JANUARY 9, 2013
You win. After it was recommended countless times by real life friends, people on Twitter, and HMAD readers joolee (who suggested it on the first day of the post's existence!), tj adams, sansanethesia, Zach, Momel, Chasyn, and Lee Lemons (plus probably a few more that recommended it on other movies' reviews), and with about 85 movies to go, I finally broke down and watched Battle Royale. It wasn't an intentional snub (it's not like I'm the Academy Awards and Battle Royale is Ben Affleck or the Cloud Atlas score), I literally just kept forgetting that someone even gave me a copy because they were incredulous that I still hadn't seen it (I also learned that it was on Netflix Instant, which might have sped things along had I realized it).
Of course, none of these fine folks ever mentioned that it's only a horror movie in the most tenuous sense; strip away the bloodspray and it's a straight up action thriller, though it seems that two characters are blessed with supernatural powers or are killer robots, since they both carry on as if nothing happened after being riddled with bullets (one even casually takes a phone call!). I can see their reasoning, but as with Predator, had I seen the film on its own without ever thinking "horror" I wouldn't ever consider it as one. If anything counting it as one sort of goes against my belief that horror movies are more than body counts, since that is precisely what the film offers - none of it is played for scares or even suspense, since it's a foregone conclusion who will win (though not as obnoxiously apparent as Hunger Games).
That said, it's still an enjoyable and at times startling flick, with director Kinji Fukasaku nicely finding the balance between unsettling violence and the straight up action adventure tone of movies like The Condemned or the underrated The Tournament (which I saw at a horror festival, ironically enough), where a bunch of folks are forced to kill each other until only one remains, but of course two will remain because this is a movie about a tournament where there should only be one survivor. The difference, as with Hunger Games, the participants are teenagers (but unlike Games, they're played by actual teens, not Academy Award nominated 22 year olds), except in this case the movie is rated R and thus most of the deaths are brutal and bloody - throats are slashed, young girls are riddled with bullets... harsh stuff.
The hero is Tatsuya Fujiwara, who I recognized from Death Note, though his character isn't nearly as interesting as some of the others. I don't know if they kept him a bit vague so we wouldn't peg him as the hero from the start, and maybe it's just because he was the only one I was familiar with, but I never had any doubt he'd at least make it to the end if not win it all. He's got a backstory about a suicidal father that gives him a bit of depth, but honestly I was more interested in Kawada, a previous winner who was only competing to carry out some revenge. It's sort of like 13th Warrior; Fujiwara's character is like Banderas in that he's the lead, but everyone's actually invested in Buliwyf doing his thing and actually doing most of the heavy lifting. I kind of dig movies that give you two equal heroes; shame it's not actually done more (or else I'd probably have a better example at the top of my head than 13th Warrior - Django Unchained works too but I can't get into it much without spoiling things).
I didn't get the "Danger Zones" though? Every 6 hours the guy running things will remind us about who died and then point out a few locations that are becoming danger zones (it's a big grid, so like "At 2pm, C5! At 3pm, D3!"), but unless I missed something in a subtitle they never go into what happens in these zones. Are they lit on fire or besieged by holographic dogs/bees like in Hunger Games? Is it just where the most vicious players (one guy starts killing his competitors before they've all even been handed their equipment!) will be? If so, how the hell does he know? Dude might just chill out in B4 all day and kill whoever happens by. To be fair, the movie largely avoids too much repetition, as there are a number of weapons, some minor subplots (a trio of players band together to hack into the tracking system with the goal of saving them all), and a few flashbacks to keep it from just being an endless series of kids killing kids, but they make a big deal out of these zones without ever really going into what they are/do, when it seemed like something that can mix it up (no one enters one, either, as far as I can tell). (NOTE - a few readers have pointed out that the collars explode if they enter at those times. Not sure if if that's something I just missed or that is from the book, but makes sense to me. Thanks!!!)
I also don't get why the entire movie didn't focus on the awesome/deranged Mitsuko, who was by far the most interesting female character. If anything about this movie counts as "horror", it's her bits, as she has zero problem with killing and even toys a bit with her victims - she has two extended scenes/fights with other females that rank as some of the best action in the film. Apparently, QT wanted the actress (Ko Shibasaki, whose blood type is B, IMDb creepily tells me) to play one of the girls in Kill Bill, but she couldn't fit it into her schedule - bummer. On that note, I was impressed that they managed to characterize a number of the players; my biggest issue with Games (besides the tree-sitting, idiotic names, ridiculous costumes... OK I had a lot of problems with that movie) was that I never got to know any other players besides the two that we knew would win, which made the game part of the movie a chore. Here, even with the heroes being obvious, Fukasaku gives enough weight to 5-6 others to make it interesting and even a bit of a bummer when they are killed off. The hacking subplot helps immensely - it seems to work, and thus the idea that maybe a whole group of kids will survive is a possibility.
In short, you guys were right - it's a damn good flick. I didn't love the ending (it drags in a ROTK like manner, though someone tells me it's setting up the sequel), but it evens out with how quickly they get to the island (and the hilarious video that explains its rules), and at just under two hours, it's also the first time I was ever a bit bored which is impressive. Some of these 75 minute movies I watch could still be edited down further; this is pretty tight until then. Some of its impact was watered down thanks to the past 12 years of wannabes, but I can still recognize that it's better than those. Lack of horror aside - good call, everyone!
What say you?
P.S. This was the 113 minute theatrical cut. There is an extended version, but after querying my followers I have since learned that the 122 minute one is terrible - it's literally the only time I have ever gotten a unanimous response on a "A or B?" question on Twitter. If anyone out there actually prefers the longer cut, feel free to explain why, maybe you can sway me into checking it out someday.
P.S.S. I inexplicably own the book as well, worth a read?