~written by Koushun Takami
~translated by Yuji Oniki
Although I was quite familiar with the basic plot and premise of Battle Royale, I had never read Koushun Takami's original novel, seen the film based on the book, or read the manga adaptation. At least until now. 2009 saw the tenth anniversary of the first iteration of the story as well as the publication of a new English edition of the novel by Viz Media under their Haikasoru imprint. In addition to a revised and updated translation by Yuji Oniki, the Haikasoru edition also includes a fantastic new cover design, a forward by Max Allan Collins, an interview with Kinji Fukasaku (director of the film Battle Royale), and additional material from the author Koushun Takami. Both the novel and the film, and probably the manga as well, were highly controversial due to the subject matter and graphic violence, but became cult hits. I have been meaning to read Battle Royale since I first learned about it as an undergrad student and now I finally have (and probably will again). I also plan on tracking down the film and manga, too.
Every year in the Republic of Greater East Asia, fifty junior high third year classes are selected to participate in The Program--a battle royal style fight to the death. With a perverted sense of equality, each student is given a day pack with basic supplies and a random weapon. The class is taken to an isolated area and warned about forbidden zones. As the game progresses more are added, forcing confrontations between the players as the playable area becomes smaller. If there are no deaths within a twenty-four hour period, the students will all be killed as the explosive tracking collars around their necks are detonated. The goal is simple: become the only survivor. Shiroiwa Junior High School Class 3-B with forty-two students has been chosen. The students, some who have been friends since childhood, are now forced into a situation where they must either kill each other or die. They all question how well they know their fellow classmates, who they can trust and to what extent, who will be willing to play, and when it comes down to it, what are they willing to do to survive.
There are nearly fifty named characters in Battle Royale and Takami made me care about each one of them. I was never confused by who was who and was able to keep track of everyone pretty well, quite an accomplishment on the author's part. However, some of the descriptions associated with a given character were occasionally repetitive or overused. The story primarily follows Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa, but every student has at least one moment in the spotlight, however brief. Each chapter ends with a countdown of how many students are remaining. This assisted in building tension, especially when someone has been wounded but the number hasn't decreased, giving hope that they might pull through. I was impressed that Takami was able to mostly avoid relying too heavily on stereotypes. When they were used, it was usually within the context of one character's view of another, which is something I would expect from a bunch of teenagers. Unfortunately, the history and purpose of the program is never concretely explained, although the students do discuss several theories through the course of the book.
Battle Royale is gripping and intense to say the least; once I began reading I didn't want to put it down. Many people probably consider Battle Royale simply exploitative, but I think it is more than that. The book is incredibly layered and can be approached on many different levels--there is more to the story than blood and death, including tremendous psychological elements. Through the thoughts and experiences of its many characters, Battle Royale provides commentary on humanity, society, the game itself, and the personal lives of individuals, each informing the further understanding of the others. However, if you do have a problem with the fictional depiction of teenagers brutally killing their classmates, stay away from Battle Royale because it is incredibly graphic and violent. I was mostly happy with Oniji's translation, but I do think some of the font choices were rather odd. And I really need to brush up on my metric. The 2009 Haikasoru edition is quite nice, and I appreciated the inclusion of the additional material. Battle Royale is most definitely not for everyone but, if you can take it, it's fantastic.