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“Battle Royale,” how a book that was initially rejected became a global success

The term "battle royale" has become ubiquitous in modern pop culture, appearing in everything from video games to comic books. Originally meaning a fight between two or more participants, it took on a darker and violent connotation with the release of the 1999 Japanese dystopian bestseller, Battle Royale (バトル・ロワイアル). Pitting student against student in a fight to the death, this seminal novel gave birth to three manga series, two films, and inspired hundreds of media creations.

“Battle Royale,” how a book that was initially rejected became a global success K-Selection

A cult classic destined

The book's release coincided with Japan's descent from a period of unparalleled economic prosperity. The country was going through its lost decade (失われた十年; Ushinawareta jūnen) following the collapse of the economic bubble in 1990, marked by the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo sect (地下鉄サリン事件; Chikatetsu sarin jiken). The horrific 1997 Kobe Child Murders (神戸連続児童殺傷事件; Kōbe renzoku jidō sasshō jiken) highlighted a surge in violent juvenile crime. Then Takami comes with Battle Royale. “What is the aim of this game? Is there any meaning to all this? » Kawada's eyes widened slightly, then he looked down and let out a laugh. He must have found the question quite amusing. Finally, he said: " Of course not. » Battle Royale: Remastered, page 226

The story revolves around a class of middle school students forced to participate in a fascist government initiative known simply as "The Program." The objective of the program is simplistically cruel: kill until only one student remains. Some students enthusiastically embark on a killing spree, while others are more pacifist looking for a way to cheat the Program without shedding blood. Alliances are formed, real betrayals and backstabbing occur, rebellions are put down, and the number of living students dwindles. Takami gives the reader uncompromising access to the students' minds, and we learn perhaps more about them than we intended. It's a raw, direct, darkly humorous, captivating story that ends on a surprisingly optimistic note.

“Battle Royale,” how a book that was initially rejected became a global success K-Selection

Takami Koushun, the man behind the phenomenon

“Takami had originally envisioned the students' explosive tracking devices as bracelets, but as a friend wisely pointed out, it would be easy to get rid of the bracelet by cutting off your arm. Takami thought, “Well, we can't cut our own necks” and wisely changed the bracelets into necklaces. » Takami Koushun (高見広春) grew up in Kagawa Prefecture on the island of Shikoku. A literature student at Osaka University, he wrote stories featuring detective protagonists with horror elements.

Some of his literary influences included horror writer Hideyuki Kikuchi and Western heavyweights Stephen King and Robert B. Parker, the latter two whom he discovered in college. Singer-songwriter Sano Motoharu (佐野元春) is also very present; Takami includes the lyrics 「愛することってむずかしい」 (“It's so hard to love”) in the book's epigraphs, and the main protagonist Nanahara Shuya shares similar physical traits to Sano.

Takami credits Parker's way of integrating social criticism into a story as essential to using his own in the book, primarily expressed by the triumvirate of Nanahara Shuya, Nakagawa Noriko, and Kawada Shogo. His imaginary republic of Greater East Asia is essentially Japan, something born of his antipathy for Japanese social norms. In an epilogue to the 2009 English edition, Takami reflects on how his own feelings are reflected in the book:

I wanted to talk about the feeling of imprisonment that I clearly felt living in Japan since my childhood… and that’s what I tried to do. Here in Japan, being different from others can make you a potential scapegoat when something goes wrong... Even if a rule is clearly ridiculous, no one will dare object to it, because people think, "If I say something , others will think I’m different,” and the rule remains unchanged.

Takami Koushun
“Battle Royale,” how a book that was initially rejected became a global success K-Selection

An arduous path to publication

After graduating from Osaka University, he worked for the Shikoku Shinbun as a reporter for five years before resigning in 1996. He began writing Battle Royale that same year and, upon completion, hoped getting it published, which turned out to be easier said than done. In 1997, he submitted the Battle Royale manuscript to the Japan Horror Fiction Awards (日本ホラー小説大賞). Out of 229 participants, only four reached the final of the novel category, including Takami. Among the four finalists, his strongest competition was Togashi Keita (戸梶圭太) and his novel Century of the Damned (センチュリー・オブ・ザ・ダムド) centered on an underworld operator and a 13-year-old telepathic girl.

Takami's depiction of students killing students essentially, children killing children, did not sit well with the three judges. Although they found the writing engaging, they felt the content was too problematic and risked damaging the competition's reputation. Therefore, Battle Royale was ruled out by the judges due to its uncomfortable nature. No winner was declared that year.

In a reflective essay included in the 2014 essay collection The Battle Royale Slam Book, preliminary panel judge Masao Higashi admitted that the Kobe child murders played a major role in the judges' decision to reject the book. The parallels between Program as a Game and Kobe's killer's handwritten note stating "the game begins" proved too disturbing to ignore.

“Battle Royale,” how a book that was initially rejected became a global success K-Selection

An overnight success

Rather than disenchanting people, the excitement around this mysterious book has only intensified. Battle Royale ranked fourth out of ten in the 2000 edition of the popular mystery fiction guide このミステリーがすごい! (This Mystery Is Awesome!). Finally, after being rejected and revised, Takami's book was picked up and published by Ota Publishing in 1999. It is worth noting that Ota Publishing would later publish the autobiography of the Kobe child killer, which caused much dismay the public and the families of the victims.

Battle Royale became an instant bestseller, selling 1 million copies. The first printed edition was 666 pages long, which was no coincidence; Takami's editor deliberately emphasized the number of pages as 獣の数字 (kemono no suji; "The Number of the Beast").

In 2002, Takami gave a lecture on the ethics of writing hardboiled fiction at his alma mater, Osaka University, revealing some of the thoughts behind his writing process for Battle Royale. While conceiving the story, he confessed that he just wanted to write cool characters; Contrary to popular opinion, the grisly beheading of the Kobe child killer's first victim played only a small role in his decision to intertwine children with violence.

Takami had also initially imagined the students' explosive tracking devices as bracelets, but as a friend rightly pointed out to him, it would be easy to get rid of the bracelet by cutting off your arm. Takami thought: “Well, you can’t cut your own neck.” and wisely changed the bracelets into necklaces.

“Battle Royale,” how a book that was initially rejected became a global success K-Selection

An unforgettable film adaptation

“In a thoughtful essay included in the 2014 collection of essays titled The Battle Royale Slam Book, preliminary judge Masao Higashi admitted that the Kobe child murders played a crucial role in the judges' decision to reject the book . » The 2000 Battle Royale film is worth a try on its own, but for now we'll settle for a few words.

Renowned film director Fukasaku Kinji (深作欣二) read Takami's work and found himself connecting with the students all too easily. His wartime experiences in a munitions factory as a teenager instilled in him an acute understanding of the ease with which children and violence can intersect. The book reignited his hostility toward the way adults treat children in society, and he knew he had to adapt the novel into a film. During the raids, even though we were friends working together, the only thing we thought about was self-preservation. This is what Fukasaku Kinji said in a 2001 interview with The Guardian.

The film starred experienced actor and director Kitano "Beat" Takeshi as the Program's sadistic supervisor, Fujiwara Tatsuya as the main protagonist Nanahara Shuya, and Yamamoto Taro as Program veteran Kawada Shogo. (Yamamoto would later become an anti-establishment politician and founder of the Reiwa Shinsengumi (れいわ新選組), something that would certainly receive a nod of approval from Kawada).

“Battle Royale,” how a book that was initially rejected became a global success K-Selection

Reading about violence in a book is one thing, but seeing it on screen is another. The novel may have upset a few people, but the film sparked criticism and debate ranging from ordinary people to Diet politicians. The film classification society in Japan gave the film the rare R15 rating despite Fukasaku's objections and despite the fact that many of the actors themselves were 15 years old. A PLD-led movement to pass a law limiting children's access to violent or sexual media coincided with the film's release, forcing Fukasaku to abandon his petition to change the film's classification.

Some authors look down on film adaptations of their works. Takami was not one of them. In an interview after his lecture at Osaka University in 2002, Takami expressed pleasant surprise at Fukasaku's skillful handling of the source material, noting the film's miraculous cohesion. As for the sequel, Battle Royale II: Requien, it does not compare with its predecessor. Fukasaku died during its production, leaving his son in charge. It was widely criticized by critics, both domestic and foreign. Suffice to say that it is much more political, some would say anti-American, given its terrorist elements and does not touch as deeply as the first film, although it is still worth seeing.

“Battle Royale,” how a book that was initially rejected became a global success K-Selection

Taking explicitness to a whole new level

Battle Royale was adapted into a manga the same year as the film's release. Published from 2000 to 2005 in Young Champion, this seinen manga increased the violence factor. Artist Taguchi Masayuki brought Takami's story to life in a raw and macabre way. At first, the manga remained faithful to the novel. However, as the series progressed, Taguchi introduced more explicit scenes, including rape and excessive violence absent from the novel.

In a lengthy discussion published in the final volume, Takami stated that he preferred Taguchi's approach to the story over Fukasaku's. Takami felt that Taguchi remained true to Battle Royale's underlying theme: an incorruptible love for humanity, showing that there is more to life than violence and oppression, and that it is natural for sentient beings. humans to hope for more.

In 2009, Takami admitted that he would no longer write anything about Battle Royale, but in 2014 he wrote a side manga titled Battle Royale: Angel's Border, focusing on the six girls holed up in the lighthouse, who eventually end up killing each other after paranoia and fear replaced their bonds of friendship.

“Battle Royale,” how a book that was initially rejected became a global success K-Selection

A striking legacy

Takami has yet to write any new work not related to Battle Royale, although he has repeatedly said he will return. It's hard to imagine that anything he wrote could rival his now cult classic. Although it faces similar criticism overseas, especially in North America, where school shootings occur on a sickening daily basis, Battle Royale has also received rave reviews and has die-hard fans.

Takami has combined brutal violence with great kindness, misery with hope, in a style of pulp fiction that makes it very fluid to read. It's an unforgettable experience. Battle Royale is one of those books that offers new, illuminating moments of clarity with each reread.

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