Once upon a time, seeking out a way to see Battle Royale, the 2000 Japanese movie about little kids killing each other on an island, felt like finding a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook or something. This movie was never banned in the U.S. the way it was (and still is) in Germany. But even though it qualified as a huge (albeit controversial) hit in Japan, no American distributor would touch it for years. A few years after its release, you still had to get a bootleg foreign VHS copy from your town's cool video store, if it had one, and that was about your only option.
Of course, today, a teen-targeted series with practically the same storyline is one of our reigning movie franchises. But even in a post-Hunger Games world, it still feels illicit and possibly wrong to watch this. Now it's just easier.
Battle Royale is about a dystopian future in which The Powers That Be keep everyone in line by annually taking a group of randomly chosen children, dropping them off (with weapons) on a deserted island, and forcing them to kill each other until only one is left alive. This ... sounds familiar. But Hunger Games novelist Suzanne Collins says that she'd never heard of Battle Royale (the movie or the 1999 Japanese novel that inspired it) before she'd finished with the first novel in her series, released in 2008. It seems strange that two people could come up with the same idea, a few years apart, on opposite sides of the world, but it's not impossible. These are, after all, stories directed, in one way or another, at teenagers. And one of the great tenets of teenage life is that adults are out to fuck with you. Battle Royale just happens to be the most advanced possible expression of that belief.
Even in the subtleties, there are plenty of parallels between the two: Moving danger zones on the island that'll kill you if you're not careful, alliances that dissolve into distrust and leave everyone dead, a central couple who try to protect each other through the slaughter, perky ladies merrily chirping through the contest's rules, and so on.
Still, nobody's going to confuse these two movies. The Hunger Games is about a national underclass, beaten down and subjugated, finding a champion to lead it against the oppressive one-percenters. Whereas Battle Royale is just about adults who hate kids. That's it. The opening narration tells us that after an economic downturn, crime was getting out of control, and adults were losing control over the younger generation. So they just decided to enact a law that would force kids to indiscriminately kill their friends. There's no struggle for equality; there's just the fucked-up world that these kids have been given.
There's exactly one sympathetic adult character in Battle Royale—the teacher who stands against his ninth-grade class being put to the slaughter—and we barely even see the guy before his dead body is wheeled out in front of his students. Other than that, the most fleshed-out adult human is Takeshi Kitano, the great existentialist gangster-movie director, and he throws a knife through a girl's forehead during his first scene after she mumbles too much. That's another thing that sets Battle Royale apart: This is a nasty movie. It has blood-puking, balls-stabbing, and a severed head with a grenade stuffed in its mouth. The Hunger Games did everything it could to disguise the fact that its plot was about kids killing kids, to the point where the action scenes in the first movie were just about unwatchable. Battle Royale has no such compunctions.
It feels weird to write about thisas an action movie. In this genre, you're supposed to be impatient for the fighting to start, but here, you dread seeing anything happen to these kids. And yet it totally plays out like one. It has moments of heroic self-sacrifice, heartbreaking near-escapes, and a hero who manages to keep it together even in desperate circumstances. It has a character who hacks the government's computer system, and every action movie made circa-2000 had to have one of those. The movie's chosen-at-random ninth-grade class has 40 kids, and so they die quickly, before getting much of a chance to establish any character, with the deaths racked up in onscreen graphics. Some of the characters are just dark jokes, like the blubbering-terrified fat kid who immediately gets into the game and starts shooting his classmates with crossbows, or the math nerd who yells equations while attempted-murdering, telling himself out loud that he'll survive until the end so that he can go home and get into a good college. It even has an in-game villain, a mysterious glowering kid with fried blonde hair who probably helped inspire Heath Ledger's Joker.
Director Kinji Fukasaku was an old exploitation-movie pro, someone well schooled in transforming horrible violence into fucked-up fun. He came to Battle Royale with dozens of movies on his resume, including the beloved-among-nerds '70s yakuza series Battles Without Honor or Humanity. And he makes this deeply disturbing and awful idea way more fun than it probably should be: A little while into the battle, you're picking favorites and rooting for them to make it deep into the competition. (Chiaki Kuriyama, who would go on to play Gogo Yubari in the first Kill Bill—Tarantino loves this movie, by the way—gets bodied way too quickly.) When the initial shock starts to wear off, you find yourself enjoying the nastiness, which means the movie is really just implicating you in its sweeping denunciation of grown-up culture.
Battle Royale is not an easy watch, and you may not feel great about yourself for enjoying it, but it will suck you in completely. There's a sequel, also streaming on Netflix, which Fukasaku started to direct shortly before dying, and which his son Kenta took over; that starts out in just as terrifyingly effective a way, with a teenager terrorist group blowing up buildings in a very intentional 9/11 parallel. But it falls apart and gets incoherent pretty quickly, and by the time the evil teacher shows up in a rugby uniform crying that he always wanted to play with you guys, there's a good chance you will have checked out. But the original remains dark, squirmy, effective entertainment—the evil twin of the Hunger Games juggernaut that has long since taken over the world.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi | Tombstone | Fearless | Red Dawn| Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master