In a broken world not unlike our own, the state corrals a group of teenagers into a tightly controlled terrain and compels them to murder one another with an assortment of weapons until there’s a sole survivor. Such is the plot of Hollywood’s second-highest-grossing film of 2012, but also of a 12-year-old genre mash-up from Japan, which receives its belated theatrical premiere just in time to stoke side-by-side comparisons. (Author Suzanne Collins says she encountered 2000’s Battle Royale only after completing The Hunger Games, published in 2008.) Yet pitting one apocalyptic teen-massacre exploitation against the other tends to break down into biases of taste and gender: Where the American product gets branded as self-serious, melodramatic, and soft on violence—read: feminine—Battle Royale is celebrated for its dark humor and unrestrained brutality.
But just because he’s more willing to show schoolkids axing one another in the head (or knifing groins or crossbowing backs), Battle writer-director Kinji Fukasaku is no less savvy about sentimentality. His genius is finding the overlap between teenage dreams and nightmares, between the intensity of first love and the terror of extinction. “You’re so cute,” a boy confesses to the girl who just shot him in the chest, while another coed shrugs away her sudden bloodthirstiness: “Why not kill? Everyone has their issues.”
After a masterful establishing scene in which former teacher Mr. Kitano (an exquisitely self-parodying Takeshi Kitano) lectures on the rules of engagement, Fukasaku’s narrative jerks forth in rhyme with the action, inserting schmaltzy flashbacks for previously underdeveloped characters right before wasting them away—nastiness corrects naïveté, sadism overwhelms sentiment. (Kills are counted down on-screen, literalizing our march toward ultimate satisfaction.) Masamichi Amano’s swollen-stringed romantic score, set against the ultra-violence, might be the film’s most perverse play. It may suit a certain worldview, but Battle Royale‘s cynicism is still a form of fantasy—a balm as well as a bomb.