Battle Royale

I recently finished reading Koushun Takami’s 1999 debut novel Battle Royale, a book better known for Kinji Fukasaku’s visceral, provocative film adaptation. It was also adapted into a serialized manga by Takami and Masayuki Taguchi throughout the last decade. Having now read and watched all three, I thought I’d have a look at how they compare. If you’ve not watched the film, or if you have but are planning on reading the book or manga, be warned that this contains spoilers.

Shuya and Noriko as they appear in the book, film and manga

The basic story is the same in all three versions. In a near-future dystopian Japan, classes of 15 year olds are regularly selected at random to take part in the Battle Royale program. They are put in an isolated area, in this case an island, and told to kill each other. The last person standing is the “winner”. They are fitted with electronic collars which would explode if they try to leave, if nobody is killed within a specified time, or if anybody is inside certain “forbidden zones” which are added every few hours in order to keep people moving around. The classmates are handed bags containing torches, compasses, food, water and random “weapons”, which could be anything from guns, bows and knives to GPS trackers and, in one case, a megaphone. We see this through the eyes of 15-year old Shuya Nanahara, who takes it upon himself to protect his best friend’s crush, Noriko. They are later joined by the enigmatic Shogo while the merciless Kazuo roams the island killing everyone in sight.

The book goes into great depth with all of the characters. Almost every member of the class has a memorable moment and many are given detailed backstories. Unlike the film adaptation, which is set in a Japan where unruly teenagers are going out of control and need discipline, the book is set in a world where the Second World War ended in stalemate, and Japan exists as part of the Republic of Greater East Asia, a ruthless military dictatorship where fear and brutality has made it the most productive country in the world. There is a lot in the book about how terrible this dictatorship is, and how brilliant the Great American Empire is, and it can probably do without it, as it distracts from the more complelling part of the story. While it’s a more realistic explanation for a society that would allow such a thing as Battle Royale to happen (with most people opposing it but being too scared to speak out), the movie takes the better approach of ignoring that, and solely concentrates on the characters and their ordeal on the island, where it can explore the most absorbing question the book poses – what would you do in this situation?

You shouldn't do that to Chigusa...

The film adaptation is very well written and directed and excellently cast, with Tatsuya Fujiwara as the hero Shuya and Aki Maeda as Noriko with some very memorable performances including Chiaki Kuriyama as Takako Chigusa, who later found international fame as Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill, Vol 1. The movie also adds some masterstrokes such as the use of classical music to great effect and the memorable use of a cute J-Pop girl on a video explaining the rules. But, having now read the book, I can see how it skips over so many great moments, with many of the characters getting almost no screen time, and some scenes being far too short. These shortcomings are all unavoidable without making the film far too long, I feel it’s a story that would better suit a mini-series, but even with the story in its abridged form, the film has gone down as a 21st century classic.

An example of a great scene entirely excluded from the film is when Sho, a gay member of Kazuo’s gang (described in fairly questionable terms), is revealed to have been stealthily following him around the island from the start. His plan is to follow close behind without being seen while Kazuo kills everyone else, until they are they only two left and he can creep up and kill him, thereby becoming the winner. He follows as he worryingly gets close to an area that is about to become a forbidden zone, and watches as Kazuo enters a public toilet. He waits outside in the shadows until he realises that it’s gone beyond the longest of toilet breaks, at which point the breeze blows the door open and he sees that the tap has been left running and the window is wide open. By the time he notices Kazuo walking away in the distance it is too late, Sho has been tricked into staying in a forbidden zone and his collar explodes.

Shinji realises that his first escape plan has been foiled

Shinji’s story is very different in the book compared to the movie. In the novel, he is presented as a key character, at certain points almost feeling like the protagonist and certainly the best hope for everyone’s survival. Shinji Mimura gets everything he pursues, whether that’s sporting success, academic achievement or girls. Joined by his best friend, the sensitive and comical Yutaka, he first hides out in the woods, using a laptop and mobile phone to hack in to the Program computers, almost succeeding but ultimately failing as his phone signal is cut off as his collar is used to listen to their conversations. He then comes up with a new plan, constructing a pulley system to drop a bomb on top of the school from where the Program is being run. Just as all the pieces are about to be in place and they are carrying the last components of the bomb out of a warehouse, they bump into an old friend, Keita, who Shinji doesn’t trust because he didn’t help him when he was being beaten by a gang months earlier. This simple disagreement leads to Shinji shooting Keita when he refuses to back away, and the gunfire attracts Kazuo, who arrives with a predictably devastating outcome. When they were so, so close to carrying out this plan they were working on all through the book, it all falls apart, and the only thing Shinji has left to do is detonate the bomb. This story is condensed down to just a few scenes in the film (where Shinji, Yutaka and Keita are all friends), retaining much of the meaning but losing a great deal of the impact.

Another very big difference in the film is that Kazuo and Shogo are presented as outsiders who chose to take part in the Program – the psychotic Kazuo choosing to take part for fun and Shogo, it emerges, for revenge. In the book, they are both part of the class. Kazuo is the leader of a feared gang in the school. Due to brain injuries sustained in the womb, he is incapable of feeling emotion, enabling him to easily decide to fully take part in the game and go on a killing spree, although the book notes that he could just have easily decided to sit still and not take part at all. Shogo is still an outsider in the book, having recently transferred to the school from another district. He remains a mysterious figure, having hardly spoken to anyone in his few months in the class, so the difficulty Shuya and Noriko have in trusting him is just the same in the novel as it is in the film.

The manga adaptation closely follows the book rather than the film. It is just as detailed, and in some areas is much more expansive, going into lots of subplots and backstories, giving even more information about the characters’ past lives. The characters are much more diverse, too, with each individual classmate feeling even more unique (something that is particularly missing from the film). But the main difference with the manga is how graphic it is, in terms of both the violence and sexual content. The murders are depicted with more gore than described in the book or shown in the film, with plenty of decapitations and gushing fountains of blood. There’s much more nudity as well, and not just in the one scene where it’s called for in the book, which I’ll describe in a moment. It’s a heady mixture of the titillation and crudity often found at a certain end of the Japanese graphic novel market and the thought-provoking story and characters of the book. The artwork is not so much in the common manga style, often being quite detailed, with the young characters faces (particularly the meeker boys) often having an eerie doll-like quality. There’s a further issue with the English translation by Tokyopop, which adds bizarre deviations from the original, such as turning the Program into a reality TV show, something which ruins the general idea and actually doesn’t make much sense.

Kou Shibasaki as the beautiful and deeply troubled femme fatale Mitsuko Souma

An easy way to look at the difference between the three versions is with a scene that happens around two-thirds of the way through the novel. Mitsuko finds Tadakatsu and Yuichiro and is allowed to camp with them. Tadakatsu is suspicious and wary of the threat she poses, based on her reputation, while Yuichiro, the sweet nerdy Otaku, naïvely sees her as being as likely to be just as innocent as anyone else, for the first time making her usually false smile become genuine, even to her surprise. They take turns to sleep, and when Yuichiro is sleeping, she coaxes Tadakatsu to the bushes where she strips to her underwear and as he succumbs to temptation she tries to slash his throat with a razor blade. As Tadakatsu chases her, Yuichiro leaps to her defence and is accidentally shot. Mitsuko uses the confusion to her advantage and kills Tadakatsu, before kissing Yuichiro as he dies. In the manga, this scene plays out in a similar way, with plenty of detail and flashbacks to Mitsuko’s troubled childhood. Both the violence and nudity is much more graphic than the novel, and the scene ends in an extraordinarily shocking way, with Mitsuko raping Yuichiro in a deranged attempt to heal his injuries, which only adds to his pain and hastens his death. In the film, meanwhile, this scene is only given around five seconds of screen time as, in a long shot, we see Mitsuko walk away from the semi-naked bodies of two boys.

The hideous instructor from the manga, Kamon

The monstrous instructor from the manga, Kamon

The Program is run by a different supervisor in each version. Sakamochi in the novel and Kamon in the manga are quite similar to each other, both being nasty and sadistic government employees who enjoy both witnessing and dealing out the suffering amongst the school pupils. Perhaps Sakamochi’s most vile act is the rape of Ms Anno, the woman who brought up Shuya and Yoshitoki in the orphanage, after she protested their participation in the Program. Kamon is drawn in a particularly grotesque, ugly style, making his lecherous personality all the more hideous. The film takes an entirely different tack. The legendary “Beat” Takeshi Kitano plays the class’ former teacher, bullied out of the school by his unruly pupils who often never showed up for class, and even once had his buttocks slashed by Yoshitoki. He might be described as a sympathetic figure, despite the horrifying situation he is facilitating. At times he comes across as odd, at times quite pathetic. It’s another great performance by Takeshi, one of the great comic actors of our time, who can portray sorrow and menace just as well. His character seems to be very fond of Noriko, perhaps because she was sometimes the only one who turned up at school. This comes through in the one scene in the film that jars, where Noriko is under threat from Mitsuko when Kitano appears from the bushes with an umbrella, saving her. I know he may already be a broken man at this point, but the troops would not allow him into such a dangerous situation. Sakamochi and Kamon certainly wouldn’t be seen outside the safety of the school.

Some scenes do play out exactly the same in all three versions, though, perhaps the most iconic and memorable of which takes place in the lighthouse. Shuya is injured and wakes up to find himself being looked after by the sweet and beautiful Yukie. She and five other girls are in a lighthouse and it’s a pretty good spot with secure doors, plenty of food, and the perfect look-out position above. Unfortunately one of the girls, Yuko, had earlier witnessed Shuya pulling an axe from a classmate’s head, without realising it was an accident and that Shuya was the one being attacked. Terrified of what she thought was a killer in their midst, she decides to poison his broth. But another of the girls, Yuka, takes a sip and instantly dies, with the resulting paranoia and suspicion causing a gunfight that kills all of the girls in the lighthouse except for Yuko. When Shuya bursts in through the door, she runs for her life up to the top of the lighthouse and falls to her death. A grim and shocking scene which lingers in the memory in all three versions.

All three versions take the original thought-provoking concept to different places, all of them with plenty of excellent things to offer, but none of them perfect. The film is full of exciting, captivating performances and is well-directed but misses or truncates so many moments. The manga is rich in backstory, covering so much more ground, with an insight into virtually every character’s school and home life, but it is very bloodthirsty and salacious. The book gets the tone right the most often out of all three, and for vast sections it is deeply gripping, page-turning stuff, but on a few occasions it does stray from the central themes at which points it gets a little trite and clichéd. For years there’s been talk of an American remake, which I wouldn’t like to see, although the idea of a mini-series set in Britain with chavs and goth teens set against each other tickles me a little. But, no, it’s best to leave it alone, as validated by the film’s messy, confusing sequel, Battle Royale II: Requiem.

If you liked the film I’d recommend you read the book, its shortcomings are minor while it’s good points are many and you’ll find it to add another layer of enjoyment to the story and characters.

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