make this Limited Edition something special. (I’ve had my order for the retail version in for months).

Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition
Battle Royale: Limited Edition

Overall


Biting social commentary about the dog-eat-dog nature of the Japanese educational system and the youth-adult divide, or a gory action flick? As with most things one’s perception of Battle Royale will ultimately be coloured by what you take with you into the film, but I for one think it’s a smart piece of filmmaking. Ten years after its original release it has lost some of its shock factor, but it’s still a compelling piece of cinema and one that I’m glad to finally have in my high-definition collection.

Technically the set is good, especially the audio, which exceeded my expectations. While there is a fair bit of overlap on some of the extras there’s still plenty here to keep fans happy, with the making of a particular highlight. The limited edition accoutrements also add value to the package. It’s a real pity that Arrow didn’t have access to better video materials, or this could have been something truly special. As it stands it's still an impressive package and the best available version(s) of the film, so if you have the necessary hardware you’d be silly not to opt for the Blu-ray over the DVD.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release 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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