Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tramps like us, baby we were born to run

The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody's out on the run tonight
But there's no place left to hide
Together Wendy we can live with the sadness
I'll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday girl I don't know when
We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go
And we'll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us, baby we were born to run

Bruce Springsteen - "Born To Run"

I found myself hooked by the novel “Battle Royale” by Koushun Takami that an officemate jokingly said “I expect a reaction paper tomorrow”. (I was surreptitiously reading in the office last Monday. What?) Well, I took that as a challenge and decided to post a review of both the film and book.

Spoiler Alert! You know what that means.

I saw the movie first and loved it. I never planned on reading the novel but I saw this one lonely copy at National Bookstore last week and I could not resist! I started reading Sunday night and I couldn’t put the book down so I brought it at the office to finish.

(Sidebar: It always happens this way, it’s no longer funny. I get the urge to read/watch/play something on a Sunday night and I almost always end up liking what I read/saw/played that I start the week with a new addiction and a massive headache.)

The basic premise is this: a high school class was randomly selected to participate in Battle Royale, a game created by the government, where the students were isolated in an island and instructed to engage in a deadly survival game in which there can only be one winner. Sounds disturbing, right? Well, both the film and novel were highly controversial. In this age and time when school killings are news staple, I can understand why.

Both the film and novel were graphically violent. Then again, the blood fest in Hostel or even the Scream trilogy was more gratuitous than Battle Royale and I can name various action or slasher flicks that were way more violent and brutal. Same goes for the book – Stephen King has written more gruesome scenes than the ones depicted in the book.

I guess the more disturbing aspect of the violence is not the frequency of the deaths nor its brutality, but because these were committed by teenagers. More than the socio-political undertones (the movie and book were set in an alternate universe where the nation is ruled by a dictatorial/militaristic government), I was struck by the way the kids were unceremoniously thrust into a dog-eat-dog world. How do you expect a teenager to react to the news that he has to kill in order to live?

The unfortunate class selected to participate in the game was class 3B of Shirowa High School. The class is made up of 42 students of various stereotypes and cliques. There are the jocks, the delinquents, the otakus (nerds), the popular girls, the class clown, the entitled.

The story focuses mostly on Shuya Nanahara, the student who excels both in athletics and music. He’s quite popular, especially among the girls, but he’s oblivious to the attention. In the book, Shuya grew up in an orphanage with his classmate and best friend Yoshitoki Kuninobu. The fate of the latter early in the game determined the former’s strategy and motivation, which was to protect Noriko Nanagawa, another classmate and Yoshitoki’s crush. Shuya was a good person, too trusting for his own good, who managed to stay in the game with big doses of luck.

I like Shuya, basically because he’s a bit dim with regards to girls (I find that quality in a guy quite attractive, don’t ask me why) and the actor who played him in the movie was cute (haha). But my favorite character is Shinji Mimura. His personality was not explored that well in the movie but I thought he was cool in the novel. He is another jock, in the same league with Shuya ability- and popularity-wise. He’s smarter than Shuya, though, and Shuya repeatedly stated his desire to look for Shinji during the course of the game, knowing that Shinji would come up with a plan. Shinji was a quick thinker and has a better rein on his emotions, but like any other kid, he hold trivial grudges and was prone to irrational choices.

The author tried to give each of the 42 students a distinct personality, but it was a bit hard to keep track of who’s who during the first parts, and some of the similar sounding names didn’t help, either. The movie was not as exhaustive in introducing all the students to the viewers. The participants’ personalities and backgrounds affected the actions and choices they made during the game, and that’s what made the whole story click. Some acted the way you expect them to, others made surprising choices, and most reacted with tragic results.

The rules of the game added twists and unpredictability to the game. The students were given day packs that contain limited food and water, plus a random weapon which ranges from the useless (tiara, pot lid, fork) to the downright nasty (Uzi, beretta, potassium cyanide). After every six hours, the instructor would announce the forbidden zones. Anyone caught on these areas will be killed instantly. This rule discouraged a hiding out strategy and forced the students to move around. In the novel, if within 24 hours no one dies or gets killed, then everybody gets killed via the collar fitted to the students’ necks at the start of the game. The collars also enabled the organizer to monitor the players and punish those who broke the rules.

Yes, the whole premise was quite twisted and there were moments when I feel guilty for enjoying the book/movie. But it’s an engaging story; you know it will not end beautifully but you just want to see what these 42 young ones will do. You want to find out who would choose to play the game and kill and their reasons for doing so. You want to find out who would try to be the voice of reason, who would figure a way to escape, who would sacrifice so that another can live, who would just lose their minds. Then you get an uneasy jolt of realization - these people brandishing grown up weapons were just high school students: they have crushes, they have their cliques, they look for a leader, they bully the weak, they make rash decisions. You realize that these are not just random people forced to kill a stranger - these are a bunch of students who have formed a bond with one another, who have fond memories of their triumphs and adventures as a class. You find some scenes heartbreaking: when a boy tried to look for his classmate to confess his feelings, when the class sweethearts jumped together to their deaths. You feel for them when suddenly they become suspicious and distrustful, when a friend betrays a friend, when a slight action becomes the catalyst of a tragedy.

I wish I knew how to speak Japanese: the book I got was an English translation of the original novel but it was really good, yet somehow I feel that there were nuances that were lost in the translation. There were puns and inside jokes that someone familiar with the Japanese language and culture would easily understand. As I said, the movie and novel are both graphic, but it’s not just one whole gore-fest that’s meant to shock and exploit; I think, in this instance, the violence was just a tool to tell a bigger story. The effects in the movie were not even polished and Hollywood-esque, sometimes the scenes were even bordering on comical. Some of the dialogues and fight scenes were awkward, but these are teenagers and we all know how awkward those years were.

The book and the movie are not for everyone. If you’re looking for something “feel good”, then don’t pick this up. But if you can take the violence and if you want something that you can ponder about after reading or viewing, I suggest that you give Battle Royale a try.

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