How 'Battle Royale' Became a Cult Hit and Capitalized on 'The Hunger Games'

Twelve years after its Japanese release, the action flick arrives in the U.S. at a fortuitous moment.

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Toei Company

For years, it's been easier to buy a t-shirt for Kinji Fukasaku's blood-soaked drama Battle Royale than it's been to legally see the movie in America. Never officially released in the U.S., the 12-year-old Japanese film has only appeared here in special theatrical showings a decade apart—plus on Netflix, Amazon, and cruddy VHS tapes.

All that changes today, when Anchor Bay releases the film for the first time ever on DVD in the U.S, including in a 4-Blu-Ray/DVD package with the theatrical and director's cuts, the more politically provocative sequel Battle Royale II, and a bonus disc of documentaries and ephemera. The elaborate extras signal a clear bid to capitalize on the film's fervent stateside fan base. "I've been seeing [Battle Royale] T-shirts at ComicCon for 10 years," says Anchor Bay executive director of marketing Kevin Carney. "So the wider horror/manga/comic demo is aware of the film. Even if they might not have seen it, they know of it."

"Our release strategy is extremely focused around the anticipation for 'The Hunger Games,'" says an Anchor Bay rep.

Indeed, Battle Royale's fame, when compared to similar films, is unmatched. There were a number of equally remarkable Japanese movies made within a few years of Battle Royale, such as Takeshi Kitano's Hana-bi and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse. No one has released 4-Blu-Ray sets of them, and today they remain largely forgotten here. Why has Battle Royale lived on?

Part of the answer may lie in its aura of outlaw chic. The movie depicts near-future dystopia in which a dictatorial Japan controls its rebellious youth by selecting a high school class, sending it to an island, and forcing the students to kill one other. Released in 2000, it made an instant impact in Japan, where it was banned to children under 15. There's been a persistent rumor that Battle Royale was officially banned by the U.S. government as well. This is nonsense, but even Anchor Bay's press release alludes to it, although it blames "civic groups" for keeping the film off the American market.

Untrue as they may be, rumors of U.S. censorship are telling. Fans want to believe there's something dangerous about the movie. New York Asian Film Festival programmer Grady Hendrix says he's seen the phenomenon before. "Just like saying 'banned in China' helps a small art film, saying 'banned' helps raise interest," he says. "We've done it for the festival. People want to see things they're not supposed to see. It's smart marketing." In the case of Battle Royale, the fans themselves did most of this marketing.

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Steve Erickson is a freelance writer who lives in New York. He has written for Gay City News, The Nashville Scene, Film Comment, the Tribeca Film Festival's website, Fandor's blog, and elsewhere.

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