July 25, 2009
Book Review: "Battle Royale" by Koushun Takami
Title: Battle Royale
Author: Koushun Takami (translated by Yuji Oniki)
Publisher: VIZ, LLC. (English)
Published: 2003 (English); 1999 (Japanese)
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Ever since William Golding did it, writers have enjoyed throwing a bunch of characters onto a deserted island to see who would be the last one standing. It's a popular plot device in movies too. And who can blame them for doing it? Even the poorly executed stories are mildly entertaining. I think Koushun Takami may have set the bar pretty high, however, for anyone wanting to go this route. I haven't read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins yet(I'm not sure her novel even takes place on an island), but despite the popularity of her novel, I suspect she had her work cut out for her. I know I'll be comparing her novel to this one when I finally get a chance to read it.
Battle Royale starts off plainly enough. So plain, in fact, I was nervous the English translation of this novel would end up killing the prose. Thankfully, those concerns were quickly abated, as the action and suspense pick up very fast. A busload of third-year junior high school students are gassed, and wake up in an ominous classroom with a cruel and eerily casual instructor. All forty-two students have just been selected for "The Program."
Far-fetched, sure, but we're dealing with an alternate Japan where the citizens live under a highly oppressive empire that makes Communist China seem like Switzerland. Each student is released into "the wild" in two minute intervals with only the clothes on their back and a daypack provided by their new instructor and his military guards. Each daypack is randomly given and contains a single weapon, since the objective of the Program is for the students to kill each other until one is left alive, declaring that student the winner and allowing him/her off the island to rejoin society.
While we experience the subsequent events on the island through the eyes of several students, the main focus is on Shuya Nanahara--the fairly popular kid with a heart of gold-- and an injured classmate, Noriko Nakagawa--a sweet girl who is the object of affection for one of Shuya's friends. Shuya's story is the one of witnessing the madness that quickly envelops the minds of many students, and the atrocities they are willing to commit on each other in order to "win the game."
Other students provide alternative points of view. Like Shinji Mimura, one of Shuya's best friends, and his efforts to figure out what's really going on with the Program and the island. Then there is Hiroki Sugimura, a young man on a mission to find the girl he loves before she is killed by one of the sadistic students playing the game. Then, there are the "villains": Kazuo Kiriyama (I kept calling him Kazoo) and Mitsuko Souma. Each are on their own path, and each have their own motivations and tactics in playing the game and hunting down their fellow classmates.
While some of the story can play to clique stereotypes and seemingly gratuitous violence, this is a chilling and suspenseful tale. I'm not sure if it was ever marketed as young-adult fiction, but the violence depicted is nothing I've ever read in YA before. This was straight-up horror, in my opinion, and some damned good storytelling to boot.
The twists along the way are intriguing as unlikely alliances are formed and inevitable betrayals permeate throughout. The Program is set up to thwart all attempts of protest, escape, and non-participation. A key deterrent to disobedience is the dog collar fitted around the neck of each student, set to detonate if tampered with, or if a specific student is caught in one of an increasing number of forbidden zones on the island.
I would have to recommend this book to anyone interested in some good old-fashioned blood and guts horror, sprinkled with teen angst and a nice lack of Gossip Girl-esque characters. Even the odd sense of some students having too keen an idea on what is really happening, like they'd read the novel themselves, is forgivable--maybe a little Dawson's Creek in nature, though. And, if you're looking for a story about teens that strays from any typical YA tropes, give this one a go.
I'm willing to bet that you won't see kids frolicking in a school playground the same way again after reading this book.
For another take on this novel, read the review posted over at Steph Su Reads. Her blog is the one that let me know this book existed.