Koshun Takami wrote this novel in 1996 (but only published it in 1999). Nearly 14 year later, this person has picked it up a bookshelf and decided to give it a go.
Nearly 10h later, I put the book down and I slowly exhaled. It’s by far the best book I have read this year and only comes second to “The Stand” (by Stephen King).
I found out today that there was a movie made after the story (seen it this morning) and also a manga (see a volume cover below):
Weeeelll, I read the manga after the movie and I can now say I had a full “Battle Royale” weekend!
What’s the fuss all about?
Battle Royale isn’t set in modern Japan, but rather the Republic of Greater East Asia — which sounds like a mix of Japan and North Korea. State control is more far-reaching, and among the ways the state exerts its control is through the egalitarian but deadly ‘Program’, officially the ‘Battle Experiment No. 68 Program’. Every year fifty third year junior high school classes are selected. Each is brought to some isolated area (an island, typically) and the students set against each other. Provided with a variety of weapons, it’s a winner take all battle: the students have to kill each other until only one survives:
The final survivor of each class (the winner) is provided with a lifetime pension and a card autographed by The Great Dictator.
Battle Royale is the story of one such class-battle. Beginning with 42 students, the novel follows their fates as they battle each other. Among the special rules of the game is that someone has to get killed every 24 hours or else everybody gets killed (which turns out not to be a problem — the slaughtering occurs at a pretty good clip), and that more and more parts of the island where they are playing become off-limits as the game progresses. Control over the students is exerted via metal collars they’ve been outfitted with: explosive charges in them will detonate if they move in a prohibited zone (or if the 24-hour limit is exceeded).
It looks like a no-win situation for the participants, or at least all except one, since there appears to be no way to turn against the game-keepers, or to stay alive without turning to murder. With the large number of participants at the beginning of the game Takami manages to go through most of the possible variations of reactions and attitudes. A few jump right into the game, readily willing to turn on their classmates, while others try to forge alliances and help each other out. Trust is hard to come by — and hard to keep.
Cleverly, the students are outfitted with different weapons, everything from a machine gun to a set of darts. One player only gets a bulletproof vest, another a device that lets him know the location of near-by players. Betrayal is common, and Takami comes up with some entertaining twists of fate.
The novel centres around three of the players, Shuya and Noriko, who ally themselves with Shogo. Shogo has a big advantage over all the other players: he’s played this game before. (It’s his bad luck that he got left behind and had to repeat the year at a new school where the class he was put into then got selected …..) His enormous hatred for the country and the system drive him to subvert it, and his insider knowledge gives him a huge edge. Still, it’s hard to know who to trust and how to act (and the authorities have a few more tricks up their sleeves as well).
Battle Royale is necessarily a book of mass-slaughter: more than forty deaths, and practically each one is described, a litany of brutality and betrayal that even it its many variations can be a bit of overkill. Still, for such a long book littered with so many bodies, Takami manages to keep things moving, and to hold the reader’s interest. There’s constant tension, and a few good surprises. There are too many characters to really get much of a sense of many of them, but Takami does try to show the reasons for the way they act, a fun reflection of (junior) high school life which can often seem this brutal (just without the bloody consequences). In the extreme situations true colours are shown — and they’re often surprising ones; it certainly makes the book a fun reflection of typical teen life.
Takami does have to take a few short-cuts — convenient facts that allow this battle to be a bit different from most of the others. Ultimately, it’s not particularly realistic — but then one really can’t expect a book with such a premise to be highly realistic.
There are a few odd choices — including the fact that the programme is so enormous (fifty classes a year ! that’s roughly 2000 students killed, an enormous hit for even a large nation to take). (The purpose of the programme is never made too clear either – the movie hinted that the teenagers did not respect their elders anymore and this program will instill fear in their hearts.) And the altered state — the Republic of Greater East Asia — perhaps adds an unnecessary layer. A closer-to-reality society in which one class a year is sacrificed in this way might have been more compelling.
Still, Battle Royale is a perfectly fine thriller, with a fun premise, quite well drawn-out.
My favourite character
Well, there are many villains – the system is one of them but there are two that really shine out from among the 42 classmates:
– Mitsuko Souma – A teenager so f..ked up that she could definitely have won if her greatest weapon was not her undoing. She is a teen prostitute, selling herself for money, handbags, shoes, anything that could get her any advantage. She runs her own gang and she is ready to slash and kill anyone who dares stay in her way.
– Kazuo Kiriyama – Devoid of any emotions due to an accident early in his life, Kazuo has no qualms in killing his friends and enemies alike, a true sociopath. He seems to be almost immortal as the few attempts to kill him are unsuccessful. He keeps on coming back like a damn cyborg. I rooted for him to be killed brutally throughout the book and I was truly happy when he went to the end of the clearing.