by Koushun Takami
Genre: Science Fiction / Dystopia
Length: 617 Pages
Published: April 1999
Blurb via GoodReads:
Battle Royale, a high-octane thriller about senseless youth violence, is one of Japan’s best-selling and most controversial novels. As part of a ruthless program by the totalitarian government, ninth-grade 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 “winner” remains. The elimination contest becomes the ultimate in must-see reality television. A Japanese pulp classic available in English for the first time, Battle Royale is a potent allegory of what it means to be young and survive in today’s dog-eat-dog world. The first novel by small-town journalist Koushun Takami, it went on to become an even more notorious film by 70-year-old gangster director Kinji Fukusaku.
I had a lot of mixed feelings about Battle Royale, but my overall impression was that I don’t understand the novel’s status as a cult hit. It came out at a time before the modern wave of YA dystopian fiction made the concept feel overdone, so I must give it some credit for being a relatively fresh and new idea at the time it was released.
However, I had a few… issues with this book. One of the major problems it that I don’t feel the translation is very good, and while of course that’s no fault of the original author, it did affect my reading experience. It can be hard to separate clunky, awkward translation issues from poor writing when I don’t have the ability to compare it to the original. It’s hard for me to point to any one particular passage when it comes to my issue with the translation; it was more that through the entire book, there was just a vague sense of the prose feeling somewhat off-kilter. This was probably a result of the translator feeling the need to stay as faithful as possible to the original text, when perhaps some tweaking to better flow in English might have been appropriate. (Note: I read the Yuju Oniki translation, and reviews seem to indicate I’m not alone in disliking the translation. Other readers have recommended the Battle Royale: Remastered edition, translated by Nathan Collins.)
I think the author’s decision to include 42 students proved to be somewhat of a weakness as well; the book felt unfocused. While Shuya feels like the clear protagonist, the book still spends an excessive amount of time on the thoughts and feelings of the other students. The plus side to this is that the story felt very nuanced; when many of the characters in this death arena feel like fleshed-out people, it’s hard to root for any particular character to make it out alive at the expense of all the others. The drawback, however, is that the story felt painfully repetitive at times.
The reader has to watch one student after another go through the exact same thought process; they each come to realize that many of the students may not want to participate in the “game,” but will kill indiscriminately out of panic and self preservation. While I understand that this was Takami’s way of illustrating their collective mindset, it felt like a really inelegant way of accomplishing this. I expect to feel a lot of emotions in a novel about junior high kids being forced to fight to the death; boredom is not one of them. I felt the same about the various passages hashing out which characters were crushing on whom. I get that these were junior high kids, but I sincerely doubt that adolescent crushes would be such a priority for so many of them in a life or death situation.
This book was extremely violent; Takami doesn’t shy away from the grisly details of the situation, as Suzanna Collins sometimes tends to do in The Hunger Games. This made for an uncomfortable read at times, but it didn’t feel like overkill. Takami was trying to drive home a point about the horrors one might encounter in a totalitarian government. This was a book about the deaths of children, and Takami does not sugarcoat that.
I don’t like to go into spoilers in my reviews, so I must stay vague here, but I thought that the ending was very well done and satisfying. Despite my griping about certain aspects of this novel, I certainly don’t regret reading it.
If you read and enjoyed Battle Royale…
The Long Walk,
by Stephen King
On the first day of May, 100 teenage boys meet for a race known as “The Long Walk.” If you break the rules, you get three warnings. If you exceed your limit, what happens is absolutely terrifying.