There are definitely some people in your ninth grade class that you wanted to kill. Of course, your best friend was also in your ninth grade class, as well as a bunch of normal people, some cool kids, plenty of weird kids, and the absolutely greatest love of your entire life.
No matter. In Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, dystopian police state Japan says, “Kill ’em all!”
The idea of the battle royale is probably the least likely of all post-apocalyptic fantasies, but it’s nevertheless a popular one, whether the fighting consists of just a couple of dudes (“Two men enter; one man leaves!”), tweens and teens selected by lottery from all parts of the country (“May the odds be ever in your favor!”), or one entire junior high class of 42 kids–21 boys, 21 girls, and enough sexual tension and romantic angst to power a small village.
Each kid in this Program, all members of one class selected at random, is given a big scare, a bag of basic essentials, and one weapon. Best weapon: machine gun. Worst weapon: fork. The kids are then released onto a small island to hunt each other down and avoid stepping into the progressively widening forbidden zones that will blow the explosive collars around their necks. Only one kid can win the grand prize, which is living. Of course, there are some kids who choose not to play, some kids who choose to play big time, a couple of psychopaths (can’t you still remember the couple of psychopaths from your own ninth grade class?), and a bunch of normal kids with crushes, best friends, enemies, teammates, awkward former crushes, and the like. The book is consumed with following these kids, tracking each one’s psychology that leads to the choices each one makes, laying out the plot points that cause the choices… oh, and lovingly, gruesomely retelling every battle and murder in as much detail as humanly possible.
What the battle royale theme does for us, even if it’s not exactly giving us real-world survival tips, is to think through some of the meaty, tricky questions of government authority and community survival:
1. Do you follow the requests of those in authority, or do you follow your instincts? Everything in pop culture would like us to believe that you should always follow your instincts–trick the Gamemaker into declaring TWO winners, then go on to overthrow the whole dang government!–but does that apply to a real-life emergency situation in which those in authority are making debatable (lengthily debatable, at that) decisions at breakneck speed? Would you, for instance, abandon loved ones to evacuate a deadly situation, as government forces might ask you to? Even if refusing means being abandoned, yourself, possibly in the path of a chemical or nuclear weapons strike?
2. Do you trust people? Yeah, you’ve got friends. But do you *trust* these people? You can probably trust them not to kill you for the contents of your cupboard today, but what if your survival was at stake? Their kid’s survival? What if you saw them holding a bloody axe, standing over the smashed-in head of one of your classmates, and then later they showed up at the lighthouse where you’re hiding out with your girlfriends? Would you be all, “Oh, smashing in Tatsumichi’s head with an axe was an accident? Sure, come on in and huddle with us!”, or would you think, “It’s time to poison some soup!”?
3. Do you lead, follow, or get out of the way? You’re definitely a team player now (I assume), but a group project is pretty different from a fight for your life. Sure, our heroine Noriko has about as much personality as a slice of bread, but within the first five minutes of the Program, she managed to find a partner who’d baby her along, take care of her, tell her when to run but mostly let her hide, and hook her up with the only truly capable student in the entire Program. If you want to be in charge, therefore, you have to ask yourself, “Do I REALLY know what I’m doing, or should I just step back and let the guy who knows how to set booby traps and disable our explosive collars be in charge?”
4. Do you overthrow the government, or do you survive? Overthrowing the government is all well and good (and is definitely a personal aspiration of mine), but overthrowing the government doesn’t always lead to, you know, so much *winning*, with its parades in your honor and cash prizes and lack of a bounty on your head. Also, we don’t want to be terrorists unless we really, really, REALLY have to.
My challenge to you, after having read Battle Royale and slogged manfully through my analysis, is to perform the Battle Royale thought experiment about you and your friends. You’re all on an island, you’ve got random weapons and an all-seeing overlord, and you’re expected to battle to the death. How goes it?
I’ll tell you one thing: I’m NOT the one with the fork.