I first encountered Battle Royale
by watching the movie (which I still own). At the time, it just seemed like an over-the-top violent Japanese action flick with a rather absurd premise: a class of high school students ("junior high school" in Japan) is taken to an island and told by sinister government officials that they have to fight each other to the death.
Years later, along came The Hunger Games
, with a premise so similar that of course everyone compares the two books. Well, being a fan of The Hunger Games
, I will say that the basic premise is indeed very similar, but both the tone and the "messages" are dramatically different.
First of all, Collins was trying to tell a story using violence, and she was writing for a YA audience. Battle Royale
is a story about
violence. It's not as sanitized, there isn't much effort to make sense of anything. The whole point of pitting a bunch of teenagers against each other is that it's senseless. There is a dystopian backstory in which the fictional "Republic of Greater East Asia" enacts this yearly "Program" as a means of conducting military "research," but it's really just a bureaucratic nightmare perpetuated through inertia and mindless conformity. But don't read too deeply to try to find any meaningfulness in the author's intent. If the idea of a bunch of kids slaughtering each other squicks you out, you won't enjoy this book. That said, it's not just a bloodbath and it's not presented as "fun" -- each death is described individually and Takami sketches out the personalities of each of the 42 students (some in more detail than others) before they die.
So, Battle Royale
is not devoid of philosophy or moralizing, but mostly this takes a back seat to violent action. Chapters skip around from one set of characters to another, though mostly they focus on the main character, Shuya Nanahara and his (now deceased) best friend's secret crush, Noriko Nakagawa. Shuya tries to keep Noriko alive, and the two of them do their best to stay alive while not really wanting to play the government's "game." Of course they don't have much choice when some of their classmates throw themselves into the game with abandon. There are characters who refuse to kill, characters who try to kill only in self defense, characters who make alliances or stick with their friends, and characters who go completely insane with fear and paranoia. Naturally, you have to have a couple of sociopaths who are just really good at killing, and they whittle down most of the others.
It's quite a brutal book, but the action (who's going to die next?) makes it a tense page-turner, and there is something incredibly compelling about watching all of these kids who were ordinary junior high school students just twenty-four hours ago being turned into killers or victims. Especially knowing that even if the main characters' rather vague plan to escape actually comes to fruition, you're still going to see almost everyone die before the end.
It's unlike anything I've read in English. (Of course I did read this in English, but it's a translation of the Japanese novel.) It's hard to imagine this being published as an American YA novel, but then, Battle Royale
almost wasn't published in Japan either.
Although the writing (allowing for gaps in translation) was not exactly the best, this was a thick book that kept me reading and reading and wanting to know what happens next, as well as how it would ultimately end. The worldbuilding and the plotting was rather shoddy by my normal standards for sci-fi, but Battle Royale
still engaged me like few books have. Do I recommend this as a classic dystopian novel? Not really -- it doesn't have as much to say as 1984
or Lord of the Flies
. But it's definitely a unique experience, and in particular, if you are a Hunger Games
fan, then you will probably find comparisons between HG and BR fascinating and you should really be aware of this book.
So, I give Battle Royale
4 stars, not so much on its merits as a work of fiction, but because I enjoyed it probably more than I ought to, and because it really is something unique, especially to American readers.
(By the way, I am labeling this "Young Adult" because I'd guess it's mostly YA readers in the U.S. who will read it, but I don't think that category applied to the Japanese publication and its tone really isn't like most American YA novels. I mean, there are casual descriptions of brains and skulls going splat, a female character recounting how she was filmed being gang-raped at age 9, etc. Yeah, not that I'm saying it's "inappropriate" for teenagers, because I don't believe there's any such thing as categorical age-inappropriateness, but don't read this and expect a Japanese Hunger Games
. It's a much
bloodier and more merciless read.)