Battle Royale

Battle Royale

Admittedly, I first heard of this cult classic in the rush of reaction to Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games“. But glad I am that I was alerted to what has become one of my favourite novels of the year: “Battle Royale“.

One of the better things to come out of the ’90s, Koushun Takami published “Battle Royale” in 1999, and it was made into a film adaptation the next year. My article mainly focuses on the novel as the film changes a fair few things.

The premise is this: 42 students are forced to fight to the death until one survivor is left standing. You’re intrigued, aren’t you? So was I.

In a dystopian alternate time, a totalitarian government rules Japan and the country is part of the ‘Republic of Greater East Asia’. Communication with the West, particularly America, is forbidden and the government censors everything from music to newspapers and since the passing of a law in the 1940s, every year ‘the Program‘ is held, where fifty third year classes [fifteen year olds] are randomly selected to participate. In contrast to something like ‘The Hunger Games’, class and background make no difference –  only government officials can try to fix the system, but it is pretty difficult. Also unlike Collins’ novel, activities in ‘the Program’ aren’t shown to the public; it’s not for reality TV kicks or because of shortage of food – ‘Battle Royale’ is to keep young people from rebelling against the government, a way of reminding them and their parents that they own them completely and there is no escape from their dictatorship. 

If you look closely, you can see the shape of a rifle in the red background between the male and female students

We follow one particular third year class who are gassed on a school bus, taking a trip out of town. The students, as is the usual procedure, are taken to an island [to make escape difficult] and explained the rules of the game by Sakamochi, a government pawn who has been totally indoctrinated into dedication to the state.

The students leave by class number one after the other and receive a day pack full of water, food, a compass, map and random weapon or item. It’s the luck of the draw, you can get anything from a machine gun…to a fork. The students are monitored through a metal device around their necks that will explode if they are in certain parts of the island at certain times [‘forbidden zones’] that are announced twice a day [along with the death toll], if they try to prise the device off or get up to anything suspicious or uncooperative [the devices have microphones so the game runners can track them]. 

Let the game begin! 

It is an absolutely gut-wrenching emotional rollercoaster where all those petty feelings for your classmates when you were fifteen – rivalries, crushes, friendships and adversaries – are suddenly magnified by a thousand. Paranoia, anger, dehydration, infection from wounds and isolation are just some of the states explored as each of the characters attempts to survive. Some decide to participate, others don’t, some form alliances whilst others take care of their own. 

Takami gives brutal and vivid description of every death in grim detail [so not for the weak-stomached], with an economic way of telling the numerous events and a dab hand for developing a lot of characters very quickly. Unfortunately I can’t read Japanese and I’ve heard mixed reviews of the English translation, but I found its sparse and almost clichéd dialogue gave the teenagers a realistic voice.

Most fifteen year olds have their own array of problems [as insignificant as they may seem later in life] and a lot of these students have had traumatic backgrounds, so there are some colourful motivations and histories going on.

After six hundred-odd pages you get used to the way it’s written as well as soon being able to identify between the students and their similar sounding Japanese names. I took a little sadistic pleasure in marking the map at the front of the novel as the body count increased, noting down characters’ weapons and alliances and striking them off when they were killed. I never said I was a saint.

I would say if you’re a fan of Tarantino’s slick and bloody violence, Japanese anime or want a more graphic and merciless amped-up version of ‘The Hunger Games’, then check out “Battle Royale”. It’s dystopia as I’ve never seen it done before, but be warned – once you begin, you have to see it to the end.

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