So…how was Divergent?

Extended version on Youtube for $2.99.

At the dawn of the millennium, the nation collapsed. Unemployment and juvenile crime has threatened to bring chaos to the country. Adults have all but given up on this scary new generation and the government has responded by passing the Millennium Educational Reform Act, otherwise known as the BR Act. What is that? Well…

Class B is on a bus, taking a field trip to somewhere. These forty ninth graders are playing around, and only a couple people seem to notice how many military personnel that they seem to pass. When the bus enters a long tunnel, all of the students and the teacher get put under with sleeping gas. They wake up in some classroom in some school in who knows where with collars around their necks. Even though the lights are not on yet, almost all of the kids immediately notice two tough-looking older kids lounging around in the back of the room. Suddenly, a helicopter lands outside, and into the classroom comes several troops accompanying Mr. Kitano, a former teacher to Class B when they were in 7th grade. Kitano had quit the school after a) having at least one day when all but one student (Noriko) boycotted school and b) get slashed in the back of the leg with a knife by another student named Nobu. Suffice to say, the kids are as shocked to see him as they are at everything else.

The first thing that Kitano does is to point out the two “transfer students”, Kawada and Kiriyama. Then he gets down to business. He asks them whether they know about the BR Act. They are all silent, whether this is out of sheer ignorance or disbelief that it applies to them makes little difference to him. A few of the kids get defiant, but he shuts them down, and then decides to intimidate Nobu for a bit before returning to his speech. He claims that kids like Nobu have turned the country into a total wreck, and the result of that was the law that called for a Battle Royale. Each year, a class of students is (in theory) randomly selected to get sent to a remote location where they are forced to engage each other in a free-for-all battle until only one is left alive. The collars on their necks will explode if they try to escape, if they enter the designated “forbidden zones”, or if two or more students are alive at the end of three days.

In order to emphasize the seriousness of their situation, Kitano brings in their current teacher…with a bullet in his eye. Apparently, the man had expressed disapproval of the selection of Class B. Then the students have to watch this rather morbidly chipper video where a woman explains the setup of the game. During that time, Kitano throws a knife at one of the girls for talking during the presentation. The kids run around in terror and the troops fire warning shots, one of which hits Noriko in the arm. Nobu lunges at Kitano, and Kitano slashes him the back of the leg with the same knife. And then, later on, when Nobu acts disruptive again, Kitano activates his collar. Nobu runs around for about twenty seconds as the others push him away before the front of his neck explodes. Nobu’s best friend, Shuya, tries to attack Kitano, but his other friends hold him back. A few other troops enter the room with a rack of bags, two for each student: one bag contains a weapon and supplies while the other contains personal items. Each student is designated a number (21 male and 21 female) and exit the school one at a time.

Shuya is Boy 15. He tells Noriko (Girl 15) that he will wait for her when she comes out. Things are not that simple, however, as he notices Mayumi, the girl who left just before he did, walking towards him with an arrow stuck through her neck. Suddenly, he sees Yoshio (Boy 1) running towards him with a crossbow. Shuya manages to throw his flashlight right at Yoshio just as Noriko comes along, and they run off before Yoshio can get back up. As Yoshio desperately tries to get his bearings, along comes Kazushi (Boy 16), who notices the crossbow on the ground. Yoshio lunges at him and Kazushi shoots him with an arrow. Two are already dead. The game is on.

So, that story sounds pretty bleak. And the movie does not shy away from the bleakness. On the other hand, this is not super serious like the Osama film was. This is fun, somewhat campy, somewhat hyper-realistic, a bit over the top, and occasionally surreal. If you are into this sort of stuff, you may have a good time.

This movie was quite controversial when it came out. Despite not being quite as gory as a lot of other movies, Japanese or otherwise (honestly, the thing in the movie that I found to be the most disturbing was this rather unrealistic and amateur-looking picture depicting the kids killing each other), the idea that these were teenagers killing teenagers was a bit too much. Even the official DVD that I have made pains to point out in the beginning of the movie that it was not meant for people under the age of fifteen, most likely against the director’s wishes. Nevertheless, this became a huge hit in Japan and a cult classic in other countries, including the United States. There was a rumor that this movie was banned in the United States due to the Columbine High School Massacre that took place not even two years before its Japanese release. That was untrue, but the movie did not get an official American release for over a decade. What happened a decade later? The Hunger Games movie happened a decade later.

A warning right now, pretty much all of the rest of this (rather long) post will involve me comparing the Battle Royale movie to other things. My thoughts on the movie will be interspersed with these comparisons. I will try to refrain from spoiling anything as much as possible, but I may imply a few things, as I usually do.

There has been a lot of ink spilled about how The Hunger Games was a rip-off of Battle Royale and, yes, there are similarities. There have been previous stories about a group of people having to kill each other off until only one is left, but not really with kids. A few key differences separate Battle Royale from The Hunger Games. One main difference is that the concept of Running Man-style bread and circus reality television that forms the backbone of The Hunger Games is completely absent from Battle Royale. The movie starts with a news report showing the winner of a previous game returning to land, bloodied and smiling; the reporter knows pretty much nothing about her. The entire program happens in secret, with only a few civilians outside of the students being informed of what is going on. In contrast, everyone can see everything that is going on with the contestants in The Hunger Games. A second difference is the contestants. In The Hunger Games, there are twenty-four kids of varying ages from twelve different areas of the country. The contestants from the same “districts” might know each other and they may get to know the contestants from other districts during training, though. In contrast, the contestants in Battle Royale come from a single classroom (I will get to the exceptions later on), so they already know each other and, aside from the initial time for instructions, there is no training whatsoever. Sure, the first student to be killed in the Battle Royale game proper gets an arrow through the neck, but none of those kids really knows how to shoot that thing. A third main difference is the perspective of the stories. In The Hunger Games, the story is told and seen almost completely from the perspective of the main character, so many deaths and other activities are only heard, implied, or recounted after the fact. While it is pretty easy early on to determine that Shuya and Noriko are the main characters in Battle Royale, the story switches between several characters, sometimes only to show them when they kill and/or die, but not always. A fourth difference is the lack of seemingly supernatural elements in Battle Royale; the dogs with human faces was all Suzanne Collins. So while it is easy to call The Hunger Games a Battle Royale rip-off, I do not consider that a fair assessment. Fair or not, though, there probably would not have been an official American version of Battle Royale without The Hunger Games movie.

Also, there were actually a whole lot of love trianglesque backstories in Battle Royale, but they did not threaten to hijack the storyline.

Just like The Hunger Games, Battle Royale was originally a book. Originally completed in 1996, Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale was not published until April of 1999, the month of the Columbine Massacre. And while a lot of Japanese movies are based on books, I actually read this one. All 576 pages. Granted, I read it for the first time only a couple of years ago and saw the movie for the first time back in…I actually don’t remember when, where, how, or why I watched this movie. In any case, just like any film adaptation of books, there are several differences between the book and movie versions of Battle Royale. I consider many of the differences to be rather insignificant, but there are a few that I feel need to be pointed out, even some of them are not actually integral to the plot. Now, since I watched the movie before reading the book, my personal fondness for the movie is greater, but I still think that some of the changes in the movie were actually positive.

The first main difference is in world-building. The world of the book is this Republic of Greater East Asia, which is Japan and China and maybe Korea and maybe other countries. It appears as if Imperial Japan was victorious in World War II, though it has gotten replaced by some “anti-Imperialist” fascist dictatorship. Some pseudo-1984 stuff that may work well for teen dystopian fiction. While this being a brutal dictatorship is brought up a lot, the two main things that I could get out of the book is that it is brutal and rock music is banned. Seriously, there is so much talk about rock music and how Shuya plays the guitar and it is really annoying. I guess that a “fascist dictatorship outlaws rock music and crushes individualism” type of dystopia may have appealed to Japanese kids back in 2000, but it annoyed me. The movie does away with all of this by saying that society is on the verge of collapse with the youth running wild. Granted, the details here are rather fuzzy as well, and what the movie shows of the outside world does not seem wholly bad. Still, I think that I prefer the movie’s version of the world, particularly when it comes to the reasoning behind the Battle Royale Program.

In the book, the program, which has been going on since 1947, is supposedly there to create tough soldiers who will be loyal to the nation and whatnot. Apparently, no one has been able to successfully point out how incredibly inefficient and unreliable this method is and survive. It is actually there to make it so that kids (and adults) will be unable to form tight bonds with each other and, thus, will be unable to band together and overthrow the government. Honestly, I think that The Hunger Games did a better job with this. In the Battle Royale movie, the rationalization for the BR Program was basically “screw the kids”, the adults had basically had it and this was just a way punish them in the cruelest way possible. There is no ideology or endgame. It is desperation and pure hatred. On the other hand, the characters in the book did seem to know the bare basics of the program (since most of it was secret), but they just figured that the odds were ever in their favor that their class would not get picked, since there were so many from which to choose. In the movie, there is a clear (though not entirely definite) possibility that they all had no idea what it was at all.

A second major change is the character of Kitano. In the book, he is actually just some government employee and former (I think?) schoolteacher named Kinpatsu Sakamochi, a parody on the kindly teacher Kinpachi Sakamoto from the long-running show Kinpachi-sensei. He doesn’t know the kids and is rather vile and sadistic. The movie pretty much retooled the character and named him after the actor who played him, Takeshi Kitano. Kitano knew the students and has certain opinions on a few of them. He is a character of hatred and resentment, but also loneliness and regret. Whether he had a hand in selecting Class B is unclear. Whereas Sakamochi uses his responsibilities as an excuses for horrible behavior towards these nobodies, Kitano is slightly more nuanced, particular towards the end.

Like with many movies that are based on novels, backstory and characterization get sacrificed for time or outright altered for narrative purposes. Most of the time, this is seen as a bad thing, but I see it as a mixed bag for Battle Royale. I was never fond with the idea of the two “transfer students” in the movie, having these characters who had nothing to do with the class ending up driving so much of the storyline. It turns out that, in the book, only one of them was a transfer student, and he was transferred into the class around a month earlier, not the day of the program. Granted, the movie does say that this hardly the first time that people were “transferred” into the class for a Battle Royale, but it seemed to me like a cheat, especially when the two students looked to be significantly older than the actual kids in the class. To be fair, though, their counterparts in the book were also kind of a cheat too, being what seem like abnormal cases. I think that my main problem was the idea of them being transferred in the day of rather than their backstories. Ultimately, though, this is rendered moot by the thematic hypothetical question: what would you do in this situation? What would you do to survive? How would you cope? Would you hide out? Would you commit suicide? Would you plead for peace? Would try to fight back against the game? Would you try to kill the classmates who did you wrong? Would you kill anyone? Would you kill everyone? Would you turn crazy or paralyzed by fear? And then there are the questions that are more applicable to the teenage readers or viewers. How much do you know about the people you know? Has the super-competitive nature in society gone too far? How are you going to cope with what the adult world throws at you? Why do adults force all of these responsibilities upon you while still treating you as mere kids? Does it seem as if they do not understand you or value you at all?

One thing that I did like about the movie version of Kawada was the mysteries behind his actions. The backstory was changed a bit (I was not too fond of a certain change involving his girlfriend, but maybe it had some symbolic meaning), but most of it was dumped to keep him mysterious. That leads to some ambiguity in a certain part of the plot that could be frustrating to viewers, but I kind of liked it. Really, though, the one thing that I truly preferred in the movie version was his explanation of how he knew how to do things. He claims on multiple occasions that he picked up certain skills from his father. Each time, he says that his father had a different occupation. It is unclear why he lied and I guess that it just adds to his mystery, but the point is that he gives credit to his father, even where credit may not necessarily be due.

This is a point that the movie emphasizes more than the book does: the relationship between the kids and the adults (mostly relatives) in their lives. The relationship with one boy and his uncle that was in the book is pretty much maintained in the movie. Shuya’s backstory with his parents is completely reworked. For better or worse, these kids are the products of the previous generation. The BR Act either failed or refused to acknowledge the influence that the adults had on the kids, the responsibility that the adults had in the behavior of the kids, and the good that still remained in that generation. Yes, a lot of the kids were bad and hated adults, but not all of them. It is not simply a matter of blaming an entire generation for the problems of society, especially if the generation doing the blaming raised the generation being blamed. The book seems to have a society that treats kids like meat due to sheer cruelty and a means of maintaining complete control. The movie has a society that fears and misunderstands kids, treats them as a problem, and wants to punish them for the wrong reasons. Both are valid premises; in this case, I prefer the latter. Maybe it is just that the former has become kind of hackneyed by this point.

For other characters, editing down their backstories and character arcs is bad, but sometimes good. Sure, hearing more of the inner monologues would have been nice. On the other hand, half of the characters seem to be the best at something or the most popular amongst these people. Apparently, Shuya was really popular amongst the girls, but he was utterly oblivious to this. The movie tones that down considerably. While many of the characters are not all that believable, most of them are only slightly off or slightly heightened. This allows for the satirical nature of the story to still have bite and the metaphorical stuff to shine through. Also, the book had one particularly eyebrow-raising depiction of a homosexual and a not all that funny depiction of a total nutcase; both of which were absent in the movie.

The movie also tones down a lot of the sexual stuff. In the book, there is a character whom Shuya and Nobu were close to and the end of her storyline was her getting raped by Sakamochi. There is actually quite a bit of sexual stuff in the novel, most of which I found to be more lurid than anything. The movie keeps very little of the sexual stuff, a couple references to prostitution, some very chaste innuendo, a couple attempted rape scenes, and one implied aftermath of a scene from the book that I am glad got edited out. I don’t know if that makes me prudish, but I think that the movie did enough on that front. Any more would have been a distraction.

One thing that I did not quite understand in the movie was a particular scene where Shuya and Noriko are attacked out of nowhere early on. It is a pivotal scene that sets up other events down the line, but the beginning seemed strange to me. The book paints a completely different scenario; the attacker does not just surprise them, but has a bit of standoff with Shuya before attacking. Most importantly, Shuya has a knife and reflexively moves his hand near it, which may or may not have provoked the other person. In the movie, Shuya has a pot lid, which he has to use as a shield during the fight. While the outcome of the fight is the same, the movie leaves pretty much no room for ambiguity over the level of Shuya’s guilt over that fight. Also, the movie has a character spouting off mathematics stuff that comes off as really silly; I don’t believe that the character in the book spoke then. Was that an attempt at making up for lost characterization or an attempt at humor? In any case, the book wins on both counts. I don’t know why the movie changed the setup to the fight, but I dislike it.

Finally (okay, not finally, but I don’t want to go further with this), the movie tended to tone down who how articulate or how badass many of the characters were. This is a bad thing, but it is also good. It was nice reading the characters strategize, use psychological tricks and analyses, size up other students, rationalize their behavior, negotiate with each other, and all of that. Yet, they were kids. I am not saying that they were too smart for this, but they seemed to be too level-headed in speaking, even the crazed ones. I think that the movie did better in leaving things unsaid. Similarly, some of the really cool action sequences in the book were edited down or excised completely in the movie. That is unfortunate from an awesomeness standpoint, but the movie was already over-the-top and campy. Painting these kids as superhuman would be a step too far. The Hunger Games gave the contestants time to train (some more than others) and sets up the main character as having hunted with a bow. Battle Royale did not have that excuse. Both this toning down of the awesomeness and articulation led to an ending sequence that could strike Westerners as a bit strange. When compared to the completely unbelievable sequence in the book, which spells out the entire thing, I guess that I prefer the movie version. While some of the kids seem to be ridiculously skilled at something or stupid or insane, they come across as actual kids, and as actual people. Not superheroes or supervillains with crazy backstories, but people. Even the evil Kitano seems like a genuine person. This makes the hypothetical “what would you do” seem a little more applicable, even if the scenario is still farfetched. It is not a matter of what would you do if you were a martial arts expert or the best at everything or were a child prostitute; it is a matter of what would you do in a situation like this? So, while the movie took some liberties with the book that I did not particularly like, overall, I prefer the movie.

There is also a manga series based on the novel, and its first volume was published slightly before the movie was released. It is more faithful to the novel than the movie is and has much more details. I have heard a claim that it is nearly unheard of for people to like both the manga and the movie. I don’t know if that is true, but I could not stand the manga. I am not a huge manga reader, but I found the art to be really bad. The good kids looked really good, the bad kids looked really bad, and many of the kids looked like adults. The movie had a few problems with this, but most of the characters actually looked like they were 14 or 15 because most of them actually were. The manga’s depiction of what teenagers looked like immediately took me out of the story. Well, at least they were not a bunch of Lolitas or whatever. The manga took the opposite tactic that the movie did in terms of the violence, the sexual stuff, and the superhumanity of the characters. Yes, the movie was also unbelievably cheesy and over-the-top at times, but not enough to completely take me out of the experience of absorbing a story with (at least somewhat) believable characters. The manga was larger than life, fantastical, and repellant. While this may be similar to the moralistic condemnations that plagued the movie, I have little concern for the social consequences of the premise, just the presentation. I feel that the sparser story of the movie was, in this case, ultimately the better choice, both in comparison to the novel and definitely the manga. This is, of course, just my opinion. Others may disagree. I think that the manga (and the novel to some extent) may have allowed teenagers to insert themselves into the world of Battle Royale, while the movie seemed to say that it could be part of this world. Perhaps if I had come across the novel and manga before the movie (and was a teenager), I may have preferred the manga to the movie. But that is not the case.

There is less controversy amongst fans of Battle Royale in regards to the sequel movie, Battle Royale II: Requiem. This movie, which is not based on any book as far as I know, concerns a group of kids who are forced to storm this stronghold that is controlled by winners of previous Battle Royale games. Amongst the class is a girl who has a grudge against one particular winner. This premise by itself sounded really cool, but it is not. The kids are fitted with collars similar to the ones in the first movie, but the rules are tweaked just enough to completely compromise the mission. Also, the movie is terrible. I could not get a read on any of the characters, save for that girl whom I mentioned earlier, and she gets lost in the sea of new characters. The first movie (and the book to a greater extent) had loads of characters too, but managed to focus on a few at a time and let us get to know them a bit, or at least recognize them. There are many possible reasons why the film was such a disaster, including the death of the original director part of the way through. It is still a disaster. I watched it only because it was included the big special edition release of the first movie; I was warned that it would be bad and the warnings were right. Now, I am warning you.

Now, lest you think that that is the end of me comparing the Battle Royale movie with other things, not quite. You will notice that I posted two versions of the Battle Royale at the top. I usually don’t, but the original link to the extended version got deleted, so I decided to put in both. I have been told that the theatrical version is actually the director’s cut, not the extended version. I believe that, but I actually prefer the longer cut. It does not flow quite as well, but there is one particular reason why I prefer the extended version. Sprinkled throughout the extended version are flashbacks to a basketball game. I am not sure exactly what is going on in it, but it shows a time when all of the students were together and having fun…well, most of them, at least. This stuff was kind of pointless and I guess that it was rightfully taken out. That said, when it was time to create an extended version, someone (maybe the director) decided to just jam in that scene as well as versions of two other deleted scenes in between the film’s final scene and the end credits. It was an odd decision and completely breaks up the flow of the ending. However, if you stop the movie right at the end of the basketball game, that makes for a pretty powerful ending. To me at least. The real theatrical ending is fine, but the basketball game seems like a final goodbye to the kids, showing them how they were before the killing started. That they were once normal kids who would probably never seriously hurt anyone, let alone each other. There was hope and happiness. Happiness that is nothing more than a memory, but a memory to be cherished all the same. The director may have never intended this to be the end of the movie (and it still is not, given that there are two other scenes after it), but it works really well for me, in a different way than the theatrical ending does.

So that is Battle Royale. Awesome, silly, funny, scary, campy, serious, confusing, slightly surreal, maybe a little tasteless, and really enjoyable. While most of this post consisted of me comparing the movie to other things, I would actually prefer to let it stand on its own. There has been a lot of hype and controversy surrounding this movie, most of which I feel is misleading. All I have to say is, if you haven’t watch it, then I think that you should watch it because it is good.



Next Time: Dream Home (Hong Kong: 2010, approx. 95 minutes). Wikipedia


Time After Next: The Man from Nowhere (South Korea: 2010, approx. 120 minutes).



About Author

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.