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‘Battle Royale’ wins the game for hungry fans

Fifteen years after its publication, Koushun Takami's shocking tale of school children trapped in a fight till death is still one of Japan's most famous exports. With the recent release of a new translation and two other related works, it's time to have another look at this modern classic

by Andrew Lee

Staff Writer

I should probably start this review with somewhat of a disclaimer. About 10 years ago — not long after Kinji Fukasaku’s film adaptation of Koushun Takami’s controversial novel “Battle Royale” became a cult hit overseas — I bought a screen-printed poster from a London-based design studio called Airside. The design featured a highly stylized frame grab from the film, of a schoolgirl being thrown into the air as she is shot in the back, the crimson of her blood contrasting vividly with the tan and white of her school uniform. It’s a disturbingly beautiful and iconic tribute to a great film, and it hung proudly in my living room for years.

The Battle Royale Slam Book, Edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington.
Haikasoru, Nonfiction.
Rating: ★★★★★

Some time later, after moving to Japan, I found myself friends with an actress who played one of the doomed schoolgirls in “Battle Royale” — and was, it turned out, the very same girl featured in the poster, a coincidence I still find very, very odd.

She, too, was rather surprised to see the poster and learn that her death scene was so symbolic of the film that it was even available on T-shirts, because she was also largely unaware of just how internationally popular “Battle Royale” had become.

So why is it that “Battle Royale” was such a cult favorite overseas, and that even 15 years after its initial release, it remains a pop culture phenomenon?

Released as a companion to the newly translated and “remastered” “Battle Royale” novel, “The Battle Royale Slam Book” attempts to answer that question by collating essays from an array of scholars, fans and writers — including New York Times best-selling author John Skipp and “Batman” screenwriter Sam Hamm — who ponder the appeal and influence of “Battle Royale.”

When Takami completed his debut novel in 1996, Japan was in the grip of an economic recession that had many questioning the way the country was going politically. Two major events in 1995 had also shaken a core belief of many Japanese, that theirs was a safe country: with the disastrous Kobe earthquake revealing that quake-proofing was substandard, and the sarin gas attack in Tokyo showing that homegrown terrorism was a clear and present danger. Then on May 27, 1997 — the same month and year in which “Battle Royale” is set — a 14-year-old boy impaled the severed head of an elementary school boy he had murdered on the gates of a junior high school in Kobe.

Against this background, “Battle Royale” was rejected from the final round of the 1997 Japan Grand Prix Horror Novel competition due to its “uncomfortable” content. In his “Slam Book” essay titled “Battle Royale: The Fight the Night Before,” Masao Higashi, who was on the preliminary selection committee for the award, explains the reason for the book’s rejection: “As the aftereffects of [the Kobe beheading] still lingered, a horror novel appeared depicting a slaughter among battling junior high school students, as if to make real the words from the [Kobe] killer’s note ‘So the game begins.’”

Despite this apparent setback, Takami’s novel was published in Japan in 1999, and went on to sell more than 1 million copies before being translated into close to a dozen languages, as well as the manga and film versions — which in turn led to more controversy, overseas.

Obviously the subject matter of kids killing kids was also hard for Western audiences to stomach. It cut particularly close to the bone in the United States, a society that experiences events such as the Columbine and Sandy Hook school massacres with a disturbing frequency and is terrified of the effects violent media may have on children.

But as author Steven R. Stewart writes in “Dead Sexy,” “not everything that appears in a work of fiction is meant to be emulated; it’s meant to be weighed. As readers, we need tragedies and cautionary tales, darkness to contrast with the light. This is one of the ‘Battle Royale’ manga’s [as well as the novel and film's] chief triumphs: the ability to powerfully juxtapose the horrible and the beautiful, the inexcusable and the admirable, the tumultuous and the serene.”

Still on the subject, Adam Roberts also notes in “Happiest Days of Your Life,” that there has been a long tradition of violence in school fiction (from “Tom Brown’s School Days” to “Lord of the Flies”), just as teens shooting teens is not a modern phenomenon (Roberts presents a shockingly long list of such crimes dating back to the 1880s). “Delve for even a little a time into the history of school shootings and it starts to dawn on you,” writes Roberts. “‘Battle Royale’ isn’t satire, or dark fable, or fantastical extrapolation. ‘Battle Royale’ is realism. … For some, school may be the happiest time of your life. For others, though, school can be murder.”

It’s clear this kind of fiction sells, and part of the reason for the upsurge in interest in “Battle Royale” over the past six years is no doubt due to the publication of “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins in 2008, and the similarity between it and “Battle Royale.” Despite claims by Collins that she’d never heard of either Takami’s novel or Fukusaku’s film until after her book was finished, many “Battle Royale” fans have not been convinced.

It is possible, I suppose, that two authors on opposite sides of the world could have independently come up with story lines so incredibly close that one seems a poor copy of the other. And this is a discussion that some “Slam Book” writers take up, such as Hamm in “Bueller, Bueller, Do You Read?” It’s Takami’s work that’s the subject here though.

There can’t be many novels that have had such a profound effect on critics and fans alike, that an entire book of essays have been published about it. And “Battle Royale” is certainly divisive; I know for a fact some people think that poster I have is far from beautiful. But as Stewart says, “If you’re not a fan of ‘Battle Royale,’ that’s fine, as long as you don’t make the same mistake the kids in the story make, of assuming everyone else is playing some awful game, of demonizing one another, choosing sides, picking each other apart. A person is not vulgar for finding value in something you find offensive. They’re not a demon or a bad-poking kitty.

“That’s the game talking. Don’t play.”