Author: Koushun Takami
Translator: Yugi Oniki
Pages: 617 (paperback)
Published: February 26th 2003 (originally published 1999)
Published by: VIZ, LLC
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.
A class of school children and put on a island and told to kill each other off until there is only one person left alive: it's kill or be killed. They are each given a weapon, ranging from incredibly useful (a machine gun) to completely useless (a fork). How do you trust people in this situation? Even those you've been friends with for you whole life?
Whilst this isn't a book I think I'll ever read again I'm so glad I have read it once, because I was almost put off by the level of violence I was told was in it. This is a violent book, and sometimes a little unnecessarily so, but not to the level I was expecting from what I'd heard. I'm quite a squeamish person and there were a couple of bits that I struggled with but it wasn't too bad for the most part.
This was my first foray into Japanese literature and the style was a little unusual in places and I found myself actually laughing, somewhat inappropriately I'm sure, at some of the things in the narration. I also had trouble keeping track of who was who because I'm unfamiliar with the names and some of them were so similar, which I'm sure took something from the story. I'd be there trying to figure out who was who when two people ran into each other which was a little distracting at times but more a reflection of my inability than an actual criticism of the book.
As a psychology student, I found this book incredibly interesting as a study of human nature and how different people react in extremem situations. Obviously there are some who take to it like a fish to water; those who do what they need to simply to survive; and those who simply refuse to partake: the whole range is covered in this book in a great way. Confusion, fear and mistrust reign on the island, and make for a riveting read. People are second-guessing themselves and those they think they know and whole relationships fall apart right in front of your eyes, whilst others stand the test.There were also moments which were absolutely heart-breaking when tearful goodbyes were made.
Relatedly, the number of characters who claimed to love one of the others was just ridiculous! This may be a cultural thing which I'm missing, but it seemed like ever other person was in love with someone and for me that cheapened the emotion a little because I didn't believe it: they are only 15 and declarations of love are being made all over the spot. It seemed like a device to make the events more harrowing rather than a realistic reflection of that age group. One of the characters does wonder whether the situation is the cause of this which is possible, but so many seem to have been in love with the other person before 'The Program' began that I'm not sure of this.
The ending was a little obvious, though having said this there were genuinely incredibly tense times where I actually questioned whether I was right in my prediction which was wonderful. So often you never feel that the main characters are never in any real amount of danger; not so in this book, and for good reason!