Review: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

“Sakamochi clapped his hands a few times and admonished, ‘All right, all right, all right, quiet down, everyone!’ The uproar quickly subsided, and he continued. ‘Okay, I’ll explain. We’ve had you come here for one and only one reason’. Then: ‘Today, you’re all going to kill each other’. This time, no outburst came. The students froze like subjects of a still life photograph – except Kawada, Shuya noticed, who kept chewing his gum. Kawada’s expression remained impassive, though Shuya thought he might have seen the flash of a faint smile. Sakamochi maintained his broad grin and continued, ‘Your class has been chosen for this year’s Program’. Someone whimpered.”

Generally speaking, I avoid with passion any novels that could be categorised under the labels ‘horror’ or ‘thriller’. To my overly-anxious mind, the stress that accompanies the tension of books that rest on overt violence or pulse-increasing unpredictability makes it much simpler to give such works a wide berth when considering what to read next. While I am well aware that this means I am likely missing out on some truly great novels, I do make the periodic exception when I feel that any impending stress will be outweighed by the weight of a book’s overarching narrative. Koushun Takami’s cult thriller, Battle Royale, is one that has been on my radar for some time. My fascination with locked-room scenarios (in the vein of works such as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express) is something that easily translates to the ‘game’ famously depicted in Battle Royale (and translated, for contemporary western consumption, by Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games). Although absent of the mystery-solving element specific to Agatha Christie’s works, Battle Royale initiates a similar process of problem-solving within the violent, political parameters in which 42 junior high school students are isolated to an island and told that they must kill one another.

Although an overtly violent premise, Battle Royale rests upon a foundation of dystopian authoritarianism that divorces the novel from the gratuitousness that might otherwise characterise its graphic offerings. Set in an alternative Japan of 1997, in which the country is known as the Republic of Greater East Asia, Battle Royale details the story of Shiroiwa Junior High Ninth Grade Class B. On their way to school trip, the 42 students are involuntarily abducted by the country’s authoritarian state forces and removed to an island where they are expected to engage in the Program. Surprisingly, this Program is no secret to society-at-large but rather sold by the government as an experimental conscription in which the state is afforded the opportunity to collect statistics for the progress of the nation. To this end, 50 ninth grade classes are selected each year to participate in a game wherein the students are expected to kill one another, until the single remaining survivor is declared the ‘winner’. As Class B wake up to a reality in which none of the students expected to find themselves, the hope is that the students will band together in order to uncover a route to escape. Few expect that their friends and colleagues will engage with the game. As suspicion begins to turn the students against one another, however, it is clear that Class B will be no exception to the rules of the Program.

“Every junior high school student in the Republic of Greater East Asia knew about the Program, which was covered in textbooks starting in the fourth grade. A somewhat detailed description appears in the government-compiled Republic of Greater East Asia Compact Encyclopedia:

Program … 4. A battle simulation necessary to our defense and conducted by our nation’s Ground Nonaggressive Force. Officially titled ‘Combat Experiment 68th Program’. First held in 1947, the annual simulations are conducted by fifty ninth-grade classes selected voluntarily nationwide (prior to 1950, the number of classes was forty-seven), with various statistics collected from the trials. The experiment itself is simple: the students in each class fight each other until only one remains, and the findings, including the elapsed time of the simulation, are determined. The last survivor (winner) in each class is awarded a lifetime pension and a personally signed autograph from His Majesty the Leader.”

I wrote earlier in the week about my thoughts in favour of graphic violence in fiction. These reflections were largely inspired by finishing Battle Royale and attempting to reconcile the discomfort I felt at the gravity of the violence depicted in the novel with the sense that I had read something quite remarkable. What is clear from reading Battle Royale is that the violence, while extreme and incredibly graphic, is never superfluous to the novel’s broader narrative. At its core, Battle Royale feels more like a political novel than anything else. While one undoubtedly and, to a certain extent, unwillingly becomes engaged with the game and its outcome, the reader is never far from reminders that this is a profoundly psychological work steeped in the consequences of life in a totalitarian state. The novel’s primary protagonist, Shuya Nanahara, is an orphan, guitarist, and devotee of prohibited rock music. He and his closest friends have their own thoughts on the state of the nation, displaying a clarity of understanding peculiar to those that live without access to democratic freedoms. Unlike teenagers that exist with the privilege of dreaming to manifest concrete change, the students of Class B are forced realists – all aware that, even in playing the game of the Program, they are pawns of a system that has a reach so much larger than their own.

Early in the novel, Shuya allies himself with the mysterious Shogo Kawada, a recent transfer to Shiroiwa Junior High. Kawada has an intriguing degree of insight into the operations of the government of the Greater Republic of East Asia. With a profundity typically believed to exist as the sole terrain of explicitly dystopian fiction – in the vein of George Orwell’s 1984 – Kawada understands that the success of totalitarianism exists through the willing obedience of the people:

“Kawada nodded. ‘Yeah. In other words, I think the system used by our government has been tailor-made to fit its people. Obedience to our superiors. Following blindly. Dependence on others and following the herd. A conservative nature and avoidance of conflict. That hopeless stupidity that enables a person, who, say, snitched on someone else, to convince himself that he did the right thing, provided someone else offered the noble-sounding rationale that it was for the good of the group. And so on, and so on. Have they no pride? Have they no reason? They can’t think with their own heads. They just follow, like little baa-baa-ing sheep. Just makes me want to puke’.”

Battle Royale resounds with this kind of insight, elevating what Takami has achieved to something far beyond the realm of a thriller or a simple horror novel. Juxtaposing this type of discourse with the forcible murder of 15-year-old school children, the graphic violence takes on the character of a constant, jarring reminder of the social manipulation at work at the foundations of the Program. The horror felt by Kawada and his classmates as they awake to the reality of a program of systematic, state-sanctioned murder that receives implied consent from the population at large – and, in its own way, successfully reinforces the fear and division that underlies that consent – works its way into the psyche of the reader with a force quite equal to the violence inflicted upon the Program’s participants. It is not the violence of Battle Royale‘s deaths that most sticks with the novel’s readers, but the systemic, socially-reinforced violence that permits the Program’s existence.

Battle Royale‘s publication came at a time of incredible strife within Japan. The Kobe earthquake had devastated the southern part of Hyogi prefecture, killing over 6000 people. In the same year, 1995, Aum Shinrikyo committed the infamous sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground. The book also followed closely on the heels of the Kobe child killings, in which a 14-year-old boy impaled the head of a classmate on the school gates, along with a note stating “This is the beginning of the game…” Given this context, it is no surprise that Battle Royale created significant controversy at the time of its release. This feeling of ‘hitting too close to home’ is also implicit in the discomfort of western audiences with the novel’s material. School shootings in the US continue to condemn the country to repeated attempts to wrestle with moral obligations and the leveraging of political favour. Yet it is precisely this feeling of Battle Royale as an uncomfortable mirror of contemporary social dynamics that makes it such an important read. While it is certainly possible to dismiss the novel as an extreme depiction of ‘social experiment gone wrong’, a horror so unimaginable that any comparison with modern problems is an insult, to do so is a misunderstanding of dystopian fiction at its most excellent. 1984 was not, after all, simply a warning of things to come but a call to consideration of what society had evolved to in its contemporary state. As fantastically removed as Battle Royale may seem from anything represented today, it certainly demands that we consider our own herd mentalities and the tendency to implicitly condone that which we are uncomfortable explicitly challenging.

“Given the slightest chance, the imperialists would invade the soil of our Republic, the most advanced revolutionary state in the world. By weaving their plots to bring ruin to our people, they lay bare the depths of their devious ways. [Scattered shouts of anger] With our nation surrounded by this state of affairs, the 68th Program is absolutely vital. In truth, I myself will be unable to hold back my bitter tears of remorse over the loss of the lives of thousands, even tens of thousands, each at the age of only fifteen. But if their lives serve to protect the independence of our people living in this nation of abundance, then will not their flesh and blood live on for eternity, becoming one with this land of beauty passed down to us by our gods?”

Battle Royale is a incredibly multifaceted work. A supercharged, controversial thriller, it is certainly possible to read the novel for the heart-pounding entertainment that it willingly provides. In light of contemporary political and social developments, however, the novel also stands as a warning. It is not, perhaps, a warning that death games are where society is immediately headed – no more than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale posits itself as a prediction of a society headed toward women as explicitly property, forced to sleep with the men by whom they are chosen. These novels are, however, a call to reflection on political direction and social priorities. Battle Royale offers no easy answers by refusing to lay culpability squarely on the shoulders of the political establishment. Instead, it parses blame as shared by both the exploiter and those offering themselves (and their 15-year-old children) up for the utility of the powerful. Battle Royale is an example of the power wielded by violence in fiction, as a refusal to sanitise the most uncomfortable truths, forcing introspection on the question of what we, as a society, are willing to permit.

Battle Royale

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