Review: Battle Royale

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami takes place in an alternative Japan named "The Republic of Greater Asia" ruled by "The Great Dictator". Every year as part of an ongoing research project the republic runs an event informally known as "Battle Royale" where all of the students of a randomly selected high school class must kill or be killed. While the physical story follows the students to the competition's bitter end, the psychological story is an exploration of humanity when life is on the line. And there's more going on than first appears. As grim or as silly as this concept sounds, the book worked for me. I often drifted off in reflection exploring my own morals.

Rated: 3.5 / 5

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami is a "what if" story taking place in an alternative Japan known as "The Republic of Greater Asia". This republic is fascist and ruled by "The Great Dictator". For reasons speculated on but not positively known the republic holds an annual event formally named "The Project" but informally known as "Battle Royale". A randomly selected high school class is taken to a secluded location where each student is fixed with a metal tracking collar that explodes if they don't follow the rules, and given a random weapon ranging from an ice pick to a knife to a gun. Only one student can leave alive.

On a physical level Battle Royale is a straight forward kill or be killed action novel. But if that was all there was to it, it wouldn't be that interesting a book. Fortunately, it also contains internal dialog of the various students forced to fight each other. With 42 students there is ample opportunity to explore different attitudes and philosophies towards the grim competition. This was exactly what drew me to the novel. As I read I often found myself contemplating what I would do in a specific situation and why. Very few novels inspire this kind of thought exercise, and almost never to the degree Battle Royale did.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel was the question of how you perceive a person and why you might trust them. How well do you really know someone? Why should you trust someone? Will your friend still be your friend when only one of you can live? Will this person help me now but betray me later? Add to this mix the reader's omniscient perspective as the characters play out a scene and there is sometimes much to consider.

I also read Battle Royale as an allegory with the game representing life after high school. This is a story about how students used to a facade of fairness cope with with adversity and treat each other when the facade is ripped away. It wasn't hard to see the parallels between the game and real life.

Although the situations were compelling much of the writing wasn't. Sometimes it was a slog. The internal dialog that made Battle Royale interesting often went on far too long. Sometimes I had to put the book down for a while and rest. Unless Japanese teenagers have a very different "voice" than Canadian teenagers, the dialogue didn't ring true. It's hard to know if this was a problem with the original novel or the translation by Yugi Oniki. The other problem, not the fault of the book, was trying to keep the various names straight. So many Japanese names caused my poor anglo brain to overheat!

I can't recommend Battle Royale uncategorically but I did find it an interesting and thought provoking read. It's exploration of trust and human nature engaged me throughout the book.

Publisher: VIZ Media, LLC
ISBN: 1-56931-778-X

A note about Battle Royale the movie: There is a movie of the same name based on this book. I watched the movie a year or two before reading the book. The movie, as I remember it, tracks the book's physical action fairly well but doesn't match the depth. While I found the book thought provoking I remember the movie as Tarantino-esque B-movie silliness.


Mike Cantelon wrote 12 years 27 weeks ago

Sounds worth checking out

I've been meaning to see the movie, but think now that I'll read the book. I like "what if" type books (almost finished "The Road" which is pretty good) as there are so many sides of life we don't have to experience in the West.

dale wrote 12 years 27 weeks ago

No need to be exclusive

No need to be exclusive. I enjoyed both for different reasons. There's also a Manga version. Judging from what I've read, it's more detailed.

At some point I'd love to re-watch the movie and do a movie review. I haven't managed to track down a copy, yet.

If you do read the book or see the movie I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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