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Review: Battle Royale, Koushun Takami

Shuya Nanahara and his junior high class of fifteen-year-olds are going on a field trip.  Shuya is so optimistic that he’s even brought along alcohol.  But on the bus he notices something strange; everyone is falling asleep, and that new tough kid Shogo is trying to break the window.  Before he can think too much, he’s asleep, and doesn’t wake up until he’s in a strange classroom, and he and all his friends have cold metal collars around their necks.  They are told that they are about to kill one another on an isolated island, and to Shuya’s horror, the seriousness of this proposition is proven when his best friend is killed before his eyes.  Shuya’s worst nightmare is about to come true as he tries to protect the girl his best friend loved as his classmates set about playing the game.

I have a lot of conflicted feelings on this book.  My most immediate basis for comparison is The Hunger Games.  Battle Royale* is set in a dystopia based in Japan, but both essentially involve isolated kids killing each other after being given random weapons.  It’s a thriller and apparently both very popular and shocking in Japan.  I didn’t find it to be particularly shocking, although it did read very quickly for a 600 page book.

The problems started right at the beginning.  I found the writing to be very plain.  It’s readable, but there is something very juvenile about the sentence structure.  I kept noticing the poor writing and it constantly threw me out of the story.  Some of the characters quote poetry and song lyrics, but even these never rise above to form anything I’d consider quotable.  I don’t know if this is down to the fault of the author or the translator, but I definitely felt let down.  I didn’t like the narrative structure, either.  The main focus is Shuya, but the viewpoint switches often.  Unfortunately, after a few switches, it becomes apparent that almost every time the author introduces a new student, it means they’re going to die within a few pages.  Few of the students are really interesting, but the author also tends to include a flashback from each one of them, introducing background that is generally unnecessary and boring.  I get that they’re supposed to be regular kids who are forced into killing each other, the background is showing their personalities and motives, and that’s meant to be shocking, but again, I’m already familiar with the horror of this premise, and so this time it didn’t work.  Three to five pages was not enough to make me care.

I also couldn’t say I liked any of the characters.  They are only fifteen, but they are all in love with one another.  Naturally, most of them are in love with Shuya, but we’re also treated to little dramas between all the other characters that are in love.  To me, these seemed like simple crushes, and while everything is intensified in this sort of “game”, I simply got tired of the constant surprise each character exhibited upon learning that someone they barely knew loved them enough to die for them.  I couldn’t imagine this happening in real life.  Maybe if I was also fifteen years old, when I was convinced that a smile from a boy was everything in the world, I would have found this to be terribly tragic and romantic.  As an adult, the students annoyed me without exception.  I got tired of reading their irrelevant backstories and I didn’t really care much when any of them died.  For some I even found myself flipping ahead to see how long before they died because I was so impatient.  The book didn’t engage me at all on an emotional level.

There is also a lot of criticism against girls here which really bothered me.  All the boys are convinced that the girls would never kill one another, not only because they’re all good but because a girl wouldn’t have the stomach to do such a thing.  Worse, the author seems to agree; the girls are universally portrayed as weak and needing protection by the boys, none of them are intelligent enough to come up with an escape plan, and in general they do absolutely nothing of interest except act stupidly and get themselves killed.  The only girl who does fight with some skill is a bully, beautiful but despised universally, who doesn’t hesitate to kill her friends.  Even though her behavior is understandable to some extent given her backstory, out of so many girls is there really only one who can stand up to the boys?  And does she have to use her body to do it?  It just bothered me.  I missed the strong, smart girls so prevalent in today’s YA literature.

Largely, this book suffered a lot from comparison with The Hunger Games. There, the concept of kids killing each other is carried out, in my opinion, to the best possible result, providing an emotional, riveting, exciting, and unpredictable read.  If I’d read this first, maybe things would have been the other way around, but given what I’ve said here, I doubt it.  I can’t say I really hated Battle Royale, as I certainly read it fast enough and wasn’t conscious of all its faults while I was still wading through it, but I didn’t like it very much.  It brought up some interesting questions about trust and suspicion between friends, but not enough to save it from bad writing/translating, boring characters, and frustrating structure overall.  It’s interesting for anyone who’d like to see what all the fuss is about, but I wouldn’t read it again.

*This link goes to a new translation which I hope will prove better than the one I read. I am an Amazon Associate and will receive a few pennies if you click these links and buy something from Amazon. I bought this book.

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