Welcome back to my 2014 literary highlights. Today’s post reviews Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. I read this in September while travelling round a glorious California with Ben (travel diaries to follow in the New Year!). When I think of Battle Royale, I think of moments snatched reading this on long car journeys between navigating, taking photos and singing along to our American Anthems playlist. It’s a book that has literally nothing to do with America, but whenever I think of it I am reminded of one of the best holidays of my life. It also got me through some hella-long flights across the Atlantic, so I am indebted to this book for that reason alone!
Battle Royale is possibly better known these days as a film, and has been cited several times as the forerunner to books such as The Hunger Games. As an avid Hunger Games fan, I was keen to read this book, especially having watched the film a few years ago. And I think I actually enjoyed the book more than the film!
Battle Royale is set in the Republic of Greater East Asia, an authoritarian world running on a parallel timeline to our current world, where the Japanese government rules with an iron fist. We start off on a school bus with a class of 14-15 year olds from Shiroiwa Junior High School, on their way to a class trip. Only instead of ending up on a trip, the children find themselves gassed and taken to an unknown island off the coast of Japan. There they are told that they have been selected to take part in The Program, a brutal government scheme which takes one junior high school class per year and sets them down a path to self-destruction. From this moment, a countdown has begun from which only one of them will survive.
There are 42 students, 21 boys and 21 girls, all numbered accordingly in boy-girl pairs. Each student has been fitted with a metal collar, which will explode if they try to tamper with it or remove it, and the collars will explode if there are no deaths over a 24 hour period. Different areas on the island also become ‘Forbidden Zones’, and students found to be in that zone will also have their collars detonated. The island is guarded by soldiers and the children are being tracked and monitored via their collars. To survive, the students are each given a survival pack containing various items of food and water, and in some cases weapons to help them survive, by whatever means necessary.
This is a horrifying but fascinating concept. Everyone likes to think they would act a certain way under pressure, that they wouldn’t abandon both their friends and their principles, but Takami explores both of these situations without restraint. The story is raw and graphic, and I think it’s important that it is portrayed as such in order to have a greater impact on the reader. One of the issues I had with the first Hunger Games film (sorry for the comparison, but in this case it fits!) was that it skated over some of the gorier action with the use of shaky handheld footage. It didn’t seem as violent as the book, and was possibly downplayed to appeal to a wider audience. This is something which cannot be said about either the book or the film of Battle Royale. This is not a book for the fainthearted.
It is a little difficult to follow the various characters, a problem which I also found with the film. But it is easier in the book, as we have a chapter or so at a time dedicated to each one, and there is an insight into the minds of each. For some, this will make you warm to them and root for them, although you know that it will ultimately be fruitless. Every now and then, however, there are some that you can’t wait to see bumped off, and the nastier method the better. Which sounds really horrible of me, but if you read it I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean!
One of the main characters looked at during the story is Shuya Nanamara, star baseball player and undercover wannabe rock musician (rock music is prohibited in this world!) He is kind, brave and generous, but completely lacks an understanding of the realities of the situation he and his classmates find themselves in. Which is completely understandable, and as he is only a 14 year old boy and not a soldier. But I found myself agreeing with the harsher practicalities extolled by some of his fellow classmates. Overall, however, I was amazed at how resourceful this band of children could be under pressure, moved by the unnecessary waste caused by their deaths, and fascinated by the brutal but novel concept of this story.
I would thoroughly recommend Battle Royale to you. It’s a fascinating, maddening, tragic read, and will stay with you after reading. Of course you have to have the interest in such a topic, which may not be to everyone’s taste. But it is a searing indictment of human nature at its very worst and best, and well worth the read. It will make you very grateful that your school trips were mundane and dull, and that we live in a free and liberal society today.