Friday Reads: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami and Masayuki Taguchi

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This is my first proper adventure into anime, and I decided to start with one that led to one of my favourite films. Jen, who lent me the books and loves the series, reassured me that there was a lot more to Battle Royale than teenager on teenager killing. Turns out, she was right.

I want to discuss one thing right off the bat. Since Hunger Games made it huge, I’ve seen a lot of people say “Oh, it’s just ripping off Battle Royale.” Not true. The two are very different stories, based on very different ideas. The staged teenager fighting is simply a hook, but saying they’re the same or one ripped off the other is a bit like saying George RR Martin is ripping off Anne McCaffrey because his books have dragons in them.

Allow me to explain, which is a cunning way of talking a bit more about Battle Royale itself. The set ups for Hunger Games and Battle Royale are very different, as are the themes. The Hunger Games are about power brokerage between stronger and weaker countries (described in the world as districts). Unlike the Battle Royale set up, the teenagers don’t know each other before they fight (apart from possibly those in the same district), they are simply the blood sacrifice of a much larger, more powerful political system.

The Hunger Games tributes are simply a blood sacrifice demanded in order for the central government to prove its power over the other districts. Other than the Peeta/Katniss connection, it’s not really about the relationships between the teenagers at all. The books go on to discuss themes relating to popular disaffection with politics, and the general feeling after the 20th century that revolutions don’t change anything, because the same sort of people always end up in power.

The Battle Royale scenario is very different. In Battle Royale, a class of teenagers are chosen, drugged, and only know what’s going to happen to them when they wake up and discover themselves trapped in an abandoned classroom with Mr Kamon. The backdrop is a popular reality show, not one designed to have the same global political impact as the Hunger Games, but to punish and terrify teenagers in what a display of intergenerational conflict.

Battle Royale is about adults, their fear of unruly teenagers, the difficulty of growing up and rebelling against your elders, and forming working relationships. The kids have known each other a long time, and this is the ultimate test of the fragile friendships they’ve formed. In some ways, Battle Royale shares similarities with ideas behind Lost, where past experiences are seen as being significant in the decisions the characters make in an extreme situation.

The story reveals that the friendships and associations the various class members have built are sometimes weaker than they seem. It reveals a lot about how differently even teenagers react to being placed in this situation. Shuuya, one of the central characters and clearly a lawful good personality, wants to unite all the teenagers in a rebellion against “The Program”. He hasn’t banked on the reactions of classmates. A victim of bullying is so keen to prove himself, he’s already killed a girl by the time Shuuya gets outside. Other characters turn into blood-thirsty maniacs, determined to win.

The manga is very different to the film. It has the time to bring out all the things the film couldn’t. Mr Kamon is a far more unnerving and chilling character in the books, and as the only adult in the present in the teenagers’ fraught lives, he reveals a lot about the brutality of the adults who have foisted this punishment on the next generation. The art uses novel tricks to underline this, creating of Mr Kamon a grotesque mask, rather than the sadder, more sympathetic character of the movie. I’m not at the end yet, so I don’t know if Shuuya is able to reach out to him, but I’m curious to see how this unfolds as the series progresses.

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