Wednesday, June 8, 2016

BOOKS! (Battle Royale)

 I saw the film when I was in high school and the franchise briefly resurfaced in my mind when its loosely-related American counterpart first blew up a few years ago. But I wasn't interested in reading the book until my final semester of college when one of the students in my Japanese literature class used his end-of-semester presentation to address the Japanese education system, youth behavior, and governmental authority within the context of the novel Battle Royale. He made such a convincing case for the book's merit that I thought Hey, maybe I should finally go ahead and read this thing. So I did.

Battle Royale by Takami Koushun

While on the bus headed for their class trip destination, Shuya and his 41 junior high classmates are gassed before being re-routed and dropped off on the evacuated island of Oki (a fictional island off the coast of Takamatsu city, the very real capital of Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku). Upon awakening, they're informed that they've been randomly chosen by the government's computerized selection system to participate in "the Program". Since 1947, fifty ninth-grade classes throughout Japan have been selected annually to participate in this battle simulation. Shuya his classmates must kill each other, and if someone doesn't die at least every 24 hours, the collars fitted around their necks will explode, killing them all. Only the student who survives at the end will get to go home. With the help of his best friend's crush and an unlikely ally, Shuya is able to survive by working as part of a trio... but for how long?

One key difference I noted between the book and the film is the stated purpose of the Program. In the film, the Program moderator tells the students that they've been nominated to die by their teachers for being so unruly; it's the ultimate punishment, a state-authorized "good riddance". However, in the novel's dystopian world, the Program is heralded by authorities as a combat experiment whose data will allow the military of the Republic of Greater East Asia (Japan) to better defend citizens from perceived imperialist aggression from the American Empire (USA). At least that's the public story.

What political leaders and bureaucrats don't tell citizens is that the Program is actually a fear tactic, meant to instill terror and suspicion among citizens so that they develop neither the solidarity to band together nor the courage to rebel against the government.The death of thousands of young people is a necessary sacrifice that will maintain societal order so that the Republic of Greater East Asia can progress. Like the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale, the Republic of Greater East Asia is a totalitarian regime in transition. A system's been implemented long enough and with enough force to get citizens to adhere without a fight, but not enough time has passed for the desired psychological compliance to take effect among the entire population, especially the youth.

Reading this novel can be somewhat daunting because once the game starts you realize that there are 42 adolescent characters of interest in this group, and you have to painstakingly read the details of how each and every one dies. What kept me going was the riddle of each fight or death scene. Okay, Takami Koushun has brought these people together in this moment, with a certain history between them, armed with such and such weapons, personalities, abilities, and intentions. Who'll make it out of this situation, and how will they achieve it? Part of the novel's intelligence lies in repeatedly posing this relevant social question: How well do you really know people, even the ones you see every day? Both the film and the book take situations and escalate them to show how anything can set people off against each other, especially with fear and paranoia added to the mix.

It's fascinating what such a high-pressure situation brings out of these teenagers. Most students kill because they're afraid or caught off guard, but some are alarmingly zealous about playing and winning the game. The male villain is a murderous boy named Kiriyama who was literally born with no emotions, and the female villain is a murderous girl named Mitsuko who's been misused and abused her whole life and is always out for #1. There's a friendly girls' compound that turns fatally unfriendly due to a misunderstanding. One student even uses his weapon to solicit sex from (read: threaten to rape) a female student he's always had a crush on, and when she refuses he tries to kill her. Even Shuya and his allies can't avoid getting their hands dirty. But who wins the game? That's for you to read and find out. Battle Royale certainly isn't for the squeamish, but since the film is significantly bloodier and more visually disturbing, I'd recommend watching it first so that you can come to the novel at least a little desensitized. Maybe.

Favorite quotes:
"I think that history moves in waves... Come a certain time, and a certain set of circumstances, this country will change, whether we do anything or not. I don't know if it'll be a war or a revolution. And I don't know when that time will come. Maybe it never will... I want satisfaction. I want revenge. Even if the only result is getting to feel self-satisfied, I want to strike a blow against this country. That's all. As for whether that'll bring about any reform, well, I have major doubts" (232-233).

"Good people are good people─in certain circumstances, anyway. But even good people can turn bad. Though maybe some of them stay good all the way until the end of their lives. Maybe you're one of those people... But that doesn't matter. I just decided to take instead of being taken. I'm not saying it's good or evil, or right or wrong. All I'm saying is that's how I want to be" (427).

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