Building the Japanese Bookshelf: Battle Royale


It’s often the case that novels that are controversial are also very good. A fantastic example of this is Houshun Takami’s Battle Royale. Released in 1999, the novel was widely criticised for its barbarity and the similarities that were drawn between Takami’s fictional state and Japan. It’s credentials as a cult classic however, were undeniable and within the first few years of it’s release critical opinion in Japan had swung.

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Battle Royale is story that needs little introduction. Every year, a middle school class from each prefecture is taken to a remote, uninhabited area and told to fight until only one of them is left alive. The story is told from a third person point of view, but focuses largely on Shuya Nanahara, a boy popular with the girls who enjoys illegal, foreign rock music. As is not uncommon in each incarnation of the ‘programme’, Shuya and his friend Noriko, harbour hopes of somehow being able to both escape alive. After they meet up with the distant Kagawa, these hopes seem to come closer to reality.

There’s no denying that Takami’s work is brutal. Even before the battle begins, two students are gruesomely killed in the classroom for what is in truth only to be shown off as an example to the rest of the students. Often in violent stories, character development can be left hanging, but this isn’t the case here. Though Shuya and his group are the main focus of the story, it is not the case that the other 39 are there to make up the numbers. The ‘bad guys’ of the story, particularly Souma, are given a lot of background, making us question whether her compliant actions in the game really are all that surprising.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Takami’s novel though is how so many of the deaths throughout the story is given meaning. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that every person’s death deeply affected me, because it didn’t, but so many did. Characters that I had only known for a couple of chapters, were brutally (or not in some cases) murdered on more than one occasion; Takami’s representation and development of such characters however made me feel desperately sympathetic towards them.

I like a good ending, and Battle Royale didn’t disappoint. You’ve all see (or read!) the Hunger Games of course? Well, let me say that it is a shameless, tuned down copy of Battle Royale, and that is no more true than the ending. Yes people die, (people you get to like, no less), but in the end it’s satisfying and believable.

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There has also been a film adaptation released in 2000. As I haven’t watched it I wont offer too much of a comment, but what I will say is that it completely changes the background surrounding the story which isn’t particularly reassuring. That said, by most accounts it is a good film with a very good cast.

Battle Royale is as a good as you would want it to be. It’s gruesome, it’s brutal and it’s terribly real.

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