Friday, December 02, 2011

Fight The 3D Future

Upon its 2000 Japanese release, Kinji FUKUSAKU's adaptation of Koushin TAKAMI's science fiction novel BATTLE ROYALE/バトル・ロワイアル was equally reviled and profitable. With the mounting controversy surrounding a large studio production - by Japanese standards, anyway - in which 42 teenagers are selected to kill each other off until only one remains, a special screening was held for Japanese parliament who predictably decried the film as "crude" and "tasteless". The film went on to make over six times its budget back, and was quickly licensed to virtually every foreign nation... except North America, which led to ridiculous rumors that it had somehow been banned in the USA! Certainly there was some truth to Toei wanting to insure the film against being sued for any "harm" it might cause the public - this is a country where people who spill coffee on themselves win big settlements, after all - Anchor Bay's 2010 announcement that they owned the film stateside more or less put to rest any doubt as to why the film had been ignored in North America: Toei was greedy, and it took ten years of mellowing for the price to drop to a point where any sane label in America was willing to play ball on their terms.

The plot probably doesn't need to be spelled out to anyone within earshot, but just in case: In a future where social and economic crisis have left Japan in shambles, the paranoid government creates a bloody spectacle to distract the public. Once a year, a high school class is randomly selected to participate in the Battle Royale - an event in which the entire class is given 72 hours to slaughter one another until only one is left standing. Should more than one person survives or if anyone's caught trying to cheat, they'll be murdered remotely by the explosive collars strapped to their necks. The grand prize is simple: A chance to go home, live their life, and be grateful for the chance to grow up to be a functional adult, and not one of the rabble rousing kids that have doomed this once great country.

If you're having trouble buying any of this, it's worth noting that in the original novel, history was rewritten so that the Axis Powers won WWII, and the BR ACT is just a grim authoritative way to instill fear and obedience in an entire generation of children. The film wisely fast-forwards through pretty much all of this to get to the part where the kids start decapitating each other, but it changes the context of the story into one of Japan's bitter resentment towards the youth, seeking revenge on them for living the easy lives they couldn't have and still rebelling against the system.

Kinji Fukusaku: My kind of OG.

It all sounds pretty absurd at face value, but the story's focus isn't on the over the top premise; it's on the individual students, and how teenagers given a bag of survival gear and kicked out to battle with their friends would react to those horrific and war-like circumstances. Who would band together for safety, and who would manipulate casual frenemies to stab each other in the back? Would young love beat out the need to survive, and how quick are best friends willing to turn on each other once their trust has been strained? While invariably some of the characters are shafted by the film's 114 minute runtime, it takes every opportunity to try and pick apart the violent and confusing nature of mankind through the eyes of those who are old enough to know what's right and wrong, but not old enough to know how to be rational and overturn their dire circumstances. It's Lord of the Flies by way of Beyond Thunderdome, and worst of all it was made for a target audience who has the same developing and inexperienced emotional maturity as the characters themselves. Fukusaku, a man with nearly 40 years experience in the film industry when he took directorial duties for Battle Royale, was so upset by the film's realistic and rampant violence earning it an R-15 rating that he petitioned the EIRIN for the less restrictive PG-12. He argued that the film's message was specifically intended to be seen by teenagers.

This act of unusual ballsy protest from a prominent and respectable director - one who made quite a name for himself in the early 1970s with the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series - turned the public eye towards pundits who used Battle Royale, a fictional program set in a future that could almost never exist, as proof that the EIRIN's independant doling of film ratings wasn't enough - that government control and censorship was the only way to ensure that minors wouldn't be willfully corrupted by acts of violence and sex flickering at 24 frames per second on the silver screen. Fukusaku withdrew his appeals, essentially saying that censorship should never have to be a government issue, and promptly told everyone who disliked the movie what he thought of them by shooting several brand new sequences for the 2001 "Special Version" of Battle Royale, which was given a second theatrical release with a bold R-15 certificate added to the new opening title sequence, and a year later announced what would eventually be the 71 year old director's final film: BATTLE ROYALE II, eventually succumbing to cancer on location and leaving the final directoral duties to his assistand director - his son, Kenta Fukusaku.

When Arrow Video released Battle Royale on a region-free Blu-ray set in 2010, I was immediately let down by the final product. The transfer's hazy focus, dull contrast, and utter lack of fine grain left me assuming the worst, and having watched both the original 2000 Theatrical Cut and the 2001 Special Version (incorrectly called a "Director's Cut" on all UK releases), I'm willing to admit I made a mistake. Last year I put my balls on the line and said, with a straight face, "This shit looks upscaled". Though I'd say it again if it weren't for the razor sharp optical credits and occasional high frequency speckling of print damage, I now know I was wrong. Upscaled or not though, the important thing to take from my suspicion is that the Arrow Video Blu-ray release of Battle Royale looks like shit. I wouldn't be surprised if some of this is down to Arrow's usual mediocre encoding, but most of the blame here is on the dated, decade old HDCAM tape that Toei provided in the first place.

Arrow Video, doing what they do best.

At least Arrow got most everything else right: Virtually every bonus feature known to exist is either included on the Blu-rays themselves as upscaled 720p videos, or crammed on a third PAL DVD. Lossless 2.0 and 5.1 audio, with no English dub and generally improved English subtitles. Two extra digipak's bearing gifts were included in the box, and among the bonus pack-ins were a thick ass production booklet, an all new English language comic adaptation of the story, a fold-out poster, a set of glossy postcards, and even a certificate of authenticity just to convince the whole goddamn world that Arrow was the classiest purveyor of B-movie sleaze anywhere on the planet. It's an impressive monster of a box set, I'll give them that, and while I remain disappointed over the video quality I can't fault them for producing a stunning presentation otherwise.

Pre-orders for the box set were so strong that Arrow Video doubled the number from 5,000 to 10,000 - a move that held surprising importance, because once the box set was sold out, Arrow Video's "standard" release was replaced with a Region B locked version with much less in the way of bonus swag! In perhaps a painful stroke of irony the Limited Edition PAL DVD is out of stock, but you can still buy THE LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY for the retail price of £39.99($61.75 + postage) straight from Arrow Video themselves.

Oh right, did I mention that right around the same time Arrow Video was preparing the first ever Battle Royale Blu-ray,  this happened? 'Cause it's kind of important.

When the news of "Battle Royale 3D" hitting Japanese Blu-ray this past summer came to light, I wasn't sure what to think. On the one hand, the digital nature of the production all but guaranteed that a remaster was in order. On the other hand, the trailer suggested that some brand new digital elements would be added to push into the audience's gaping face as they stare bug-eyed from behind their pair of plastic glasses just to force the "3D Effect" where there was never meant to be one. For those so inclined, Anchor Bay has threatened to release Battle Royale 3D in North American theaters sometime next year... but we'll see how excited y'all are about that once we're finished with the comparison.

Having performed an exhaustive and, might I add, emotionally painful comparison between the original 2000 cut from Arrow and the 2010 "3D" cut from Toei, I've come to the conclusion that I had every right to be suspicious about Arrow's HD transfer, it not entirely for the right reasons: Battle Royale 3D proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Arrow Blu-ray isn't even CLOSE to the level of fidelity the original camera negative was capable of... unfortunately, it's also found a whole bunch of brand new ways to fuck up the experience beyond compare.

Battle Royale 2D (Arrow Video) TOP
Battle Royale 3D (Toei Video) BOTTOM

"I don't understand this... I don't understand any of it!" - Shuya Nanahara

Man, where to even begin? First off, the "3D" cut is a reworked version of the longer Special Version - thankfully minus that eye-rollingly stupid "Reqiuem" reel at the end - which I don't consider to be the stronger of the two cuts, but whatever - that's the Arrow Video version I compared all of this to. Contrast has been manipulated to the point of pretty severe white clipping, but the original transfer was so dark I think it's still a fairly acceptable compromise. Flesh tones are vibrant and lifelike, and blacks look reasonably solid... sometimes, anyway. Detail is improved more often than not, and film grain - though never completely unmolested - peeks through for most of the first half of the film, and the underlying resolution on display has increased DRAMATICALLY for it. While Battle Royale's dated 2D master only offers a marginal improvement over the resolution DVD is capable of, Battle Royale 3D is, in many ways, akin to seeing the film for the first time. You can actually read the numbers on calendar posted on the boys wall under the open window, and even count the number of teeth on Kitano's zipper! When Battle Royale 3D is at its best, the Arrow Video Blu-ray really does look like a faded NTSC upscale by comparison...

Unfortunately, it's not all roses and bloodshed. From the scene where the terrifying teacher - played by Takeshi "Beat" Kitano (ironically named Kitnao, even in the original novel!) storms in on the recently captured classmates, the entire film is treated to what could be the single most horrifying DVNR I have ever seen in my life. I'm not exaggerating - check out the scene of Kitano writing on the chalkboard and you can see a half-dozen ghosted doubles of his arm in the process!

Things can go awry on a scene-by-scene basis, too. As you can see with the delectably sadistic Chiaki Kuriyama jogging, a heavy golden haze filter has been added to a number of scenes to help establish them as being flashbacks. Not that the film was always 100% clear when it was flashing back, but that was kind of the point; the scene with Kuriyama starts off as a pleasant bit of deja vu, and then ends when she reaches up to rub sweat from her neck and feels the cold metal collar around her jugular - waking her from her innocent memories, and reminding her that the game isn't over. The effect is uncomfortably reminiscent to the bloom filter found on Ghost in the Shell 2.0, and it just looks... cheesy. It isn't the worst thing about BR3D - hell, I wish it was! - but it proves how dramatically different the two versions look, even when nothing especially heinous is going on.

And then, of course, there's all this bullshit.
Let's just not talk about these and say we did?

While I'm a bit perplexed by Hollywood's mass adoption of 3D as a way to milk audiences even harder than usual, I'm not completely against it. Films ranging from schlocky, goofy crap like Friday the 13th Part 3D and Comin' At Ya! to legitimately good modern titles like Immortals and Coraline make a use for the technology that immerses the viewer in a way that the same material in 2D simply can't match. It's a whole new frontier using 3D as a dramatic device, and I applaud any director who can shoot a film in 3D and use it as a part of the fabric of the experience instead of just an excuse to throw things at the cameras. I mean fuck, for all the complaining people do about Avatar being an Xbox 360 styled remake of Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (and it totally is), at least Cameron proved that the visual experience can be used to put you in another world entirely. Despite gimmicky history that 3D brings with it, the technology can completely immerse the viewer - to heighten the experience at a fundamental level, and put them in the shoes of the protagonist. For a film that begs them to put themselves in an unthinkable situation - one as invasive and as unsettling as Battle Royale - the potential was there to really make something special out of it.

Sadly, BATTLE ROYALE 3D is the absolute worst sort of abuse of technology. It's tried to take an already good film and make it seem "relevant" by re-releasing it with the latest digital tools in the forefront, but it's only succeeded in making the actual film worse by association, proving the detractors right that the only value 3D has to offer is ridiculous gimmicks being tossed at the viewer's eyeballs. The 2010 3D cut of the film is a fucking joke, and I can't even say it's improved the viewing experience; it's increased resolution has finally proven what a crumby piece of work the Arrow Video Blu-ray was, but I don't think anyone had very much to say in its defense to start with. If you're feeling horribly masochistic and are capable of laughing (instead of wincing) at the obnoxious new CG elements, Toei sells it for ¥7800/$100.12, and of course the release is in Japanese without any English subtitles.

Despite the blurry and faded nature of the Arrow Video Blu-ray box set, it remains the best way to see this film... even if that's more through a lack of notable competition rather than it being particularly good. Anchor Bay announced that they'll be releasing Battle Royale in 2012 to piggyback on the new movie version of "The Hunger Games" in March, an adaptation of an American Sci-Fi novella series that bears an uncanny resemblance to Fukusaku's film. Maybe Anchor Bay will treat the film right and give the original 2000 version the HD restoration it so desperately needs, but if all they wind up offering is the 3D cut, wave it in front of their faces until they're annoyed and then tell them to shove it right back up Toei's ass where it belongs.


Nicholous said...

Could this be the only case of a film being too popular to get a release in the USA?

I guess I feel better about owning the Arrow release now. The 3D transfer, at least most of the screenshots, actually reminds me of the BR of Suspiria. While the brightening does seem to be helpful to some degree, most of the time it looks way over the top, with colors punched up to an absurd degree (gamma adjustments I guess?)

Granted there has been no previous release without a dark/grungy appearance so maybe I'm just reacting to the change, but it seems the colors and brightness of the Arrow release are more in line with previous release, and more in line with the look of most of Fukasaku's films.

I'm assuming those changes were made to help things pop more since 3D conversions tend to darken the image. But, I wonder if those changes were made during the creation of the initial HD scan, or after the fact?

Kentai 拳態 said...

Anchor Bay surely spent a fortune securing the North American rights a year ago, so I have little doubt we'll finally have some kind of licensed American release of BATTLE ROYALE. Too bad nobody told them they're about a decade too late!

I'm sure the Arrow Video Blu-ray represents the 10 year old HDCAM masters Toei created without too much in the way of digital alterations (aside from the clean-up work they hired out to third parties). The real trouble is those materials suck. Technology has changed dramatically in 10 years, and there are obvious color correction gaffes (like the CG-enhanced shot of the girl with the megaphone getting shot in the belly). Much like Criterion's harshly-usurped Blu-ray of THE LEOPARD, these primitive HD masters should have been abandoned long ago.

That said, has been at least one transfer that wasn't a dark and grungy mess: The French DVD from Warner Bros. It isn't perfect though: Even ignoring the French titles, I'm sure some of those hazy colored hues of the Japanese transfer were intentional - perhaps not that constant blue push, but the golden tones of a scene that's supposed to take place at dawn? That had to be a conscious decision made in the lab during editing. There's simply no other logical explanation.

Say, maybe that's why Toei didn't make a new transfer? They had a "Director Approved" HD master and figured there was no sense doing a new one until somebody got the bright idea to "enhance" it with 3D special effects? The French transfer, imperfect as it is, gives us a glimpse of what so easily could have been had Kenta Fukusaku been a little more interested in preserving his father's legacy instead of literally shoving new technology down the film's throat...

Springheeljack said...

LOL... do you even know that 3D films have to be brighter?

Kentai 拳態 said...

You can adjust the midtones without blowing out contrast to make a film "brighter".

I'm much more offended by BR3D's bullshit CG and sloppy grain removal than I am by its relatively mild contrast boosting. The clipped highlights are just the shit sprinkles on this clusterfuck cupcake.