August 23, 2014

Book review: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

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Battle Royale, a high-octane thriller about senseless youth violence, is one of Japan's best-selling and most controversial novels. As part of a ruthless program by the totalitarian government, ninth-grade students are taken to a small isolated island with a map, food, and various weapons. Forced to wear special collars that explode when they break a rule, they must fight each other for three days until only one "winner" remains. The elimination contest becomes the ultimate in must-see reality television. A Japanese pulp classic available in English for the first time, Battle Royale is a potent allegory of what it means to be young and survive in today's dog-eat-dog world. The first novel by small-town journalist Koushun Takami, it went on to become an even more notorious film by 70-year-old gangster director Kinji Fukusaku.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

When The Hunger Games became popular, I started hearing some people say that it copied Battle Royale, another story about teens forced to kill each other in a contest. Being the huge Hunger Games fan that I am, I had to read this other book that people compared it to. On the surface, the two stories are similar. They both feature an evil government that pits kids in a last-one-standing battle to the death. However, that's where the similarities end.

For one thing, unlike The Hunger Games, not all of the competitors are willing to participate in the battle royale. Some don't want to kill their classmates, going so far as to contemplate taking their own lives rather than killing someone else. I did like the diversity of personalities in the student population. It helped build tension because you didn't know if someone wanted to kill their fellow classmates, make peace with them, or pretend to make peace so that they can catch an opponent off guard. The characters also had disparate backgrounds. You have your popular kids, the jocks, the delinquents, etc. It reminded me somewhat of The Breakfast Club.

I should, however, warn readers that Battle Royale is violent in a shocking, gory way that made me ask myself, "Is this book really for teens?" The violence starts from the beginning and doesn't let up. It doesn't appear on every page, but the author seems to delight in describing deaths in more graphic detail than required.

At about 600 pages, the book was also a bit too long for me, especially when parts of it were filled with more social-political commentary that I would've liked. Also, it was apparent that I was reading a translation. The phrasing was a bit odd at times, and the dialogue reminded me of bad anime movies I've seen. The other aspect of the Japanese origin that I found confusing were the names. I had a hard time remembering who was who and what they were supposed to be like.

Overall, Battle Royale was an enjoyable book, but not for the weak of stomach. If you're a fan of books like The Hunger Games, it's worth trying out.

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