In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes the condition of man before laws, before government, as a war of all against all. Life in this state of nature was 'nasty, brutish and short.'
This is also a pretty good summary of Koushun Takami's Battle Royale, except for the short part: the novel (in a new translation) is over 600 pages along.
Actually, the world of Battle Royale is a Leviathan simulating a state of nature, as the book sees an authoritarian Japan's ruling elite get its kicks by letting armed high school students loose on an island and ordering them to kill each other or be killed by explosive collars around their necks.
Whether this is also a safety valve for the regime or just an arbitrary exercise of power is never entirely resolved. Takami's characters try both ideas on for size, but what do they know - they're just kids, right? The contrast here with Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy is striking, where the role of the Games as a tool of social control is very apparent.
Battle Royale also lacks its literary descendent's concerns with performance, ethics and identity. Instead, it's sex and death nearly all the way (and mostly death at that). Altruism, friendship, trust and mercy are values that the class struggle to hold onto when life becomes survival of the fittest; pretty much the only motivation that survives alongside is love or adolescent lust.
How does it read? Like a bracing jolt of nihilism as we meet each student and hear their story, often shortly before the body count increases. And viewed in those terms it's an thrilling action-driven text that allows you to overlook the functional writing (at least in translation) and stereotypical characterisation.
But Battle Royale is not just pulp teensploitation. Its rather Freudian fixation on eros and thanatos, life, death and rebirth - has something of the ritual about it. As does its repetitive nature and obsession with counting - the number of classmates remaining, the numerical ID each one has, the division of the island into grid squares, even the time of day.
Something in the concept and the delivery then, somewhere at the heart of what Takami has done here, makes for a dark energy that transcends the material itself. You might not like it what it has to say, but it's powerful nonetheless.
Big thanks to book club friends, whose discussions informed this review.