Imagine this: a country is run by a totalitarian government, which occasionally selects groups of teenagers to methodically kill each other. On TV. Until only one remains.
"The Hunger Games"? No, actually it's "Battle Royale," a bloody and harrowing movie that came out several years earlier, depicting an alternate Japan where the youth are forced to kill each other. It's one of those movies that is strangely fascinating and filled with social commentary, with brilliant performances from pretty much everyone concerned.
A class of high-schoolers are being transported on a bus, when they are gassed to unconsciousness. When they awake, they have electronic collars around their necks. A former teacher named Kitano explains that they have been chosen for the B.R. ("Battle Royale") Act, wherein teenagers are forced to fight each other to the death until only one is left standing.
If you don't play, try to escape, refuse to kill or stray into a "death zone," the collars explode. Each teenager is given food, water and a random item, and are set loose on a remote island.
It doesn't take long for them to fall prey to suicide, paranoia, bombs and one student's brilliant efforts to hack the system. As the teens slowly weed each other out, Shuya Nanahara and his girlfriend Noriko try to find a way out that doesn't involve death. But if they refuse to kill, then they must escape the fascist nightmare... which no one has done before.
"Battle Royale" (both the novel and the movie) was condemned in Japan for being so violent, and having a bunch of normal high schoolers killing each other off. But "Battle Royale" would have been striking even if it hadn't been publicized like that -- not only is it viscerally fascinating, but it asks the question straight-out: how much will people do to survive? Who would you kill to live?
It also seems to be a story about how governments will oppress innocent people in response to the brutality of a few. However, the movie avoids any outright preaching -- instead it uncoils a tense plot, peppered with bursts of bloody violence, sexual assault and murder. There's a wild, frenetic energy to the story, and director Kinji Fukasaku unleashes it through every cold, bloodspattered scene.
Fun trivia: Fukasaku actually lived through something almost as cold-blooded during World War II, when he saw children having to hide from bombs under EACH OTHER. The survivors had to clear away the corpses.
Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda really give outstanding performances in this story as nice, normal, everyday kids like the ones who live down the street, but suddenly they're faced with their friends and classmates... wanting to kill them. Takeshi Kitano gives a bloodcurdlingly creepy performance as Kitano, who is nevertheless given plenty of fleshing-out (such as a fondness for one of the students).
Violent, creepy and wonderfully atmospheric, "Battle Royale" is a brilliant cult movie that takes a look at how far people will go to stay alive. Absolutely brilliant.