Saturday, July 7, 2012

Review: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami


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.


At first glance, Battle Royale looks like a Hunger Games rip-off, except that it pre-dates Hunger Games by about a decade. (I, for one, believe Suzanne Collins when she says she never heard of it until after The Hunger Games was being published.) Yes, both involve a dystopian government forcing teenagers to kill each other. But Battle Royale has key differences from The Hunger Games. It has twice the number of contestants, they all already know each other, and instead of seeing things only from the point of view of a single character, the story is told from multiple third person points of view. What does this add up to? Gore, gore, and more gore. We see it all. Every. Single. Kill. Almost nothing happens in the background. If The Hunger Games was a puppy, Battle Royale would be a slobbering fiery death dragon from the ninth circle of hell. That all the characters already know each other is key, for the pre-existing romances and friendships  save the book from being an endless bloodbath.

If you want campy fun and ridiculous amounts of blood, you won't be disappointed. But don't expect deep characterization. Many of the secondary characters feel like the same person but for minor differences – this one plays violin, that one has pimples. For most of the story, the main characters are either likable enough or scary enough to make up for this weakness. Even some bland secondaries are worth their pages. I like Takako Chigusa, who’s in love with her oblivious best friend and has a run-in with a would-be rapist. At times the writing is clunky and uninspiring, though it’s difficult to tell if this is Takami or the translation from Japanese.

If you’re looking for sweeping prose, deep character development, and heavy introspection, this book is not for you. But if you want the quick, suspenseful read of a gory guilty pleasure, this is one to pick. Battle Royale is nothing deep, but it is fun. And its got a good soul. Despite all the violence, it never once gives you the impression that this is okay. The frightened, machine-gun-toting teenagers aren't the bad guys; it's the government who gave them the guns. And, just like with The Hunger Games, you never stop asking yourself that one awful question: If it was me, what would I do?

Rating: 3.5 stars

Rated by: Blair

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