by Koushun Takami
A review by David Hannon
First published in America in 2003, the highly controversial Japanese bestseller Battle Royale by Koushun Takami is not a book for the squeamish. A good bit of violence and bloodshed occur, and the body count is on the high side, but it's not much more sanguinary than your average Stephen King novel so if you're fine with that, you'll probably be fine with this. I (having been perfectly desensitized by network news over the years) found it to be fascinatingly entertaining and a powerful study in the inner workings of human nature.
The novel begins with main character Shuya Nanahara and his forty-one third-year junior high (ninth grade) classmates excitedly chatting away on a bus headed off on a weekend study trip. Soon, however, their affable excursion takes an unexpected turn when, having been drugged, the boys and girls wake up on the floor of an unfamiliar classroom. A man is sitting quietly at the front of the class and after a kind smile and an amiable greeting he informs them that "the reason you're all here today then....is to kill each other."
This is the moment they learn that they have been chosen for Battle Royale. A no-holds-barred, three-day fight to the death that you can't exactly say no to since you're outfitted with a collar that will explode if you're not the only student left alive when the time limit ends. All of the students are aware of "the program" as it's called, but none of them would ever expect their class to be chosen. It is said that that the government puts on the event to control the population and collect military data, but it is actually done to scare the populace into remaining obedient.
Given a small pack with a weapon and three days' worth of supplies, each student is sent out, in two-minute intervals, onto a remote island. Some packs contain a gun or a knife and some contain a weapon as useless as a pot or a pan. Regardless of the weapon, however, each is forced to either fight for survival or take his/her own life. As the reality of the situation begins to sink in and they realize that leaving the island is not an option the students are forced for the first time to consider what kind of human beings they truly are. Are they capable of this? Could some of them actually enjoy it?
Reminiscent of the William Golding classic Lord of the Flies, Battle Royale revels in the paranoia created by the situation itself. A student loyal to a person or group may turn in an instant if they think someone is giving them a strange look or acting at all suspicious, and the kids least likely to participate are the first to act. For some, it's obvious from the moment they walk out with their pack that they have a natural aptitude for the roles they will play; for others, it's impossible to tell until they're backed into a corner. That's what makes this story so strangely compelling; trust is constantly misplaced and you can never quite put your finger on how it's all going to play out in the end.
"Forty-two students remain." Game on.