Publisher: Ota Shuppan
Release date: April 1999
Battle Royale is a high-octane thriller about senseless youth violence, and one of Japan's bestselling - and most controversial - novels. As part of a ruthless program by the totalitarian government, a group of high school 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 remains.
Rare is the time when I don’t gravitate toward plots involving dystopian societies and death games. At the the beginning of Battle Royale, third year class B from Shiroiwa Junior High is in a bus, heading toward a school trip. Somewhere along the way, the students fall asleep, only to wake up in an unknown school, before an unknown instructor. The class is then told they were chosen for the Government program that happens every year. They all know what that means – once they step out of that room, they’ll be on their own against their classmates, in danger of getting killed at any time.
This is not a revolutionary premise, and it has been reused unmistakably more, as of late. After all, dark subjects and twisted depictions of the human character tend to sell. As such, I believe there’s a lot of places one can go to for many of the things Battle Royale advertises. The thrilling sensation of the predators, the irrational fear of the chased. Violence, for sure, as it’s to be expected. Depending on whom you ask, these factors can either improve the storytelling, or ruin it.
However, there is a unifying factor in this book, one likely to keep both friends and foes of the genre flipping pages; and that is back-story.
While the main characters are Shuya, the star player, Noriko, his best friend’s crush, and to a certain degree Shogo, the mysterious type with a plan, every student gets his time to shine. Without ever leaving third person narration, the author gives you different points of view throughout the book, ensuring each party has a story arc before meeting (or not meeting) their end. And we’re lucky that is so, since one of the most fantastic aspects of this book is how the students come in all shapes and colours. They are the cliché’d jocks, bullies and nerds, sluts and artists, but they are also victims of abuse, loners, freaks, broken hearts, loved ones. And there are ones that go mad from fear as much as there are ones who revel in killing. Even the couples were distinctively different, which ultimately lead them in different directions.
It was surprisingly refreshing to me that having so many characters could be a good tool for controlling the pacing. Make no mistake, it’s hard to write so many characters and write them well, as unfortunately many other stories show. Granted, Mr. Takami's characters are good, but keeping them apart in the reader’s head… that’s tricky. There are too many times the name alone isn't enough, when you’re not sure any more whether this is the girl that went crazy or the other one in a shed. Or a third girl you never even read about before. Regardless of that flaw, the pacing was perfect. Changing point of view, but not every chapter; writing slowly at first, before describing five deaths in a couple of pages. For keeping the tension high at all times, my hat’s off to the writer.
But there’s more credit to him than that. Mr. Takami has a very good skill that was much needed in this kind of novel: good description. And I don’t mean “blood-red sunset”, scenery-directed description. This skill was put in service to fighting, pain and death. After all, there is a lot of that. There are nearly as many causes of death in this book as there are students, so how to make them memorable? How to make them matter more than just passing side-character deaths? He, for one, made them more visual. Drive an axe into someone’s face creating something similar to a red smile in them. Have brains blow, with pink, and mush, and much spraying. Essentially, he painted a movie inside one’s head, so that the readers cringe enough to remember it later on. As they should, if for nothing else, because Shuya remembers. These kids aren't used to seeing death. They don’t have fun with it, they are terrified. So the reader should remember the action as violent, traumatic, scarring.
Still, nothing is perfect. As much as I would have liked to keep up with my praise, there was indeed, one particular aspect which put me off at all times: half the girl characters being in love with Shuya. It felt unrealistic that all kinds of people just happened to choose him as the subject of their affections. As much as he’s the naïve hero of the story, he can’t be everybody’s crush. At the very least, that made him less appealing to me as a reader. He’s nowhere as enriching to the story as, say, Shogo, who’s a bit of an anti-hero. Or Mistuko Souma. More so with Kazuo, the antagonist without whom there would be no fun to the game.
All in all, Battle Royale is incredibly entertaining. Whether you’re looking for a tragic setting, endless action or merely a study of human nature, my opinion is you can find it in this book.
On the comparison with the Hunger games
Just before the Hunger games reached the silver screen, I distinctly remember lots of people drawing comparisons between the two books. There are, without any doubt, more knowledgeable people than me in regard to the Japanese culture, still, with the Japanese death game type in mind and having read the Hunger Games series, I wasn't convinced. As a habit, I completely disregard recommendations based on sentences like “the new Harry Potter” of “For the fans of Tolkien”. They never correspond to the truth. More often than not tagging creates fake expectations that might disappoint the readers later on, resulting in some dropping an otherwise great book. Unfortunately, there are readers that pay attention to that kind of branding, so I would like to give my view on the matter at hand.
Truth be told, if one would narrow the stories down to its innards, it wouldn't be hard to see the resemblance. Both works have a despotic government that uses the game as a way to manipulate the masses. In both books, there’s a main character trying to survive and find a way out of the game. Both games set teenagers against teenagers, and there can be only one survivor. And with the Hunger Games being broadcast publicly and the Battle Royale process being much more secretive, there is some kind of betting system going on in both.
However, I think the people who narrow it down lost track of the feel. The feel is unmistakably different. The Hunger Games is about Katniss and Peeta much more than Battle Royale is about Shuya and Noriko. The latter is, first and foremost, a journey of discovering how a life of death situation changes different students or reveals their inner self. At its core, it is a collection of individual, often unfortunate, life stories. The Hunger Games is a young adult piece, and while I can agree that there’s much more to it than romance, especially as it develops toward book three, the series isn't anywhere close to the violent, gore-centred Japanese heritage.
Nevertheless, there’s something that I like equally in both of them. They show that there are no wars without scars. It is that perception, along with an exciting ride, that makes both these books worth reading.
The book in a quote
“We're supposed to strive for harmony, and that's what the art of tea is supposed to accomplish... but harmony is very, very difficult to achieve in this country. Tea ceremony is powerless. But it's also not such a bad thing either. You should enjoy it while you can.”