Monthly Archives: February 2012

Review: Battle Royale

(In honor of Valentine’s Day, let’s shine a spotlight on death and destruction.)

Before I review Battle Royale, I feel like I should explain how I came to be reading it at all.

About a year ago, I read The Hunger Games trilogy at the urging of one of my friends. I’d seen it around for a while, so I figured I’d give it a shot. The first book was undeniably the best of the series, though I liked the second and third book just fine. The third book felt like it ended quite abruptly, but that’s not the point. The point is, I read the books, and then described them to my boyfriend when we happened to see the trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation of the first novel.

Boyfriend listened quietly for less than twenty seconds, then burst out with a rant about how it sounded strikingly similar (his exact words may have been more along the lines of “total rip off of”) to a Japanese book that came out in 1999. Having now read Koushun Takami’s unsettling novel, I can say that while The Hunger Games does bear some heavy similarities to Battle Royale, I don’t think that it’s a direct copy. The premise is virtually the same, but they play out in fairly different ways.

In Battle Royale, Takami presents an alternate history in which Japan is part of the Republic of Greater East Asia, a totalitarian state that prohibits contact with the outside world and allows virtually no personal freedoms. School curriculum is limited to the “approved” history, and the teaching of that narrative alone is rigorously enforced. The government has enacted a program that ostensibly provides research into national security and the military; this program, however, is an annual death match between scores of junior-high students from across the republic. The government aggressively promotes the program, which in reality is about oppression, fear, and power — not even remotely about research. The program is a manifestation of the government’s absolute control over the people, and a reminder that there is nothing they can do about it. Dissent results in rape, torture, imprisonment, or death; quite often those consequences are sequential.

The book begins on a school bus. The forty-two students on the bus are members of the third-year class of Shiroiwa Junior High School, ostensibly en route to a study trip. Takami begins introducing and outlining the many students, which gets very overwhelming. My advice: don’t bother trying to keep track of the names or even the relationships to begin with. The fifteen-year-old students all sort of blur together for the first couple of chapters, but Takami will later devote chapters to each student, focusing on their perspective and memories, so you’ll come to know and understand them as their storylines rise and fall within the major plot arc. Only seven or so out of the class of forty-two turn out to be main characters.

As I mentioned, the story begins with the ill-fated class on a bus, on which they are drugged and transported to the island on which the program will play out. Once on the island (which only days earlier was a common residential area), the students are dumped in the abandoned school until they wake up and are introduced to their “instructor” Sakamochi. Sakamochi is a brutal man, provoking students only so that he can make an example of them by killing them with a shocking level of violence. The students are all aware of the program, but it was a distant sort of thing, something for which they never expected their class to be picked. Faced with the dire reality of their situation, their horror begins to overwhelm them as they realize it is truly kill or be killed. Each student is given a backpack with a weapon, a compass, a map, and some water, then shoved out¬† the schoolhouse door to meet their fate.

It’s hard to imagine enjoying a teenage death match, but I did. Battle Royale¬†draws the reader in, both with emotional connections and bloody entertainment. The level of violence is intense, but rarely off-putting — possibly because you know what you’re in for from very early on. If you don’t think you can deal with it after the first couple of deaths, abandon it there. The novel is fast-paced and well-written, though the translation seems a little choppy at times (though that’s pretty much par for the course in most translated novels). Takami jumps from scene to scene very quickly, introducing the reader to characters, then flitting away from them to show the action somewhere else. For the most part, this works well. Deaths come in all manner situations, with a dizzying array of weapons. There are a multitude of guns and knives, some items that serve a defensive purpose rather than offensive, as well as some weapons that seem like a cruel joke. One student literally has a common dinner fork as his item.

Some of the deaths are more graphic than others, some are simply heartbreaking, but a few are oddly satisfying. One of the heartbreaking death scenes early on in the novel [small spoiler] comes courtesy of a young man and woman who have such love and faith in each other that they choose to leap off a tall cliff together rather than participate in the program. It’s a beautifully written scene, and even though the characters were in the story for such a short time, made me teary-eyed for their ill-fated young love. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a would-be rapist gets his comeuppance in a seriously painful way, and I couldn’t help rooting for the girl who dishes out the dark justice.

The most prominent characters are Shuya, Noriko, and Shogo. The three of them meet early in the program, and decide to team up and see if there’s a way to beat the system and escape the program. Other characters form alliances throughout, but only this trio is able to maintain its bond through to the end. Of course, they have the same concerns: betrayal, ambush, and the uncompromising iron fist of the government. Throughout all the combat and death surrounding them, Shuya, Noriko, and Shogo forge a friendship in which they all prove willing to fight and die for one another when necessary. They formulate an escape plan, but innumerable obstacles stand in their way, not least of which is surviving the program at all.

Battle Royale is a tough book to read at times, but it’s engaging enough that I — usually not a fan of violence, especially of the gratuitous variety — stayed with it until the end. I would not recommend this novel for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach, nor would I advise reading it directly before going to bed. I did, and it gave me very dark and twisted dreams. It’s a testament to Takami’s writing prowess that none of the things that usually are a deal-breaker for me dissuaded me from reading this novel. I understand there’s a manga version of the novel as well; I wonder if the illustrations would be better or worse than my own mental pictures. My recommendation: give Battle Royale a shot. It’ll only take a few chapters to realize if it’s for you or not. If it is, enjoy. If not, put it back on the shelf and walk away. I certainly won’t judge you for it.

I’m not sure what I’ll read next, but I guarantee it’ll be lighter than this novel was. Maybe some Bill Bryson. We’ll see.

Happy Valentine’s Day, and happy reading!

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Review: The Night Circus

(Spoiler-free!)

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a bit like the circus described in its pages; mysterious, haunting, tantalizing, and a bit dizzying. The novel traces the course of an ever-escalating competition between two magicians that plays out over more than a decade. The two magicians are bound into the battle at very young ages by their respective teachers, with no choice and very little knowledge on the matter.

The two young recruits are Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, and each receives a grueling and sometimes painful education in magic — also called enchanting or manipulation throughout the novel. The novel begins in February of 1873, and proceeds more or less up to the present. It does not proceed in a linear fashion, however. Each chapter jumps from place to place and year to year; the shifts around the globe and back and forth in time left me constantly flipping back to check the headers on previous chapters, trying to orient myself in the story. It was an intriguing way to tell the story, but it did get confusing at times, trying to remember whether what had already transpired in the story had in fact already happened in the particular moment you were reading, or was still to come in the novel’s timeline.

Regardless of the time jumps, the story pulls you in very early on, and refuses to release you. Morgenstern weaves in small second-person vignettes, painting a vivid picture for the reader about what a visit to Le Cirque des Reves (French for “The Circus of Dreams”) would entail. She describes sights, sounds, and smells, pulling the reader in as surely as the characters of the book find themselves drawn into the fabulous nocturnal circus. The second-person narration was slightly off-putting at first, but I warmed to it as the book progressed.

The aforementioned magicians’ competition is the major focus of the novel, though several other storylines tie into the main plot. It’s somewhat tough as the reader to know more about the game, its rules, and its foregone conclusion than the hapless protagonists, but I found myself rooting for Celia and Marco nonetheless. You can’t help but love Celia. I have a very clear mental image of a beautiful brunette in a black and white ball gown, turning books into doves, bottling memories, and creating a Wishing Tree that truly does grant the wishes of those who light candles on its branches. I was not so immediately taken with Marco, but he proves to be an alluring character as well. There are a host of other exciting figures as well, especially those belonging to the circus that acts as the staging ground for the competition between Celia and Marco. There are acrobats, artists, psychics, and wild animal trainers. And of course, there are the reveurs, the loyalest patrons of the Night Circus. They come from around the world, from all walks of life; there is no one who cannot be one of the steadfast dreamers who frequent the circus, sometimes even following it across oceans to bask in its mysterious delight.

Morgenstern has a true talent for description, especially when in comes to setting a scene or illuminating a character. I often felt as though the prose was saturated in colors, especially when she described the many parties thrown to create and then celebrate the circus. It is to her credit as well that the details never bog down the writing; they are woven in artfully, and never seem to slow the pace of the action. Morgenstern’s talent is front and center as she describes and illustrates the enchanting — and enchanted — additions that Marco and Celia add to the circus over the years. From the Cloud Maze to the Ice Garden, I felt that I could see the brilliant contents of the black-and-white tents in all of their glory. It may sound odd (though I imagine my fellow book fiends will understand), but I really hope The Night Circus doesn’t get adapted into a movie. I just know they’ll ruin all of my mental images.

If I had one problem with the novel other than the chronology, it is the lack of resolution at the end. Without mentioning specifics, I felt slightly cheated in terms of a conclusion. There is some meta-literary action here, which is an interesting twist, but I feel is used somewhat as an excuse to leave the story in motion rather than give the readers a clear-cut ending. I can respect an author that leaves things up to the imagination, but I suppose I have been spoiled by the tendency to expect a full report on how everything ends up for the characters. It did not dampen my liking of the novel by much, but I wanted very strongly to know more about the fates of the two main characters.

I highly recommend this book, and encourage readers to give themselves over to the magic realism that Morgenstern brings to life. It’s a strange, sometimes confusing journey, but most definitely one that readers will enjoy.

Happy reading!

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