Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Koushun Takami: Battle Royale, the novel

Koushun Takami's novel, Battle Royale, was first published in Japan in 1999 and translated into English in 2003.  The film version came out in 2000.  As I mentioned in my post about the film, I hadn't known of either the novel or the film until someone made a comment on my post about Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, which was first published in 2008. The commenter suggested that I should see Battle Royale for it was superior to Collins'  novel.  My curiosity aroused, I watched the film and discovered it was based on the novel by Koushun Takami. 

I am intrigued, as one can tell from previous posts, by the relationship between the prose tale and the film inspired by it.  I have now read Battle Royale and, frankly, hadn't intended to do a post on it.  However, I keep thinking about the novel, and so I decided to comment on it also, hoping, I suspect, to exorcise it.

The core of the novel has been closely followed by the film's director, Kinji Fukasaku.  The major changes occur in the background or setting of the film.

The novel is set in an alternate universe, one in which The Republic of Greater East Asia (Japan), is ruled by a dictator, in fact the 318th dictator, which suggests that this government has lasted a long time.  That this is not true is an example of distorting the Past (see 1984 for the rationale) in order to maintain control of the population.

In the novel, one of the characters says that he's uncovered documents that suggest the dictatorship has probably lasted not more than 70 years, which, assuming the novel is set around the beginning of the 21st century, would put the beginning of the dictatorship in the 1930s.  That would correspond to the increasing control of Japan by the military in the real world.  And, the name echoes the actual creation of Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere by Japan at the beginning of World War II.  Moreover, the US is seen as the great enemy of the Republic, which also takes us back to the 30s and 40s in the real world.

Takami, the author,  in the new postscript to the novel says that he had taken most of  the language of the government diatribes against the US and also the government propaganda regarding the paradise it has created for the people from governmental communiques by the North Korean government.

There is no economic collapse in the novel as there is in the film which brings about the battle royale as an emergency measure; instead it is the established policy of the government to conduct such programs as a means of maintaining control of the population through terror and intimidation.  And, in the novel, it isn't just one class that's selected, it is one of fifty such junior high classes.  The toll, therefore, is around two thousand junior high school students.

The rules of the battle royale game are simple.  The winner is the last person alive.  If no one dies during any twenty-four hour period, then the collars, fixed around the neck of each student, will explode, thereby ending the game.  The killing must continue. In the map provided the students, the island, where the game takes place, is set in a grid pattern.  One of  the sections will be become off-limits regularly.  The collars of those found in an off-limit area will explode.  This forces the students out of their hiding places and also reduces the territory that they can occupy, which increases the likelihood of encounters among the students.  The students must kill or be killed.

The core of the novel consists of chapters that alternate between the struggle of the three main characters, Shogo, Shuya, and Noriko, to survive in this hell on earth, and the fates of the other students.  One chapter would be about the three mentioned above, and that would be followed by a chapter in which we would read about the events that led up to a meeting and the eventual death of one of the other students.  Since there were 42 students in the class, there are many such chapters depicting the death or deaths of one or more of the junior high students.

Most of the conflicts and deaths were the results of accidental meetings of the terrified students.  In some cases some would attempt to show they didn't want to fight, but the fear and mistrust had grown so that few trusted anybody at this point.  That they had been friends, fellow classmates, confidants, and even lovers in some cases, only a few hours earlier, made no difference at this point.  They felt they could trust no one. Some were so paralyzed by fear that they offered no resistance to any that they met or who stumbled upon them in their hiding places.

Several of the students became predators.  They would pretend to be friendly and peaceful until they got close enough to kill their prey.  One of the predators listened for signs of conflict and then head in that direction, intending to remain hidden during the fight and then kill the survivor(s) when given the opportunity.

I'm not sure how to characterize this novel; perhaps SF/Horror might be the most accurate description. It's an excellent translation, with none of the awkwardness that frequently appears when rendering a tale into a different language.

Can I recommend it?  It's a powerful novel, one that will stay with the reader for some time and I speak from personal experience here.  Right now, having just finished it a few days ago, I am very ambivalent about it.  I'm not sure that I should have finished it, nor do I completely understand why I finished it.  I can understand those who decide to neither read the novel nor see the film. 

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