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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