Review: Battle Royale

Battle Royale
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Warning: Potential spoilers. No character names are given, but some scenes are summarized – you can easily skip these paragraphs. I also mention whether or not the two main protagonists survive. By the way, my thoughts on spoilers in general – if the book is well-written and interesting I’d read it anyway. Plus, I read this book again after already knowing what happens at the end. LOL. It’s still a good read. :-D)

I first read Battle Royale by Koushun Takami back in 2006 and just loved the story. Battle Royale is a Japanese novel translated into English. The translated English is well-written, with a few typing errors here and there. Occasionally, a word seems to be missing. I don’t consider this to be due to badly written English, but more likely a typing error as there are examples of well-written English throughout the novel. (In my opinion, the translated English in this novel is better than the English in some of the more recently popular fiction. An achievement I’d say, considering the translation is done by a Japanese person while the other novels I’m referring to are written by native English speakers. This shows that just because you speak the language, it doesn’t mean you can write it well.) Battle Royale was originally criticized in Japan as “violent exploitation”, but it eventually became a bestseller. A hit movie soon followed.

The premise of Battle Royale is simple, and is comparable to Lord of the Flies. In a dystopian version of Japan, a class of junior high school students are taken to an evacuated island as part of the “Program” where they are required to kill each other until only one survivor is left. With this premise in mind while reading Battle Royale, you have to expect this story will consist of gore, violence, and yes, people dying. However, if you shallowly dismiss this story as just gore, violence, and meaningless death, you will miss out on the beauty of this story. Ultimately, people will die in this story, but what’s interesting in this novel is how the characters deal with the possibility of an early death. The story explores how the students react to being forced to participate in the program. The novel has two main protagonists and the story is told mainly through those protagonists. Occasionally though, Takami writes a point of view from another character (since the story is about a class of junior high school students, the story has a cast of 43 characters – 42 students, plus the character of Kinpatsu Sakamochi, who is running the “Program”), so that you get a chance to understand some of the other characters in the novel before they take their final bow. Takami also uses a lot of flashbacks to help establish the backgrounds for most of the characters and also to give the reader a sense of what “normal life” is in this dystopian version of Japan.

Battle Royale is an action thriller story with emotional depth. It’s a fast-paced read that has many heart-wrenching scenes, and you’d have to be shallow or cold-hearted to not feel some tears well up. Remember too that the characters are students, all about the ages of 14-16. Reading this story should remind people of how they were at those ages. Some people were insecure while others were more secure. Some were more reserved while others were more outgoing. Some were popular, some were the class clowns, some were just not noticed by their class mates (unless they were being picked on). All of this plays into this story on top of the question “Could you kill your classmates?”

Deaths occur early in this story, the first being one of the more shocking. The first time I read that scene, I thought “Did I just read that?! Really? Please, no…” Of course, this was setting up the motivations for the two main protagonists (one a girl and the other a boy), and I probably saw it coming, but it was still… heart-breaking. (Spoiler warning: To avoid potential spoilers, skip this and the next five paragraphs.) I should note that the first two students that died were not killed by other students. They were killed by Sakamochi as examples to the other students.

Another early heart-wrenching scene involves a couple who decide to kill themselves instead of participating in the killing. The boy and girl reflect on how lucky they are that they got to see each other before they die. After some time talking and embracing, the two jump off a cliff together after hearing someone approaching nearby. Unknown to the couple, the student they heard was not going to kill them, but was wanting to find a way out of the “Program”.

Then there’s the two girls who are best friends. They decide that the other students must be scared too and don’t really want to kill their classmates. Thus, they decide to go up on a mountain peak and call all the students to them announcing that they aren’t playing the game. Unfortunately, the one student who happens to be a psychopath (he lacks emotions due to an accident his mother had while he was still in her womb; as a result of the accident his brain was damaged, and he can not feel emotions) and who decided to participate in the “Program” (by flipping a coin; since he has no emotions, he decided what to do by flipping a coin) finds these two best friends and guns them down. Before they die though, the two girls have a bonding moment when they realize that despite all their differences (differences that made them admire each other), the one thing they had in common was that they had a crush on the same boy.

In another scene, a girl is confronted by the boy she has been dating whom she actually loves. He doesn’t believe she loves him because of her past (she used to engage in prostitution, but gave it up when she started dating him) and he says he will kill her, but she manages to convince him that she does love him. Unfortunately, her past catches up with her as her “friend” kills her love and then her.

A few other heart-breaking moments occur later on in the story as there was some gradual build-up for the characters involved. One of the characters is determined to find the two people who mean the most to him – one is his best friend and the other is the girl he loves. He manages to catch up to his best friend just after she’s been shot and he stays with her until she dies. This is a beautifully written scene. The last thing the girl says to him is “You’ve become quite a stud.” He replies with, “And… you’re the most stylin’ girl in the world.” This character also manages to catch up with the girl he loves. Unfortunately, she is frightened and not sure who to trust so he is shot for his efforts (he has already sustained other wounds by this point). However, he tells her there’s a way to escape and then she realizes her mistake. He tells her to go “now” and says “I’m just glad I got to see you.” Confused, she asks “What do you mean?” and he confesses that he loves her. Realizing this, she breaks down and cries because she was a fool for not realizing sooner that he loved her, but instead spent time focusing on a hopeless crush.

Then, you have the death of one of the students who did participate in the killing. However, you end up feeling some pity for her. After all, she was an innocent girl all those years ago when she was raped. Unfortunately, her ability to manipulate people’s emotions isn’t a match against someone who doesn’t have any. Faced with her death, she recalls telling another student “I just decided to take instead of being taken” and then, she wonders “When did I… become like that?”

Those were just a few of the more memorable, heart-wrenching, yet beautiful scenes in the novel (some other scenes that I remember well are too complicated to summarize here). The contrast between gory violence and raw emotion is the beauty of this story. Some critics of this novel say that the gory violence is needless. I disagree. The violence is integral to this story and the gore is realistic (you can compare the descriptions in this novel to the live video of Neda Agha-Soltan‘s death and to the picture of Khalid Said after he was beaten to death). Faced with a realistic portrayal of violence and the results of that violence (that is, the gore), raw emotions are felt. Violent death is horrifying as is violence against people you care for and love. In describing as realistically as possible the violence in this story, Takami gives the reader a sense of what it could really feel like. If reading it is this emotionally upsetting, then watching someone you love die violently is unquantifiably upsetting; more than likely, it’s traumatizing. Indeed, people can go into severe shock after witnessing a brutal killing. The gory violence is very necessary to this story. It’s what makes the deaths have a real emotional impact.

Battle Royale not only asks the reader “Could you kill…?” but also asks what would you do after witnessing such brutality and violence. Could you overcome what you’ve seen? Could you then try to prevent this from happening again to others? (Spoiler warning: To avoid potential spoilers, skip the rest of this paragraph.)This is what the main protagonists decide they want to do. In order to do this though, the main protagonists must remain calm in order to remain rational. Succumbing to intense grief early on will not help them survive. Knowing this, the main characters engage in light conversation at times while still being fully aware of their dire situation. It is only at the end when the main protagonists can finally allow themselves to fully feel their grief.

Battle Royale is a very human story. It looks at the human behaviour when we are put in the direst of situations. What’s very human about this story is that in the midst of tragedy and death and in the fight for your own survival, a sense of love, compassion, and empathy for others can be found. Years ago, I watched a documentary that touched upon this theme. The documentary, Scared Sacred, described the travels of the director who visited various disaster sites. In visiting these sites, the director wanted to know if some hope remained. In the midst and even aftermath of disaster, is there some sense of hope? In the documentary, a Buddhist concept was referenced – “breathe in suffering, breathe out compassion”. Strangely enough, that seems to fit Battle Royale. (Spoiler warning: To avoid potential spoilers, skip this sentence.)The main protagonists breathed in all the suffering that was going on around them, then managed to breathe out compassion and survive. This is the beauty of the story.

The emotional elements mixed with the fast-paced action is what makes Battle Royale a page-turner. It’s hard to put down. Be prepared to put aside anything else (including sleep!) until you finish reading this novel. Battle Royale is a memorable story with characters worth remembering.

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