Novel * Koushun Takami * Dystopian Murder Sport * 1999
Why is it always the teens who must kill each other for sport in the dystopian nightmare future? Every time a new totalitarian regime feels like it needs to distract the population with a complicated murder game, it goes right for the teenage population. I’m going to take a firm stance here and say that’s real dumb. Wait until they’re in their early 20s at any rate. By then they’re going to be at the peak of their physical powers, and will have ample time to hone their craft in some not-quite-as-lethal amateur league before hitting the big time. Whatever, what we have here is a game in which about forty teens are set loose on an island, given a bunch of weapons, and told to go nuts until everybody but one kid is dead. If this sounds familiar, that’s because there’s a very popular young adult novel called The Hunger Games that is a similar conceit. I’ll write about those eventually, but since this came first I’m going to take a little time to discuss how weird this is.
Battle Royale is a Japanese novel translated into English, which is good because I don’t read Japanese. If that seems like an obvious thing to begin a paragraph with, relax, I have a point. The problem with translations is that you are always going to lose something of the original text. This issue is compounded if the original text comes from an unfamiliar culture. Obviously, this is a huge deal when trying to understand historical texts. Ancient cultures had what amounts to an alien worldview that takes an absurd amount of research and context in order to reach some kind of understanding. Luckily those problems aren’t really a thing with modern cultures. It’s not like Japan is still some unknown shadow-island hidden by vast impenetrable seas or something. You can fly there. I hear they make good curry. That said, language can be a barrier. Words and phrases we take for granted in English-speaking countries do not have true analogues in Japanese, and vice versa. A translation ends up being an imperfect re-creation of the author’s intent. Not only does the novel need to make literal sense, but the author’s voice needs to be true to the original as well. Of course, if it’s not I’ll never know.
Now, I bring up the whole translation bit because the tone in Battle Royale is all over the place. This is a pulpy-ass book, and therefore a fast and loose style is expected. Yet this thing is on another level, which the odd little quirks of language only underscores. This isn’t bad, it just takes some adjustment. After all, the story itself is a brutal tale of fear and death. The fact that this story is told with a flippant flair and a weird casual coolness can be off-putting when talking about the various horrible things that happen to these teenagers.
As for what actually happens to these kids, the book is pretty straightforward. The book takes place in an alternate, dystopian Japan. As in The Long Walk, there isn’t too much in the way of world-building, and the totalitarian super-state (The Republic of Greater East Asia) is generally just alluded to as the given state of the world. Once a year, the government selects a junior high class (the age range is about 15 years old, not 12 or 13 as in the US) at random to participate in the game. This aspect of the murder game is fairly unique. Generally, when teen gladiators are used, they either have time to train, or at least prepare for what they’re about to do. Not so here. The government hijacks a school bus on its way to a field trip. They gas the kids, fit them with exploding radio collars, and transport them to an evacuated island.
Once on the island, the kids are given a map and a backpack. The map is divided into quadrants. As the game goes on, random quadrants are declared forbidden, and any students remaining in those areas have their collars triggered. Meanwhile, their entire purpose on the island is to kill each other. To do this, they’re provided with random weapons. Some kids get machine guns. Some get pistols, or knives, or that one kid who got a grenade. A few poor bastards get joke weapons. Anyway, they’re released one at a time and given a 24 hour time limit. If no one dies in that period, all the collars are triggered, game over. Other than that, no rules. Have fun.
As in most stories of this type, there are a couple of lead characters, a few ancillary sidekicks, one or two badasses out for blood, and a whole bunch of cannon fodder. The leads here are Shuya Nanahara (Male Student No. 15, Third Year Class B, Shiroiwa Junior High School, Shiroiwa Town, Kagawa Prefecture – and yes, Takami writes all that out more than once), and Noriko Nakagawa (Female Student No. 15). The baddies are Kazuo Kiriyama (Male Student No. 6) and Mitsuko Souma (Female Student No. 11). If those prior sentences were a little disorientating, I understand. The style of the book takes a little getting used to. Also, maybe it’s just me, but my dumb Western brain had a little trouble making sense of the names for the first 50 pages or so. Regardless, one can acclimate.
So, Shuya and Norkio are the good guys who have no interest in playing the murder game and only want to escape. Early on they run into a dude named Shogo, who has previously been cast under suspicion because he’s a shifty transfer student. This turns out to be unfounded, and it also happens that Shogo is winner of last year’s game. The winner, it should be noted, gets a modest pension and an autographed postcard of the dictator. That’s it. Anyway, Shogo is probably way too smart and resourceful for a 16 year old kid, but he’s able to keep our two heroes alive long enough to formulate an escape plan. Meanwhile, Kazuo and Mitsuko start rampaging. Kazuo in particular comes off as a teenage Terminator, running around in a bulletproof vest (which, not to be nitpicky, don’t work like they’re depicted here) and machine gunning kids all over the place. Mitsuko uses her feminine wiles to disarm her foes before shanking them. Both are bad news.
Eventually, channeling the spirit of rock n’ roll, Shuya, Noriko, and Shogo finish off Kazuo and make their escape. Also, Shogo is killed, but our two manage to escape and the novel ends with a clumsy homage to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Now, I don’t know enough about Japanese history or culture to start making connections between this novel and feelings of social discontent. Therefore, I will let Shogo speak on the subject of how and why the game exists, and maybe extrapolate his point to hint at the overall purpose of the novel (other than pulp entertainment, obviously):
“I think that this system is tailor-made to fit the people of this country. In other words, their subservience to superiors. Blind submission. Dependence on others and group mentality. Conservatism and passive acceptance. Once they’re taught something’s supposedly a noble cause by serving the public good, they can reassure themselves they’ve done something good, even if it means snitching. It’s pathetic. There’s no room for pride, and you can forget about being rational. They can’t think for themselves. Anything complicated enough sends their heads reeling. Makes me want to puke.”
Yeah, fight the power, brother. This seems to be a push against the cultural status quo, or your typical teen rebellion. However, this is phrased along ethnic lines (which is how it is put in the novel). Japanese society, according to Shogo, is ripe for what the novel calls ‘successful fascism.’ His criticism of his culture is that individuals are all too ready to cede their own needs and desires to the success of the group. The fictional Republic of Greater East Asia would then be an extrapolation of this kind of society reinforcing itself with a policy of outward hostility. Noriko, for her part, disagrees that her people are really that much different than those of other nations. Her argument is understated, but valid. Regardless, people of all nationalities and ethnicities can probably agree that the dystopian kill-game sucks.
For the most part, Battle Royale is a simple, fast paced pulp novel. It’s an intriguing window into a foreign culture that is influenced by the American supra-culture while still being filtered through a particular Japanese worldview. What the novel lacks in tonal coherence, it makes up for in slick action scenes and an outsized sense of style and bombast. Despite having a generally familiar plot and structure, Battle Royal is definitely its own thing, and that thing is very Japanese. I mean, aside from the whole Bruce Springsteen thing.