While I was living in Nagasaki I watched a popular but controversial Japanese film called Battle Royale. I really enjoyed it, and recently I just finished reading the book that it was based on. Since I don’t feel like writing up another description of the story, let’s just go with what the back of the book says for now:
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 English language.
I think that about sums it up. When I first saw the movie, I commented on the absurdity of the concept. Having read the book, which focuses much more on the background happenings at the time, such as the state of the government and what kind of dictatorship the characters live in, the whole thing becomes eerily plausible. The story takes place in an alternate time-line where Japan, is and has been for decades, a fascist state known as the Republic of Greater East Asia. The people are completely oppressed, imports such as rock music and books are illegal, and the country runs on its own version of the internet, a highly filtered version of the actual thing. The battle royale program is called a military exercise by the high-ups, but no one really believes that to be true. The actual purpose of the program is revealed at the end of the book.
The story mainly focuses on three characters. The main characters decide not to participate in the government’s “military exercise” and instead devise a way to escape the island with their lives. The most interesting part of the book is the amazing cleverness of the children and how they try to overcome an unimaginable situation when the odds are impossibly stacked against them.
The book follows the movie pretty closely – some things were cut for time, some for content. The end was shortened and altered for the movie. Reading the book provided a much more satisfying ending and definitely had a much more exciting climax / resolution compared to the movie. The overall outcome of the movie from the book remained the same, but how it came about was different. If I had to pick which one I like more I would pick the book, but I am giving the film major credit for making such a successfully rendered adaptation of this complex book. If a Hollywood adaptation is made, and I think there will be, it could potentially be better (better actors, larger budget) and I would be interested in seeing it.
I commend the author for creating such a detailed ensemble of characters. There are a total of 42 students in the book, many of whom you get to know in great detail throughout the story. The book doesn’t just focus on the three main characters, it hops around and puts you in the shoes of everyone involved. The characters are so well described you feel as though you could know them in real-life by the end. This makes you feel a lot of empathy towards the characters and their individual plights.
The main theme of the book is probably trust. When put into a situation like these kids, what would you do? The idea that keeps coming back is this: given the right situation you cannot trust anyone. The tagline for the book, “Could you kill your best friend?” proves to be a question that many characters in the book had to answer. Of course, their are other themes such as anti-fascism as well.Lastly, a few notes on the English translation. As of today, only one edition has been published and it was translated by Yuji Oniki. There were many grammatical mistakes in this edition and at sometimes the style seems rather amateur-like. In the near future there will probably be a republishing of this book, but in the meantime I wouldn’t let these things discourage you from enjoying this classic.