Battle Royale by Koushun Takami: Still Crazy After all These Years

Paperback version of the book.

Originally published in 1999 amid a flurry of controversy that would rise to a cacophony when a film one year later was adapted from the novel, Battle Royale still packs one hell of a punch. The story of a group of Junior High School students who are made to kill each other off until only one remains, still shocks and astounds 13 years after its first appearance in bookstores and libraries across the world.

After reading the book and watching the film of The Hunger Games written by Suzanne Collins, I still find it hard to believe that she never heard of either the original story or film (made by the iconic Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku). I am sure that she is telling the truth as there are enough instances of the two stories (although Collins has spread the Hunger Games stories over three separate books) being vastly different. There are, however quite a few circumstances where the two stories share a lot of things; the contestants being chosen by “lottery” or the packs that each contestant picks up before the battle commences are just two such instantances.

Of course both books are set in “the future” Hunger Games in a post apocalyptic America and Battle Royale in a future Japan that has outstripped America as a world power through the appointment of a dictator and an economy that has reduced the USA to third world country status. Japan’s isolationism has allowed them to indulge in practises that would be frowned upon by other countries.

It is part of this isolated countries culture that random Junior High School classes are picked (by computer) and “kidnapped” by authorities. These 14 and 15-year-old children are then transported to a secret location where they will be armed (some better than others) and set out to kill each other off.

The whole exercise is to show just how equal everyone is in this new Japan. No one is exempt. But like every government that is part of a dictatorship, it is corrupt and unfair, despite the propaganda that tells the masses otherwise. We meet the main players in the Battle and are given enough information that we not only bond with some of the kids, but we can see why the other children act the way they do.

Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa are the boy and girl who wind up together because Shuya’s best friend (who dies before the games even start) had a crush on Noriko and she, in turn, has a crush on Shuya; along with most of the girls in their class.

Shuya is an orphan who loves the state banned American Rock and Roll and has learned to play the electric guitar. He is good at sports and is an all round “good egg.” If anything, he is a bit too good. Noriko and Shuya team up with the older transfer student Shogo Kawada (who has actually played and won a previous Battle Royale). Together they form an alliance to stay alive while facing the murderous psychopath Kazuo Kiriyama and his female counterpart Mitsuko Souma and the other children who are fighting to stay alive till the end of the three day game.

The book is much more political in nature than Collins’ Hunger Games (although she does pay a sort of “lip service” to dictatorships in the books) and it is, despite its xenophobic setting, of a larger scale of international intent. In Takami’s verse the survivors of the games want to run away to the third world country that America has become. It brings to mind that perhaps they will meet Katniss Everdeen when they arrive.

When the film was adapted for the screen by Kinji Fukasaku’s son, it has to be one of the best screenplays ever written. Even though the film did not copy the book page by page, the casting of “unknown” child actors and the iconic Beat Takeshi and the feeling that the director was able to infuse the film with made the movie a run-a-way hit. The film is a cult favourite and is set up to get the “Hollywood” remake treatment.

This is a book that, whether you’ve seen the film or not, is one hell of a ride. You suffer with the kids as they have to kill off their friends and find out who they can trust. The two psychos of the book are truly terrifying and will scare you with their cold-blooded will to survive. There was also a Manga of the book release in several volumes, difficult to find in the UK, but well worth the effort. These Manga’s were almost as entertaining as the book and the film.

My final verdict is a full 5 stars out of 5. Once you pick this book up, you will not want to put it down. And although it’s a little too close to Christmas to come up with ideas of “stocking stuffers” you could do a lot worse than getting a copy of this brilliant book shoved in your stocking.

The equally controversial film with Beat Takeshi