Posted on May 1, 2007 by Flames
By Koushun Takami
Translated by Yuji Oniki
616 pages/soft cover
A few months ago a friend recommended I read Battle Royale, a magna published by Tokyo Pop. I read the first volume, but did not care for it. Maybe it was the translation, or maybe it was the story, but it did not click with me. I then learned that Battle Royale was a novel, and everything coming after was based on it.
Published in Japan in 1999, Takami’s novel took Japan by storm, and was quickly serialized into manga and turned into a movie. VIZ, LLC, the home of Shonen Jump, and other translations, released an English translation back in February 2003. So I ordered the book, and got to read it.
Set in the Republic of Greater East Asia and Battle Royale deals with the Battle Experiment No. 68. Known commonly as the Program, it is held every year and is an experiment on group behavior. Every year the Program picks a third-year junior high school class at random, transfers them to a remote location. Once here, each class member is given a weapon and told they must fight each other till one survivor is left. To make the game more challenging, and to encourage fighting, random areas are classified off limits, which has the benefit of slowly herding the students into a confined area forcing the killing.
The current group of students’ chosen is the 42-members from Third Year Class B, Shiroiwa Junior High School. Though 42 characters are introduced, the main characters are Shuya Nanahara (Male Student 15) and Noriko Nakugawa (Female Student 15). Throughout a book filled with violence, you see Takami create a relationship that grows and become stronger. By using clever flash back sequences, Takamie introduces the past of the two and shows that Nakugawa has had feelings for Shuya for years. The relationship grows throughout the book, and despite all the violence around them, you see two people form a bond that is unbreakable.
Flashbacks are used throughout the book and by using them you get to know whom the students are. When not using flashbacks, Takami effectively weaves the perspective from an omniscient third person to a limited third-person, and allows you to get to know the students by their internal monologues. By doing this, their deaths become powerful, because of the connection you make with each one throughout the narratives. Though I like this shifting, it sometimes got a bit confusing due to the multiple characters and their constant interactions with each other.
The book is violent, and the violence depicted, though not gratuitous, is heavy. Those who have a problem with violence should avoid the book. I was afraid that the violence would be over the top and cartoonish. Surprisingly Takami takes the opposite approach. He describes it a clinical third person way, and instead of dealing with the physical trauma of the deaths, he deals with the emotional trauma. This is done cleverly, by shifting the narrative from the cold detached third person, to the more personal, allowing you to hear their thoughts about what is happening. Adding to the sense of loss is the constant counting down of how many students remain alive at the end of each chapter. This countdown lingers with you throughout the story, and is a reminder of the situation the students are in. It is the gruesomeness of the countdown that adds to the book’s power.
As mentioned, Takami does a good job with characterization and fleshing the characters out, but there are many cases were the characterization has the students being smarter than they are. This is particularly noticeable with Shinji Mimura. A gifted student and athlete, much time is spent with him performing acts rivaling those of MacGyver. From wiring a Apple Power Mac to a car battery, and then being able to hack into the computer running the entire Program using only a cell phone, Takami’s carefully crafted tension is ruined with these feats.
Making the story believable is the touches of modern day reality Takami employs. By working in numerous believable references to pop culture, sports, and teenage angst, he makes each of his characters seem even more real. They each have their own likes and dislikes. Each has their own opinions on life, people and events. All of this brings the students alive, and makes you want to read on. It is with this grounding in reality, Takami makes the students read true. You see them each as an individual personality with their own set of beliefs and history. Because of this Battle Royale is something other than a violent story; it is a story of childhood loss.
All the students suffer from the same things most adolescents suffer. Isolation, questions of sexual identity, depression, and other emotions, course through these characters. You see them forced into a world that does not care for them, does not nurture them, and instead, sees them only as pawns for a sick experiment that no one knows the purpose for.
You see these students thrust into a no win situation, faced with their early deaths in a “game” they do not understand. Takami, could have gone the easy route, and make them all wanting to take part in the game, but he doesn’t. He makes the student’s individuals and portrays a wide array of wants and desires. Their motivations range from survival to desire to be the last one standing. You grow to care about certain students, and the ones you grow fond of, you feel their death as a personal loss. Takami is a masterful writer, and he knows how to pace his story to gain the most impact.
The book, despite its’ length is a fast read. It grabs and submerges you in the world. The employing of flashbacks, narratives, and the like, fosters real emotions when reading it. I found myself cringing with each death, stricken by the profound sense of loss with the deaths of students I grew to like. I felt myself feeling the nerves and fear the students faced as they sort a means to escape their predicaments.
Battle Royale may not be for everyone, but if you are looking for a book that will not only make you think, but surprise you, this is the one to read. You find yourself questioning many things, and events of the book still carry with me after reading it a few weeks ago. I highly recommend this book.
Reviewer: Richard Iorio II