From the grave, the late Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku must be laughing! Although largely unknown in the U.S., Fukasaku ranks among the most-celebrated directors in Japan. Until his death at 72 in 2003, he produced a long series of movies that grappled with tough issues such as organized crime and what Fukasaku perceived as his country’s disastrous thirst for violence. It’s not a stretch to think of Fukasaku in his prime like Martin Scorsese in his Mean Streets and Taxi Driver era.
Oddly enough, Fukasaku’s one big splash in American media came after his own death, when media writers began comparing Hunger Games to Fukasaku’s almost-never-seen cult hit from 2000: Battle Royale. The Japanese film never was released in the U.S., partly because Japanese-language films with subtitles rarely do well in the U.S.—but mostly because Battle Royale’s plot involves high-school students slaughtering each other. Produced one year after the Columbine massacre, American distributors had no taste for Fukasaku’s incredibly dark tale.
BUT, IS HUNGER GAMES REALLY A RIP OFF OF BATTLE ROYALE?
Despite a firestorm among bloggers who latched onto Battle Royale, the short answer is: No.
In an in-depth New York Times Magazine story last year, reporter Susan Dominus drew the same conclusion long before the Hunger Games movie was finished. In the course of a much longer story, Dominus wrote: “Each book involves young people selected at random and pitted against one another in a game of survival staged by tyrannical authorities. The parallels are striking enough that Collins’s work has been savaged on the blogosphere as a baldfaced ripoff. The authors share an interest in the mechanisms of state control, but their agendas clearly diverge.” In fact, Dominus reported, Collins had never read or viewed Battle Royale. What’s more, Dominus concluded: “Battle Royale played into Japan’s fears about a rise in youth violence; Collins’s heroes are, if anything, models of responsibility.”
As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I now have previewed the new, exhaustive Battle Royale set, available via Amazon as Battle Royale: The Complete Collection. I agree with Dominus that the two tales serve quite different purposes, but it’s not fair to say that the Japanese teens are any nobler than the young warriors in the Hunger Games. The real differences are in the goals of these two stories.
Hunger Games is about class warfare and fears that the world eventually will not have enough resources for everyone to survive. Evil takes the form of wealthy overlords—playing off fears of the so-called “1 percent” who seem to snap up vast wealth in our world. In stark contrast, Battle Royale has nothing to do with these themes. Instead, disgruntled teachers and military leaders get so fed up with teen-age violence that they decide to transport dozens of 9th-Grade students to a remote island—and let them finish each other off. In the end, Battle Royale has more to do with Lord of the Flies than Hunger Games.
Hunger Games is about harnessing popular rage so that we cheer our young heroes. That’s why the soundtrack features so many pop-music celebrites from Taylor Swift to Miranda Lambert. Moviegoers cheer the best of the young warriors—just as we cheer the young musicians ringing in our ears.
In contrast, Battle Royale is about the horror of unchecked violence. Evidence of that theme is in its soundtrack, which draws heavily on Bach, Strauss and Schubert. Fukasaku wants to bludgeon moviegoers with the stark contrast between the tropical Eden of the remote island, the beautiful classical music—and the carnage as kids kill kids for two hours. Think of the way Sergio Leone chose a graceful orchestral score for Once Upon a Time in the West (in which Henry Fonda shocked moviegoers by gunning down an innocent child) and the way Francis Ford Coppola jarringly corkscrewed classical themes into Apocalypse Now (in which moviegoers were shocked for many reasons).
No, this isn’t a rip off. Yes, kids kill kids in both movies, but the goals are worlds apart.
IS BATTLE ROYALE WORTH WATCHING?
Throughout the Japanese film inudstry, Fukasaku was showered with praise for Battle Royale—and his 1960s and 1970s gangster films came back into circulation on DVD. But—for a universal meditation on youthful violence, Lord of the Flies still stands head and shoulders above the rest in this genre.
If you care to see Battle Royale, available via Amazon, here are a few thoughts to consider:
NOT KIDS AT ALL: Like most major Hollywood releases about teens—from the hit TV series Glee to Hunger Games—these Japanese schoolkids are mostly adults. (Glee star Lea Michele, who plays Rachel, is 25; and Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence is 21.) Some online coverage of Battle Royale refers to the kids as “children” or “middle school students.” Nope. The film calls them “9th Graders” in the English subtitles and most of the main characters clearly are in their 20s.
NOT AS SHOCKING AS IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: Battle Royale’s cult following has raised the expectation that this is an absolutely over-the-top bloodletting. Again: Nope. Countless American films, including Hunger Games, have at least as much carnage. Perhaps if Fukasaku’s film had arrived in the weeks immediately following Columbine, the horror might have been greater. But, the sheer level of violence is—sad to say at this point in movie culture—not as shocking as it might have been a decade or so ago.
FORGET THE SEQUEL: Fukasaku might have had lofty aspirations as a director, but the Japanese film industry is not much different than Hollywood. Even after his death, a sequel was produced. It appears in this complete set, newly released, but the sequel is laughable at best—and well worth ignoring if you find some serious worth in the original Battle Royale. Let’s remember Fukasaku in his prime and generously forgive what was constructed over his grave.
SHOULD KIDS SEE BATTLE ROYALE? Obviously, teenagers are flocking to Hunger Games by the millions. The new Battle Royale DVD is not rated. Our ReadTheSpirit readers may be wondering if the film could spark a good discussion about violence. Our judgment is: Maybe this film is useful for discussion among the oldest teens or a college-age group. But, beyond those truly fascinated with Asian culture and milestones in modern filmmaking—who almost certainly will want to watch the new DVD set—there’s not much in Battle Royale to justify the pricetag.
As we say in our latest story about Hunger Games: Want more? Join the millions who are going back to see that hit movie, once again.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.