By Cary Darling
FORT WORTH — Here’s the pitch: The state forces kids into a death match where only one is left standing.
That’s “The Hunger Games,” right? Yes, but it’s also the storyline for “Battle Royale,” the brutal, harrowing and little-seen Japanese film that beat “Hunger Games” to the plot by 12 years. And that film was based on a 600-page Japanese novel published in 1999.
But with “Hunger” hysteria at a high point, “Battle Royale” — which Quentin Tarantino called his “favorite movie of the last 20 years” — might finally get the attention it deserves. This week, Anchor Bay, hungry for some of that “Hunger Games” action, has just released a four-disc repackaging, “Battle Royale: The Complete Collection,” on DVD and Blu-ray.
Set in a near-future Japan where youth crime has spiraled out of control, Kenji Fukasaku’s tense, tragic and timely film focuses on a group of 42 students who are taken to a deserted island overseen by the bullying Kitano (played by the always steely Takeshi Kitano).
They’re given a deadline (three days), a duffel bag (each with different weapons and implements), and an order to slaughter each other until there’s just one survivor. If they refuse to cooperate, all will be killed.
Imagine “Lord of the Flies” with gunplay and sharp metal objects and you’ve got the idea.
But when “Battle Royale” hit the film market in 2000, it couldn’t have been released at a worse time. In Japan, where it was a hit, it was hotly debated in terms of glorifying violence. Though “Battle Royale” played in at U.S. film festivals, it never received theatrical distribution and some speculated that — coming a year after the Columbine massacre and a year before 9/ 11 — that no one in the early 2000s wanted to go near it.
A decade on and “Battle Royale” has built up a fiercely loyal following after being released on video a few years back. They came out in force to see it at last year’s Asian Film Festival of Dallas. And there’s been a virtual war online as “Battle Royale” and “Hunger Games” fans go at each other like they’re the last two survivors in this ongoing teenage war that makes the whole vampire vs. zombie vs. werewolf thing so last year.
“’Hunger Games’ is like another ‘Twilight,’ taking a (great) concept and (weakening) it with a love triangle that bores the (life) outta me,” charged one “Battle Royale” fan on a You Tube “Battle Royale Vs. Hunger Games” page.
“In every ‘Hunger Games’ post, a ‘Battle Royale’ fan has to pop up and claim it’s a ripoff,” moaned one “HG” loyalist on another blog.
Now, with “The Hunger Games” finally hitting theaters and “Battle Royale” getting a renewed push, movie fans will be able to make up their minds about which they prefer.
Whatever the outcome, it will be good to see “Battle Royale” — which, it should be noted, is not for the very young or the faint of heart — move out of the shadow world of word-of-mouth cultdom and into the broader daylight of wider circulation. Though Fukasaku may not be consistent (his “Battle Royale” sequel, included in “The Complete Collection,” is widely derided), for at least one film he managed to imbue a modern-day horror story with an electric sense of drama and dread.
Here’s hoping that is one “Battle” that keeps on raging.