After contacting my underground sources, I finally procured a copy of the infamous Japanese 2000 film Battle Royale. For those unfamiliar with the story, it concerns a Japan in the near future where an annual national lottery chooses one ninth grade class to go to an island where they are instructed to kill each other until there is only one student left. Here are my thoughts (Spoilers Ahoy!):
1) First off, let's clear up the big rumor: Battle Royale was not banned in the United States. It never made it into theaters here mainly due to money problems (though it must also be said that Columbine probably deterred the big studios in its own way). The movie is available for purchase on DVD in this country, but you cannot rent it through Blockbuster. Apparently, they're giving it the full Last Temptation of Christ treatment.
2) In terms of the controversial content, allow me to compare it to the Brazilian film City of God, which came out two years after this one, was nominated for four Oscars and encountered no controversy when it came out in the US. In that film, we have children children (not just 9th graders as in Battle Royale) running around with guns and shooting each other. Furthermore, City of God has been said to be an accurate portrait of real life in the Rio slums. Yet the over-the-top Japanese future-fantasy film catches all the flack? Not very fair, IMHO.
3) One of the two recognizable faces here for Western audiences is Chiaki Kuriyama, who on the strength of this performance earned the role of Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill. One irony I noticed was that she dies wearing a yellow track suit; precisely the outfit Uma Thurman is wearing when Gogo attacks her in Kill Bill (I know the outfit in Kill Bill is an homage to Bruce Lee, but I don't know if that's the same intention in Battle Royale).
4) The other actor I recognized was Takeshi Kitano, who starred in Brother. I read that in 1995, he was in a motorcycle accident that resulted in major reconstructive surgery to his face. As a result, he has very little facial movement, which he has used to his great advantage in his portrayal as poker-faced killers. Much the same here, though he showcases a lot more humor here than in Brother.
5) My favorite subplot concerned the three hackers (well, one hacker and his two gofers, actually). And though I knew they were all probably doomed, I loved how their own narrative threads ended. They certainly died much better deaths than some of their classmates.
6) Each student is issued a supply pack with a random weapon inside. The filmmakers seriously stacked the deck against our two lovesick protagonists by giving them the two of the most pathetic: Binoculars and a pot lid. Actually, the psycho kid Kiriyama also gets gypped with what appears to be a paper fan, but he's badass enough to find real weaponry in no time flat. My favorite "weapon", though, was the GPS that could track the movements of all other players. If I was in this game, that's the one I would want. In the words of Robert Duvall: DE-FENCE!
7) And speaking of Kiriyama, the first weapon he absconds is a machine gun. I can't remember the last time I saw such a blatant case of "unlimited ammo" as with this guy's weapon.
8) The biggest gaping plot hole is one that most people won't think about until afterwords. Despite the fact that the Battle Royale was initiated through an act of government, is broadcast in major media, and has been going on for at least three years now, the class is completely ignorant of it's existence. It's as if they lifted a class from real life Japan and dropped them in the film. This ignorance is solely for dramatic purposes, of course. The most memorable bit in the film is during their indoctrination when they are graphically shown the procedures of the game. You can feel the terror and panic in the dingy faux-classroom where their contest begins.
9) What bugged me during the film was not the ignorance of the students, but the lack of actual juvenile delinquency, which is supposed to be the impetus to the Battle Royale in the first place. Aside from one scene where the teacher is stabbed in the butt (and even that looks like an accident), we see no evidence of such youth out of control. Even given the possibility that the lottery on this particular occasion chose a rather benign class (and their behavior on the bus and in the basketball game flashback seems to confirm that), the film could have at least included some footage of other schools throughout the country where the kids are out of control. Something like the opening sequence of Lean on Me would have been perfect.
10) And, finally, my review: Pretty damn good. The film is gorgeous to look at, the young actors are uniformly solid with such difficult material, and the story will suck you in. Definitely recommended (if you can find a copy, that is).