Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami (Translated by Yuji Oniki)

Battle Royale

Shogo calmly continued, "I'm sure you must know this Shuya...but loving someone always requires you to not love others.

Imagine being in your first year of high school and going on a class trip with your friends. You're excited, it should be a good time. But while on the bus suddenly everyone passes out. When you wake up, you're in a classroom and a strange man is telling you that your class has been selected to participate in the annual program the government runs. The program? A game where you and your classmates are pitted against each other to the death. Only one of you can ever get off the island. And there's a time limit. If no one has died in 24 hours, than you'll all die.

This is the premise of Battle Royale. It takes place under an alternate government, an extremist government in Asia, notably Japan. The government is merciless in keeping power over the citizens, anyone who opposes them is usually killed on the spot. The program, the game, as it is so often called is seen as just another random event the government does because they can.

This is the situation Shuya finds himself in and it doesn't take long (despite his intense disbelief that it's real) for him to realize that some students will be willing to kill. Each student is provided with a daypack that contains a random weapon. Some are useful, some are not. The students randomly leave the school and head out onto the island.
What follows is a gripping psychological account of what it means to be forced into a situation where your life depends on killing the very people you have considered your friends up until that point. Who can you trust? Is everyone playing the game or are others willing to help try to find a way out?

The book is hefty at over 600 pages but they read quickly. While the book does spend more time focusing on some groups of students rather than others, you do see the eventual fate of all of the students.

I really thought the author did a great job of providing just enough backstory for each student for me to often sympathetic and feel such a loss as the game progressed. I found myself tearing up a few times. The constant battle of the mind the students underwent...could they really trust whatever classmates they had teamed up with was both fascinating and tragic. There are no easy choices here, and while I certainly didn't understand many of the choices made, I couldn't fault many of the students for doing what they felt they had to.

Another thing I appreciated about the book was the believable government. Having spent some time in Japan, I like that the conditions of the government made sense. I think it was really developed and built around the fears that are common in Japanese society. I even appreciated the comment that the young population was decreasing ( a big problem in Japan) but yet they still had this ridiculous game.

The book does have some flaws. The main one being the translation. It often feels very direct, the point of view switches clumsily and the writing feels choppy. Apparently there is a newer translation, but I can see this being a huge barrier for some readers. Also the book is heavily focused on the boys in the game and some readers felt the boys feelings towards the girls smacked of sexism (the idea that they were too good to kill anyone). It probably did, but that's pretty typical for Japanese culture. Before the game even starts, the man in charge makes a point of saying the winners had been pretty evenly split between boys and girls. Additionally, I think this element was just more the disbelief of the situation than anything else. It reminded me a lot of when My Hands Came Away Red and the main character, finding herself in a situation of extreme violence, says something to the effect of having a hard time believing anyone wanted to hurt her. I just don't think we grasp the true violent nature of man, the darkness that hides away in our souls until we are confronted with it. And that itself is a coping mechanism.

That's not to say that this book is full of darkness. It's not because there are students who choose not to play the game, who risk their lives to try to save each other and while they pay the consequences it's a testament to the fact that there will always be some goodness, some who will fight. There's another element of resistance to the story but I don't want to ruin the whole book for you.

I have to admit I picked up Battle Royale after I read The Hunger Games because so many people said it was similar. And while the idea of kids being forced to kill kids is similar these are two very different books. I found Battle Royale to be intense and thought provoking, to dig a little deeper into the psychological complexity of the situation and in the end I think the book says much more about mankind. That's not to say I don't still love The Hunger Games, I do, but I think they fulfill different roles. I could easily see while I was reading why those who read Battle Royale first were disappointed with The Hunger Games.

I don't think this book is for everyone. The violence is quite severe and graphic, though it reads in such a straightforward manner that it never really bothered me. The translation is choppy, though I think it's a testament to the story and the ideas raised that it didn't bother me enough to stop reading. There are teenagery feelings like crushes that are still very existent in the middle of a fight to the death. But there's also hope, friendship, love, sacrifice, and resistance. The last two sentences of the book are pitch perfect and will make you think. The more I think about this book, the more I'm glad I read it.

Rating: 4.75/5
Things You Might Want to Know: Yeah, foul language, some sex, violence...um...kids killing kids?
Source of Book: bought it
Publisher: Viz Media

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Amy

20 comments:

S. Krishna said...

I just finished my review of this last night, and I think a lot of our comments on it are similar. I would have never picked this book up had it not been a book club read, but now I'm glad I read it.

tanabata said...

Wonderful review, Amy. I picked up a copy at the end of December and I can't wait to read it! And it looks like we'll be adding it to the JLit Read-along schedule for this year. Sounds like it might make for a good discussion.

Paperback Reader said...

Great review, Amy! I intended to read the book towards the end of last year but had to return it to the library. I watched the film and really enjoyed it for a lot of the reasons you mention. Although Battle Royale and The Hunger Games share the same basic premise, they are ultimately very different and you are right when you say they fulfill different needs and that the former comments more on mankind.

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Very interesting. I hadn't heard of this one. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Kirsten said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirsten said...

I'm one of those who was disappointed with The Hunger Games because I'd read Battle Royale previously. I'm glad I re-read the former and found a new appreciation for it, because I think you're right, they do fulfil different roles. I still find Battle Royale to be the "better" book, but I do wish I could read it in its original Japanese given how some of the translation was rough, but other parts quite beautiful and/or thought-provoking.

I've heard mixed reviews about the film and have decided to skip it, though I may change my mind after a re-read, which I have planned for sometime this year...

J.S. Peyton said...

I've heard of this book, but I was a little apprehensive about reading it since so many people emphasized how much darker it was than THE HUNGER GAMES. I don't mind dark novels, but the idea of children being forced to kill each other is depressing enough. You've given me hope that it's not all bad. I'm putting this on my TBR list. I intrigued. Great review!

Sandy Nawrot said...

To me, the darker the better. A number of people have stated that they preferred Battle Royale over Hunger Games. What was cool about HG was that I could listen to it with my kids, who loved it. Battle Royale would not be something we could share, I'm afraid. Still, someday I intend to read this. Sounds like an excellent read!

Renay said...

You're exactly right! If I had read The Hunger Games first I probably would have liked it. As it is, I read Battle Royale first and really enjoyed it on some levels (barring the use of rape and the hamfisted translation), and loved the ending and then found The Hunger Games lacking in...well. Everything? Comparing them is like comparing an Oscar winning film to Days of Our Lives. Both are valid art forms, but comparison wise they're attempting to do something totally different within the same theme.

I will be honest, The Hunger Games suffered for me because of the flipping love triangle that Battle Royale didn't have (man! Shogo <3). Love triangles are hard for any author to make me believe in effectively. I think the last writer who did it wrote the screenplay for The Secret Garden (1993), which might indicate the problem lies with me. XD

Jodie said...

This sounds amazing, especially for containing characters who won't play the game.

Melody said...

Great review, Amy! I need to put this book at the top of my to-be-read list this year!

bermudaonion said...

This wasn't the book for me. I struggled through it and was so glad when I finished it.

Matthew said...

Sounds kind of interesting!

Amy @ My Friend Amy said...

Swapna -- it was definitely worth the read.

Thanks Nat! And by the way sorry I haven't joined in on a discussion yet, I still really want to.

Thanks Claire...I remain undecided about watching the movie.

Juju--I hope you get a chance to read it!

Kirsten--I've also heard mixed comments about the film, but I may watch it yet.

J.S. Peyton -- it's dark to be sure but not hopeless. I'm really glad I read it and I think you might like it too.

Sandy--true this is much less kid friendly.

Renay-LOL. The love triangle works for me...well not really. I only care about Peeta. and I was looking forward to this one based on your reaction to it.

Jodie--it is. Even in greatest darkness I'm always amazed at how much goodness there still can be.

Thanks Melody! I hope you read it.

I know Kathy! Hopefully you'll enjoy next month's pick more.

Matthew--it is!

infiniteshelf said...

My man read this a couple years ago and loved it, but I haven't read more than a few pages of it (not because I wasn't interested though!) I'm glad to see you enjoyed it. I think it's great to know that it shares similarities with The Hunger Games, but that they each have their own specific aspects.

le0pard13 said...

Ever see the film that was adapted from this novel? It is one of the more influential of the past ten years. And it starred one of the more legendary Japanese actor/directors, Takeshi Kitano. I'd recommend you check it out. Great review. Thanks for this.

Beth F said...

I do plan on finishing this -- when? Who knows.

Nymeth said...

I definitely want to read this (and your review was fantastic, btw), but now I'm wondering if I should read HG first to avoid disappointment.

Debbie's World of Books said...

It's been awhile since I read this and I enjoyed it but I don't think it mad as much of an impact one me. I actually thought the book could have been shorter. The class was huge and watching how 30 or 40 kids die was a bit much for me.

I was one of those who thought the movie was very cheesy but my friend's ex-boyfriend said it's his favorite movie.

Books like this really make me wonder what I would do in that type of situation? Do you give in and play to try and survive or try to figure out some other way to escape?

Amy said...

Kay, I hope you find time for it! :)

leopard, I haven't but I hope to at some point.

Candace--I really hope you do.

Ana--well if you know they are different going in, it might help. Meghan didn't like this book at all, and loves the Hunger Games.

Debbie--I know. I would probably be the first killed, LOL

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