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Mar 18, 2012

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Ian McDowell

I've been curious how it compares to Koushun Takami's controversial 1998 Japanese novel and Kenji Fukusaku's even more controversial 2000 film BATTLE ROYALE, which some have cited as an influence (although the author denies it). For a long time, rumor had it that post-Columbine concerns were blocking a U.S. release of the Japanese film, which in a fairly unusual move for movies dealing with teens (forced to kill each other or otherwise), casts its ninth grade protagonists with actors barely older than their characters.

The film BATTLE ROYALE takes place in the "near future," but the source novel takes place in an alternate 1998 that seems to belong to that subgenre of Japanese science fiction in which WW2 ended with either a Japanese victory or a draw. The alternate history isn't entirely convincing, as despite living in a world where a fascist Japan has controlled all of Asia since the 40s, the young protagonists use Apple computers and listen to bootleg copies of Springstein's "Born to Run" (quoted at the end of the book).

I enjoyed both the novel and the film. The film is tighter and has a great performance by Takeshi Kaneshiro as the kids' former eighth grade teacher, now working for the government and forcing them to fight to the death on an evacuated island (his equivalent in the novel is a much less nuanced and interesting character) and excellent work by the teenaged actors. The novel is a tad too long and the Alternate History doesn't really hold up, but it does a good job of getting inside the kids' heads and makes the most murderous of the boys far more interesting (in the film he's a mysterious Evil Goth, whereas the book gives him history and motivation). It also features some refreshingly realistic hacking (despite the Apple computers), as opposed to the typical Magic Hacking of the film.

The film (and its much inferior sequel) hasn't had a legitimate US release, but there was an easily available UK DVD that could be cheaply purchased from Amazon and was Region Free. That's now out of print. It comes out on Blu-Ray and DVD in March in a US edition that capitalizes on the popularity of THE HUNGER GAMES. Sadly, while there is a 4-Disk "Complete Collection" that includes both the original theatrical cut and the so-called Director's Cut (as well as the dire sequel and a disk of Bonus Features), the basic one-disk release is the "Director's Cut" only. This, to my mind, is much inferior to the original theatrical release, as it adds way too much unnecessary footage (all of it shot after the film was originally released) and tacks on a redundant 8 minute coda.

The novel was issued here in 2009 from Haika Soru in an excellent translation that remains in print and with an informative introduction by ROAD TO PERDITION's Max Allan Collins. Beware the older US edition from VIZ Publications, which is riddled with typos and badly translated.

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