So everyone do me a favor. Raise your hand if you have read a 600+ page book consisting of 42 Asian named characters, 15–year-old obligatory killers, and only 1 way out of a truly horrifying situation. No body? Me either. That was until I came across Koushun Takami’s cult classic novel Battle Royale. The controversial book was written in 1999 and has since been adapted into both a movie and Manga series. All versions of the story differ slightly on various characters, plot points, and explanations, however they all have one central story line in common: kids killing kids.
Often referred to as a modern ‘Lord of the Flies,’ Battle Royale follows the journey of a class of 42 Japanese students who are picked randomly by the government to participate in ‘The Program.’ The students are essentially kidnapped while on a fieldtrip and brought to a remote island seized by the government and used specifically to carry out their agenda. The rules of the program are simple.
1. You do not talk about Battle Royale. Wait… no.
1. 42 students are brought to an island, given a randomly selected weapon along with some basic provisions and a map of the area.
2. They have 3 days to become the last one standing by forcibly killing their own classmates. The winner is allowed to return to their home with asmall stipend and an autographed portrait of Japan’s ruler.
3. If more than 1 student remains at the end of 3 days, everyone will be terminated, no questions asked.
At first the children are horrified, rebellious, even skeptical of what they are being told will take place.However, they along with the readers are in for a brutal reality shock when many of the students make the instantaneous decision to play the game and ensure their own survival.
What I found remarkably interesting about this fictional future ‘government program’ is that not only are the events that occur known to all of Japan’s citizens, the actions are accepted. Some parents react with horror to the choice of their children, while other accept the decision with a quiet consent to the strong-arm of dictatorship. As a somewhat twisted allegory of oppressive life in Japan, the events and actions on the island reflect the pinnacle of what humans are willing to accept from government authority.
“The police came and killed my father. No warrant, nothing. They just came in without a word and shot him dead. I can still rememeber it clearly. We were in the kitchen. I was still small. I was sitting at the table. My mother held me tight. Then I grew up and ate my meals at the same table.”
While not for the faint of heart, this story is not without its touching moments either. It is easy to disregard the age of the characters due to their extreme intelligence and will power, however Takami gives us a few quiet moments in the midst of all the devastation where we are forced to stop and remember that at the root of the story these are very frightened, very young children who are attempting to make the best out of the worst situation imaginable.
There are some tender moments between characters where they express what may have once been trivial secrete teenage feelings now amplified due to the extreme circumstances. With nothing else to cling to besides the possible hope of human compassion from each other, the doomed children reach out to anything and anyone that might be able to make their last moments worthwhile.
“You wear nice clothes, you seek respect, you make a lot of money, but what’s the point? It’s all pointless. Of course, this kind of meaninglessness might suit this crappy nation. 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."
The major downside of this work is the somewhat stagnant and simple language that is used. So much of the story is devoted to action that any possibilities for imagery or character building seem to fall by the wayside, (along with almost all of the children in the book). It is possible that some of the language was lost in translation, however what remains is a fast-paced, action-packed, no-holds bar fight to the death that keeps the pages turning faster than you can recognize.
(Tip: I wrote down all of the names along with a character trait or their weapon to help keep the names straight. It got a lot easier as I went on though so don't get discouraged.)
As I found myself nearing the end and reflecting back on the horrific yet disturbingly entertaining events in the book, I was forced to consider what my own role would have been in ‘The Program’. Would I have waved the white flag of surrender to my fellow classmates and citizens, essentially dying for the sake of morality, or would I have chosen to fight an impossible battle to win what would be left of my life after succeeding at the deaths of my friends? It is a difficult question for anyone to answer, let alone a group of 15-year-old students which is what makes this book a true stand out.
I would recommend Battle Royale to anyone looking for a fast paced, easy read but especially to those who are looking to have their morals, their views, and their emotional thresholds challenged.