Battle Royale, a Japanese film about ninth-graders killing each other, is better known by its unofficial title, “That Movie that Suzanne Collins Ripped off for The Hunger Games.” Based off of Koushun Takami’s novel of the same name and set in the near future, Battle Royale tells the blood-soaked tale of 42 ninth-graders forced to fight until only one student is left alive. The Japanese government uses this brawl, known as “The Program,” to keep the country’s youth in line. Did someone in your class break the law? Maybe your best bud has been harboring anti-government sentiments? Well, you’d better change their ways, or your class may be put on the chopping block.
You can probably see why people compare Battle Royale to The Hunger Games. There are similar themes with regards to political oppression and youthful rebellion; but before getting into that, I want to talk about Battle Royale by itself. I’ve seen the movie several times, and each viewing still grabs me like a cinematic lobster claw thanks to the film’s pacing. Three of the game’s participants — Shuya Nanahara, Shogo Kawada, and Noriko Nakagawa — are the focus of Battle Royale, and the actions (and often, deaths) of the remaining 39 students serve as a vehicle to maintain a feeling of plot momentum while the main characters aren’t doing anything particularly exhilarating. It’s a clever way to remove obstacles from the protagonists’ path without dragging the main characters into every single scuffle exhibited in the movie.
The main difference between Battle Royale (the film) and Battle Royale (the book) is bulkiness. The book doles out heaping helpings of backstory for every character, whereas the movie is far more streamlined, with comparatively little information given about the protagonists. It’s a major focal shift: the book is heavily character-focused, while the movie is more keyed into The Program itself. It’s a smart change, as a 100% faithful adaptation of the book would’ve been long enough to make Lawrence of Arabia feel like a commercial break.
Of course, there are a few marks to make against Battle Royale. The aforementioned streamlining, while beneficial to the film overall, can cause some of the characters to seem 2-dimensional. Folks who’re hoping for Game of Thrones-style character depth may be turned off as the movie isn’t deeply character-driven, rather focused on crazy action. Battle Royale’s over-the-top violence can also detract from the movie’s otherwise dark and serious tone. Seeing a kid’s head explode like a watermelon stuffed with dynamite may be awesome, but it borders on being comically ridiculous, and when Battle Royale tries to follow that up with seriousness, it can come off as a bit disingenuous.
But okay, let’s address the life-or-death elephant in the room: the similarities between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. I can’t speak on Suzanne Collins’s books as I’ve never read them, so let’s focus on the movies. The Hunger Games is far more focused on the movie’s world, whereas Battle Royale is all about The Program, as the film’s world is hardly developed beyond what’s necessary to legitimize the existence of the Program. If you wished The Hunger Games was completely focused on the part where kids killed each other, Battle Royale will scratch that somewhat horrifying itch.
Overall, Battle Royale is a fine film. It’s smoothly paced, rife with action, and gripping from start to finish. While not bereft of flaws, Battle Royale is an explosive thrill ride that drips pure entertainment. It’s hugely enjoyable, and who doesn’t like enjoying movies? If you’re game for violence and English subtitles, Battle Royale may be just the thing to spice up an otherwise boring evening.
*images from giantbomb.com, madmuseum.org, and thereelbits.com. Trailer from Movieclips Trailers