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I suppose it’s not considered in particularly good taste to watch school children killing each other off for entertainment, but the dexterity with which director Kinji Fukasaku milks the “murderous game” concept for drama and satire is remarkable.

The setup could be described as Mean Girls with machine guns crossed with Lord of the Flies by the way of the Schwarzenegger trash classic Running Man: in future Japan, a class of forty students is selected to fight to the death on a secluded island. Everybody is given a random weapon and kept under control with exploding necklaces. Like Highlander, there can be only one survivor. Multi-talented Takeshi Kitano combines his game show host and actor personalities in his role as the former teacher who cruelly oversees the fight.

Once the “game” is established, Battle Royale excels in using overly familiar high school scenarios and reimagining them with deadly weapons. Here are the popular girls, for whom the cut-throat competition to be the #1 princess just got a lot nastier. Here are the geeks who stick together and hatch a plan, the lovebirds who try to find their own way out, the freshly transfered students hiding secrets, the boys with the tragic crush on the wrong girl.

We get to know a good many of the forty quickly diminishing students, and most of them could have jumped right out of a sitcom — but the stakes here are cranked up so high that what usually would have been an ordinary schoolyard confrontation becomes a matter of life and bloody death. Even more so than last year’s Brick, Battle Royale is terrifically engaging because it literalizes what everybody already knows: high school is murder.

Batoru rowaiaru. Kinji Fukasaku, 2000. ****

The trailer: