Eight years before The Hunger Games books (later a movie franchise) came Battle Royale, set in a future in which unruly behaviour earns you a golden pass to even worse behaviour.

Japanese master Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 film, itself a tribute to such dystopian texts as The Most Dangerous Game, Lord of the Flies and Clockwork Orange, baits us by offering shocking violence committed by teenagers and then neatly challenges our appetite for carnage. Plenty of terrible things happen to misbehaving students banished to an island where they must fight each other to death. The blood-letting rarely feels gratuitous, while the gladiatorial contest itself works brilliantly as an allegory of state control run amok.

The film, which is available in MUBI, was based on Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel of the same name. (A sequel followed after Fukasaku’s death in 2003).

Sometime in the future, Japan’s democratic institutions have collapsed, leaving a totalitarian state in command. A group of male and female students is transported to an island without their knowledge. Watched by their psychotic teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), they are divided into groups and ordered to kill each other if they want to make it through the contest. Among them are Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara), his girlfriend Noriko (Aki Maeda) and Shogo (Taro Yamamoto).

Fukasaku wastes no time in unleashing unnerving violence. The 113-minute film is remarkably fleet, pausing only to regard the attempts at youthful rebellion and rare instances of humanity. There is grim comedy in the manner in which petty school dynamics, from rivalries to crushes, find their way into the deadly game. But fully aware of just how incendiary his material is, Fukusaku doesn’t to give flame to our baser instincts.

The Hunger Games and their blockbuster film adaptations retain Fukusaku’s sharp political commentary. There is no surprise, or secret, about who the most violent character in the narrative is. Gratuitous screen violence is highly addictive, as Quentin Tarantino and the John Wick films prove. But for ultraviolence with a soul, welcome to Battle Royale.

Battle Royale (2023).