Here's the pitch: The state forces kids into a death match where only one is left standing.
That's Hunger Games, right? Yes, but it's also the story line 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, Kinji 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 (Takeshi Kitano). They are given a deadline (three days), a duffel bag (each with different weapons and implements) and an order to slaughter each other until there is just one survivor. If they refuse, all will be killed.
Imagine Lord of the Flies with gunplay and sharp metal objects.
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 the U.S. at film festivals, it never received theatrical distribution, and some speculated that -- coming a year after the Columbine massacre and a year before 9-11 -- 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. Fans 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 are the last two survivors in this ongoing teenage war that makes the whole vampire versus zombie versus 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 YouTube Battle Royale Vs. Hunger Games page.
"In every Hunger Games post, a Battle Royale fan has to pop up and claim it's a rip-off," moaned one HG loyalist on another blog.
Now, with 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.