A second review requested by Chris D, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

First, shame on me. I've known for years that seeing Battle Royale was a thing I certainly ought to do, and I've had access to it for a number of those years, even during the dark times when it was officially impossible to come by it in America. And for whatever reason, I never got around to pulling the trigger on watching it. Little did I know what I was missing: a multifaceted metaphor satirising the way that teenagers are treated by adults and each other in Japan and throughout the whole world hiding (but only barely) inside the skin of a rollicking exploitation film that holds nothing back in its depiction of violent acts. All told it adds up to maybe the best film about high school that I've ever seen - certainly the most conceptually and stylistically audacious, anyway.

Quickly adapted from a 1999 novel by Takami Koushun, the 2000 movie was written by Fukasaku Kenta, and directed by his father, the great Fukasaku Kinji, who was never to complete another feature before dying at the age of 72. It's not exactly a characteristic film for Fukasaku pรจre, best-known for his '70s gangster films (and, to a certain audience, for his attempt to oversee the giddy, impossible Japanese-American sci-fi horror film The Green Slime, a 1968 multilingual train wreck that probably couldn't have been made into an effective motion picture by anybody), though the strength of his earlier work turns out to be the strength of Battle Royale also: intense commitment and untrammeled energy. You would never suspect that a 70-year-old man made this film: it positively hums with youthful lust and rage, as invested in the violent robustness of adolescence as any film this side of if....

The hook of Battle Royale is known so much more than the film itself that I wonder if I even to repeat it. But here it is anyway: at some point, owing to widespread student disobedience verging on flat-out revolution, the Japanese government enacted legislation popularly known as the "Battle Royale Act". What this precisely is and why it was put into practice are issues the film doesn't quite manages to cover - probably the only real flaw of note I can come up with - but it's easy enough to describe the effect: entire high school classes are scooped up and dumped in isolated locations. Hhere they are fitted with collars that have a small explosive charge just in the right place to rip a huge hole in the jugular, and told that they have to fight to the death. For the benefit of any pacifists, there's an additional rule: after three and a half days, if more than one student is still alive, all of those collars will be triggered. The overlap with the scenario of the book and movie versions of The Hunger Games are self-evident, though with the important caveat that Battle Royale is more thematically tight and focused and intentional, more willing to stare its concept in the face.

This, then, is the situation in which the 42 members of class 3-B find themselves about a year after an unfortunate incident where the whole class rebelled against the authority of teacher Kitano (Kitano "Beat" Takeshi), in an unfortunate incident that left him with a knife wound in the thigh. Now retired, Kitano is in charge of running the Battle Royale event for the 3-B kids, and his enthusiasm at the chance of using the official levers of power to get revenge on the kids is just one of the many means by which Battle Royale lands a few well-aimed satiric punches (about the banal evil of bureaucrats, that old chestnut; but still true). As for the students, we get to meat nearly all of the 42 students, some for only a few seconds, but a handful are clearly set up to be primarily important: Nanahara Shuya (Fujiwara Tatsuya), whose best friend was the demonstration subject for the exploding collars during the introduction to the battle; Nakagawa Noriko (Maeda Aki), the sole "Nice Student" in the class; Mimura Shinji (Tsukamoto Takashi), a computer expert who thinks he can hack into the Battle Royale system itself; and Souma Mitsuko (Shibasaki Ko), who is alone in not merely being okay with killing her classmates off, this seems to be an opportunity she's waited on for years. There are also two transfer students: the unspeaking Kiriyama Kazuo (Ando Masanobu), who's at least as good at killing as Mitsuko is, and Kawada Shogo (Yamamoto Taro), a keen strategist with a good sense of humor and a unique history with the Battle Royale system that makes him a valuable ally and possible source of hope.

The cast is indelibly etched: Shuya and Noriko especially, but there's no end, really to the number of finely-honed characters we meet in Battle Royale, including quite a few I didn't mention. Ever since its blockbuster first run in Japan, when it enraged the government and met with no end of rhetorical censure (though never actual censorship), the film's reputation has been entirely about its damnably visceral gore effects, particular in connection with the fact that nearly all of the bodies we see getting ripped apart, or otherwise having the life taken out of them, belong to 15-year-old characters and in many cases 15-year old actors. That's fair on both the counts of age-related cruelty and the enormous quantity of stage blood on display: this is a massively violent film, and I don't know that it entirely manages to avoid being celebratory. All that being said, the focus on violence shortchanges the movie fierce: this is an ensemble character piece first and foremost, more Nashville than Friday the 13th. These characters are vivid psychological actors, with conflicting personalities and elaborate internal narratives that we only imperfectly get to see as they all jostle together.

What Battle Royale does, in fact, is to take the torments and psychodramas and nervous sexual energy and sense of devil-may-care optimism of early high school, and drop it into a fantastic context so that its stands out more strongly through unfamiliarity. A metaphor, I called it and in part I had in mind that it was a metaphor for the interpersonal war zone of school, but even "metaphor" is overstating things: really, it's just a transposition of the exact circumstances of school into a violent battleground, heightening the incongruities that are already there. Metaphor is still part of it: a metaphor for any government that tries to over-legislate its way to healthy, well-ordered teenagers, and a metaphor for the very specific educational system of Japan, with so much more urgent, neverending stakes than the average Western student will ever know. But the beating heart of the movie is too real to be subsumed into a literary device.

It is clear, at any rate, that Fukasaku loves and admires teenagers (he spoke before is death of a formative event during World War II, in which he learned never to trust an adult, and how it influenced his treatment of Battle Royale). That is the thing I was not expecting of the film at all: that it would spend so much time slowing down and switching into close-up to learn as much as it can about the characters and their very teenaged way of thinking through things - idiot sacrifice in the name of puppy love is a trope that shows up more than once - from a position of absolute affection for them. The movie is, at any point, juggling quite a few elements, including a population of flashbacks that explain at key moments why this character or that makes the choices they do, incredibly proficient high-speed editing by Abe Hirohide, that makes the violence feel even more disruptive. But with all that it has going on, it never tries to move past the character drama faster than is wanted.

It's for that exact reason that Battle Royale is so effective as an over-the-top exercise in gore: it has made us invest, deeply, in the characters' lives. This means that when they die, we feel it profoundly. And just in case we don't, Fukasaku throws out one final trick: every death is accompanied by a title card reminding us briefly that this person had an identity, while also coldly reminding us of the number of deaths yet to come. It is a film entirely about the human cost of violence, and this is true even of the most enthusiastic displays of violence: there's nothing cartoony or absurd in any of it, just the very detailed and horribly imaginative depiction of what would happen to a real human body when this kind of punishment is doled out. It doesn't even need to be hyper-gory violence: one of the film's most deeply affecting scenes finds a quintet of students, having formed a cohesive bond of mutual protection, turn on each other almost entirely by accident, until there's not a one of them left. That's where Battle Royale is at its strongest: when it can make us feel, through all of the splashes of stage blood, the simple act of being human, with the attendant desire to be alive and unharmed as much as possible. The scene of scared girls overreacting and massacring themselves in pure fear, the sad suicide pact near the beginning of the battle, the look of disappointed shock on so many faces in the moment they realise they're dead; in different ways, these all get to the heart of the film, which is its righteous anger at seeing adolescent life cut short or even just needlessly constrained and corralled by rules and the pettiness of adults. It's a very special film, one whose genre trappings, though essential, obscure how universal it truly is.

NB: There are two cuts of the film: the 2000 theatrical cut, and a special edition with eight extra minutes of footage shot following the film's titanic box office run. Other than a flashback which gives Mitsuko a surprisingly sympathetic backstory right at the moment we least expect to ever sympathise with her, the extended version consists mostly of window dressing, and I'd be inclined to say that the version worthier of viewing is the version that comes to hand easier.