There's nothing more satisfying (in terms of cinematic experience) than when you end up watching an great movie when you didn't expected to be quite so good. That's how it was for me with Battle Royale.
The premise sounds pretty strange at first glance: Society has gotten sick of the disobedient and unruly attitude of its youth. So in order to teach the kids a lesson it institutes the Battle Royale (BA) Act. According to the Act, every year a class of students is chosen to take part in a survival contest. They are kidnapped, taken to an island, given random weapons (ranging from a paper fan to a machine gun), and are told that they must knock each other off within three days. The last person standing is allowed to live, but if more than one student is left after the time limit expires then everyone will be killed.
Yes, this movie is just as full of bloody violence and mayhem as the plot suggests. The story barely gives the audience a moment to settle in before the kids are kidnapped, dropped off on the island, told the rules of the game, and let loose to kill or be killed. And this could have gotten ugly really quick, but the movie does a number of things to keep the violence from becoming all too nausia-enducing. First of all, the characters' personalities and reactions to the situation are varied, balanced, and, most importantly, believable. They react in all the variety of ways that I would expect kids to react given the situation: disbelief, anger, refusing to fight, acceptance and reaction, or even enjoyment. Of course, there are some characters with villian-like personalities that are there as antagonists, and not every character got equal screen time, but overall the range of personlity types was impressive. Plus, in an especially familiar survival-technique (think reality TV), the kids start to make alliances to help protect each other -- many of which end up breaking apart in an every-man-for-himself brawl. I think the fact that the kid's reactions were believable and maybe even identifiable made the violence feel more cathartic instead of just gross.
As I watched the movie, I couldn't help but think that the fictional "Battle Royale Act" is exactly the kind of thing that adults in the real world sometimes wish they could do with bratty kids who refuse to follow their rules. The most direct example of that kind of wish fulfillment comes in the scene just after the students arrive on the island. First they are shown an overly upbeat instructional video on how the program works. Then Kitano -- the kid's former teacher -- asks if their are any questions, and when a student starts to complain, Kitano responds by throwing a knife strait into the kid's forehead. I can just imagine some teachers watching that scene and guiltily admitting to themselves that they wished they could do the same thing.
And on that note, it doesn't take too much thought power to see that this movie is a commentary on the Japanese education system. There are references to everything from the competitive nature of the classroom, to teachers who take out their personal issues out on the students, to inter-student relationships, to whatever. But you don't need to be Japanese to get and relate to what is going on, because I think a lot of the themes run cross culture.
Plot-wise, there were a couple of things that bugged me. The first is the logic behind BA Act itself. Supposedly it was enacted to correct the behavioral issues with Japan's youth. But from what I can tell, the kids all seem to be ignorant of just what the BA Act is, and those that do end up learning about it are (for the most part) killed off. So my question is: how is this supposed to teach the kids anything? Or am I missing something?
I also thought the ending could have been a little bit better. The explanation for why it ended like it did was logical -- I guess -- but still seemed like it was missing something. It's like it needed just one more line of explanation to make it satisfying. However, I did like Kitano's last scene so maybe that makes up for it.
The movie's soundtrack was awesome. There is a lot of symphony music (much of it reminiscent of some scores from Evangelion) that gives the story a powerful tone right from the beginning. I think it also adds to some of the theme. For instance, why is there symphony music instead of rock music? Answer: Because the "adults" prefer classical music.
Overall, I was really surprised by how much I liked this movie. It worked on a lot of levels that I didn't expect it to. And I think that if you can get over the extreme content and somewhat flawed premise, it's definitely worth checking out.