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Andrew Osmond on the worlds of 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 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.

The 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.

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