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animefringe february 2003 / feature
Animefringe Coverage:
Battle Royale - Life Is a Game

What would you do if you had to kill a friend? The answer to that question is a deeply personal one, with a number of choices that are hard to accept. But what if you had no choice in the matter and your friend would kill you if you didn't kill him first? Think you'd have the guts to take a life? This is but one aspect of the emotionally exhausting modern-day pulp classic Battle Royale.

First gracing the shelves of Japanese bookstores in 1999, Koushun Takami's novel about a class of 42 ninth graders taken to a deserted island and forced to participate in a deadly game of supremacy quickly gained literary infamy and became a massive runaway bestseller. Yet, the real controversy began a year prior when the novel was nominated for the Kadokawa Horror Novel Prize Contest.

Though not a horror story in any traditional sense of the word, the book was disturbing enough to make even the judging committee squeamish. When word got out about the novel, it was only a matter of time before a major publisher picked up the book. That publisher was none other than Ota Publishing, and according to numbers given in the April 2001 issue of PULP: The Manga Magazine, the book went on to sell over 800,000 copies.

The media spectacle the novel turned into wouldn't end there, though. The biggest controversy would come about when a movie adaptation of the book was announced... but lets not get too far ahead. If a simple novel could arouse and intrigue a nation in such a way, then what could be so disturbing that it's opposition would want it silenced? The answer lies in what it represents.

Battle Royale: The Novel

"Let me explain the situation. The reason why you're all here today then-" Then he said: "-is to kill each other." - Sakamochi, Part I, Chapter 2

The world of Battle Royale is set in a present somewhat removed from our own, but equally grimy. The world has been split into several super powers, the most prominent being The Republic of Greater East Asia. Japan is the most prominent power in this republic, as they consider China to be a part of their indigenous land. Japan's government has developed a "unique system of national socialism ruled over by an executive authority called 'The Dictator'" and allows for all of the people's faith to be directed towards the government. Though religion is permitted, it is in no way a guaranteed right.

To further illustrate the government's power under the oppressive hand of the Republic, rock music has been banned, free speech is prohibited, and anyone who opposes the government is executed. Men can be killed in their very homes, women beaten and raped, children slaughtered, and all in the name of protecting the government's all-encompassing power. It's this fascist alternate reality that brings about the creation of the "Program". Officially known as Battle Experiment No.68, the Program is a battle simulation that was first held in 1947 and annually sees the selection of 50 ninth grade classes to participate, all in the name of research.

The students are taken to a secluded school building, and in the case of the 42 students of Shiroiwa Junior High School's Class B Third Grade they are taken to the Island of Kyushu, where they are strapped with explosive steel collars. The sad truth is that had one of the students been absent or not reported to the bus on time, the government would have gone to the students house and dragged them to the island personally.

From there, Kinpatsu Sakamochi, a fiendish bastard of a man and this particular game's chief supervisor, instructs the class on the basic rules of the game. They will be given a backpack containing a map, flashlight, bread, water, and a randomly chosen weapon with ammunition if needed, and set free upon the island to kill each other in the period of three days. However, if no one dies within 24 hours, then all the collars will automatically explode. Danger zones are added, with the first being the school building. If students linger in them, then their collars will detonate as well. Quite simply, the best way to put this game into words is to describe it as a deadly game of Survivor.

The Takami's writing takes great pains to make the reader feel for these characters. So descriptive is this book that reading it gives the reader vivid mental images of all the events. For anyone whose read any of the Harry Potter books, then they know description is a powerful tool, and Battle Royale exploits this tool to make the reader see and feel all of the events.

The viewpoint of the novel at first lies with Shuya Nanahara (Male Student No. 15) in order to set up the basic framework of the story and show a minds-eye view of the events transpiring in the classroom. The reader learns his grief for loosing his best friend, Yoshitoki Kuninobu, his motivations for helping the injured Noriko Nakagawa (Female student No. 15), and his hopes for finding someone to find a way out of this mess.

Once outside the school, the narrative shifts to the point of view of the various groups of students scattered throughout the island. In doing so, the reader gets to learn intimate details of every character's lives, which ultimately makes their deaths all the more tragic. To give a specific example, the bittersweet suicide of Sakura Ogawa (Female Student No. 4) and Kazuhiko Yamamoto (Male Student No. 21) who didn't want to participate in the game and rather chose to end their own lives by jumping from a cliff into the ocean. It isn't their death that is significant though, but in fact they way the spend their last moments together laughing and talking about common everyday things such as watching television.

Outrage, joy, sadness; the novel Battle Royale encapsulates all these emotions and so many more into a coherent package that is overwhelmingly powerful. As the book progresses it becomes less a political piece and more of a social commentary, highlighted in-depth character studies. Some students simply give up on life while others give into primal desires and still others try and fight the system. Many have hailed the work as a new age Lord of the Flies, and yet many schools don't include the book as part of their curriculum. Readers will thus be forced to draw their own conclusions, but Battle Royale will have any reader enthralled until the very end.

The English Language Version

North America will finally get a chance to see what all the commotion is all about this February when VIZ, LLC. releases the complete Japanese novel in English for the first time. Edited by the former editor of the PULP: The Manga Magazine, Alvin Lu, and translated by Yuji Oniki, Takami's epic will mark the first time VIZ has ever focused their creative energies into the translation of a novel.

With the novel about to hit American bookstore shelves, Animefringe Online Magazine talked briefly with Alvin Lu about the upcoming release and how it was being handled.

Adam Arnold (AA): Battle Royale is a very graphic story in any medium, for that reason the book is being published under VIZ's more mature PULP label. What other actions are being taken to ensure that the book is aimed at an older demographic?

Alvin Lu (AL): Weirdly enough, comics are held to different standards than prose novels are. You can get away with a lot more graphic violence in a prose novel without having to saddle it with a "for mature readers" label. The people interested in reading this title will already be in that older demographic; they'll sort themselves out without needing a label to direct them. This is reflected in the design of the book. It won't look like a children's book.

AA: Undoubtedly a number of people out there might see this book as having no redeeming qualities whatsoever and totally overlook the fact that it is a social commentary piece. Is there anything you'd like to say to those people to try and sway their thinking?

AL: I don't think I need to say anything to sway anyone's thinking (as if I could). The qualities of the book will speak for itself. Actually, the book does have no redeeming qualities whatsoever--that's much to its advantage.

AA: TOKYOPOP recently announced their acquisition of the manga adaptation of Koushun Takami's novel and has tapped Keith Giffen to handle rewrite chores. Can you tell us what actions have been taken to ensure that VIZ's book adaptation is of the highest possible quality?

AL: I like to think the fact that this translation is being handled by Yuji Oniki and myself is insurance enough of its quality.

I wouldn't characterize this as an "adaptation." This is a faithful and complete translation of the original novel. Yuji has been working with the author, Koushun Takami, on keeping it true down to its last details, and we've been taking great pains in that department. We've incorporated corrections that Takami has made on the book since the first edition went to press in Japan, as well as clarifications he wanted made in the English edition. Yuji and I have had plenty of discussions on the flow of the language in English reflecting the reading experience in Japanese.

"Translation is betrayal," as they say. I'd like to think we maintained high standards, as far as literary translation goes, on this one. Our first obligation is to Takami, as a writer. It's my main hope we've done him justice.

AA: For the people who have seen the movie, what do you expect their initial reaction will be to the novel considering the two are almost completely different in structure and story?

AL: Actually, they're not that different. The movie almost works as a capsulated version of the novel. Reading the novel greatly enriches the movie-watching experience. It gives you all the back-story and a lot of the narrative that was chopped out. Shinji and Mitsuko especially really come out as full-fledged characters in the novel. But both book and movie follow the same overall trajectory, with maybe only one or two major differences, in terms of major plot points.

AA: Should the Battle Royale novel prove successful for you, is VIZ considering the idea of bringing other Japanese novels over to the United States?

AL: I'd certainly like to, but I can't really say right now.

AA: Without getting too spoiler intensive, can you tell us what your favorite part of the novel was?

AL: I thought Takami was at his best with Shinji's final scene and with the scene in the lighthouse. The latter was also, in my opinion, the best scene in the movie.

Battle Royale: The Movie

"Sorry. It's against the rules for me to kill, isn't it?" - Kitano, Battle Royale

Riding on the heels of the novel's success, a full-length feature film was commissioned for a December 16, 2000 release. Heading the directorial responsibilities would be none other than the world-famous cult cinema director Kinji Fukasaku, known for his hard-boiled Yakuza films and movies starting Sonny Chiba. The biggest task in front of him wouldn't be finding a decent script or even finding experienced actors; rather it would be surviving the near endless political outcries to have the film banned before it even got off the ground.

The film was branded with a R-15 rating by Japan's equivalent of the MPAA known as Eirin. This meant that anyone under the age of 15 was strictly prohibited from seeing the film. Since Fukasaku's main hope was to make a movie with a message especially for teenagers to show them there is a difference between video game violence and real violence, the rating put a kink in his plans. On occasions, Fukasaku even went out of his way to encourage the youth of Japan to find a way to go and see the movie because he had made it just for them.

The movie was even brought up in parliament, the National Diet, where power hungry politicians were seriously considering infringing on the power of the rating industry to monitor films. A special screening of the movie was set-up especially for politicians to view the film, and the results were positive overall.

The media frenzy pushed ticket sales through the roof, as almost everyone wanted to see the film. Even the movie's R-15 rating did little to curb minors from getting in. And at the end of the day, the movie was simply just that - a movie, nothing more nothing less.

The Book Versus The Movie

"Listen up! Because of folks like Kuninobu here, this country's absolutely no good anymore. So the bigwigs got together and passed this law...BATTLE ROYALE. So today's lesson is... you kill each other off 'til there's only one left. Nothing's against the rules." - Kitano, Battle Royale

The movie takes the key elements from the book and reworks them into a two-hour movie full of violence, angst, love, death, and hope. On some levels, the movie transcends the book, but on others such as in the characterization department, it is seriously lacking. It's a given that for true understanding of the characters and the world of Battle Royale, the viewer has to sit down and read the book. Since the movie had to contain itself to following a set number of characters and fleshing them out, countless others became simple bodies that were added to the death count. There simply wasn't enough time to flesh out everything.

The deaths that are fully fleshed out are the most potently disturbing. In the case of Takako Chigusa (Female Student No. 13), the viewer genuinely feels her pain in particular. One moment she is being harassed by a male student who wants to lose his virginity and the next she is stabbing him in the vilest of ways. Suddenly, the tables turn and the audience feels nothing but pain for Chigusa.

The movie, while keeping with the key elements of the book, does change the material considerably in some regards. The general flow of deaths has all been altered as have the assignment of weapons. In the novel, Shuya and Noriko are given a pocketknife and a boomerang, whereas in the movie they are given a pot lid and binoculars. This change lets the movie crack a handful of jokes to keep things light, and doesn't aversely affect the plot.

The biggest change is the characterization of the instructor in charge of the game. In the novel, Kinpatsu Sakamochi is a vicious man who has no direct connection to the students. Yet, the movie changes this to have Mr. Kitano (Beat Takeshi) to be familiar with the students as they were all in his seventh grade homeroom. Kitano was stabbed by one of this student's one morning and left school shortly thereafter. This change became necessary to make the movie have some form of beginning and it also helps to make the ultimate finale all the more memorable.

Also, Kazou Kiriyama (Male Student No.6) and Shougo Kawada (Male Student No.5) have become transfer students who were not a part of the class. In the novel, Kazou had transferred into the school well before the selection of his class; the movie changes this to have him as someone who signed up for Battle Royale because he thought it'd be fun.

For all intents and purposes, the movie dropped all of the deep governmental back-story that made the novel almost disconnected from reality. The movie effectively shifts the events into the 21st century at the very beginning by stating that, "At the dawn of the millennium, the nation collapsed. At 15% unemployment, 10 million were out of work, 800,000 students boycotted school, and juvenile crime rates soared. The adults lost confidence, and fearing the youth, eventually passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act, AKA: The BR Act."

The changes do make the movie cut closer to the bone by making it into a full-fledged social commentary piece that condemns violence by showing the effects of it, much in the way anti-drug movies such as Requiem for a Dream show the brutal truths of reality. Go into Battle Royale unprepared, and you'll come out of the experience with your jaw to the floor.

Battle Royale: Special Version

With the breakout success the film, director Kinji Fukasaku was able to go back to his work and shoot an entire new sequence and go in and rework some scenes. The special edition of the film helps to give greater depth to characters such as Mitsuko while at the same time helping to show that at one point they were all once normal students.

The biggest addition to the film is a basketball game that is first seen right after Kitano is stabbed at the beginning of the film. This game becomes a key element that is played later in the film and even in one of the new epilogue sequences, cleverly named "Requiem." The requiem segments bring everything full circle and help to give some sense of closure to some of the unanswered questions. For instance, what was the deal with Noriko dreaming about walking and eating ice cream with Kitano?

The special version makes around 100 edits to both the audio and video tracks by tweaking sounds, adding more blood through the use of CG, fixing set glitches, and generally making the film all the more grizzly. Most helpful of all are additions of reminders for several of the characters that died. In the lighthouse sequence, when Shuya awakes he gets a verbal recap of who has died, in the special version we actually get to see who those people were.

Why North America Won't Get The Film

Unfortunately for anyone in North America, chances of every seeing an official domestic release of the film are slim to none. Many thought that one of the big name Hollywood companies, such as Miramax, would jump on the rights to the film believing that they would market it like their other films. Sadly, this wasn't to be. Such a high profile and violent film would undoubtedly be blamed for the violence that it so strongly seems to oppose in much the same way that video games have become the media's scapegoat on many occasions.

Different groups of people can watch the film and come out of the two-hour film with totally differing impressions. More frigid-minded people will undoubtedly see the film as a bloodbath along the lines of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, while many fans of anime will jokingly laugh off the violence and see it as nothing short of a brilliant film with an amazing anti-violence message.

As Alvin Lu would suggest, there may have been "other reasons besides fear of public backlash to acquiring the film. It's perceived as sensational, but lacking in the qualities that might make it a breakout hit like Crouching Tiger. Foremost, for American audiences, is still that it's a non-English language film. That's the reality in the film market."

Whatever the reason, half the English-speaking world will be denied the chance to see this film. Take heart though, because there are other options. Aside from blatant piracy on Internet file transfer programs and low-quality Chinese bootlegs, there is one very worthwhile alternative. In Europe, Battle Royale was given a full English subtitled art film release and was released on DVD by Tartan Video (Region 0, PAL releases) in both a single disc standard release of the original theatrical film and a special edition 2-disc version of the recent Battle Royale: Special Edition. Copies of the film can be found at nearly every cult cinema web site, but they aren't all of the highest quality as some may be Hong Kong bootlegs simply with a NTSC transfer. Make sure to do a little research before sending any money.

Battle Royale II

Filming for the sequel to Battle Royale began December 2002 with Kinji Fukasaku returning once again to direct what proved to be his last motion picture. The 73-year old director was forced to turn over the director's seat to his son Kinji Fukasaku, the film's co-director and scriptwriter for both films, and died shortly thereafter on January 12, due to complications from prostate cancer.

Picking up a year after the events of the first film, the sequel may at first seem like an easy way to cash in on a cult classic, but that couldn't be further from the truth. As thought provoking as the first film was, it was still flawed and omitted much of the actual political problems that were so heavily covered in the novel. Where the first film seems like it could have taken place in reality, the second film shifts things into an alternate reality where Japan won World War II alongside Germany, much the like book. And don't worry about sequels not living up to the originals, the Japanese in many cases have made sequels that are as good or surpass the originals, take for instance Ring 2 and Ring 0: Birthday.

A recent teaser released by Toei shows that the actions of the first film's survivors have forced them to become wanted fugitives for cheating the rules of the game. The government has posted an all points bulletin to track down the fugitives and bring them to justice.

As the translated tag line "Same Game, Different Class" seems to suggest, the government's form of justice is of course for the survivors to be thrown into a new game of Battle Royale where they must fight for their lives amongst a class with very little remorse.

With several returning faces from the original film, including Tatsuya Fujiwara (Shuya), Aki Maeda (Noriko), and many of the other slaughtered students from the first flick supposedly appearing in flashbacks, the sequel is sure to surpass the original in actual scope. And if the rumors are true, quite a few deaths and a massive government protest are planned to appear in the film. Only time will tell as Battle Royale II is set to blaze into Japanese theaters this summer.

Battle Royale: The Manga

With all the talk of the novel and the movie, it is easy to forget that there is another work that takes the basic framework of the novel and puts it into a visual sense: the manga. Penned by the novel's author, Koushun Takami, and drawn by Masayuki Taguchi, the result is a much broader and more violent look at the events that took place on the Island of Kyushu.

Everyone has a story to tell -- some kind of deep motivation that drives them and a specific set of events that have shaped their lives. The novel used this concept to help flesh out the characters to make their deaths have a greater impact on the reader. The manga is able to take this one step further by reshaping key events and turning Takami's shifting narrative into a broad sweeping tale of carnage filled with flashbacks, over-the-top violence, and even some sex (Mitsuko is a ko-gal, after all).

Be warned, the manga is most definitely not for kids as the artwork is highly detailed and with bathtubs full of blood and gore that would make even some horror manga fans afraid. The artwork might be a mixed bag for some, as the 42 characters are drawn in several different styles that depends on the type of character they are. Some are portrayed as being yakuza-like, while others are more anime-esque ranging from the sexy to the comical. All the key leads are all drawn more true to life though. The action scenes are also a hodgepodge of different styles as well, that calls to mind manga such as Fist of the North Star, Bakune Young, and even a few Chinese manwha. Seeing a bloody lump of gray matter hanging out of someone's skull is not a pretty sight, and the manga truly makes this horror known through the shocking visuals.

Several scenes do play out differently than the novel, however one particular scene happens in Vol.2 that details the Mitsuru's first meeting with Kazuo at school. In the novel, this whole ordeal takes place around an art room and the events of Kazuo taking down the people torturing Mitsuru is glossed over. In the manga, this scene shifts to the library and is graphically plotted out in a panel-by-panel chronicle. Several other events are rearranged, skipped, shortened, or extended to add more impact and to keep readers coming back for more.

Currently, eight volumes are out in Japan as of this writing, with the story still far from being finished. At last count, fifteen students were remaining and the famous lighthouse sequence had still not been played out.

Interestingly enough, TOKYOPOP will be releasing the Battle Royale manga series in English starting this May. They've even tapped American comic book legend, Keith Giffen, whose portfolio is filled with his work for DC Comics including his unforgettable stint on the Legion of Super-Heroes and Justice League, as well as the co-creation of Ambush Bug (and The Heckler, for fans in the know).

Giffen, an avid fan of violent computer games, was quoted as saying in a recent TOKYOPOP press release that, "I thought I knew the limits to which 'extremes' could be taken - I was wrong!"

For years now, American comic books have been inspired by Japanese manga and anime, but the hardcore direct market has often shunned this turn. With big names of the East meeting the big names of the west, TOKYOPOP may yet sway the closed-minded super-hero fans into giving manga another try.

Retrospective

Battle Royale's popularity has spawned countless other pieces of merchandise, including dolls, making-of books, its own Collectible Card Game (CCG), and even movie props. There is even an entire fan fiction sequel novel somewhere out there on the Internet, ready for someone to plug it through a web translator.

Still, with every media sensation, the bar is raised for the works that follow. As with Battle Royale, there are works that are more violent and more thought provoking, but they aren't given a hard time. This is not because they aren't gruesome enough to get noticed, they simply aren't daring enough to go against the grain.

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