Thursday, March 22, 2012

Blu-Ray Review: "Battle Royale: The Complete Collection" does justice to one of the all-time great films

I’ve been waiting for this day for a long, long time.

“Battle Royale” – the controversial Japanese masterpiece from the year 2000 – has finally been released on home video in the United States, twelve years after its original overseas release, in a four-disc Blu-Ray package assembling two cuts of the original movies, one cut of the inferior sequel, and an entire disc of Bonus Material.  It’s a very exciting compilation, and as such, I’ve gone all-out for this Blu-Ray review, giving you my in-depth analysis of both films, technical critiques of the video and audio quality, a look inside the packaging, and an overview of all the extras.  Whether you’re a fan of the films or are new to the franchise this is a review you won’t want to miss.

Read my Blu-Ray review of “Battle Royale: The Complete Collection,” after the jump….

Reviewing the Films

“Battle Royale”

“What’s your favorite movie?”

As you might imagine, that’s a question I get asked a lot, and when you watch as many movies as I do, it becomes a difficult query to answer.  So I’ve come up with some stock responses that have proven effective.  “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is my all-time favorite, just as an overall viewing experience.  It’s everything I love about the cinematic medium packed into one.  Sometimes I’ll say “The Godfather,” because I think it’s the greatest of all American films.  And when anyone asks for my second favorite, I answer “Back to the Future,” because when it comes to sheer entertainment value, very little else comes close.  There you have it.  Three solid answers.  They usually get me through the big question without trouble. 

Occasionally, though, people want to know more – “what are your other favorites?”  Damn.  How do I answer that?  “Favorites” can mean so many things.  The movies I most like to watch?  The films that mean the most to me?  The works I feel stand above all others in a critical sense?  You’re basically asking me to sum up the whole of my reviewing career into a simple, digestible answer, and that’s far from easy.  The worst case was when my ‘Intro to Film’ professor started the first day of class by asking us to write down the names of our ten favorite films.  He only gave us five minutes.  How am I supposed to reduce years of critically studying film into a tidy little list?  I panicked.  I just wrote down ten respectable classics – the three I mentioned above and some others, like “Star Wars” and “The Wizard of Oz” – movies I love but not necessarily the favorite movies. 

This got me thinking: how do I define my ‘favorite’ movies?  I tried breaking it down.  Favorite: the movies that matter most to me.  Matter most: the movies that had the greatest impact on me.  Greatest impact: the films that shaped my tastes, perspective, and love of cinema.  Ah ha!  That sounded right.  The movies that made me love movies.  It’s so simple.  How did it escape me?  Hell, why couldn’t the tenured film professor put it that way? 

So now, when posed with the big question, I think about the set of movies that formed my personal standards for cinema.  “Rings,” “Godfather,” and “Future” are all there, but also “Rocky” and “Blade Runner,” and recent classics like “Spider-Man 2” and “The Dark Knight.”  And another one – one of the absolute most important ones:

“Battle Royale.”

That’s a crucial one.  It’s in my top ten, easily; maybe the top five.  I saw it right at the age director Kinji Fukasaku would have wanted me to: 14, just before high school.  Of course, it wasn’t available in the US back then, but I wanted it desperately.  According to “the Internet,” (what seemed like a mystical amalgamation at the time), it was one of the Holy Grails of filmmaking, a controversial classic so violent and terrifying it had been ‘banned’ in the US (this wasn’t quite true, but this was “the Internet,” after all).  I had to have it, but it was hard to get, so I started with the English translation of the book.  That only made me want it more.  So I saved up my money and somehow convinced my Mom to help order a bootleg DVD on eBay.  After a few long weeks of waiting, it came, and I waited a little longer until my family was out of the house.  I eagerly put the disc in the tray, sat down on the couch, and got ready for what I had been assured would be a life-changing experience….

…And you know what?  For once the internet was right.  After I saw “Battle Royale,” my existing concepts of the parameters of film were shattered, and I never looked back.  My eyes were opened to so many things: how violence can be used not just to thrill, but to educate, to make a point in visceral fashion; that when it takes an active, interpretive mind to find the message in the madness – rather than having it all spoon-fed to you – the results are so much more powerful; that the “heightened” Japanese style of acting is awesome in so many ways, primarily for how it brings emotions to the surface; the role music can play in accentuating themes, feelings, and story points; how much a little tonal creativity and playfulness can amplify the impact of the work; and, of course, that foreign cinema can do things and go places that American cinema can’t or won’t.  “Battle Royale” changed everything.  I’ve taken it with me on my critical journey through the hundreds of films I’ve reviewed since joining YourHub and, later, forming my own website. 

For two years or so, though, I haven’t revisited the film.  I don’t know why, but I subconsciously decided that I needed to leave it alone for a while, and didn’t revisit it until recently, when it was screened at the Denver Film Center in conjunction with the first US home video release.  I was very excited to see the film in a real movie theatre, but also a little worried – what if, after all this time, I didn’t respond to the movie as I once did?  “Battle Royale” contributed to so many of my basic critical concepts, and over the years, as I reviewed movie after movie, those concepts were shaped into critical instincts, instincts that get sharper and more intuitive every day.  I was now approaching “Battle Royale” with very different eyes – the developed eyes of a critic. 

But “Battle Royale” didn’t let me down.  On the contrary.  By every critical measure I use when judging movies, the film remains one of the greatest I have ever seen, and the experience floored me more this time than it did when I was 14. 

Director Kinji Fukasaku
First and foremost, “Battle Royale” is a fully realized artistic statement.  That’s not something I would say about Koushun Takami’s original novel, which says many powerful things without necessarily reaching a singular, unified message.  Director Kinji Fukasaku, however, found a very personal connection to the book, and used that to transform the story into his ultimate thesis on something that had been bothering him his whole life: how adults misunderstand and traumatize youth. 

In his “Director’s Statement” on “Battle Royale,” Fukasaku wrote: “I immediately identified with the 9th graders in the novel, Battle Royale.  I was fifteen when World War II came to an end. By then, my class had been drafted and was working in a munitions factory.  In July 1945, we were caught up in artillery fire … We survived by diving for cover under our friends.  After the attacks, my class had to dispose of the corpses.  It was the first time in my life I’d seen so many dead bodies.  As I lifted severed arms and legs, I had a fundamental awakening … everything we’d been taught in school about how Japan was fighting the war to win world peace, was a pack of lies.  Adults could not be trusted.  The emotions I experienced then – an irrational hatred for the unseen forces that drove us into those circumstances, a poisonous hostility towards adults, and a gentle sentimentality for my friends – were a starting point for everything since. This is why, when I hear reports about recent outbreaks of teenage violence and crimes, I cannot easily judge or dismiss them.  This is the point of departure for all my films.  Lots of people die in my films.  They die terrible deaths. But I make them this way because I don’t believe anyone would ever love or trust the films I make, any other way.  BATTLE ROYALE, my 60th film, returns irrevocably to my own adolescence…”

You can see the themes Fukasaku spoke of all over the movie; they are ingrained into each kill, all the flashbacks, and many of the character interactions, particularly anything involving the administrator of the program, Kitano.  When you strip away all the graphic violence, explosions, and set pieces, “Battle Royale” is nothing more than a tale about a group of kids who have been fundamentally let down by the adults in their lives, and must forge independent, resilient identities if they are to survive in such a harsh world.  Fukasaku may illustrate these themes in grand strokes, but the film is never anything less than intensely personal, and that’s what makes it resonate so strongly. 

Of course, it also explores the core thematic element of the novel: youth culture pushed to the brink.  Friendship, love, rivalry, pettiness – all the fundamentals of teenage society remain, but are heightened, changed, and played with over the course of the battle.  An unrequited attraction becomes attempted rape and brutal retribution; past acts of bullying become fuel for murder; the strength of friendship turns into the overwhelming weight of distrust. These inversions are fascinating – and frightening – to behold, perhaps no more so than in the character Mitsuko, a beautiful outsider who becomes an unstoppable force of nature for the very qualities that left her isolated back in school.  For all the students, salvation and madness lie only inches apart, demonstrated most powerfully in the terrifying lighthouse sequence, where a simple mistake leads five best friends to kill each other in a matter of minutes. 

“Battle Royale” is a spectacularly violent film, of course, but it’s never exploitative; the gore must be there to illustrate everything I discussed above.  As Fukasaku said in his statement, “I make them this way because I don’t believe anyone would ever love or trust the films I make, any other way.”  He’s absolutely correct.  This is a bleak story, and to cushion it by toning down the bloodshed would only reduce its impact.  The horror must be absolute for us to truly feel the darkness – and the brightness as well.  For there are moments of beauty in “Battle Royale,” particularly when focusing on the core trio of Shuya, Noriko, and Shogo.  The friendship, love, and loyalty they develop is as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking – Shuya’s speech to Noriko about why he brought back weapons from the lighthouse makes me cry every goddamn time – precisely because such warmth exists in a world gone so very, very wrong. 

Fukasaku’s command of tone, theme, and character is matched only by his authority of pacing and intensity.  “Battle Royale” is a relentless experience, with brilliantly designed, interconnecting fights and set pieces that build in force as the film barrels along at a gripping, non-stop pace.  Even if it had no thematic concerns whatsoever, “Battle Royale” would still be notable as a top-notch action thriller; it’s a masterpiece because Fukasaku somehow finds a way to layer character development and subtext on top of the mayhem at every turn. 

But perhaps the film’s most singular and impressive feat is the beautiful performances Fukasaku coaxes out of his vast, young cast.  The actors were almost exclusively fifteen or younger, but their work is uniformly flawless, realistic and emotionally palpable from start to finish.  These characters feel like real people, not manufactured creations, and that, more than anything else, is what gives the film such tremendous weight.  Tatsuya Fujiwara absolutely commands the screen as Shuya (and has gone on to lead a successful career in the years since), Taro Yamamoto gives a brilliant ‘man-with-no-name” performance as Shogo, Kou Shibasaki’s complex and nuanced portrayal of Mitsuko is utterly captivating, and Chiaki Kuriyama is so breathtaking in her lone scene as Chigusa that Quentin Tarantino cast her as Gogo Yabara in “Kill Bill.”  And the rest of the ensemble isn’t far behind.  I have no qualms in saying that this is the best adolescent acting ever captured on film, especially considering the size of the cast. 

But the best character, for my money anyway, is Kitano, the class’s old teacher who has returned to administrate the brutal death program.  Played flawlessly by legendary Japanese actor/filmmaker ‘Beat’ Takeshi, Kitano is, to my mind, one of the greatest screen presences in movie history.  He can be wildly funny and tremendously scary, but no matter what, there is always a profound sadness underlying all his actions, and this is the key to interpreting the film.  He truly regrets where society has gone, and though he, like the tyrannical government, would like to simply blame the youth, he ultimately realizes it’s more complex than that.  His class is merely a mirror, and he is a reflection, and once he comprehends the truth of what he sees, he decides this world is one he’d rather not live in. 

I’ve already devoted two thousand words to this great film, and I could probably go on for another ten thousand.  Masamichi Amano’s gorgeous score – as crucial in relating the story and messages as the script, visuals, or performances – probably deserves a few long essays on its own.  “Battle Royale” changed how I look at cinema and analyze art, and it continues to impact me on profound levels.  It is one of the A+ standards I consider when doling out letter grades.  It is, simply put, one of my all-time favorite movies.  Film Rating: A+

Comparing the Theatrical/Director’s Cuts of “Battle Royale”

On this Blu-Ray set, both versions of “Battle Royale” are included: the original version released to theatres in 2000, and a ‘Director’s’ cut extended by eight minutes.  I had never seen the theatrical version until the screening at the Denver Film Center last week, for my bootleg was of the Director’s cut.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both.  The theatrical cut is a master class in pacing, wasting not one second from start to finish, but it also leaves out some of the crucial character details found in the extended version.  The added scenes are mostly flashbacks or dream sequences, and I feel they really help to flesh out one’s understanding of the ensemble.  To me, they all increase the weight of the drama.  The theatrical version is a tighter experience overall, but personally, I tend to favor the Director’s cut.  No matter what, I’m ecstatic both versions are included in this set; I recommend watching both – theatrical cut first – and forming your own opinion from the experience. 

“Battle Royale II: Requiem”

So after I fell in love with “Battle Royale,” I felt I had to see the sequel.  Only natural, right?  Fans seemed to have a pretty vehement disdain for it, but that didn’t deter me – I had to have it!  So once again, I saved up my money, found a bootleg on eBay, and eagerly anticipated its arrival.  I popped it in the player, sat down, and got ready for another BR masterpiece…

…and felt supremely embarrassed that I, as a human being, had paid money for this dreck about half an hour later.  I sat through the whole thing, but I grew increasingly uncomfortable as it went along.  This was not good.  When it ended, I didn’t feel clean keeping the DVD in the house.  I thought about selling it back on eBay, but…no, that would take too long.  So I threw it in the trash, and tried to pretend I’d never seen it.

That was years ago.  It didn’t take long to completely forget about the movie, and when I got the Complete Collection, I was actually kind of looking forward to revisiting the sequel, if only to see if it was as bad as I remembered. 

Nope.  It’s worse.

In fact, the vast difference in quality between “Battle Royale” and “Battle Royale II” is practically comical.  The first is one of the greatest artistic accomplishments in the history of the medium, a personal favorite for many, including me.  The second is one of the most disgusting, awful train-wrecks ever committed to celluloid, venomously reviled by the masses, myself included.  Can any other film series claim such a fathomless artistic gap between entries? 

For those who don’t know, “Battle Royale II” opens a few years after the original; Shuya and Noriko have formed an international terrorist organization, “Wild Seven” (a reference to Shuya’s nickname in Koushun Takami’s original novel), and declared war on all adults.  This is the film’s first major misstep – making Shuya a terrorist completely disrespects the thematic intensions of the first film.  While he’s obviously, and justifiably, furious at the government for what they did to him and his friends, the ending implies that he and Noriko will find a healthy way to rise above their country’s hatred and villainy.  In the first film, Noriko symbolized innocence, which is why Shuya’s ultimate goal in life had to be protecting her – in a world gone wrong, innocence and purity is the last line of defense.

Combined with Shuya, who has the anger and passion to be wary of adult treachery, these two have everything they need to build a bright future: purity to believe in tomorrow, and the insight to avoid the evils of the past.  They represent the next generation, and simply by surviving and staying together, change will eventually come.  It’s a metaphor, of course, but “Battle Royale” is, at its core, one giant metaphor – you can’t take it all literally.  If you do, yes, Shuya becoming a Japanese Bin Laden makes some sense, but that’s not the point of this story, and for me, that holds “Battle Royale II” back from the very beginning. 

Of course, if the film were better written, acted, or directed, it might be able to make a salient point about the nature of terrorism.  That’s certainly what writer/director Kenta Fukasaku (who took over for his father, who died after filming one scene of the sequel) tries doing, but he fails miserably.  Characters have completely random, out-of-left-field outbursts about America on several occasions, and parallels are drawn between Wild Seven and Al Qaeda, with Shuya carrying out a 9/11-esque attack early on.  It’s all far too broad to make any thematic sense.  Wild Seven has a clear, inarguable purpose.  Their terrorism is absolutely justified, given what we’ve seen of this government, and since Shuya is still our protagonist, we are made to sympathize with them.  Does that mean Kenta wants us to sympathize with Al Qaeda too?  I hope not, but it’s awfully hard to tell.  I think Kenta wants to make a statement about the self-destructive nature of American foreign policy (the film came out around the time we invaded Iraq), and the thing is, with a defter, smarter hand and greater levels of subtlety, I think that statement could be palatable.  But whatever your thoughts on America as a world power, few would claim that our sins are comparable to the fictional BR program, so making straight connections is simply nonsensical, and a wee bit disturbing to boot. 

One also has to consider that “Battle Royale” isn’t supposed to be about America.  The book and the original film are fables about Japanese government and society, not foreign affairs, and the novel actually speaks of America in glowing, practically fetishistic terms.  I’m not against foreign nations criticizing America.  They have the right to do that.  But it’s not organic to the “Battle Royale” story, and it’s handled with such ineptitude that you just have to stare in slack-jawed puzzlement at the screen whenever Kenta’s writing climbs on the soapbox. 

But that’s the least of “BRII’s” problems.  The main story involves the implementation of a new BR program, where a class of 42 delinquents is put in military gear and sent to storm the island where Wild Seven hides out.  And I really don’t even know where to begin with this storyline.  Plot holes, maybe?  ‘Cause there are tons.  Such as: if the government knows where Wild Seven is hiding, why not carpet bomb the island and be done with it?  Yes, I know, the kids are given a speech about how the government isn’t willing to recognize Wild Seven by ‘going to war’ with them, but…c’mon.  This is a major terrorist organization, and it would take one strike to destroy them forever.  Sheesh. 

Never mind the plot holes, though.  Of more import is the fact that we never get to know any of these students as more than bodies for slaughter.  Even in the first scenes of the original film, there was an immediate connection to (and between) the kids; they felt like real people, and we were terrified right alongside them.  Here, though?  There are one or two painfully half-assed attempts at characterization, but that’s it.  These kids are blanks, and that destroys the first hour of the film, which is split evenly between the explanation of the program (copied nearly verbatim from the first film, but with more blood) and an extraordinarily gory attack on Shuya’s base. 

This, to me, is the film’s most crippling flaw.  The violence is 100% exploitative – we don’t know these kids, there’s very little story, and we’re left with a solid half-hour of watching after child after child die in ways far more gruesome than anything found in the first film (Kenta Fukasaku loves him some exploding neck collars).  There’s no thought, no message, no analysis: it’s just slaughter-porn, and I feel dirty watching it.  Within the first 50 minutes, all but eleven of the kids are dead, and it’s a numbing, disgusting experience to sit through, especially when one considers that the ones doing the killing are the other heroes of the movie – Shuya and Wild Seven!!!  What the hell?

The film improves ever so slightly in the second half, if only because it finds more of a structure and purpose when Wild Seven and the surviving BR participants unite against the adults.  It’s still riddled with plot holes, exploitative violence, piss-poor characterization, strange thematic choices, etc., but it’s not quite as soul-crushingly terrible as the first hour.

Then there’s the acting.  By God, the acting – it’s just spectacularly awful.  The students are all uniformly terrible this time around; unlike his father, Kenta Fukasaku has no earthly idea how to direct adolescents, and they mostly just run around shouting at the top of their lungs.  There’s no nuance to any of it, a defining feature of the first film; even Tatsuya Fujiwara, returning as Shuya, looses a lot of his dignity under Fukasaku’s direction.  But the teenagers display levels of Shakespearean brilliance when compared to the awe-inspiring horror that is Riki Takeuchi as the program’s administrator.  This may well be the worst performance I’ve ever seen in any movie.  Every mannerism, every line of dialogue, every incomprehensibly ridiculous facial expression is so wildly over the top that I felt like taking the disc out of the tray, smashing it into tiny pieces, and then paying in advance for ten years of therapy whenever Takeuchi appeared.  He’s that bad. 

There’s nothing redeeming about “Battle Royale II: Requiem.”  It has a terrible story, an incoherent message, horrible acting, and most importantly, is morally repugnant at just about every turn.  It stands right alongside the worst movies I’ve ever sat through, and the sting is especially strong when compared to the brilliance of the first film.  The Complete Collection contains only the theatrical cut of the film, and in Kenta Fukasaku’s defense, some – though not, by any means, all – of the flaws are ironed out in the extended “Revenge” cut of the film (which is what I originally saw), which at least makes sense of some character relations.  But it’s like going from an F to an F+.  However you cut it, “Battle Royale II” is an abomination.  Film Rating: F

Reviewing the Blu-Ray Set

“Battle Royale: The Complete Collection” comes housed in one of the coolest Blu-Ray packages I’ve ever seen.  It’s made to look like a hardcover book, with eight thick cardboard pages, four of which each house a disc inside a slit.  Functionally, it’s masterful, as the discs are easy to access and remove and are well-protected, and artistically, it’s pretty gorgeous.  The images on the ‘pages’ are really cool, all taken from the movies: you get the iconic class picture, individual photos of all 42 students, screenshots, the island map, etc.  And yes, a few of the less embarrassing stills from the sequel.  The ‘book’ package has a thin plastic slipcase over it with your standard summaries, technical information, and more.  I really couldn’t be any happier with the packaging – it’s altogether awesome, reverential towards the material, and aware of the film’s (well, the original’s) significance. 

As for the discs themselves, there are four of them: Disc 1 is the Director’s Cut of “Battle Royale,” Disc 2 is the Theatrical Cut of “Battle Royale” (kind of odd that they’re arranged that way), Disc 3 is “Battle Royale II: Requiem,” and Disc 4 is the Bonus Features.  The first three are all Blu-Ray discs, and feature no extra material, while the fourth is a standard DVD.  Let’s now take a closer look at each of them to assess the A/V quality and extra material:

Video and Audio

Let’s start with the video.  Both cuts of “Battle Royale” look identical, to my eyes anyway, and I was extremely satisfied with the presentation(s).  It’s not perfect, but I’m sure most fans are aware there are limitations to the source material.  For whatever reason, “Battle Royale” has always looked fairly soft and largely devoid of grain; it’s a relatively ‘flat’ image because of this, and there’s only so much a high-definition transfer can do.  The film is simply never going to match the flawless, pristine quality of a 2012 production. 

And with all that in mind, I honestly can’t imagine “Battle Royale” looking any better than it does here; it’s one-hundred percent accurate to the source – for good and for ill – but unless you lived in Japan to see an original 35mm print in the year 2000, I doubt you’ve ever seen the film look this good.  The most obvious gains are in detail; hair, facial features, grass, foliage, bullets, etc.  Where previous DVD versions looked a bit muddy in this department, the Blu-Ray is largely clear as a bell.  Similarly, colors are pleasingly vivid, especially – as gruesome as it may sound – blood, which really stands out in high-definition.  Again, there is an inherent softness that limits the colors or detail from reaching certain heights – meaning there simply isn’t as much depth to the image as one would like – but on the other hand, contrast levels are really impressive.  There are a lot of night scenes, a lot of complex blacks and greys, and the transfer handles all of it fairly spectacularly.  You won’t be squinting during the dark sequences, which is a definite step-up from standard definition. 

I got to see this transfer screened at the Denver Film Center last week, on one of the largest screens in Denver, and it held up incredibly well.  Blown up to that size, you can spot any flaws in the image, and while there’s some very minor macroblocking or aliasing here or there, you won’t notice it on most TVs.  In a perfect world, “Battle Royale” could always look better – like I said, those looking for deep, pristine visuals will be disappointed – but knowing the film’s limitations, I couldn’t be happier with what Anchor Bay has given us.  

Here’s the irony, though: the terrible “Battle Royale II: Requiem,” presented on Disc Three, looks fantastic, a huge step-up from the first film.  It’s a gorgeous image, with warm, rich colors, incredible depth and detail, and a pleasing, light layer of grain that gives the entire movie a satisfyingly filmic texture.  It looks like a very good 35mm print, which is my favorite kind of Blu-Ray transfer – in short, how we all wish the first film could look.  The only flaws I could find were occasional print damage and fraying around the borders of the frame, but both are minor and infrequent issues.  “Battle Royale II” simply looks fabulous.  It’s a bit of a shame that the best transfer goes to the bad movie, but at the very least, it makes the film’s bitter taste a tad easier to swallow. 

The audio side of things is much simpler: it all sounds perfect.  The audio track for the first film’s Director’s Cut has been rebuilt into a sweeping Dolby TrueHD 7.1 mix, and it’s an absolute revelation.  The soundstage is big, clear, and vast, with booming music and crystal clear sound effects and dialogue.  Maybe it’s just because I’ve been watching a bootleg for years, but I always felt “Battle Royale” had a relatively limited soundscape; now, however, it sounds wide open, as though you are always in the middle of the action.  Each channel is used effectively, and there’s enough LFE activity to give your subwoofer a healthy workout.  The Blu-Ray is worth it for this audio mix alone – it’s incredible.  The theatrical cut is only a 5.1 mix, but it’s a negligible step down.  Both versions are roughly comparable.  “Battle Royale II” also exclusively features a 5.1 mix, but sonically, it may be the most immersive of the bunch, if only for the large amounts of gunfire and explosions to dazzle one’s ears.  Everything I wrote about the first film applies here: the soundstage is big, clear, and immersive, and like the visuals, makes a crappy movie easier to sit through.

In an utterly baffling move, the Director’s Cut of the first film also includes a English Dub in 5.1 HD audio.  Yes, you read that right.  They dubbed “Battle Royale.”  I sampled it in a few spots, but not for long.  It’s horrendous.  The voices uniformly fail to match the characters, line-readings are rote and uninspired, and the mix isn’t as impressive as the original Japanese.  It actually sounds, in a way, like the actors are making fun of the movie, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 style – just listen, for five seconds, to the guy doing Shuya.  It’s like he’s doing an ironic emo impression.  So yeah, please ignore this Dub.  It’s not just unnecessary, but bad.  Luckily, Anchor Bay doesn’t force it on you – the disc still defaults to Japanese (yay!). 

And speaking of Japanese, the subtitles are very impressive, a big step-up from the various bootlegs fans have been watching.  The translations are accurate, clear, and natural, they’re perfectly timed and placed, and the white typeset stands out well without distracting.  Though they are on by default, you can turn them off if you wish. 

So on the whole, I’m pretty darned satisfied with the A/V presentations of these films.  After years of the bootleg DVD, it’s a breath of fresh air.  Now let’s move on to Disc 4 and take a look at the extras:

Bonus Features

Okay, so good news and bad news about the Bonus Material on “Battle Royale: The Complete Collection.”  Bad news first: for starters, it only covers the first film.  There’s no mention of the sequel, not even a trailer.  That’s a tad disappointing, if only because behind-the-scenes footage to bad movies is often more fascinating than the film itself.  Additionally, the material is presented only in standard definition, on a regular DVD, in 4x3 (though in a nice touch, it’s pillarboxed at 16x9 to maximize video quality).  And, perhaps most important to long-time fans, chances are you’ve seen most of this material before if you’ve ever owned a bootleg/imported release of “Battle Royale.”  There’s nothing new here, no material exclusive to this set. 

The good news?  Despite all of those potential the setbacks, these Bonus Features are fantastic.  A comprehensive, in-depth batch of material that makes you feel like you were really there for the production of “Battle Royale.”  None of the features are very polished or structured, instead presented as a series of fly-on-the-wall, observational footage.  And personally, I love that.  It’s all extremely candid, and that allows us to glean insights we would never have in more heavily produced features.  You get a good sense of the cast’s personalities and chemistry, Kinji Fukasaku’s directorial style, and what this story meant to them all on a personal level.  There are approximately 125 minutes of features in total, and though I would have enjoyed seeing something about the sequel, when it comes for the first film, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything else I would like to have.  A retrospective round-table with the now grown-up actors would be fascinating, of course, but Anchor Bay didn’t make the movie, so you can’t fault them for failing to produce any new material like that.  On balance, this is as good a disc of Bonus Materials as one could ask for. 

Though there is one other relatively minor flaw that bothered me from time to time.  While the movies both received new, professional subtitle tracks, the subtitles for these features seem virtually identical to those on my old bootleg DVD.  The translations are coherent, but also poorly timed and occasionally incomplete.  It doesn’t ruin the experience, but is disappointing, given the opportunity Anchor Bay had to really get it right.

But nevertheless, all of these features are worth a watch for fans of the film.  It’s a fairly tremendous package of extras, all things considered.  Here’s the breakdown: 

  • The Making of Battle Royale (50:23) – A marvelous overview of the production, shot in a candid, fly-on-the-wall style.  There’s no real structure/organization to it, just a lot of interesting and informative footage.  You see a lot of moments here that wouldn’t be shown in typical “making-of” features, such as the cast celebrating birthdays, hanging out, goofing off, etc., in addition to a plethora of on-location footage.  It’s remarkable to watch how the cast and crew put these iconic scenes together, and one really gets a sense of the hands-on, rehearsal-heavy, Kurosawa-esque approach Fukasaku took to directing the picture, a very different style than one typically sees from American filmmakers.  This is one of the better “making-ofs” I’ve ever seen – definitely give it a watch. 
  • Battle Royale Press Conference (12:01) – It’s exactly what it sounds like: a press conference with select cast members – all in full costume - and the director, each telling the audience what the film means to them, how they think it should be viewed, tidbits about the production, etc.  There are a lot of really neat insights, making this one essential viewing. 
  • Instructional Video: Birthday Version (3:03) – Director Kinji Fukasaku celebrated his 70th birthday early in the filming of “Battle Royale,” so the cast and crew made this video – featuring the cheerful girl from the film’s instructional video – to celebrate.  It’s very fun, and like much of the material, impressively candid.
  • Audition and Rehearsal Footage (7:11)My favorite feature on the disc, a brief but utterly fascinating reel of Fukasaku auditioning and rehearsing with the child actors.  Considering “Battle Royale” is one of my favorite movies, it’s just unbelievably cool to see these kids slowly but surely crafting their performances on rehearsal stages far removed from the finished project.  Most impressively, this feature gives tremendous insight into how Fukasaku directed the adolescents to do such great work; if you watch only one extra, make it this one. 
  • Special Effects Comparison Featurette (4:18) – Select special effects from the film – mostly violent deaths – are pulled apart in detail, showing us each layer of the composites/CGI that led to the finished image.  Interesting, but not remarkable.
  • Tokyo International Film Festival 2000 (4:27) – At an early gala screening of “Battle Royale,” the director and select cast members introduce the film one-by-one; like the Press Conference, there’s a lot of great insight, and both Fukasaku and Kitano mention the R-15 rating controversy that was making “Battle Royale” headline news at the time.  You also get to see Tatsuya Fujiwara with his horrible blonde hair-do, so on the whole, a pretty great inclusion. 
  • Battle Royale Documentary (12:10) – An EPK-style featurette, with the cast and crew telling us about the story, characters, themes, etc, alongside clips from the film.  These usually annoy me, but as has already been established, everyone involved with the movie gives very good insight into its production and significance, so this one is definitely worth a watch. 
  • Basketball Scene Rehearsals (8:39) – An in-depth look at all the steps in making this relatively minor scene, this one really gives you an appreciation for how much detail went into crafting every moment of this movie.  Highly recommended. 
  • Behind-the-Scenes Featurette (10:09) – Similar to the “Making-Of” piece, in that it delivers a lot of fly-on-the-wall backstage footage, this time focusing on the relationship between the kids and with director Fukasaku.  In one particularly intense moment, Fukasaku angrily quizzes an actor on his character’s motivations, berating him for not knowing the character well enough.  Fascinating stuff.
  • Filming On-Set (11:01) – Again, similar to the “Making-Of” and other fly-on-the-wall material.  If you’ve liked what you’ve seen so far, you’ll probably enjoy this too, but it’s not as revelatory as the others. 
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (1:50) – A pretty effective advertisement for the film, capturing the intensity and pace of the finished product.  In a nice upgrade from bootlegs and previous versions, it’s presented in Anamorphic Widescreen. 
  • Special Edition TV Spot (0:32) – A TV spot for the April 2001 re-release of the film (the Director’s Cut included on Disc 1 of this set) showcasing some of the new footage and added violence. 
  • TV Spot: Tarantino Version (0:32) – Virtually identical to the previous spot, but with two short interview clips (one or two seconds each) with Quentin Tarantino describing his love for the film.

In Conclusion…

Is “Battle Royale: The Complete Collection” a perfect set?  No, but it comes pretty damn close.  Would it have been nice to have the Extended cut of the sequel or some bonus features pertaining to that film?  Yeah, I suppose, but given the fact that I’m unlikely to ever break out “BRII” again, I have no interest in complaining.  When it comes to the first movie, the set is as comprehensive as I could have hoped (unless you want the 3D conversion released in Japan last year, to which I ask – why?), and that makes me a very happy customer. 

After all, it’s the first film that’s important.  Not only is it one of my all-time favorite movies, but I honestly believe that, in my experience at least, it is one of the greatest films ever made.  To have both cuts presented in such great quality with a treasure trove of Bonus Material isn’t just satisfying, but appropriate given the film’s legacy.  And though I’m no fan of “BRII,” I am glad Anchor Bay included it here; if nothing else, it’s a historical curiosity, and nice to have for archival purposes.  That being said, if you’ve never seen “Battle Royale” before, or consider yourself a casual fan, I would buy the 1-disc Blu-Ray Anchor Bay has released in conjunction with this set.  It contains only the Director’s Cut, but for many, that’s all you’ll need.

For die-hard fans like me?  Knock yourself out with the Complete Collection.  “Battle Royale” has finally arrived in North America, and they hit it out of the park.  I’d say that’s something worth celebrating.

Final Ratings

“Battle Royale” Rating (Theatrical and Director’s): A+
Video Quality: 3.5/5
Audio Quality: 4.5/5

“Battle Royale II: Requiem” Rating: F
Video Quality: 4.5/5
Audio Quality: 4.5/5

Extras Rating: A–

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