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

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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.

And why shouldn't they? It's a good movie. The plot plays out like William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies in reverse, in that relatively innocent teenagers are forced by adults to commit violence. Despite the sci-fi trappings, Fukasaku based it on his experiences as a teenage soldier during World War II. The film's depiction of adolescents is fairly realistic, showing them forming emotional bonds minutes before turning on each other. One imagines that its youthful audience can picture themselves in its characters' shoes.

Battle Royale's story originated as a novel by Koushun Takami and has also been adapted into a manga. Its various authors excelled at creating a world that's both frightening and seductive. In turn, fan fiction sites have proliferated online; one offers an American-set rewrite of the story. Hendrix sees this as a fitting tribute to Fukasaku, who made Battle Royale at age 70. "He wanted his last film to have legs," Hendrix says. "It's great that people have that kind of relationship with the movie. He wanted to make a film that could compete with video games and television and appeal to teenagers."

Many have speculated that Battle Royale's influence extended to Suzanne Collins, author of the popular novel The Hunger Games, which also depicts teenagers being forced to kill each other under a tyrannical government. For her part, Collins swears innocence. It's true that the basic plot extends as far back as The Most Dangerous Game, made in 1932; Battle Royale's innovation was staging the murderous "game" with teenagers.

Anchor Bay is consciously capitalizing on the release on the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. "I enjoyed the [The Hunger Games] novel and genuinely hope the films do well, but it obviously was influenced by Battle Royale," Carney says. "So our release strategy is extremely focused around the anticipation for The Hunger Games, especially for the single disc release. The core fan-base is already well-aware of the 4-disc box set as pre-orders have been strong since we announced, whereas the single disc version is being targeted specifically towards fans of the new franchise. The DVD artwork focuses on two characters with weapons, similar to some of the Hunger Games key art"

Which means that now that The Hunger Games has brought dystopia to our shores, it's possible that the American cult audience for Battle Royale has only begun forming.

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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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