I was never one to rave about my home theatre set-up, in fact, never had a set-up worth raving about, but all of this has changed since I upgraded my TV to facilitate my studies of various widescreen formats then more recently decided I might as well go the whole hog and get a decent sound system to complement it. Hence my love of Blu-Ray, a format I simply couldn’t see the point of up until little over a year ago.
Blu-Ray’s merits over DVD became immediately apparent as soon as I stuck in the new Arrow Video 3-disc release of Battle Royale, which is officially out on Monday (a Limited Edition Blu-Ray came out on 13 December last year). Jesus, forget about the vast improvement in image clarity, that’s a given, but wow, the sound on this disk! I’m generally not a fan of the type of films that feature a lot of machine guns, helicopters and explosions, but as my subwoofer kicked in, I knew I was in for a good time with one. Earlier this year I posted about some titles I thought looked great on Blu-Ray. Now perhaps its time I started considering how films sound, because it is too rarely mentioned that another area where Blu-Ray is streets ahead of DVD is in the audio department. For example, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a great example of a movie that uses surround sound expressively, and the Blu-Ray is currently going cheap on Amazon. Sound is also the reason why both Black Swan and Enter the Void are going to be must-haves when (or in the case of Noé’s film, perhaps if…) they come out on this superior format.
It therefore goes without saying that the new Arrow Blu-Ray presents the film in the best light I’ve seen it in since first encountering it at Rotterdam Film Festival way back in 2001 – there again, while I caught it a couple of times in the cinema, I never got round to upgrading from my miserably-subtitled, grainy Hong Kong VCD I picked up prior to the UK theatrical run. In fact, I can’t even remember when was the last time I’ve actually watched the film – possibly around the time I was just writing my entry on it for The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film way back in 2003.
For all that, the film does occupy a very special place in my heart, because it was one of the key titles that put Midnight Eye on the map all those years ago. I still remember vividly Tom Mes and I reverently seated in front of a cigar-puffing Kinji Fukasaku at Rotterdam, and while I only managed to get in one question before our allotted time was up, the resulting interview was used heavily in the marketing of the film when it came out here in Britain. I think it might even be included in the 36-page booklet of last December’s Limited Edition release, alongside Tom’s essay “A Battle Without End.”
I’m not going to review the film again here, as enough has been written about it elsewhere over the years (you can check out Tom’s original Midnight Eye review, for example, and my take on the disappointing sequel Battle Royale II). What I will say is that it hit at just the right time to cause maximum impact, and perhaps even more so than Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and Takashi Miike’s Audition, was responsible for the huge boom in Western interest in Japanese film. If, rather than repeatedly plough the same furrow, companies such as Tartan with their Asian Extreme label had been a little more attuned to what people found interesting about Japanese cinema (it wasn’t just the violence, as Third Window Films are plainly proving), this wave of interest might have been sustained.
Still, watching Battle Royale again really brought back memories of how utterly different the film was from anything I’d ever seen before, and just how electrifying those early encounters with the works of Fukasaku, Miike and Sogo Ishii at Rotterdam Film Festival all those years back really were. It is for this reason, however, that at the time I was relatively blind to the film’s faults. Rather like Suspiria, I love Battle Royale unconditionally, but I’m not entirely sure if the film is actually any good.
The most palpable problem is the various loopholes in the script, which during the process of squashing Koushun Takami’s monumental novel of the same name down to size (you can get the English translation here) seems to have overlooked several fundamental rules of basic narrative logic. I still have no idea what actually happens at the end. Of course, you can savour the film’s gung-ho bloodletting action, histrionic performances and pantomime theatrics and ruminate over the allegory without worrying about the finer plot-points that seemingly got lost in translation from page to screen, but at the same time, I think it is interesting that while Western audience were first going ga-ga over this early piece of Asia Extreme, a number of Japanese people I spoke to when I lived in Tokyo about 7 years ago said that the film version was a bitter disappointment compared with the cult hit of the novel. The other problem I now have is Takeshi Kitano and his constant mugging to the camera. When I first saw Battle Royale, I saw Kitano as the genius who’d made A Scene at the Sea, Sonatine and Hana-Bi, not the tragic buffoon with auteurist pretensions who made such lamentable titles as Brother, Dolls and Achilles and the Tortoise. For me, I have to say it, Battle Royale works best for me in the moments when Kitano is offscreen.
But enough negativity. Battle Royale is a huge amount of fun, and certain scenes still send little frissons of pleasure down my spine, particularly those involving the sickle-wielding siren played by Ko Shibasaki. This 3-disc release features both the original theatrical version of the film and the director’s cut that came out in Japan not long after, with added flashback scenes that flesh out several of the main characters. There’s also a plethora of making-of documentaries and other extras, leaving no aspect of the film unturned. It’s basically a must-have for all fans of Japanese cinema, that leaves you wanting for nothing, except…
On 20 Nov 2010, to mark the 10th anniversary of its release, Toei released Battle Royale 3D, the original film converted to 3D by Kinji Fukasaku’s son Kenta (whose previously dabblings in 3D I detailed in this post from exactly a year ago). I’ve no idea if this is getting a proper UK theatrical release, but it did just play at Glasgow Film Festival but a few weeks ago, so we can but pray. Even the most fervent detractors of 3D can’t deny that this sounds a blast!