Imagine you go to school one morning to go on a field trip. Suddenly, you and your classmates wake up on an island. Each of you has an ominous metal collar around your neck. You are told you have to fight each other until only one of you is left alive. If you all refuse to kill each other those collars will start exploding. Worst day of school ever?
That is the premise of “Battle Royal” by Koushun Takami. This violent, action-packed novel tinged with teen angst was a controversial and unexpected hit in Japan in 1999. It was even rejected in the final round of the 1997 Japan Horror Fiction Awards because of its controversial content. The book was later adapted into an equally controversial and commercially successful film in 2000. The controversy is understandable, as the subject matter can feel a bit exploitative. The story is a combination of fast-paced thriller and horror story, but there is a dystopian backdrop that also makes it a bit of an allegory, albeit one told with the subtlety of a hammer.
These junior high school students haven’t been abducted and placed on this island by a sadistic freak in a mask or because of some mystical, or pseudo-scientific, mumbo-jumbo. They have been placed on this island and pitted against each other by their very own government. These hapless students are there as part of the “Battle Experiment No. 68 Program.” This program, that I think is a rather egregious example of misspent tax revenue, involves dropping randomly selected students into remote locations and having a battle to the death. While this program provides the military with data points, I guess, to research survival skills and battle readiness, it also has the neat side effect of keeping the populace terrified.
The story is set in 1997, but a 1997 from an alternate history where the Axis powers were victorious in World War II and “The Republic of Greater East Asia” is controlled by a fascist government. Many hallmarks of your totalitarian government are here — a cult of personality around a charismatic dictator, an overbearing military presence and a government that enforces strict “moral” codes. Even rock music isn’t allowed. Add kidnapping and battles to the death to the mix, and what teenager wouldn’t want to rebel against this system?
I mentioned that within the bloody mess lies an allegory. Is the message “never count the kids out,” or “only by banding together can you defeat your oppressors” or “don’t count out love in even the worst of situations”? I can offer a heartfelt “maybe” to all of those possibilities. What I do know is a regime as brutal as the one in this book can’t last forever. Sooner or later they are going to pick on the wrong kid.