I took some time away from The Book Habit last week, largely because I was determined to get through Koushun Takami’s very lengthy novel, Battle Royale. Scheduling reads around reviews is always a challenge – particularly when you have a 700-page book calling your name. Battle Royale was an interesting pick for me. Although I typically go in for dystopian fiction of almost any variety, the violent reputation of Takami’s novel has always led me to steer clear. As a past lover of The Hunger Games series and a current fan of the Danganronpa video games (no judgement – we all need help decompressing!), however, I was interested to give some time to Takami’s epic thriller as the most direct place of inspiration for both of these works. I’m glad that I took the time because Battle Royale is a powerful reflection on society and truth – and this is not in-spite of, but rather directly owing to, the graphic nature of the violence that it depicts.
For those unfamiliar with the thrust of the novel, Battle Royal is set in an alternative Japan during the 1990s. In this dystopian universe, Japan is part of the East Asian Federation – an authoritarian state, positioned against ‘imperial America’. The control of the state over its people is absolute – and a large part of this control comes from the mysterious ‘Program’, into which classes of ninth grade students (15 year olds) are unwillingly conscripted. School classes are chosen at random to participate in the Program, a ‘game’ in which the students are isolated on an island and forced to kill one another until the last remaining teenager is declared the ‘winner’. It is an overtly violent premise and the book certainly avoids turning its face from the sickening perversion of the game and its consequences. Reading Battle Royale – perhaps the most graphically violent book that I’ve ever read – encouraged me to reflect on the argument for graphic violence in fiction, particularly as someone who typically avoids such works. It has, to a certain extent, become implicitly accepted that graphic violence in media or art is problematic. The argument around violent video games as a source of inspiration for violent acts rears its head with some regularity and, despite a standard rejection of this idea, the thought that ‘too much violence’ can create problems is certainly present with many of us. If this is the case, is there something to be said in favour of including graphic violence in fiction?
We, as a society, have developed a preoccupation with the notion of ‘gratuitousness’. Rather than stick to the word’s intended meaning, however, the idea that violence is gratuitous has become tied to the scale of the violence depicted. If a work is too violent (typically meaning ‘graphic’), it is gratuitous. In the case of works like Battle Royale, however, graphic violence is integral to the novel’s narrative edge. Were the violence dumbed down, you would end with a sanitised and implicitly less powerful statement on the nature of the society depicted. The Hunger Games – whilst, in many respects, more appropriate for a young audience – does not come close to touching the unimaginably invasive and terrifying dystopia created by Takami. The graphic violence continually brings home the shocking control of a state that can make teenagers kill one another at will. Less relevant to Battle Royale, but still vital to the question of graphic violence in fiction, is the argument in favour of representation across the human experience. The crux of bibliotherapy rests upon the idea of identification – that individuals who have experienced or are experiencing some kind of hardship find comfort in seeing their trauma or challenges depicted in fiction. To take, for example, a victim of domestic violence – finding in fiction only sanitised versions of an incredibly traumatic and violent experience will inevitably create a number of negative emotions. Perhaps confusion over the inconsistencies with reality or a sadness that the full pain of the trauma was deemed inappropriate to the narrative. Not all victims of domestic violence – or of any kind of trauma – will want to see the full reality of their experience documented in fiction. This is why the other components of bibliotherapy exist. But failing to represent the full and often graphic nature of such an experience does a disservice to the pain created.
Fiction is important for so many reasons. The arguments I made a couple of weeks ago with regards to the impact of ‘cancel culture’ on fiction certainly have some overlap with the question of graphic violence. Not all of us will want to read works that are graphic in nature. I usually steer clear – mostly because my anxiety doesn’t require any additional fuel. But to diminish graphic violence as always gratuitous and inappropriate for consumption does incredible damage to the range of exploration implicit in writing fiction, as well as the need to represent the full spectrum of human experience. We need to return the notion of gratuitousness to its original meaning – the idea that violence for violence sake is unnecessary. In the case of novel’s like Battle Royale, graphic violence is an integral component of the overall narrative thrust and serves a powerful purpose. Without a willingness to journey into the bloody depths of state-sponsored murder, Takami’s work would certainly prove a less effective statement on diverse psychologies and the nature of totalitarianism.