Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami

A Japanese novel in which a junior high school class is forced to kill each other.

Battle Royale

Ohta Publishing, 1999, 616 pages (Japanese)
Gollancz, 2003, 624 pages (English translation)

Koushun Takami's notorious high-octane thriller envisions a nightmare scenario: a class of junior high school students is taken to a deserted island where, as part of a ruthless authoritarian program, they are provided arms and forced to kill until only one survivor is left standing. Criticized as violent exploitation when first published in Japan--where it became a runaway best seller--Battle Royale is a Lord of the Flies for the 21st century, a potent allegory of what it means to be young and (barely) alive in a dog-eat-dog world.

First thing to point out is that this is a review of the original novel (and the movie, below), not the manga. A manga was made based on the novel, but I haven't read it. (Google images suggests that the manga seems to be about hyper-endowed porn stars killing each other between sex scenes.) Second thing to point out is that I am not sure whether Battle Royale would be classified as "Young Adult" or not. I don't think such a distinction was/is made in Japan, or that the author wrote with a YA audience in mind, but when published in the U.S., it seems to be considered YA, content notwithstanding. Be warned that this is not your typical American YA novel.

Probably many more Americans have seen the movie than read the book, but Battle Royale is a hell of a book. Having seen the movie many years ago (though I rewatched it after reading the novel before writing this review), I remembered it as being an example of over-the-top hyper-violent Asian cinema without much of a story to it, just a bunch of teenagers killing each other.

My first thoughts, after finishing the novel, were that it was just over-the-top pulp fiction, half gratuitous violence and half satire. But the more I think about it, the more I think that Koushun Takami really did create quite an interesting work here, with qualities that are reflected in the movie. That's not to say Takami is a genius or that Battle Royale is some sort of profound literary achievement. Most of its meaning is right there on the surface. But it really works on two levels. First, it's entertaining as hell. I usually plow pretty slowly through 600-page novels, but Battle Royale, with its short, snappy chapters in which something always happens (and more often than not, someone dies) sucked me in for hundreds of pages at a time. The plot is paper thin, as is the worldbuilding, but the characters are vital and real and you start caring about them even though you know up front that all or almost all of them are going to die.

I think Battle Royale has a certain ineffable quality possessed by certain other pop culture phenomena, such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. (Yes, I'll get to the Hunger Games comparisons below.) It is not great writing. It is not that original. It's just hardcore entertainment that makes you care more than you should.

The Republic of Greater East Asia

"What's the purpose of this game? How could this serve any useful purpose?"

Shogo's eyes widened, but then he looked down and began to chuckle. He found it funny. Then he finally said, "There is no purpose."

Noriko raised her voice. "But they insist it has some military purpose."

Shogo kept on smiling and shook his head. "That's just crazy nonsense. Of course this whole country's insane, so maybe it's completely rational."

Shuya felt a rush of anger once again as he said, "Then how could this go on for so long?"

"That's easy. Because there's no one speaking out against it. That's why it's still going on."

Battle Royale is set in the Republic of Greater East Asia, which seems to be an alternate universe version of Japan. (It's implied, but unclear in the novel, that the Republic of Greater East Asia includes other parts of Asia, though a unified Korea seems to be a separate country.) Their enemy is the American Empire (also unclear whether America has literally become an empire in this history, or if that's just what the Republic now calls the U.S.). The Republic of Greater East Asia is an Orwellian police state (complete with a Big Brother-like Dictator) in which banned music, movies, and literature are still freely available, as a running theme throughout the novel is Shuya Nanahara's love of rock music, particular Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run."

Now I'm going to explain the rules

She wasn't in the book, but she should have been.

Every year, the Republic randomly selects a junior high school class full of 15-year-olds, puts them on an island, and forces them to fight to the death. Only one survivor is allowed to leave. (In the book, it's actually stated that several dozen classes are chosen every year, but I don't think Takami's math adds up.) Everyone is fitted with an explosive collar (if no one dies in a 24-hour period, then everyone's collar is triggered and no one wins) and given a bag of supplies, including a randomly selected weapon. Some kids get machine guns, others get spaghetti forks. During the course of the game, random areas of the map become "forbidden zones" which will cause anyone setting foot in them to trigger their explosive collar.

There is a lot that doesn't make much sense, like the fact that the existence of the Program is known to the public, and yet when Third Year Class B of Shiroiwa Junior High School is put on a bus, gassed unconscious, and brought to an island, no one figures out what's going on and everyone is shocked and disbelieving. Their "Instructor" kacks a couple of the kids before the game even starts just to make his point, then everyone is set free, and mayhem ensues.

The main characters are Shuya Nanahara, a popular jock and musician, and Noriko Nakagawa, whom Shuya's best friend (one of the kids killed before the game even started) had a crush on. Shuya decides to protect Noriko, and their struggle to survive becomes the main plot arc. They are joined by a third classmate, a tough guy named Shogo Kawada who teams up with them for reasons of his own and claims he has a way for them to escape. Most of the chapters focus on Shuya, Noriko, and Shogo, but it switches POV whenever other students encounter one another. There are 42 students in Class B, and every one shows up in at least one chapter to be introduced and (usually) promptly killed off. The reader thus gets an omniscient third-person viewpoint, seeing everything going on in the game and knowing who has just killed who even when the main characters don't yet.

"We will kill each other"

The compelling part of the story (besides, of course, all the action and the morbid entertainment of watching teenagers kill each other) is the varying way in which each student responds. Shuya and Noriko, of course, are "good guys." They don't want to play the game so they avoid their classmates as much as possible and only kill in self-defense.

Most of the other students freak out about the way you'd expect teenagers to do. Some try to stick by their friends, some form strategic alliances. Some go out of their minds with fear and paranoia. Naturally, there are a few who refuse to kill, and don't last long. As a (very violent and perverse) social experiment, it's fascinating to watch and Takami actually presents a wide and believable range of reactions, and he successfully evoked a real sense of horror while I was reading it: these are kids who've known each other all their lives, were gossiping and crushing and doing homework and playing hoops together just a day ago, and now suddenly they've been handed weapons and told "Kill or be killed." Imagine 42 random people actually thrown into that situation. How many would remain humane and civilized like we all believe people are brought up to be, and how many would quickly degenerate into animals devoted to survival, suddenly able to do things that would have been unthinkable hours before? And how many really have been animals wearing human masks all along?

Kazuo and Mitsuko

Pretty = Evil

The game is quickly whittled down to a few "power" players. Besides the Shuya/Noriko/Shogo trio, there is another group of "good guys" led by a hacker who also has a plan to escape. There is a large group of girls, led by the Class Representative, little miss future valedictorian, who hole up in a lighthouse. And then there are the villains: Kazuo Kiriyama and Mitsuko Souma.

Kazuo and Mitsuko both turn into the serial killers of the game, though Mitsuko gets a little bit more character development (and dialog), and her willingness to kill her classmates to survive can be seen as an extension of the life she's led, whereas Kazuo is just an emotionless psychopath. Takami uses them pretty effectively as scary monsters: any chapter where one of them shows up will cue the "Psycho" or "Jaws" soundtrack in your head, 'cause someone's about to die.

That other dystopian YA novel about teenagers forced by a tyrannical government to kill each other in a televised gladiatorial death-match

So, The Hunger Games. I'm a fan. Anyone who has read Suzanne Collins's trilogy really should read Battle Royale — not because they are alike, but because, despite the many obvious similarities, both in the setting and the plot twists, they are really quite different books.

Collins said in an interview that she had never heard of Battle Royale before she wrote The Hunger Games. I don't doubt her, and it's probably a good thing she didn't, or she wouldn't have been able to write the same book.

The Hunger Games was making a point about the blurring of reality with entertainment. Collins usually pulls her punches when it comes to violence: Katniss kills people, but only when she has no choice, and the violence is relatively restrained. You're supposed to be horrified at the idea of the Games and root for Katniss to bring down the Capital, but The Hunger Games also strictly follows American YA formula, introducing romance as a major plot arc. As a dystopian novel, the Hunger Games trilogy tries to be meaningful while being pretty lightweight, and shows little awareness of its antecedents. If there's any "meaning" to Battle Royale, it is "Adults are afraid of teenagers" and "Violence turns everyone into an animal," but mostly it makes little pretense to being anything other than a blood-soaked thriller. And yet, I cared more about even the bit characters in Battle Royale, the ones who got one page of introduction before they were dispatched, than I did about any of Collins's expendables.

I can't tell you which one I consider the "better" book. The Hunger Games has a more complex story and the structure and prose are more polished (at least in English). Battle Royale certainly requires a higher tolerance for gore, as Takami is unstinting in describing oozing brains and eyeballs. There's also a lot more grittiness in the lives of the teenagers even outside the Program; Collins balked at mentioning sex, while Takami doesn't, nor does he balk at making a bunch of the girls in Class B underage prostitutes.

Better in Japanese

It's hard to ding a book on its writing style when you can't tell how much of the clunkiness of prose and awkward dialog is the result of poor translation. As opposed to some other Japanese novels I've read in translation (like Haruki Murakami) Battle Royale appears to have been translated as close to word-for-word as possible. Aside from adjustments for grammar and a few things that just don't work the same way linguistically in English (like use of given names vs. family names), there was little attempt to make the English text conform to modern prose style. Telling instead of showing, repetition, excessive use of adverbs, and other stylistic clunkers abound.

Mitsuko Souma

There can be only one.

Yoshimi screamed and shoved Mitsuko aside. Mitsuko fell back onto the grass, exposing her well-formed legs from the hem of her pleated skirt down to her thighs.

Yoshimi shielded Yoji's body. The sickle was still planted in his skull. Her tears fell onto his body. The sickle was telling her: Shaking me won't revive me. Don't shake me, there's a sickle stuck in me. Man, that hurts.

Her chest tightened with waves of remorse. She felt as if she were drowning, as if the world were coming to an end. She thought of the cause behind all of this, and her teary eyes glared fiercely at Mitsuko. If looks could kill, her glare would have. Yoshimi couldn't care less now what kind of game this was or who her enemies and allies were. If anyone was her worst enemy, it was Mitsuko Souma, who'd killed her love.

"Why'd you kill him?" The words sounded empty to Yoshimi. She felt as if she had become a hollow bag in a human shape. But the words came pouring out. The human body could do strange things.

"Why? Why'd you kill him? It's horrible! It's just too awful! You're evil! Why'd you have to kill him? Why?"

Mitsuko contorted her mouth in an expression of dissatisfaction. "You were about to get killed. I saved you."

"No! I got Yoji to understand me! You're so evil! I'll kill you, I'll kill you! Yoji understood me!"

Mitsuko shook her head and shrugged, pointing the .45 at her. Yoshimi's eyes opened wide again.

And so Yoshimi heard a dry pop one more time. Her forehead felt as if it were being crushed by a car. That was all.

Yoshimi Yahagi fell onto the corpse of her beloved Yoji Kuramoto and lay motionless. The .45 caliber bullet had demolished the back of her head. But her mouth remained open as if she were screaming, and blood came flowing out. It soaked Yoji's school coat, oozing out into a dark patch.

Mitsuko lowered the smoking Colt .45 and shrugged again. She'd planned on using Yoshimi to shield her from bullets.

She leaned over and whispered into the ear of Yoshimi's half-destroyed head. "I'm sure he understood." There was a strange topping of gray jelly brains and blood on her earlobe. "I killed him because it looked like he wasn't going to kill you after all."

Then, once again, she reached to pry loose the sickle from Yoji's head.


I recommend the revised 2009 VIZ edition, which includes an interview with Kinji Fukasaku, director of the Battle Royale movie, and an afterword and Q&A by the author. Koushun Takami is... quite a character. I liked how he freely admitted that he didn't know squat about guns when he handed out weapons to his characters (apparently he got quite a few letters from gun aficionados complaining), but more importantly, I liked that he showed far more awareness than Suzanne Collins of the literary sources he was mining. (He cites 1984 and Stephen King's The Long Walk as direct influences.)

Batoru Rowaiaru

Battle Royale (2000)

Having written so much about the book, the movie is also worth discussing (and seeing).

Battle Royale was controversial in Japan, but an immediate bestseller, so a movie was filmed the next year, in 2000. For a long time, it was somewhat difficult to obtain in the U.S. (though it was never banned, as is sometimes rumored; it just hadn't been officially distributed here which meant you pretty much had to order it directly from Japan or else get a bootleg copy). Now, though, it's available on Netflix.

First of all, it's really violent. Decapitations, exploding heads, crotch-stabbings, the works. If you can't handle the book, you definitely can't handle the movie.

But it's so outrageous it's almost campy. The movie captures the tone of the book (the violence, the suspense, and the morbid humor) amazingly well. It's also pretty faithful to the book. Most of the characters die the same way they do in the book, killed by the same opponents. Major differences are the role of their Instructor, and that the movie dispenses with the fictional "Republic of Greater East Asia" and just sets the story in a near-future Japan where those damn kids are running wild and so the adults decide the best way to teach 'em some respect is to make them fight each other to the death. No, this explanation isn't any better than the one in the book, but then again, it's not a lot sillier than the Hunger Games.

There isn't a lot of opportunity for acting in a movie where most of the characters are cannon fodder, but the kids captured the terror, paranoia, and desperation of their situation pretty well. I suspect they also really liked (pretending to) hack, shoot, and blow each other up.

Girls with guns, grenades, and scythes

They would eat Katniss Everdeen's liver with fava beans and sake.

What the movie lacked is what most movie adaptations lack: the background and character development that makes everything a little more interesting. Arguably character development is wasted on a character whose only purpose is to jump off a cliff or get shot in the back, but as I said above, finding out what makes each poor junior high school student tick, whether he or she was shy or popular, a bully or a victim, a serious student or a class clown, before meeting their inevitable end, actually made the story more real for me.

In a 2-hour movie, there isn't enough time to treat 42 characters as individuals, so most of them are just bloody uniforms. When you see Mitsuko Souma rise from the bloody, half-naked corpses of Tadakatsu Hatagami and Yuichiro Takiguchi as their deaths are announced, you know something went down, but that one scene in the movie replaces several chapters in the book (including one of the few where Mitsuko shows a hint of humanity).

Kazuo Kiriyama doesn't get a single line of dialog in the movie. He's just a Jason Voorhees-like figure, stalking the island with his machine gun and killing anyone who crosses his path. This was also pretty much the role he played in the book, but he got at least a little bit of explanation and some interaction with his unfortunate loyal gang members.

The movie is lots of fun (if you are into gory bloodbaths involving teenagers, which, uh, probably says something profoundly fucked up about what we consider entertainment, but anyway...) and should be seen in contrast to the upcoming Hunger Games movie. But the book makes it much better.

Verdict: Battle Royale is a gory thrill ride, not exactly a modern classic (and I don't think it's considered high literature in Japan either), but it really is more than just pulp fiction or a Hunger Games predecessor. It does what many more restrained violent novels fail to do, which is make every death interesting, if not meaningful, and combines satire bordering on camp with some real speculation about just what kind of violence individuals and society are capable of. I recommend it with all the aforementioned caveats. It's entertaining as hell, and a little deeper than it appears on the surface (but only a little).
Tags: books, movies, reviews

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