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The Past | The Previous

Battle Royale: Novel and Graphic Novel.

every now and then, i hear a voice inside my head. it sounds a lot like bill hicks' voice, and it says, i remember when science fiction had balls.

hicks never said that. he said it about music. after saying that, he went on a long sketch about the state of musicians today: the clean looks, the bland political correctness, promoting diet coke, and the fact that sixteen year old girls singing about love is a bit naive. you can't say the last two parts about science fiction (especially considering that it's a male dominated genre) but it does at times does feel like a sterile, bland, politically correct world. especially considering that it was the genre in which ballard once published 'why i want to fuck ronald reagan' and moorcock behold the man. with the current proliferation of geek technobabble hard science fiction, big multi book space opera, tie in novels, and a general dominance of bland, politically correctness filtered through a culturally white and western background, it occasionally feels like books like that couldn't be published now, and leaves me hearing, i remember when science fiction had balls. that's not to say that there isn't good work out there now or even that the work done in the past had a higher level of good vs crap...

it just means that the more i see, the more i hear that little voice saying i remember when science fiction had balls.

(plus, i like saying it to irritate people, who then tell me i'm cynical and hard to please. it's a burden having taste and standards sometimes, really it is, but i endure.)

i came across battle royale as a movie first. it's a fairly infamous japanese flick where forty two students are dumped on an island, and told by their government to kill each other in three days, or the collars around their necks will explode. it's a fine film, well made, with great little vignettes to characterise most of the students, and with a dark satirical edge.

but that was the film, and what i am talking about now is the novel, written by koushun takami. a novel that, on it's back, proclaims it to be science fiction. usually i wouldn't bother to list this fact, except for two reasons: 1) i didn't it to be this at all when i was watching the film, and 2) it links back nicely into my nasty comments about science fiction have no balls.

battle royale the novel presents a dystopian vision of the world: there's a fascist government that has outlawed independent thought, the emphasis for fifteen year old boys and girls being rock-n-roll and America. there's a dictator no one sees. there is a climate of fear, of being watched in case you do or say the wrong thing, and if you do, you will, like shinji mimura's uncle, end up dead in an 'accident'. so, in this environment, the government has created a lotto in which once a year, one nine class is pulled drawn out, and dumped in an isolated area and told to kill each other. (it's the kind of thing you'd question your government about, if it weren't a fascist regime.)

around the neck of every student is a collar. remove it, it explodes. go into a forbidden zone, it explodes. if no one dies in twenty four hours... all the collars explode and everyone dies.

ever student is then given a back with supplies and one weapon and sent out onto the island to play the game.

and play they do.

this book isn't perfect. it might be the translation, it might be takami himself, but there are a number of small imperfections: students frequently have an item on them that the author introduces with, 'and the pocket knife he had in his bag', which can get a bit frustrating. some of the characterisation is a bit flat, but with forty two characters, that's to be expected, and quite often the characters don't act like their fifteen. that's one of the changes the movie made, in that the teenagers are much more down to earth, and less spectacular. and the writing, nothing special in the translated prose, circles around concepts like the politics china (or tokyo?), trust, the place of teenagers in the world in connection to the government and their family, doesn't really dig as deep as it could in places. while this last part is a bad, it's also a good, because it doesn't slow down a novel that, at six hundred pages, breezes past.

the reason, however, why these imperfections don't matter in the end, is the energy, and the sheer black joy that comes from the book. disagree all you would like for my comment about the state of science fiction, but the sheer energy in this book is something that is hard to find--and not just in science fiction, but any book. takami barrels along with the narrative, spitting out visceral fight scenes and bloody mayhem, with black humour and his thematic concepts. there's no pause. the tension grows as the counter for the living students gets smaller and smaller, because the game only ends when there is one left.

i don't know what the state of japanese science fiction is, but battle royale leaves me curious to check out more, just because i haven't read a science fiction novel that felt so alive in years. maybe the energy is part of the current scene, maybe not.

in addition to the novel, there is a battle royale comic series being printed by tokyopop, with english adaptations by keith giffen. the main reason i picked it up, however, is because takami is the writer of the japanese adaptation. it's interesting to see the changes he has made to his own work. most of these have been done in his embrace of the comic format and, together with series artist masayuki taguchi, taken the students into that world, giving them that over the top athleticness, the manga cuteness for the girls, and masculine beauty for the men, as well as setting the scenes in that comic hyperbole that is utterly ridiculous outside the page. i don't believe takami had anything to do with the film, but the changes the director made there were smart, intelligent ones, and the changes that takami has made for the manga are similar. indeed, he even manages to work in extra scenes, structuring in more depth for the minor characters. but more importantly, takami, with taguchi, manage to keep that energy that is part of the novel, though it remains to be seen if they can keep it up for the full nine volumes and increase it as it continues like the novel superbly did.

the only real let down for the comic is it's reliance upon flashbacks for fleshing out, and with some of giffen's dialogue. mostly, it's serviceable, and works nicely, but occasionally i wonder what it would be like with a writer who was a bit snappier. but then, perhaps the fault doesn't like with griffen--there's a certain constraint that comes with adaptation like this, after all.

anyhow, if you're looking for some energetic, dark science fiction that isn't afraid to go right over the top of what most people would consider good taste, then this novel is for you. if not... well, then i guess. such is life. all i can say is i enjoyed it, and it's rare (i would have thought damn impossible) that i'd enjoy the novel, the book, and the comic.

must be the end of the world.