Set in May 1997, in a fascist version of Japan known as the Republic of Greater East Asia, “Battle Royale” follows the fate of 42 junior high-school kids who have been forced the take part in The Program — a sadistic game created by the government that randomly picks a ninth-grade class, arms them with various weapons and forces them to fight it out till the death. The “winner” is the last one standing.
To ensure the kids play along and actually start killing one another, each child also has an explosive collar placed around their necks that will detonate if they fail to comply.
Left with no choice, the teenagers begin to battle it out, some going it alone and others forming alliances.
As the chapters pass, the body count clicks over and the author, Koushun Takami, really manages to get inside the minds of each of the 40-odd students, from the terrified to the psychotic. A girl weeps as the death of a boy she had a crush on is announced. Another plunges an ice pick into a boy’s throat and learns she enjoys the killing. The class sweethearts hold hands and take a lovers leap. A boy vows to protect his dead friend’s girl no matter what. And each of them struggles to choose between the rational or emotional reactions to their situation, between morality and immorality.
In many ways “Battle Royale” is like “Lord of the Flies,” an allegory of survival in a world that doesn’t give a damn whether you live or die, and how inside everyone of us, even junior high school kids, is the potential for violence — and selflessness. Unlike “The Hunger Games,” however, which has a similar plot, “Battle Royale” is not young-adult fiction; it’s more brutal, and has lessons for us all.
Each week “Essentials” introduces a work of fiction that should be on the bookshelf of any Japanophile.