Before There Was The Hunger Games, Japan Had This Brutal, Bloody Opus
By Brian Ashcraft
Were you one of the oodles of theatergoers who packed into American cinemas to see The Hunger Games? The movie is raking in the box office cash—and it's being hailed as a smash hit. But in Japan, people are referring to the flick as something else: "Hollywood's version of Battle Royale."
Based on a 1999 novel, the 2000 film Battle Royale featured school kids who were forced to enter a deadly game in which they had to kill each other.
Based a 2008 novel, the 2012 film The Hunger Games featured school kids who were forced to enter a deadly game in which they had to kill each other. The Hunger Games' writer, Suzanne Collins, said that the book was based on the Greek myth of Theseus and Minotaur. Online, there are those who are calling The Hunger Games a direct Battle Royale rip-off. Others disagree.
Since I have not seen The Hunger Games nor have I read the book, I'm not in any position to say if it's a knock-off or not. If it is, who cares?
Battle Royale was not created in a vacuum; it has elements of Lord of the Flies, but in a very contemporary way that reflects Japanese society. During the 1990s, violence in Japanese schools swirled in the Japanese media. Brutal schoolyard killings in Kobe dominated the news. This generation of kids seemed rotten to the core.
The movie is unflinching and brutal. No wonder no American distributor would even venture near the film for years after its release—especially with real-life school killings dotting the front pages of American newspapers. A shame because Battle Royale isn't only one of the best Japanese films of the past decade, but it's one of the best Japanese films ever made. No wonder Quentin Tarantino admires this film so.
While some in the West call Battle Royale a cult movie, in its native Japan, it was a mainstream flick by a well respected director. And it was incredibly controversial in Japan upon its release.
Kinji Fukasaku directed Battle Royale when he was in his late 60s. The film seemed to come out of nowhere, as only a few years earlier he was enjoying career retrospectives at the American Cinematique in summer 1997, putting around from meet-and-greets and talking about his horrific experiences disposing of dead bodies as a teen during World War II. In 1997, it seemed like Fukasaku's best work—such as the iconic Battles Without Honor and Humanity—was well behind him. He was the elder statesman for Japanese cinema.
While he was in Los Angeles well over a decade ago, I had dinner with Fukasaku. The book Battle Royale wasn't yet published, and most of my questions to him were about how he did certain shots in his yakuza movies from the 1970s. He was less interested in talking cinema, and seemed like he was keener to chat about sumo as he sat in the New Otani hotel in Los Angeles and sip his drink behind dark sunglasses. Did he even care about cinema anymore, I wondered.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the notoriously hardnosed director still had enough **** and vinegar to pull off something like Battle Royale. When I saw the film in 2001, I was floored—I could not believe that Fukasaku, who passed away in 2003, still had something like this in him. Most filmmakers lose their edge in their twilight years. Fukasaku retained it—and with a vengeance. The movie is a tough old man's scathing criticism of good-for-nothing youth and overly cute youth culture.
Collins is apparently drawing from mythos for a young adult readership. That's not what Battle Royale, both the novel and the film, were about. Using the book as a jumping off point, Fukasaku was drawing from real life, especially his own. To compare The Hunger Games to Battle Royale is actually to do a disservice to Battle Royale.
There's no training in Battle Royale. The kids just start killing each other—or be killed. The only thing they have are their wits. During World War II, a young Fukasaku saw cruelty and brutality first hand and grew up fast. His film is a reflection of that—and not clever some reworking of Greek myth. He's one of the greatest artists Japan produced during the last century as the country rose from the ashes during the Post War years. It's no accident that when producers needed a filmmaker to replace Akira Kurosawa on Tora! Tora! Tora!, they turned to Fukasaku.
The film Battle Royale was not only a period mark for a legendary filmmaker, it was an exclamation point. While Battle Royale is finally coming out this month in the U.S. on DVD, it is a shame Fukasaku never saw a proper U.S. release for his masterpiece—or The Hunger Games, for that matter.