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Battle Royale

Wednesday 8th February 2012

Andrew Osmond on the worlds of Battle Royale

Battle Royale

Sakamochi clapped his hands. “Some of you might be thinking that murdering your classmates is impossible. But don’t forget there are others willing to do it.” Everybody remained silent, but something had suddenly changed, and Shuya knew it. Everyone was looking around, glancing at the others’ pale faces. It only happened within a matter of seconds, but their expressions were exactly the same; they were tense and suspicious, wondering who was already ready to take part.

Like Ringu, Battle Royale is a triumph of high-concept horror. Forty-two teenage Japanese schoolkids are gassed unconscious on a school trip, awaking on a small island to be told they’ve been selected for the government’s feared “Program.” Over the next couple of days, they must fight each other on the beaches, in the mountains and woods, with randomly-assigned weapons from sickles to machine guns. There can only be one survivor. Hey you, kid! Yes, you, the snotty one reading this. What do you do? – no hesitation! Protect that pretty pigtailed girl sitting at the desk behind you? Take your gun and blast her brains out? SORRY, WRONG ANSWER! Thank you for playing.

Battle RoyaleBattle Royale is, so far, the only novel by Koushun Takami, an ex-journalist who submitted the story to a Japanese competition. It was rejected, according to  Takami’s bio, “due to the critical controversy it provoked among jury members.” However, the 600-page novel was published in 1999, and came to world attention through the 2000 film version, directed by Kinji Fukasaku. The Battle Royale franchise has since spawned an epic 3000-page manga and a sequel film, each taking the concept very different ways.

In the book, dozens of players try out different strategies while the reader lays bets about which characters will still be around in five or fifty pages. There’s also the ghastly fascination of a classroom being exploded into a warzone (previously done as a gruesome joke in “The Lesson,” by Liverpool poet Roger McGough). Some of the kids in the story are everykids, others are extreme cartoons. There’s a guerrilla-type player, for example, who’s blessed with the improvisational skills of McGuyver, racing to bring down the system with balloons and a ball of string. There’s a thuggish “queer boy” maintaining his pompadour; there’s a toad-faced aristo type; and then there’s a teen psychopath, slaying his way through stragglers and refusing to let bullets or bombs take him down in the best slasher tradition.

A dominant theme of the novel is trust: how it’s used and abused, how it saves or kills. The classmates make life-or-death decisions based on trivial incidents or sweeping fears; tellingly, several girls adopt a “No boys in our team” policy. We’re sometimes privy to the thoughts of the killers worming their way into their schoolmates’ confidence, but more often, we’re left to guess who’s who.

Two of the everykids, boy Shuya and girl Noriko, end up in the protection of the stubbled, scarred Shogo, one of the book’s few truly vivid characters, who turns out to have played this game before. But is he really their saviour, or just using the kids as cynical insurance? Like Orwell’s 1984, the book presents trust as a measure of humanity that shrinks under totalitarianism. Takami even opens his story with a quote from Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, describing the paranoia in Civil War Spain.

Battle Royale itself takes place in a Japan that is renamed or part of the Republic of Greater East Asia, a “successful fascist” entity led by a series of dictators (as with Big Brother, there’s some doubt if the dictators really exist). Shogo suggests bitterly that dictatorship is tailor-made for the Japanese, with their “dependence on others and group mentality,” though he’s contradicted by the optimist Noriko: “I think we’re just as capable as any other people on the planet of thinking responsibly.” Cannily, though, the book doesn’t take the dystopian angle too far; if its version of Japan felt too alien, it might impede the reader’s sympathy with the situation. The book rationalises that the Republic survives by “leaving bits of freedom intact,” letting teen would-be rebels smuggle Springsteen songs and Blues Brothers videos.

Battle RoyaleThe film omits the book’s alternate history. In the film scenario, Japan’s delinquent young have simply pissed off their elders, personified in the hardbitten, student-murdering ex-teacher played by Takeshi Kitano. (The equivalent character in the book, Sakamochi, is a simpler monster, with no personal link to the students.) Nonetheless, the film respects the book, selecting several of its main set-pieces, including the notorious lighthouse scene. One of the book’s striking bit-players is Takako Chigusa, who’s described as a beautiful, fierce girl (and a dab hand at ball-breaking).  Takami would surely have approved the actress chosen to play her, the stunning Chiaki Kuriyama, who’s far more credibly lethal as Chigusa than she is as a hitgirl in Kill Bill.

Screen violence has more impact than prose violence, though Takami has a flair for gory descriptions. (Describing a corpse: “There was a gaping hole in the stomach of the school coat, and the contents inside looked like a trash bin in a sausage factory.”) In contrast, the book’s sexual content is mostly mild, apart from a horrendous why-one-girl-turned-psycho revelation, and a scene where the same girl uses her wiles and breasts to disarm a player.

Such things are deliriously exaggerated in the lurid manga version, written and drawn by Masayuki Taguchi, and published by Tokyopop in fifteen volumes. It’s the later books which go really berserk, with girl-on-boy rapes and Crouching Tiger duels. Like the film, though, the manga is fundamentally respectful of the novel, for all the fanservice, plot divergences, embellishings and Naruto-scaled battles. Talking with Taguchi when the manga ended in 2006,  Takami was gracious about the adaptation, even suggesting some characters “changed and grew” more in the strip than in his own book. But if you want to understand Battle Royale’s primal vision, its seductive play of hopes and nightmares, then there’s no substitute for Takami’s source novel.

Battle Royale is published in the UK by Gollancz and in the US by Haikasoru. The films are on Blu-ray from Arrow in the UK and Starz/Anchor Bay in the US.

Battle Royale


One Piece Movie Collection 2 (contains Films 4-6)

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For the first time ever! Never before available in the UK! Collect One Piece The Movie 4, 5 and 6 before anyone else in the English speaking world.
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Luffy and The Straw Hats embark upon a dangerous pirate vessel sailing competition!
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- One Piece The Movie: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island
Directed by acclaimed anime film-maker, Mamoru Hosada (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, Wolf Children). Things are about to get a lot darker for Luffy and his pirate crew! The Straw Hats visit a recreational island, run by Baron Omatsuri, but all is not what it seems on this island paradise. Soon the crew is captured and it’s up to Luffy to free the Straw Hats from the Baron’s hold.



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Matt Kamen turns video pirate!
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One Piece: Crew Manifest #2

Back at sea for volume two of One Piece
Before you set sail on the second round of voyages for One Piece, brush up on who you’ll be encountering in this latest volume of nautical nonsense

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One-hit wonders. Every country has them. And, as PSY can most likely attest, very few musicians really want to be labelled as one. Sure, it’s all fun, games and fancy dinners when that royalty cheque floats through the letter box. The one with all the zeroes from that single from yesteryear that went massive. But what about the rest of your work? It must be somewhat unsatisfying as an artist to be known for one track, while everything else remains relatively overlooked, and expectations are high for that difficult follow up single. If you’re TOMATO CUBE, you do nothing. Ever again.


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Tom Smith rings the ch-ch-changes…
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Nura Rise of the Yokai Music: LM.C

Tom Smith on the rise of the UK clan
LM.C are amongst a very elite type of Japanese musician. The clan they belong to is so exclusive that its numbers barely reach into the double digits. And its members are also a diverse bunch, including a guitar legend named Tomoyasu Hotei, a boiler-suited new-wave trio called POLYSICS, to a dark, heavy noise making machine dubbed Dir en grey. There’s even pop goddess Hikaru Utada in there too to balance things out.

Who's Who in Dragon Ball #3

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Naruto Music: Asian Kung Fu Generation

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They’re so loud and proud that they insist on writing it all in caps: ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION – possibly one of Japan’s most important alternative rock acts. The group’s tenth single ‘After Dark’ makes for the energetic, guitar-heavy opening theme to the latest volume of Bleach, released in the UK this month, and the group’s sound might at first seem reminiscent of America’s indie scene dashed with elements of punk, it actually has a lot more in common with The Who, their generation, and the sea of British-based guitar heroes that have appeared since.

Princess Mononoke

Andrew Osmond celebrates Miyazaki’s green movie on Blu-ray
In Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, the hero is a warrior youth in a mythical, medieval “Japan” not yet a nation; rather it’s a fantasy bordering on Middle-Earth and the Wild West.

Nigeria's Astro Boy

Jasper Sharp on the oddest anime export yet
By the time you’ve read this, the eight 15-minute episodes of Robot Atom will have been aired by the Nigerian broadcast network Channels TV. Based on one of anime’s most iconic creations, Tezuka Productions’ Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu), this Nigerian-Japanese co-production brings a new slant to glocalization

One Piece Movie Collection

Sailing through Luffy’s first three films
Fans who are fully up-to-date and casual viewers and newcomers alike can both enjoy the One Piece movies! Each is entirely self-contained, with entirely new plots not found in Eiichiro Oda’s original manga, but are every bit as enjoyable.

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Andrew Osmond on anime that turn to the dark side…
If it sounds like Guilty Crown’s getting dark, it is. In particular, there’s been a lot of comment on how dark some of the main characters get, in a series that seemed relatively light, even cheesy, in its first half. Star Trek used to have episodes set in a so-called ‘Mirror Universe,’ where the familiar cast could be really bad. Guilty Crown does something similar, without the mirror.

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