REVIEW: Battle Royale (1999)

A book by Koushun Takami

Perhaps, more than any book, Battle Royale by Koushun Takami defined the early 2000’s for me. It’s existence, and more precisely the film based on it, directed most of my interests over to Japanese film and Japanese books at a time when it was easy to hyper-obsess over such things. I recall becoming a connoisseur of “grey market” bootleg Japanese DVDs that I would find on eBay, that all started with me trying to find a copy of Battle Royale which was never released legitimately in the U.S. until much later due to fears of it triggering school violence. When this novel was released a few years later, I was extremely excited and picked it up immediately. Reading it a couple of times, I eventually loaned it out to a guy that never got it back, so this is the first read-through I’ve had in almost TWO DECADES!

The book is just as good as a remember, and it’s funny to think that so many videogames, films, TV series and other material is loosely based on it. If not for this story, we’d likely never have The Hunger Games, Squid Game, Fortnight, or PUBG in their current states. Some of those are blatantly inspired by this book, no matter how much they deny it. The entire concept of a political regime forcing children to battle each other to assert control is nothing short of shocking, and should incite the same sort of gut wrenching uncomfortable feelings that got this book delayed in Japan, and the film almost banned in the United States.

“Koushun Takami’s notorious high-octane thriller is based on an irresistible premise: 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 one another until only one survivor is left standing. Criticized as violent exploitation when first published in Japan – where it then proceeded to become a runaway bestseller – 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. Made into a controversial hit movie of the same name, Battle Royale is already a contemporary Japanese pulp classic, now available for the first time in the English language.”

If you are coming at this book as a person that is either unaware of the film, or have heard rumblings that The Hunger Games may or may not have “ripped it off”, you may be surprised at how similar the two are, with this pre-dating it by quite a big margin. However, this book is not aimed at young readers, and as a result has a much more harsh worldview at the forefront and goes to show how truly evil politics can get. If you are like me, you would be coming at this from the vantage point of somebody that has seen the film, and was curious that the film was adapted from an earlier novel. While the two are largely similar, the film adaptation removes a lot of content. This is not a real huge surprise considering how long the book is, and how gruesome the content can be at times.

I think the main way in which this novel departs from the later film is that it actually builds up a backstory for exactly why the “Battle Experiment No. 68 Program” is taking place. In this world, Japan is part of National Socialist (full on Nazi) regime called The Republic of Greater East Asia, and their mortal enemy is a nation referred to as The American Empire. This change took place after an alternate history version of World War II in which Japan emerged victorious, invaded most of the eastern part of Asia and became a recluse state much like North Korea is today. “The Great Dictator” crushes any hint of rebellion by giving immense power to the combined military and police forces. The government controls everything, and anything “immoral”, such as rock music, is banned. Anyone seen doing anything counter to the Government is seen as a traitor and killed.

At some point, one of the many ways The Great Dictator worked to quell rebellion was “The Program“, the name for the “game” where upwards of forty Junior high classes are selected “at random” to fight to the death allowing one winner an autographed card of The Great Dictator. Citizens are lead to believe that this is a scientific survey to test invasion readiness and survival skills, but in reality, this is a population control tactic and a way to silence political foes.

Map of The Island in the book

This entire plot was removed for the 2000 film which is a HUGE shame – the film makes it seem like “The Program” randomly happens in modern day / normal Japan, and exists as a logical continuation of where reality programming might be heading. The “games” are huge on TV, and winners can sometimes be celebrities afterwards. While VERY shocking, this omission muddies the narrative a bit due to a few snippets of the original anti-American sentiment being left in the screenplay seemingly making the films about American Imperialism vs Japanese Nationalism. I mean, in way that is also true, but in the book Japan are literally Nazis so it’s not like they are “the good guys”.

This is made even more baffling in the second film, which was not written or inspired by Takami, in which the characters of Noriko and Shuya go off to live in a “utopian free society” which we find out to be Taliban controlled Afghanistan. I mean, hats off to Kenta Fukasaku (the film director) for making such a ballsy film, especially right after 9-11 and obviously as a condemnation of George W. Bush era politics, but dear god it’s off base. After reading the book, it’s hard to reconcile the two, no matter how good the first film is, as the book is FAR superior in just about every way. I may have to revisit the films at some point and see if they are what I remember them to be.

From AZ Quotes

The meat and potatoes of the story are the kids trying to cope with the ordeal they have been placed in. Some can’t deal with it, and commit suicide, others frantically try to “win” as fast as they can in fear, some have a competitive slant, and others (including our main characters) hold onto a somewhat naïve notion that if everyone just bands together they can somehow overthrow the entire machine. It brings out the absolute worst in some of the kids, with every awful thing that plagued many childhoods ramped up to 11. Class bullies become murderous psychopaths, people use sex as a weapon, and others try to settle old scores that have been lingering for years. Eventually, Shuya and Noriko settle into the notion that they to must play the game if only to try to get close to the man in charge, the despicable sadist Kinpatsu Sakamochi.

William Golding once said that in writing Lord of the Flies he “aimed to trace society’s flaws back to their source in human nature.” If Battle Royale takes a page from that, we can see Takami is saying that politicians are fearful of this fact and see children as the biggest threat to their power. If allowed to go uncontested, youth can rise up, shape the world around them, and get change made – something the elite higher ups cannot stomach. Many are willing to die for their values, while most older folks are perfectly happy with whatever happens as long as they and their material wealth are taken care of. Battle Royale is a book that shockingly understands the feelings that most Millennials and older Gen Zers have about modern society. Time and time again, young people are often thrown into a brutal hellscape that denies them even the most modest comforts afforded their parents while offering nigh-impossible odds against success. Understanding this is the key to understanding the success of this book and why it hit such a nerve back in 1999.

The reprehensible Kinpatsu Sakamochi as depicted in one of the manga spinoffs I plan to eventually review

Battle Royale is often imitated but never replicated. Literally none of the aforementioned inspired works have the visceral power that this story has. Yes, Battle Royale lacks some of the character building that it’s successors have. That is unless you are keeping score of who is a good baseball player, basketball player, which gang is run by who etc. Yes, some newer stories are definitely more popular, but in a way that misses the point entirely. I would argue that The The Hunger Games is good, but in a weird way that almost safely sanitizes state-sponsored child murder as a side effect of wealth. I never had the sheer disdain for any of the adult characters I had when reading Battle Royale, and if anything, the passive way the violence was presented almost makes it entirely a story about class struggle with the whole kids killing each other thing almost an afterthought.

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami is not for everyone. It’s full of grotesque violence, horrible people, hopelessness, and could trigger some people due to all the above. That said, it’s a masterpiece of dystopian fiction and one of the most influential books of the last few decades. I know some may criticize the translation, but who knows how good it is unless you have read both and know both languages, most detractors have not. I thought it was fine, and was never confused. As you can tell it’s one of my all-time favorites and I’m glad I read it again. If you have watched the movie, and want the superior version, you need to read this. Otherwise, I’d almost recommend a total novice watching the film first, as it could help with things like character names and such. When I was at work, I actually downloaded a version from Audible that was narrated by Mark Dacascos and switched back and forth between reading the book at home and listening. The audiobook is well done, and is highly recommended.

“What I mean is, even a dumbass like me can think everything’s pointless. Why do I get up and eat? It all ends up shit anyway. Why am I going to school and studying? Even if I happen to succeed I’m going to die anyway. You wear nice clothes, you seek respect, you make a lot of money, but what’s the point? It’s all pointless. But… but, you see, we still have emotions like joy and happiness, right? They may not amount to much but they fill up our emptiness.”

Koushun Takami, Battle Royale

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