Review for Battle Royale: Limited Edition Box Set (3 Discs)
Has it really come to this? It appears that if I want to re-watch a film, I have to somehow get the obligation to review it again, to justify the expenditure of time. Battle Royale is one of my favourite films, even though I was something of a latecomer to its questionable charms, and I have to credit it in turning me on to just what Japanese cinema is capable of. But the last time I watched Battle Royale was when I reviewed the Special Edition DVD some five years ago. I just haven't had the time to revisit the film, although you would expect that a film that I profess to love would see the inside of my DVD player a lot more. But I have to admit that it isn't just lack of time that motivates my reticence. Battle Royale's life on UK DVD hasn't been the most rewarding to its fans. It first arrived courtesy of Tartan Video in its Theatrical Cut form, on a woeful non-anamorphic disc with burnt in subtitles and a 2.0 soundtrack. Extras were minimal, and apparently the subtitles weren't exactly free of error. This was hastily remedied with a re-release with a much better anamorphic disc with optional subtitles and a 5.1 soundtrack. However the picture was an NTSC transfer, which at the time wasn't ideal for a PAL market.
All should have been made perfect a few years later when Tartan revisited the film, but this time in its extended Director's Cut form. This time we had two discs, copious extras presented with booklets and art cards in a shiny tin case. Once again Tartan had a rethink, and then re-released the film in a simple Amaray, minus one of the inserted extras, but with an additional DTS soundtrack. It was this release that I eventually reviewed, and a lot about it made me happy. But one thing that made me unhappy was that the film had an NTSC-PAL standards conversion, which didn't do the film any favours, replete as it was with conversion artefacts such as ghosting, judder and a lower resolution. That's the sort of thing that makes me think twice when perusing my DVD shelf of an evening, deciding which film to revisit.
Two things happened subsequently, a sort of good news bad news arrangement. The good news being that someone invented Blu-ray giving us a whole lot more definition, and confining those pesky NTSC and PAL issues to the dustbin of history. The bad news was that Tartan went bust, and the thought of Battle Royale in hi-definition glory went with it. It turns out that hearts sank prematurely, for Tartan is back in business. But it is Arrow Video that is releasing Battle Royale on Blu-ray. They've made quite a fanfare about it as well, as they are going straight to a three disc release, packaging both the theatrical cut and director's cut versions, along with a third disc of extra features. These are extra features that were on the original Tartan discs, as well as some that were on various European releases, and some that are new. It gets the deluxe packaging treatment, a specially commissioned 32 page prequel comic, a 36 page booklet with various essays on the film and promotional material, an exclusive 16 page booklet with concept art, exclusive postcards of film stills, and a reversible poster. And it's strictly limited, so you'll have to be hot off the marks to get it. Don't worry if you miss out though, as there will be a standard release next year without the fancy packaging and added physical extras. Most important of all is that the films have been remastered for hi-definition release. Arrow have also commissioned a new subtitle translation for the film.
Of course what interests a Luddite like me is the prospect of a DVD release that will improve on the flawed Tartan releases. Arrow Video are indeed releasing the film again on DVD to complement the Blu-ray release, and you do get all the extras and the lush packaging if you are quick off the mark, as the DVDs are also limited in number. Having a new high definition master to work from ought to mean that the film should look as good as it possibly can on DVD. And sure enough, the first thing I did was to check just that when the check discs fell through my letterbox. The grin I had when I realised that the film finally had a native Film to PAL transfer is indescribable.
If you've been hiding under a rock somewhere, and want to know what the film is about, then I'll point you to my original review for the Special Edition, where you can read more about the plot, and how I feel about the film. Be prepared for relentless gushing.
Battle Royale: Limited Edition has the Theatrical Cut on Disc 1, the film that was released in 2000, complete with the spoken disclaimer at the start of the film, warning parents to protect their little ones from the R15 rated depravities within. This disc also contains some of the extras.
You'll also find some extras on disc 2, but that is devoted mostly to Battle Royale: Director's Cut, which saw the film revisited in 2001, and which added character background in additional scenes, used CGI to correct a couple of flubs, and add lots more gore and blood.
The remainder of the extras are on disc 3. You'll find that this is a DVD disc in the Blu-ray set as well, only the first two discs in that collection will be Blu.
The first thing to say is that Battle Royale has never looked this good on UK DVD, and it's magnitudes better than anything that has been released on DVD before. That's down to the simple expedience of a native film to PAL transfer, which gifts the film with more resolution, and absents it of any of those pesky NTSC-PAL conversion artefacts like ghosting, judder and interlacing. Battle Royale is now smooth, clear and detailed throughout. It isn't perfect though, and while I didn't spot any compression artefacts straight off the bat, I did note that there was some slight aliasing around sharp edges (especially helicopter blades), the film was occasionally soft, and black levels seemed subdued, although that's probably an issue with the source material.
There are also differences between the two versions of the film, and it appears that the theatrical version has had most of the re-mastering work done to it. Of the two transfers, it is the theatrical version that is sharper and has more detail. It appears to be colour corrected, with a greater lushness of palette, especially in the blue end of the spectrum that brings out flesh tones and makes the film pop off the screen more. The framing is subtly different, and more of an effort has been taken to clean the print. The director's cut in comparison is a little softer, duller, and slightly more grainy and prone to dirt. It's a small difference that will probably pass most by, indeed, I really only noticed when I was looking at some screen captures, and it's more prominent in some scenes than in others. I've included some comparison shots below, Theatrical Cut above, Director's Cut underneath.
And here are some grabs from the old NTSC-PAL Special Edition, just for comparison's sake.
Both versions of the film give you the option of DD 5.1 Surround and DD 2.0 Stereo Japanese, with optional English subtitles. As mentioned, the subtitles have been created anew for this release, and they are free of error, timed well and flow naturally with the dialogue. I found the surround tracks to be very effective in conveying the action and effects, as well as making the most of the film's iconic blend of original and classical music. It was a little too much in fact, as I found I had to do a little tweaking to my settings to avoid the dialogue being overwhelmed. It's not that much of a problem though.
Note that the DTS track that was on the second Special Edition release from Tartan doesn't make an appearance here. Then again, when was the last time you saw DTS on a new release DVD?
I just received three check discs to review, so I can't comment on the packaging or the booklets that will come with the set. All three discs get subtly animated menus (blood dripping), and all three discs contain some extra material.
You'll find the film's theatrical trailer here, presented in letterbox NTSC-PAL format, so you can take a guess at how bad the film could have looked on DVD.
The sole other extra on this disc is the substantial The Making of Battle Royale: The Experience of 24 High School Students. This is the 50-minute behind the scenes featurette that was on the Special Edition release, and it's still the comprehensive look at the shooting of the film with interviews with the cast and crew. It's informative, but there is no voiceover, merely captions. You can get to see director Kinji Fukasaku at work, tormenting his actors, and also providing some context to the film when he discusses his experiences as a student during WWII.
Here you will find the Special Edition Theatrical Trailer, as well as the TV Spot with added Tarantino.
The Shooting the Special Edition featurette is a repeat of the Basketball Rehearsals, lasts 9 minutes, and catches up with the cast and the crew six months after the end of shooting as they reunite to shoot the basketball game that frames the special edition.
New to this release is the 11-minute Takeshi Kitano interview, where he talks about his character, and getting to work with director Kinji Fukasaku. He also recounts his own school experiences.
Also new is the Conducting Battle Royale With The Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra featurette running to 7 minutes. It's similar to that on disc 3, but you hear different music choices, and a lot more of the choral work for Battle Royale.
The Correct Way to Make Battle Royale: Birthday Version lets the perky girl from the instruction video wish the director a happy seventieth birthday.
Finally on this disc is the Tokyo International Film Presentation, where the cast and the director introduce the film to a cinema full of eager fans.
Here you'll find everything else, with a convenient Play All option to preserve your remote control.
The Premiere Press Conference lasts 12 minutes, and actually sees the director and cast interviewed prior to the end of filming, long before the film's actual premiere. This is a couple of minutes longer than the same Press Conference presented on the Tartan SE, and has some extra footage.
New to the UK is the Opening Day at Marunouchi Toei Movie Theatre, the actual premiere, which again gathers director and cast to address the fans before and after the film. This lasts 14 minutes.
The Slaughter of 42 High School Students is the same Behind the Scenes featurette as before, again lasting 10 minutes.
There is promotional material here, a TV ad, promo and commercial, as well as two separate promos, the shortest running to 15 seconds, the longest to just under 4 minutes.
The Correct Way To Fight in Battle Royale appears again, with the perky presenter's promo that the students watched in horror in the film, presented here in its entirety.
Royale Rehearsals last 7 minutes and has the cast going through the scenes months before filming started, and also there is footage from earlier when Fukasaku was casting the film.
Another new featurette in the UK is the Masamichi Amano Conducts Battle Royale featurette. This lasts 10 minutes and we get to see the conductor take the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra through their paces.
The Behind The Scenes Featurette is back again, lasting 12 minutes with its clips, b-roll footage and interviews.
Filming on Set is also back, and lasts 11 minutes, another behind the scenes featurette, but this time around it has subtitles. Indeed it looks as if Arrow has gone through all of the extra material and created new subtitles for it, which is useful as Tartan's subtitles for its extra material lacked the professionalism and quality assurance that it applied to the film.
Disc 3's content concludes with a 23-minute Trailer Gallery for other Kinji Fukasaku films released on the Arrow Label. There is a whole lot of yakuza going on here, and you can catch previews for all five Battles Without Honor and Humanity movies, trailers for Street Mobster and for Graveyard of Honor.
I feel it's something of a missed opportunity when it comes to the on-disc extras, as just like for the Special Edition, I feel that it's a 'throw everything at the discs including the kitchen sink' approach. There's a lot on here, and a lot of repetition, and while the organisation of the extras is better, there is a lack of overall context. Still, the interview with Takeshi Kitano is a useful addition, as are the soundtrack featurettes featuring the orchestra at work. I still think that the films would have benefited from audio commentaries.
I still love this film. Battle Royale has something special going on. It's a great action movie, and a delicious exploitation flick. But its social satire and biting commentary on the state of society, the divide between the youth and the adult institutions is just as relevant now as it was 10 years ago when this film was made. It's also an astounding character study, and if any film can make you think as much as it can entertain you, then plaudits like timeless and classic aren't undeserved. Having had the chance to watch the theatrical cut and the director's cut in short order, I'm hard pressed to tell which one I prefer. Certainly the theatrical cut benefits from tight pacing and a relentless tension. But the director's cut certainly helps in developing some of the characters more, and if the ending is a little indulgent, that is a very small flaw.
This boxset collection is a must purchase for fans of the film, and for those who are curious and are yet to discover the delights of Battle Royale. The only reason not to, is if you are going to get the Blu-ray version. But if you are still stuck in the DVD age, then this collection is the way to go. It isn't definitive by any means. The on disc extras aren't a revolutionary improvement over the special edition. But the packaging, the booklets, and the Limited Edition exclusive extras promise to be lush indeed. But the whole reason to double dip is the wonderful upgrade that is the native Film-PAL transfer, and Battle Royale now looks like a completely different film on DVD. I can tell you this much, it will be a lot sooner than five years before I next re-watch it!