Sunday, January 24, 2021

REVIEW: Battle Royale: The Novel (book) by Koushun Takami, translated by Yuji Oniki

Battle Royale is a dystopian thriller. It was originally published in Japan in 1999. VIZ's English translation was published in 2003. The copy I read was the 2009 edition featuring an interview with the director of the movie adaptation and an afterword by the book's author.


In an alternate history Japan (now "the Republic of Greater East Asia"), the government randomly selects 50 third-year junior high classes per year for something called "the Program." Each class is confined to an island and forced to fight until one survivor is left. Each student in the Program is made to wear a tracking collar that not only keeps track of their vital signs and location but is also set to explode if they leave the island. They're each given a little water and food, a map, a compass, and a randomly selected weapon of some sort. The map and compass are handy, because every couple hours one new section of the island becomes a forbidden zone. The tracking collars are set to explode if they're in forbidden zones. They're also set to explode if no one new has died in the past 24 hours, so students can't simply agree to not kill each other. Program survivors are given a pension and are instructed not to tell anyone about their experiences.

Shuya thinks his class is just going on a regular trip. He and the others fall asleep on the bus and wake up to find themselves in an unfamiliar classroom. They all have some general knowledge about the Program, of course, but none of them expected they'd actually end up in it. A man named Sakamochi tells them the rules and kills a few people to underscore that, yes, this is happening and there's nothing any of them can do about it. Then he sends them out one by one: the game has begun.

I've owned this for a while but avoided reading it for a couple reasons. First, it's a brick of a book, and if the writing/translation didn't flow well enough, that could mean months of slogging. Second, I was worried it would be too gory for me.

I can't comment on the accuracy of the translation, but it was certainly very readable - I sped through the book much more quickly than I had expected I would. As for its level of goriness, well, the first few deaths had me worried. Sakamoto seemed to relish shocking the Program participants, and the first few deaths were both casual and horrible. When he mentioned having raped the woman who'd been the caretaker of a couple of the students because she hadn't meekly accepted the news that they were now in the Program, I wondered whether this was going to reach Ryu Murakami levels of nastiness.

Thankfully, either I got used to it all or Takami scaled things back a bit, because most of the later deaths didn't pack the kind of punch those first few did. A warning to those with eye-related phobias, though: there were several eye-related gory moments throughout the book that were detailed enough that I had to skim them. Still, nothing involving intestines, thankfully, and although there were mentions of rape (Sakamoto, plus a male student threatening a female student), there was no on-page rape.

Nearly every chapter ended with a count of the total number of students still alive. The class started with 42 - 21 boys and 21 girls - and rapidly shrunk as the game progressed. Some of the students committed suicide rather than play along. Others found people they could trust and banded together, at least temporarily. Their different approaches, as well as the variations in their weapons (which ranged from proper weapons like guns and knives to "jokes" like a fork or a set of darts complete with a dart board), made it tough to tell how things might go. Just on the basis of who had the greatest amount of page-time, I was able to mostly figure out who'd be there for the final showdown, but some things did catch me by surprise.

Many of the students were just names and basic personalities, although a few of the students were a little more fleshed out. That said, I didn't really get attached to any of them. There were a few who I wanted to see survive because they seemed to be both decent people and prepared for the Program (seriously, why didn't more parents in this world sign their kids up for basic first aid, survival, and weapons training, just in case?), and there were a couple characters I could tell that the author wanted me to root for. Still, while I did think a few of the deaths were tragic and sad, nothing left me feeling wrecked after the book was over. Maybe because I was braced for all or most of the cast to die at some point? I don't know.

Of all the characters, I think I probably rooted for Hiroki the most, although Shogo and Shinji weren't too far behind. And even where Hiroki was concerned, I liked the guy but didn't think he'd actually make it - I mean, one of the reasons I liked him was his stubborn refusal to actually kill anyone. He wasn't stupid about it, defending himself when necessary and otherwise staying hidden, but it wasn't an approach that had a good chance of getting him all the way through to the end. Shogo and Shinji, meanwhile, were both smart, cool-headed, gutsy, and good planners (and both of them came across as being a good deal older than 15 or 16 years old, to the point that I wondered whether it would be revealed that adults who are passing as kids had infiltrated the Program). 

It was pretty clear, though, that the author wanted readers to root for Shuya and Noriko the most. Noriko was nice enough, if bland, but Shuya got on my nerves. He was one of those very dense "every girl loves him but he has no idea" types - nearly a quarter of the girls in his class had secret crushes on him. He'd rage against Shogo or others for being callous, and he seemed to have girls in a special category in his brain - it was always more shocking to him when girls were hurt than when guys were, and he was weirdly surprised when Noriko used a gun to help him and Shogo defend their group.

I was expecting this to be a bleak and depressing book, but somehow it wasn't. There was a murder mystery-like appeal to finding out how all the deaths were going to play out, and the ending managed to be satisfying and somewhat hopeful. I enjoyed it overall and am glad I finally read it.

As far as the Hunger Games controversy goes: I know that there were folks shouting that Suzanne Collins copied off of Battle Royale, and now that I've read both the first Hunger Games book and this, I disagree. Sure, it's a similar setup, but the books each handle it completely differently.


A map of the island with a list of the various forbidden zones and the times at which they became forbidden, a list of the students in the class, an interview with filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku, and an afterword by Koushun Takami.

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