Bibliomantic Book Club: “Battle Royale” by Koushun Takami

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
Release Date
: November 17, 1999
Genre
: Dystopia, Action, Violence, tween crushes

Summary: In the totalitarian state of the Republic of Great East Asia, speaking against the government is forbidden. Which is unfortunate, because the government is out of control awful. Besides banning rock and roll, meaning Shuya Nanahara and friends can only listen to Bruce Springsteen through illegal bootlegs, every year the government selects 50 classes of third-year junior high students to participate in the “Program.” The students are brought to a remote location where they are forced to fight each other to the death. 

Each student wears a collar that can be detonated to explode at any time if they try to escape or find themselves in one of the game’s growing number of “forbidden zones.” If no one dies for 24 hours, everyone’s collar explodes simultaneously. Although many start off certain that they couldn’t possibly kill their friends, others take to the game far too readily. Who do you trust when everyone has to kill you to survive?

In Battle Royale, you win or you die… seriously.

We can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard nerds who haven’t read The Hunger Games complain about how it’s just a Battle Royale ripoff. Our general response has been “read The Hunger Games, then talk to me.” Of course, it only made sense that we take it upon ourselves to read Battle Royale and see just what the big deal was.

Conclusion: Yup, both sure are books about kids killing each other horribly.

CASSIE-WA’S THOUGHTS

I can’t seem to finish this book. You *cough* may have noticed this post is already one week and one day late–that would be my bad. But since I still have a few thoughts I’d like to discuss, I figured I would write a the-story-so-far review.

First of all, this book is nuts. The violence is extremely graphic and usually very sudden. The narrative lacks the sort of flair you might find in other novels, I’m assuming at least in part due to translation issues, so everything is very straight-forward.  Do not attempt to read this book unless you are okay with that, especially considering that the victims of the violence are all young teenagers.

What’s particularly messed up about all of it is that hundreds of kids are selected to participate in the “Program” each year, and it’s for no reason at all. (Well, I *think* it’s for no reason–haven’t read to the end yet, so WHO KNOWS.) As far as any of the characters know, at any rate, it’s for no reason. The only explanation they can offer is that it’s for military research or something, but the truth is the government just does it because it’s run by douchebags who know they can get away with it.

Shuya and his classmates have grown up knowing about this, but how did they feel about it? Answer: pretty okay. In fact, Shuya admits that he hardly ever thought about the Program, although maybe he was briefly angry about it when the victor of the Program appeared on the news each year. That’s it. It never occurred to him that he might be selected, even though FIFTY classes are chosen each year.

It’s such an interesting change from  The Hunger Games, where all of the children live in fear they might be selected for the games (and that’s with only 24 chosen each year), and all parents live in fear they might lose their children. At the beginning of the book, Katniss is already dead set against getting married or having children for that reason.

But everyone in Battle Royale is all, “LA DI DA, IT COULD NEVER HAPPEN TO ME!” And frankly, that’s scarier. The people of the Republic of Greater East Asia are so freaking complacent, they don’t even care that the government is killing hundreds of their kids each year. Sure, some parents fight back when their children are taken, but they’re immediately killed for their trouble. Overall, it doesn’t seem like a country ready for revolution, so I am curious where this story is going to lead.

My problem with continuing the book right now is that some of the main characters are sitting around talking about stuff and it’s really boring. One thing I dislike about this book (and again, not sure how much of this is a translation issue) is that there is far too much exposition.

Since Shuya is our primary narrator, this actually serves to make him seem cold and emotionless at times. For example, in the beginning when that evil, evil son-of-a-bitch Sakamochi reveals he raped Shuya and Yoshitoki’s guardian, Yoshitoki jumps to his feet and shouts, “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!” over and over again like he can’t stop, and it’s like you’re watching it and it’s really heart-wrenching. Meanwhile, the narrative is like, “Shuya was really angry too.” Okay, thanks for letting me know?

Right now, Shuya and allies Noriko and Shogo are sitting around in the woods talking for pages and pages about how, surprise, the government is evil! I have been assured the pace picks up later, so hopefully I can move past this slump and get back to the action!

STEPHANIE’S THOUGHTS

Battle Royale was a scary book. I was looking forward to reading it obviously to see why certain nerds keep bitching about the Hunger Games. I knew nothing about this book beyond the nerd-bitching so I really went into it with no expectations. It was a very different experience. I wasn’t exactly prepared for how very Japanese it would be. The translation often proved to be a little awkward. But overall the story was an interesting read and totally terrifying.

First reaction to this story was definitely – AHHH TMC!! (Too Many Characters). Seriously, we had to somehow try to keep track of 42 students with very unfamiliar Japanese names and I didn’t know how I would ever do it. I decided to just not try to keep flipping back and keep reading hoping they would stick eventually and this ended up working well.

We get a brief preliminary description of a lot of the characters on the bus before they are taken away for the “Program.” Obviously Shuya is our main dude, so the beginning of the story going into the battle is from his point of view. Later the point of views switch back and forth constantly which the translation makes pretty awkward. The original Japanese probably was smoother, but I was glad for the switch because it was cool to know what was going on with everyone instead of just Shuya and pals.

The classroom scene where the kids wake up is definitely horrifying. The metal collars, their dead teacher, their classmates being shot in front of them, being forced to write lines about killing each other. The fear is palpable. Despite the awkwardness of the translation, the absolute terror of the situation comes right through the pages. Throughout the whole book really, the tension, the fear, the not knowing who to trust and disbelief that the situation is even real is extremely present.Shuya immediately hooks up with Noriko and I love it when they add Shogo to their group. It was so heartening to me that there were other people who did not want to play by the rules. I must admit I was skeptical about a plan to escape because it did seem there was no way out, but it was good they wanted to try. It was so scary to me the number of kids who were so willing to kill to try to save themselves. Obviously realistic, but scary. Because it seems to me your first instinct would be to get everyone together and just not play. But when there’s so much fear and uncertainty you quickly realize how impossible that is. But yeah. No way I would play that fucking game. I’d just shoot myself first. Or let the dumbass organizers shoot me in the beginning. Like…I’m not killing anyone for your amusement.What makes it especially different here is that this isn’t about fighting some random people to the death – but your classmates. Kids you go to school with and some of whom you’ve known since you were little kids. Disgusting. And something annoying in the book is that they really don’t ever have a reason for the Program. There’s a lot of hemming and hawing about various reasons and I guess in the end they decide it’s to make people not trust each other. But really? They don’t even have a terrifying made up reason. Like…usually crazy dictator governments have reasons, albeit stupid reasons that don’t make sense. Also, since the Program is not televised and the kids never even thought about it happening to them until it actually did – it’s really not an effective tool for invoking fear. They all thought it would never happen to them. In the Hunger Games, it is always a constant and present fear that your name will be called as tribute and everyone lives in fear of the game. The Program doesn’t seem to affect anyone at all except the players. It even mentioned that some kids had friends or relatives who had died in it and STILL they didn’t care or think it would happen to them. So what exactly is the point?Cassie-wa said that this book has a premise, but not a plot. It’s interesting to read, but like….doesn’t end up going anywhere in the end. While the kids fighting each other to the death thing is what happens in the Hunger Games, I think they are definitely two very, very different things. I see no reason for nerds to angrily hate the Hunger Games because Battle Royale did it first. Like…get over it. So what? Hunger Games has so, so much to offer that Battle Royale does not have. And Battle Royale is a cool book.

Scariest character is without a doubt the unfeeling Kayoko Kotohiki. Shogo is awesome and really throws you for a loop – with a heart-pounding twist at the end. A ton of the characters end up having really interesting back-stories that I think are worth the length of the book. Although the constant “who has a crush on who” thing got a little tedious. (By the way – make sure you tell people you care about them BEFORE you get thrown into a fight for the death.)

Overall a really good read, but seriously – you still have to read The Hunger Games.

CASSIE-LA’S THOUGHTS

As an enormous fan of dystopic novels and a lover of The Hunger Games, when Cassie-wa suggested we take on Battle Royale for a book club, I was all for it. I had been meaning to read it for the premise and all the violence, but at 600 pages it was a daunting task as a “fun” read. What became immediately apparent upon reading however, was just how addictive this book is. Whereas I devoured the  The Hunger Games to find out Katniss and Peeta’s fate, I devoured Battle Royale to see who would die next. It’s even more violent and bloody than I could have hoped for.

The novel is set in an alternate history Japanese dystopia called the Republic of Greater East Asia, which is run on national socialism by “the Dictator”. Every year since 1947 “for security reasons” and “research purposes” 50 third year junior high school classes are chosen for the “Program”. Each class is taken to an undisclosed location, armed with weapons and forced to fight to the death. To discourage non-activity, collars are placed around the students’ necks which will explode if someone enters an out of bounds zone (announced every six hours), tries to escape, or if no one dies within a 24 hour long period. Weapons can range from the helpful- knives, crossbows, guns and hatchets to the useless- forks, boomerangs, and banjos.

At first it’s incredibly hard to keep track of all the characters since they have such foreign Japanese names and there’s 42 of them, but as you learn their identifiers (the homicidal maniac, the computer nerd, the best friends, the doomed lovers) it becomes easier to remember who everyone is. You quickly find yourselves rooting for characters, despising others, and hoping for a happy ending you know won’t come. Another problem arises in the sometimes shoddy translation of the novel (this is no fault of Koushun Takami). Some of my favorite poorly translated lines include: “His body shook as if dancing the boogaloo”, “They stared back at him as if they were a pair of armadillo twins”, and “You better obey me girl. A women obeys his man.”

Thankfully, once one becomes adjusted to the simplistic writing style, the uselessness of some of the female characters (Noriko), and everyone’s desire to express their love for a member of the opposite sex, the novel is quite enjoyable. It’s action oriented, with people dying constantly (whether by accident, poor luck, or their own stupidity), and the ending will have you in shock. SHOCK I SAY! Keep your eyes on wise for his years, giant teddy bear Shogo Kawada, off her rocker tragic backstory Mitsuko Souma, Sho Tsukioka’s ridiculous endgame, and sadistic teacher Kinpatsu Sakamochi- they’re the characters I loved to love… Or to hate.

It’s easy to see why people would make the comparisons between the dystopian novels Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. They both revolve around an equal number of boys and girl who share numbers or districts, fighting to the death in a secured area with government involvement to announce deaths, provide a variety of weapons, and ensure the rules are followed. The winner receives cash, doesn’t die, and the country is kept from revolution through fear. And with shared themes of rebellion, love, and death pervading both narratives it becomes harder to separate them. Despite the similarities, the novels are two completely different beasts, Battle Royale being darker and with more emphasis on violence and the Program, and The Hunger Games being a character driven story of survival against all odds. Not to mention girl power. Want a story where you feel for the characters? Try The Hunger Games. If you’re all for violence but don’t want to care about the victims, I’d recommend Battle Royale.

WHAT WE LIKED MOST:
-Super realistic and scary
-Action packed!
-Interesting character back stories

WHAT WE LIKED LEAST:
-“I may be horribly murdered, so I think you should know I have a crush on the same person as you”
-Slow points where everyone talks for ever and doesn’t do anything
-Translation issues

In lieu of a March Bibliomantic Book Club, the Bibliomantics will be reviewing The Hunger Games movie! We will return with our regularly scheduled book club in April, with a book to be determined.

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3 thoughts on “Bibliomantic Book Club: “Battle Royale” by Koushun Takami

  1. There are two things keeping me from reading this: the names and the length. I appreciate your review, though, as I had not ever read any details about the plot. I am a HUGE fan of dystopia, as well, and I will have to read this eventually. Lately I’ve been slowing down on how much of my reading is YA, so it just might take awhile.

    • Oh the length. It’s definitely time consuming being 600 pages, but the plot progresses fairly quickly. Also the names are tough but you definitely get used to them and start to remember who they belong to… Eventually.

      Dystopia-wise, have you ever read any of Margaret Atwood’s dystopic fiction? Particularly “Handmaid’s Tale” and “Oryx and Crake”? Definitely not young adult.

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