Known by Western audiences as the director hired to replace Akira Kurosawa for the Japanese segments of “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, writer-director Kinji Fukasaku is also known for “Virus,” billed at the time as one of Japan's costliest science-fiction epics. Like “Battle Royale,” that film was also based on a novel with satirical shots at societal conventions, but “Battle” is a much more vicious movie, with a distinctive local focus.
Adapted from the best-selling novel by Koshun Takami (recently published in English, and highly recommended, along with the bloody, graphic novels), “Battle Royale” is an elegant, operatic epic that follows the book quite closely, retaining the tone and juvenile quarrels of its characters that prove fatal when best friends and cliques must kill each other to become king of the hill. Their former teacher, once tormented by the rambunctious teens (played with an odd mix of wit and sympathy by cult actor Beat Takeshi (a.k.a. Takeshi Kitano) is now the chief orchestrator of the island bloodbath, and in this expanded “Special Edition” DVD, he's given a secondary story thread that's built up towards the end as a lead-in for the film's 2003 sequel, “Battle Royale II.”
Originally released around 112 minutes, this longer edit includes several flashbacks – mainly brief vignettes between school buddies – and a few dream-like episodes to heighten the ties between the film's male hero, and his best friend (the latter chum becoming one of the first casualties in a nasty class demonstration).
Taken from a gorgeous NTSC master, with rich colours and fine detail, the film's sound mix also booms with epic grandeur (even the basic 2.0 mix that was allegedly boosted for the Special Edition release has a lot of range). The English subtitles are a bit blocky, however, and longer statements sometimes bleed beyond the monitor.
Though the film contains English and Korean subtitles, English-language fans are out of luck when it comes to the impressive Japanese extras on Disc 2; there's an optional Korean subtitle option, but no English subs.
The “WOWOW” TV special assembles lengthy comments from the cast and director, but more interesting are the behind-the-scenes footage that reveals the extraordinary care involved in taking locations, bathed in lovely sunshine, and turning it into somber, navy-hued scene.
The “Audition” featurette is the most compelling, as it reveals the late director to be more than just a hands-on technician. Rehearsing action scenes with his chosen cast in an auditorium with chairs and tables, Fukasaku clearly had a gift for getting earnest performances from his young actors, and the payoff is onscreen, balancing bursts of sympathy, horror, and unnerving, satirical laughter.
A brief “Birthday Party” featurette captures the affection the large cast shared with the director, who celebrated a bittersweet milestone on set, shortly before dying of prostrate cancer in 2003. The “Movie is a War” trailer is really just a montage of the director in action, with vocal and physical cues intercut between finished action shots.
A longer “Making Of” featurette was filmed during the important basketball game flashbacks, and in a separate featurette, Misamichi Amano's rapturous score is highlighted with footage of the composer conducting six diverse cues. The best production featurette, however, is “CG,” with a Strauss waltz elegantly underscoring exploding heads, and other score snippets applied to location shots tweaked to enhance the island's desolation and remote beauty. The remaining extras are a collection of publicity materials, with multiple trailers hyping the longer edit, and the “WOWOW” trailer contains clips of a barely audible Quentin Tarantino, (Fans of “Kill Bill” are probably aware that Chiaki Kuriyama appears as “Gogo Yubari” in Volume One of Tarantino's grindhouse tribute).
There's also footage of the cast & director enjoying favorable responses from audiences at the 2000 Tokyo Film festival, which on its own acts as a fitting tribute to an underrated filmmaker.
Though many editions of the extended “Battle Royale” have been released in Asia and England, the Korean Region O NTSC set is available individually, or bundled with the massively disappointing sequel, Battle Royale 2.
Note: for a review of the 2012 Anchor Bay Blu-ray, click HERE [M].
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan