Title: Battle Royale
Publisher: Viz Media
Author: Koshun Takami
Translator: Yuji Oniki
I read the first volume of the Battle Royale manga when I was fifteen. For two weeks I was distracted and disturbed. Which, if you know the story of the novel, is probably exactly what Takami wanted.
First, a synopsis. In a future wherein Japan has become the Republic of Greater East Asia, a fascist government which allows its citizens certain freedoms to avoid arguments for crimes against humanity, there exists a Program. The Program, funded by the military, chooses one junior high school class each year and sends them to a remote location. Each student is given a bag of survival supplies with a weapon, are tagged by an explosive collar, and told that they must kill their classmates until there is only one left standing.
The story follows Class B of Shiroiwa Junior High School, as students who have always been friends fight to the death. Specifically, Girl and Boy Fifteen- Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa-and Boy Five, Shogo Kawada. These three attempt to escape the game’s deadly grip while their fellow classmates fall into depravity all around them.
When the book was released in Japan, it started a shockwave of disgust and criticism with the older citizens of the country. Surprise, surprise, it was popular with the youth. This is perfectly explained by Japan’s current cultural identity, which is in crisis. I’m not an expert, so I’ll give it to you as best I understand: the old ways in Japan- old fashions, old expectations, old national pride and old manners of doing things- have yet to catch up with its rise to technological prominence. Long story short, Japan’s society is slowly collapsing because no one is willing to own up to the fact that the world as they know it has changed. Remarkably, this is a lot like our current American government- but that’s another story.
After the utter fiasco that was the novel, Japan’s entertainment industry knew it had a hit. Battle Royale sparked two manga series and a movie with a sequel. The manga was available in the United States before the novel, because the thought process went like this: American kids don’t read. Let’s show them pictures.
It’s true that a large part of the stupid punks today don’t read like they should, but the manga and the novel are very different creatures. Since we are talking about a translated work, let us rewind to a review I wrote of a prior translated novel: Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
The book was awful and I’m not apologizing for it. I want to state for the record that Battle Royale is a perfect example of how knowing something about the culture from which the book springs helps form the work. I grew up an anime kid. I know minimal Japanese, spent a lot of time pretending to wear sailor skirts and carry swords, and still have a thing for cheap store-bought sushi. Does this qualify me as an expert on Japan? Hell to the no, but it does give me a background upon which I can base my conclusions about Battle Royale- a base I didn’t have for Dragon Tattoo. So if you think I’m being too lenient, remember I didn’t grow up watching Swedish cartoons, and if you don’t know why Revolutionary Girl Utena refers to herself as a ‘Prince’, you might feel the same way about Shuya as I do about Lisbeth Salander.
The manga of Battle Royale was cowritten by Takami and manga-ka Masayuki Taguchi. There are fifteen volumes that cover the entire story of the novel. The english translation, done by Keith Giffen, is not a word for word translation but rather a reimagining of Takami and Taguchi’s script. The characters in the manga are the same as those in the book, but are less one dimensional, due to the medium. If you aren’t a fan of reading novels, then I would strongly urge you to seek out Taguchi’s Battle Royale- it gives the story a new life.
On to the novel. Battle Royale is a long book. At six hundred plus pages, it isn’t exactly a beach read. Never fear, though- the style allows for fast comprehension. The descriptions of place and person are minimal while the carnage is at maximum. I can honestly say I felt queasy a few times, so if you can’t sit through a slasher film I’d think twice about picking this book up.
One complaint which springs immediately to light (and which Takami has addressed several times) is the lack of true definition of characters. Most of the students are stereotypes put into place by Japanese culture- for example, Boy Fourteen, Sho Tsukioka. Sho is a homosexual- a ‘queer’. Which you get immediately due to his constant flamboyant actions, his addressing of himself as ‘she’ and his need to fix his hair even on a deserted island filled with classmates who are probably out for his blood.
Leaving out Japan’s complicated relationship with its homosexual citizens, Sho is an insult to any sensitive individual. Takami wasn’t trying to portray all gay men as effeminate narcissists; he just picked what would cover the most ground, essentially sacrificing a pawn to get the queen into play. The author has said that the manga does more for character development than his novel. What the students are meant to represent creates moments of disbelief. Mitsuko Souma, Girl Eleven, is meant to fit the ‘good girl gone bad’ stereotype. To accomplish this, her sexual history of abuse and neglect is..well, extreme, for a fifteen year old. She gets across what she needs to, and in doing so loses some of her dimension.
In a class of forty one students, there’s a lot of killing to be done; not a lot of time is wasted on deep development. What is important is that each character stands in for a face of the youth of Japan, and I do believe that this book was written for them. Like Lord of the Flies before it, Battle Royale points out that was cities rise and fall, and countries split, unite, and grow, the simplistic view given to most young adults is skewed. Put into a life threatening situation, they will not act as many wish they would- like children. They will act in their own best interest, as selfish and scared as a tarnished adult. A fifteen year old today is nothing like a fifteen year old of twenty or thirty years ago. The stakes are higher. The tests are harder. Life, as we know it, has changed. Arguably, not for the better. This is what Battle Royale is- the dog eat dog world.
Battle Royale hits another soft spot: whether or not one can trust their own government. When Shuya, who listens to ‘illegal’ rock music, suggests to Shogo that perhaps they can utilize it to start a revolution, Shogo explains to him that if the music really were as dangerous as the government wanted them to believe it thought, it would not be available at all. In fact, the government could easily turn around and declare rock and roll a gift of the Republic.
The Republic of Greater East Asia is run by bureaucrats writing and memoing for more bureaucrats. No one ever has to make a decision because the buck is always passed, which is why the murderous Program still exists. Sound familiar? Try not to think about it too hard, my friends; politics makes fools of us all. So what can be done to stop them? The conclusion that Shuya comes to is nothing. Instead, he must run, as fast and as far as he can, to escape the madness.
The translation of Battle Royale is shoddy. True, there are no ‘engrish’ sentences, but often items will change mid-appearance (Shuya’s bottle of whiskey became a bottle of bourbon twenty pages later) and every once in a while, a name or phrase that definitely doesn’t belong will pop up. I know nothing about translating, so I can’t attribute these errors to laziness, though I do know that Japanese and English can’t always play fair. If a newer translation ever arrives on the market I plan on reading it.
Battle Royale breaks my long established personal rule of reading in silence. If ever a book needed a soundtrack, it is this novel. Rock and Roll play a huge part in Shuya’s life, and therefore in the life of the story. Create your own, if you feel the thunder- make sure there’s plenty of Bruce Springsteen.
I wouldn’t recommend Battle Royale as a beach book. If anything I wish I could see it on a high school reading list, but considering the gradual descent into mediocrity that is our educational system, I presume it only to be in my dreams. If you don’t rage against the machine, Battle Royale probably isn’t your cup of tea. If you advocate the randomized banning of books that might hurt someone’s feelings a la Ru Freeman, it definitely isn’t your cup of tea.
If you want a reason to give ’em hell, though, hang out with Shuya. Tramps like him? Baby they were born to run.