Saturday 11 August 2007

33. Battle Royale

I got a cartload of books for my birthday and felt like diving right into them in spite of all the older books that are waiting patiently for me to read them. However, what got me reading Battle Royale instead of one of this year's many birthday books was that I felt guilty over the fact that it was a birthday gift from last year (from dear Brook) that I hadn't read.

Indeed, this guilt was magnified by the fact that, having tired of waiting for me to read it, Brook read it before I did. Such a breach of reading protocol reflects how remiss I've been on keeping up with my gift book reading.

(In fact, I still have a book from Roger, A House for Mr. Biswas, that's been waiting at least 3 years for me to read. Shameful isn't it? But I just can't read books in order of acquisition - some mysterious force usually determines for me what book comes next.)

I've been wanting to read Battle Royale for a long time but felt I couldn't commit to a 700-page book right now (with "right now" including any time in which I'm still affiliated with Queen's and therefore my dissertation). Anyway, I needn't have worried - it's a very easy and entertaining "pulp riff" (to quote Stephen King, who was paid to sing the book's praises on the cover) and I read 180 pages in about 2.5 hours yesterday.

It's a very un-subtle allegory addressing how junior high school students in Japan are put into vicious competition with one another to "survive" and make it to high school. Combined with the book's dystopic exaggeration of Japan's xenophobia, what we have here is a kind of nightmarish Lord of the Flies for the 21st century (no, I didn't come up with the Lord of the Flies comparison all by myself). While the comparison to Golding's book makes sense, this is much more macabre. The students in this tale aren't accidentally isolated - they're purposefully put on an island together to kill one another.

According to the government's Program 68, about 50 classes of 15 year-olds per year are forced to engage in a battle royale in a secluded place until only one person is left alive. This is somehow related to the country's militaristic commitment to remaining impregnable but how exactly isn't clear.

Each student is given a different weapon (someone actually received a set of darts as her weapon - but she was killed before she might have tried to use them), a map of the island they're on, and bread and water for two days. If there isn't only person left after the time period then everyone who's left is killed.

Right now, 29 of 42 students remain. Yes, this book is basically just a blood bath but as a theoretical study in how kids would react to being placed in such an untenable situation it's pretty good. Anyway, it's pulp and I'm enjoying it!

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