The 42 students (21 boys and 21 girls) of Third Year Class B, Shiroiwa Junior High School, in Shiroiwa Town, Kagawa Prefecture, the Republic of Greater East Asia, are normal fifteen-year-olds. They worry about school, they love spending time with their friends, they enjoy sports, and they are crazy about their crushes. But their fascist government is not "normal." In fact, it is cruel - very, very cruel. Every year, the government of the Republic of Greater East Asia randomly selects fifty third-year junior high school classes and forces them to participate in a battle simulation program. The students of Third Year Class B in Shiroiwa Junior High School think that they are on a study trip, but they have actually been selected to take part in the program. The class is drugged and brought to an abandoned island where they are forced to play a game. The game really only has one rule: Kill each other until only one survivor is left.
Each player in the game is provided with a limited supply of food and water, a map of the island, a compass, a watch, and a weapon that has been randomly assigned. The weapons include different kinds of guns and different kinds of knives. But some of the "weapons" turn out to be things like darts complete with a dart board, a banjo, and... a fork. If the players refuse to fight each other, or if they try to escape the island, the metal collars that have been placed around their necks will explode and instantly kill them. They must kill or be killed.
The prize for the "winner" of the game: He or she can go home and live. Also, he or she gets a lifetime pension and an autographed card from the Great Dictator. The official reason for the game: Research purposes / it is the country's special conscription system.
Is this a violent story? Yes, it is. Here is an excerpt:
The slashing sound Megumi heard sounded like a lemon being cut.
It was a nice sound. The knife must have been really sharp and the lemon fresh, the way they are on television cooking shows, as in, "Today, we'll be cooking lemon salmon."
It took her a few seconds to realize what had occurred.
Megumi saw Mitsuko's right hand. On the left side under her chin. Her hand held a gently curved, banana-shaped blade that reflected dully against the flashlight beam. It was a sickle - the kind used to harvest rice. And now its tip was stuck in Megumi's throat....
Her left hand clutching the back of Megumi's head, Mitsuko dug the sickle in further. It made another crunching noise.
Ladies and gentlemen, that is Battle Royale. When I started reading it, I was in a daze. Like the students, I couldn't believe what was happening. As the students' uncertainty, fear, and suspicions grew, so did mine. I was horrified. And I realized with even more horror that I couldn't stop reading. Even though at first I thought I wouldn't be able to stomach what I was reading, I read on because of hope for a happy ending and for the survivor, interest in the lives of each student (there are plenty of flashback scenes), and morbid curiosity about how each student would die. Then together the characters and I slowly realized with dismay that we were getting desensitized to all the violence.
The beginning and ending of Battle Royale are action-packed because so many students are dying in those parts. In contrast, the middle of the novel seems a bit boring because the students are hiding from each other and those who have teamed up are just talking. But always, always there is an ominous tension.
There is an important character who gets into unrealistic situations. A couple of parts in the story are predictable. And there are several typos in the book (bad proofreading!). But this is good stuff. Battle Royale is about trust and paranoia. It is about how life and death situations bring out the brightest parts of human nature as well as the darkest parts. It is about a totalitarian government and fighting that government. But above all, Battle Royale is about entertaining readers.
[Battle Royale was originally published in Japanese in 1999. My copy of the book is a borrowed copy from a friend. (Thank you, April!) It was published by Gollancz (an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group) in the UK in 2007. The English translation is by Yuji Oniki.]