Battle Royale: Limited Edition (UK Import) (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: May 17, 2021
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Battle Royale: Limited Edition (UK Import) (4K UHD Review)

Director

Kinji Fukasaku, Kenta Fukasaku

Release Date(s)

2000, 2003 (April 26, 2021)

Studio(s)

Battle Royale Production Committee/Fukasaku Group/TV Asahi/WOWOW/Tokyo FM/Sega/Toei Company (Arrow Video UK)
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: See Below
  • Audio Grade: See Below
  • Extras Grade: A
  • Overall Grade: A

Battle Royale: Limited Edition (UK Import 4K Ultra HD)

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Review

[Editor’s Note: This is a UK import release. The 4K discs are compatible with UHD players worldwide, but the Blu-ray Discs in the package are coded for Region B only.]

Kinji Fukasaku is a name well known to fans of Japanese action cinema. His work—which has had a strong influence on the likes of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino—includes The Green Slime (1968), the yakuza film series Battles Without Honor in Humanity (1973-76), and Message from Space (1978). He also directed portions of Fox’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) after Akira Kurosawa left the project two weeks in.

By his own admission, Fukasaku was fascinated by death. As a teenage boy in 1945, he was drafted by the Japanese military along with his classmates and made to work in a weapons plant. This was subsequently shelled, killing many of his friends. Fukasaku fully expected to die himself until the war suddenly ended, leaving him adrift with the rest of his generation. In the aftermath, Japanese films were banned by the occupying U.S. forces, so Fukasaku watched many foreign cinema instead. He quickly became a fan, went on to study film in Tokyo, and was eventually hired as a scriptwriter and assistant director at Toei Studios.

When his son Kenta discovered Koushun Takami’s controversial Battle Royale in 1999—which was nearly banned by the Japanese government upon its release—Fukasaku read the novel and became engrossed by its story, which brought back his memories of the war. Fukasaku explained as much in a director’s statement released when his film version began circulating on DVD outside Japan:

“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. Up until then, the attacks had been air raids and you had a chance of escaping from those. But with artillery, there was no way out. It was impossible to run or hide from the shells that rained down. 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. I had a great deal of fun working with the 42 teenagers making this film, even though it recalled my own teenage battleground.”

It’s fair then to say that Battle Royale (2000) and Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003) are the culmination of Fukasaku’s life-long exploration of these themes of death, human conflict, and violence.

Set in a dystopian near-future Japan, in which an authoritarian government has passed the “BR Act” to address widespread juvenile delinquency, the first Battle Royale tells the story of middle schooler Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and his classmates, who are surprised to learn that they’ve been selected to fight in the annual Battle Royale. Sent to a remote island under the guise of a field trip, they awake (after having been gassed) in a warehouse under military guard and are told by their old teacher Kitano (played by Takeshi Kitano, aka Beat Takeshi) that they have three days to fight each other to the death... and that only one of them can win. Equipped with a random assortment of weapons, what plays out is a grisly and twisted Lord of the Flies-style fight for survival.

When Battle Royale was originally released—both the book and the film—it was downright shocking. Now, sadly, it almost feels quaint. Teens today have grown up in a world with active-shooter drills in schools, with climate change breathing down their necks, with adults around them arguing about the need to wear masks in a global pandemic, and with some of those adults unable to sort reality from Internet conspiracy. So it’s not hard to imagine why today’s teens might have a little less respect for their elders. Hell, when I was a teenager back in the early 1980s, all I had to worry about was whether or not the Russians loved their children too.

In any case, the film version of Battle Royale is something close to a masterpiece. For one thing, it’s extremely well crafted, smart as hell, even funny. Kitano’s role is darkly comic. (I laugh every time when he claps along with the chipper TV instructor as she tells the students how best to knock each other off.) Meanwhile, the teens themselves are society in microcosm; some are clearly good while others seem to embrace and enjoy the sinister nature of the game they’re forced to play. Even the film’s use of Western classical music (think Strauss, Verdi, and Bach) is subversive. And yes, this film’s similarities to the more recent Hunger Games books make the latter an easy target for criticism. But teen dystopia has become its own entertainment genre since the early aughts. It’s not inconceivable that different writers and filmmakers could have tapped into the zeitgeist in similar ways without consciously being aware of one another.

The original Battle Royale was shot on 35 mm photochemical film using Arriflex 535B cameras with Zeiss and Angenieux spherical lenses, and was finished on film at the 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. For its release on Ultra HD, the original camera negative of the Original Theatrical Version (113:55) was scanned in native 4K by Toei, and was then digitally restored and graded for high dynamic range by Arrow in a process approved by Kenta Fukasaku (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are available on this disc). The result (presented on Disc One for the first time in the correct 1.85 ratio at home) is spectacular. Compared to the previous Anchor Bay Blu-ray release—which often looked washed out, with grayed blacks, and excessive DNR and edge enhancement—the improvement in image detail is absolutely tremendous. Texturing is refined, with a light wash of organic grain. Detail abounds in virtually every shot, save for one very late in the film that’s slightly out of focus as originally photographed. The overall dynamic range is impressive. A good portion of this film takes place at night or in the shadows, yet in those moments blacks are inky but still offer remarkable detail. There’s a shot about 53 minutes into the film in which one of the girls is crossing a cement battlement at sunset. The sky is vivid orange behind her, but the rest of the scene is very dark. Nevertheless, when you look closely in those shadows, there’s plenty of detail visible. Meanwhile, daylight scenes are naturally bright, with bold highlights—almost to the point of being eye-reactive—yet there’s still more detail in the glare as well. The film’s palette is occasionally muted, but when there is color—especially with regard to grass and foliage—it’s vibrant and beautifully nuanced. The HDR10 presentation is excellent, but those of you with Dolby Vision capability will appreciate its benefits, especially in darker scenes. This is essentially a reference-grade image, not a perfect presentation but as close to one as is possible for this film.

Disc Two, meanwhile, presents the Special Edition Director’s Cut (122:01) which runs about 8 minutes longer. It features more elaborate opening credits, slightly edited versions of several scenes, and a number of new flashbacks (mostly to the students’ time in school, including a basketball game, but also to home life and family) that expand upon the character backstories and relationships. These add to the emotional impact of many of the students’ deaths. There’s also a bit more bloodshed (added via CG) and graphic violence. And the film’s ending is extended, featuring three flashback “Requiems” that serve as a final grace note for story points we’ve seen earlier. The changes are better in some ways, but detract in others. (On balance, I prefer the Theatrical Version). It’s worth noting that the Director’s Cut was scanned in 4K from a 35 mm dupe negative, so while the quality is still very good, it’s not quite up to the same level as the first film. Detail is just a little less crisp, with colors just a little bit more uneven.

Lossless sound is available on both discs in the original Japanese in 5.1 and 2.0 in DTS-HD Master Audio format. The soundstage is medium wide across the front, with clean and well-centered dialogue. The score is presented with excellent fidelity, supported by firm and satisfying bass. This isn’t an especially boisterous or dynamic mix, but the surround channels are used for modest but constant ambience and you will hear the occasional directional sound effect in action scenes. Optional English subtitles are included.

Battle Royale: Original Theatrical Version (Film/Video/Audio): A/A/B+
Battle Royale: Special Edition Director’s Cut (Film/Video/Audio): B+/A-/B+

Without giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it, Battle Royale II: Requiem picks up the action three years later and follows another unlucky class of Japanese middle schoolers—including Shiori Kitano (Ai Maeda), the daughter of Beat Takeshi’s character from the original film—who are sent against their will by the Japanese government to attack and destory a group of terrorists hiding on yet another remote island. Known as the Wild Seven, this group is made up of survivors from multiple years of Battle Royales and is led by Shuya Nanahara (played again by Tatsuya Fujiwara), who has declared war against adults everywhere. As you might imagine, prodigious chaos, mayhem, and bloodshed ensues.

Sadly, Requiem—which was to be the final film of Kinji Fukasaku’s career (he directed only a single scene before his untimely death from cancer)—is not particularly good. Kinji and his son certainly deserve points for attempting to make their sequel as provocative as the original, but having the character of Shuya become an Osama bin Laden-like international terrorist figure leading a global children’s crusade was a major misstep, as was symbolically linking them to al-Qaeda. Though conceivably motivated from a story perspective, the concept would have required careful and nuanced writing and direction to pull off, not to mention a story that was far more thoughtful and restrained. The film Kenta ultimately delivered was a heavy-handed and nonsensical Saving Private Ryan knock-off, complete with more grisly action, over-the-top violence, and bad CG effects. In expanding the target of the teen characters’ rage from the authoritarian Japanese government that wronged them to the entire world of adults—a deliberate commentary on the real-life bloodshed happening around the globe at the time—the filmmakers muddied their story and served its characters poorly. As was the case with The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, coincidentally released into theaters around the same time, a bigger and bolder Battle Royale did not unfortunately make for a better one. Instead, the result was just bonkers. It’s also too damn long.

Like the original film, Battle Royale II: Requiem was shot on 35 mm photochemical film using Arriflex 535B cameras with Zeiss and Angenieux spherical lenses, though it appears to have been finished only as a 2K Digital Intermediate at the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. For its inclusion in this box set, both Requiem (the Original Theatrical Version, which runs 132:49) and the longer Revenge Cut (the Special Edition Director’s Cut, which runs about 19 minutes longer at 151:50) were remastered digitally from the original DI and are available here in 1080p HD on separate Blu-rays (Requiem on Disc Three and Revenge on Disc Four).

The Revenge cut—which was originally released in 2009 on DVD only—features more action, an alternate score, extensive use of slow motion, slightly better CG effects, more of Takeshi Kitano’s cameo, and more character flashbacks in general (including an alternate opening that better explains the motivations of the seemingly insane man who forces the teens into battle). It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Kenta Fukasaku thinking that Requiem was too short, but one supposes he can’t be faulted for trying to improve on the film. Unfortunately, any effort to polish a turd only leaves you with a shinier turd—the film’s quality improvements, such as they are, are more than undermined by the runtime.

In any case, the HD image quality certainly isn’t bad, but it pales compared to the original in 4K. Overall detail is a bit muddy looking, with the image having a soft and digitally-processed appearance (it’s likely baked into the original DI). Meanwhile, the SDR color grade has nowhere near the lifelike fidelity and naturalism of HDR. Blacks are sometimes decent, but they’re frequently too gray looking. Highlights are lacking in detail. There’s also an abundance of poor-quality CG effects—some of which have been improved in the Revenge cut, but not enough to make a real difference. The film uses footage that was clearly shot on video as well—particularly in the Afghanistan settings.

Lossless sound is once again available on both discs in the original Japanese in 5.1 and 2.0 in DTS-HD Master Audio format. The soundstage is medium wide across the front, with clean and centered dialogue. The score is presented with excellent fidelity, supported by decent bass. This mix has a little bit more bluster than the original, with more aggressive use of the surround channels in combat sequences (particularly the teens’ “amphibious” lading on the island). Beyond that, the surround channels are used for constant ambience. Optional English subtitles are included.

Battle Royale II: Requiem – Original Theatrical Version (Film/Video/Audio): D/B-/B+
Battle Royale II: Revenge – Special Edition Director’s Cut (Film/Video/Audio): D/B-/B+

[Editor’s Note: Both Discs Three and Disc Four are Region B-locked. However, on Disc Four only, if you press the “Top Menu” button on your remote when you see the region message, you can access the disc’s main menu, from which you can watch the film and all the extras regardless of your player’s region setting. Again, this only works on Disc Four, not Disc Three.]

For those of you who may already own previous editions of these films on disc, the good news is that everything from the 2012 Starz/Anchor Bay Blu-ray has carried over here, as well as all of the extras from the 2010 Arrow Video UK Blu-ray release, and the 2002 Tartan DVD too. That’s virtually all of the special features that have been produced over the years (save for a few items created by Capelight Pictures’ for recent German BD releases). Here’s a disc by disc breakdown of what you get…

DISC 1 – BATTLE ROYALE: ORIGINAL THEATRICAL VERSION (4K UHD)

  • Audio Commentary with Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp
  • Coming of Age: Battle Royale at 20 (HD – 42:25)
  • Bloody Education: Kenta Fukasaku on Battle Royale (HD – 34:59)
  • The Making of Battle Royale: The Experience of 42 High School Students (SD – 50:26)
  • The Slaughter of 42 High School Students (SD – 10:11)
  • Behind the Scenes (SD – 12:12)
  • Filming On Set (SD – 11:03)
  • Conducting Battle Royale with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra (SD – 7:09)

DISC 2 – BATTLE ROYALE: SPECIAL EDITION DIRECTOR’S CUT (4K UHD)

  • Shooting the Special Edition (SD – 8:40)
  • Takeshi Kitano Interview (SD – 11:52)
  • Royale Rehearsals (SD – 7:14)
  • Masamichi Anno Conducts Battle Royale (SD – 9:48)
  • Special Effects Comparison (SD – 4:17)
  • Premiere Press Conference (SD – 12:05)
  • Tokyo International Film Festival Presentation (SD – 4:29)
  • Opening Day at the Marunouchi Toei Movie Theatre (SD – 14:28)
  • The Correct Way to Fight in Battle Royale (SD – 2:37)
  • The Correct Way to Make Battle Royale: Birthday Version (SD – 3:05)
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (SD – 1:50)
  • Special Edition Theatrical Trailer (SD – 1:07)
  • TV Ad #1 (SD – :34)
  • TV Ad #2 (SD – :20)
  • Special Edition TV Ad (SD – :32)
  • Special Edition TV Spot: Tarantino Version (SD – :32)
  • Promo #1 (SD – :16)
  • Promo #2 (SD – :38)
  • Kinji Fukasaku Trailer Reel (SD – 29:41)

DISC 3 – BATTLE ROYALE II: REQUIEM – ORIGINAL THEATRICAL VERSION (REGION B BLU-RAY)

  • Bloody Graduation: Kenta Fukasaku on Battle Royale II (HD – 27:58)
  • Behind the Scenes of Battle Royale II (SD – 13:21)
  • Rehearsals (SD – 7:44)
  • Behind the Scenes Rehearsals (SD – 16:59)
  • War and Struggle (SD – 4:18)
  • The Recording of the Music Score (SD – 11:38)
  • Happy Birthday Kinji (SD – 6:17)
  • Camera Test (SD – 1:34)
  • Alternate Piano Scene (SD – 4:37)
  • Opening Gala with the Orchestra (SD – 17:32)
  • Battle Royale II Premiere (SD – 12:50)
  • Teaser (HD – 1:02)
  • Trailer 1 (HD – 1:35)
  • Trailer 2 (SD – 2:15)
  • Trailer 3 (SD – :48)
  • TV Spot 1 (SD – :20)
  • TV Spot 2 (SD – :22)
  • TV Spot 3 (SD – :22)
  • TV Spot 4 (SD – :18)
  • Image Gallery (HD – 82 images – 8:20 in all)

DISC 4 – BATTLE ROYALE II: REVENGE – SPECIAL EDITION DIRECTOR’S CUT (REGION B BLU-RAY)

  • A Tribute to Kinji Fukasaku (SD – 3:33)
  • Kinji Fukasaku’s 73rd Birthday: A Speech by Kenta Fukasaku (SD – 14:43)

DISC 5 – BATTLE ROYALE OFFICIAL SOUNDTRACK (CD)

  • 23 tracks (44kHz, 16 bit)

Arrow has commissioned several new extras for this release too, starting with an audio commentary for the original Battle Royale by film historians Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp of the excellent Midnight Eye website. They offer an abundance of interesting background information on the director and his long career, as well as production details and context for the film. Coming of Age: Battle Royale at 20 is an excellent retrospective on the film, its impact, and its legacy, featuring cinema critics Kim Newman, Kaori Shoji, Mark Schilling, and Paul Smith, and writer/filmmaker Yoshiki Takahashi. And Bloody Education (on Disc One) and Bloody Graduation (on Disc Three) are brand new interviews with Kenta Fukasaku looking back at both his father’s work on these films as well as his own. These are particularly interesting for the way that Kenta offers insights on his father’s personal history, his reaction to the original novel, and his thoughts on the overall subject of violence. Every bit of this material is well worth your time.

As for the rest of the extras, again this is as comprehensive an archive of previously-created content as any fan could ask for. And the packaging and swag is pretty good too. Each of the discs is packaged in its own cardboard and plastic Mediabook, which then tuck into a sturdy slipcase, all of it adorned with great new cover artwork. There’s a 51-page booklet that includes a list of cast and crew, notes about the transfer and remaster, the same Director’s Statement included above, and four essays on the film (Classroom Chaos: The Millennial Pull of Battle Royale (2020) by Matt Alt, The Doom Generation (2020) by Anne Billson, Today’s Lesson Is… You Kill Each Other (2010) by Jay McRoy, and The Kid Killers: Kinji Fukasaku Interview (2001) by Steve Rose). You also get a 120-page mini hardback book that includes Tom Mes’ excellent Kenji Fukasaku: Man of Rage monograph. Finally, there’s a double-sided poster and a collection of Battle Royale “Trump Cards” which appears to be some sort of card game. Not too bad.

All told, Arrow Video’s new Battle Royale: Limited Edition is a spectacular box set for fans of this film. Their 4K remaster of the original (included in both versions) is worth the price of admission all by itself, plus you get an archive of extras comprehensive enough that you can safely let your old editions go, and you get both versions of the sequel too for completeness’ sake. If you love Battle Royale, Japanese cinema in general, or simply great 4K, this is a must-have import release. Even if you don’t already have an all-region player, the only portion of the set you’ll be region-locked out of is Disc Three (the Battle Royale II theatrical cut). So taken as a whole, this package is very highly recommended.

- Bill Hunt

(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

Battle Royale: Limited Edition (UK Import 4K Ultra HD)

 

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