Author: Koushun Takami
Format: Paperback, 576 pages
Publication Date: February 26, 2003 (English version)
Koushun Takami's notorious high-octane thriller is based on an irresistible premise: a class of junior high school students is taken to a deserted island where, as part of a ruthless authoritarian program, they are provided arms and forced to kill one another until only one survivor is left standing. Criticized as violent exploitation when first published in Japan - where it then proceeded to become a runaway bestseller - Battle Royale is a Lord of the Flies for the 21st century, a potent allegory of what it means to be young and (barely) alive in a dog-eat-dog world. Made into a controversial hit movie of the same name, Battle Royale is already a contemporary Japanese pulp classic, now available for the first time in the English language. (via Goodreads)
"Someone else will finish you off if you get too hung up on every person you kill." - Shogo
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami was first published in 1999 (that is the Japanese version was, the American version was published in 2003) and a movie based on the book followed in 2000, as well as a manga series. It has since had a resurgence in popularity due to the book, and now movie phenomena, of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, since both books seems to have some similar themes and ideas. There has been some debate as to whether Suzanne Collins borrowed some of her ideas from Battle Royale, but I am not going to go into that. I am, however going to direct you to a fantastic post about this very thing on the website io9.com. It is an excellent article on the comparisons and how, while Battle Royale and The Hunger Games definitely have similarities, they also have many differences that make both stories unique.
Third Year Class B, Shiroiwa Junior High School students are on a bus to what they think is a school retreat, but half way through the ride they are all mysteriously falling asleep at the same time and one student, Shuya Nanahara, realizes that the bus driver is wearing a mask right before he passes out. When he wakens he is in a unfamiliar class room with a metal ring around his neck and we are introduced to Kimpatusu Sakamochi, the "game master" if you will. The students are told that their class has been chosen to participate in this years Program, a time honored tradition the Republic of Greater East Asia has instituted for "security reasons". Every year 50 junior high third year classes are selected to participate and classmates are forced to fight friends and peers they have known for years until only one is left standing. These students are on an island and their only chance of escape is to win the game. And the metal ring is to keep track of the students whereabouts on the island and used as a way to keep the students in line when they are told it will explode if they try to escape or if they are caught in a forbidden zone, areas of the island that become off limits during the course of the Program, in order to keep the students constantly moving towards each other and to a conclusion.
Battle Royale is pulse pounding from the word go. You are thrown into the action almost immediately and the author has a way of getting across the terrifying fear these kids are feeling once they realize what they have been thrown into. For lack of a better description this book becomes a psychological mind-fuck, which was definitely one of the things I liked about the book. It is hardcore brutal. It keeps you on edge throughout the entire story. It is interesting to see the different ways the teenagers react when they are thrown into pretty much a kill or be killed scenario. Some, of course, want to resist and rebel and believe they can. Some throw themselves whole-heartedly into the game, killing in chillingly unique ways. And others try their best just to avoid any sort of contact whatsoever mistakenly believing they can hide out until the game is over. But, of course the Program is designed so that this is not possible.
There was a death countdown at the end of each chapter which I thought added to the intensity of the book. You always knew how many students were left alive and it kept you on your toes wondering who would die next and who would be the ultimate victor. Although occasionally this would also provide spoilers as to how many kids would die in a specific chapter if you happened to look ahead, which I personally couldn't resist doing.
I also like the fact that interspersed between all the killing and dying you get to know some of the characters by their point of view and a bit about some of their history. Now this doesn't happen with every single character, it would simply make the book too long, but the stories of the characters that are included were interesting. Not only do I think the author meant it as a device for the reader to sympathize with the students, but I think he also intended to show that it didn't matter what kind of background the person came from, what gender they were, or what type of student they were, they all had an equal chance of being chosen for the Program, just as they all had an equal chance of dying in the duration.
Some of the deaths were a bit predictable. On occasion I had that horror movie feel you get when you know the person on screen is walking right into a death trap and you keep screaming at them to run the other way, but they keep going in the direction of the danger. That is basically how this book makes you feel a good portion of the way through. Then there was the fact that I would have liked to see more of what was going on in the "control room". Once the teenagers leave the classroom we really only see Sakamochi appear once throughout the book besides when his voice comes over the island to tell the students which ones of their classmates are dead and which parts of the island are going to turn into forbidden zones, but you don't physically see him again until the end. I thought maybe there could have been more done with that, but again the book was already pretty long without including this.
This book makes you think what you would do if you were thrust into a situation such as this. Would you be able to kill your friends or people you may have not been friends with but have known since you were little? Would you feel remorse or would you feel, since you had no other choice, it was justifiable? Would you try to fight the system? Would you lay down your life for another person? These are certainly questions that you may not know the answers to unless you were living it, but are extremely interesting to contemplate. It is fascinating the way the author puts these questions to his characters and lets the drama play out in high fashion. It also highlights what some people may be capable of doing in high stress situations, especially life or death ones.
I highly recommend this book, especially if you area fan of The Hunger Games or any of the multitude of stories over the years that have similar themes. I should mention there is some gore. This book is not for the faint of heart. I would reach a point and think, "oh, this isn't as gory as some said it would be" and then turn the page and a particularly stomach churning scene would pop up. But, if you can get through that and the idea of kids being forced to kill kids, it is a fascinating examination of how a scenario like this could possibly play out if it were real. The fun part is getting to the end and finding out who survives, how they survive, and what may be in store afterwards.