Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: BATTLE ROYALE by Koushun Takami

Warning: As always, I try to stay relatively spoiler free. But it doesn’t hurt to proceed with caution.

Rating: Four Stars—Great

I had some trouble rating this book. Unlike other novels, where the answer is obvious (like THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, which was clearly five stars), I wasn’t so sure on this one. There were bits I liked a lot, and bits I didn’t like as much. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to give BATTLE ROYALE three stars or five. So I settled on a compromise.

First of all, the premise. In the Republic of Greater East Asia, every year fifty junior high classes (of about 40 students each) are chosen at random and dumped into arenas where they are pitted together in a fight to the death. There can only be one survivor from each class. But when Shuya Nanahara’s class is chosen, he is determined to escape the Games, along with his friends.

Even though the narrative jumps back and forth between various viewpoints, essentially giving the reader a glimpse of what is going on with everyone else, these three get the most face time (and I can’t complain):

Shuya Nanahara. Shuya is a good kid—mature for his age and very smart. Sure, he makes typical mistakes, and he kills when he has to, but he reacts well given the circumstances. He doesn’t lose his head, and he doesn’t abandon his principles. Despite the bloodshed around him, he struggles to believe that his classmates—kids who have grown up together—would actually murder each other. Even when he accidentally takes a life, he doesn’t jump to justify it in the way that others do.

Noriko Nakagawa. Although she doesn’t play a major role, she adds a nice touch to the story because she feels somehow separate from the horror of the Games. While she is timid and gentle, she also does not panic.

Shogo Kawada. He is enigmatic and scary, but in a nice way. I would definitely want him as my ally, and he would make a formidable enemy.

Human Nature and Psychology. As Shuya, Noriko, and Shogo spend their time hiding and avoiding their fellow classmates, the others run around killing each other right and left. And I loved watching how human nature plays out. I mean, these are fifteen-year-olds, but that doesn’t stop them from shooting, stabbing, strangling, and otherwise maiming their peers. On an emotional and psychological level, I enjoyed seeing how the students deal with this whole situation. On the one hand, we have some who think that, if everyone would just calm down, they would all be willing to band together and escape the Games, no harm done. They can’t understand why their friends would murder each other in cold blood.
Then we have the slimy people you kind of hate enough to be happy when they die (almost)—the ones who plan to sit it out until only one other remains, and then to claim their victory as self-defense. (What makes it so compelling is that most every person tries to justify the blood on their hands. More than that, it’s interesting to see how many misunderstandings there are, how many people kill or are killed because of fear, how many people make unfortunate/stupid decisions.) And then, of course, we have the psychopaths and the sociopaths, the ones who don’t value human life, who actively hunt their fellows down, and who not only play the game, but enjoy it.

The Switching Viewpoints. Since I like to understand all the characters in a given story, I appreciated the chance to get a peek at most everyone’s motivations and desires. So many people become sympathetic characters, for however short a time, and that makes their deaths significant. They all have tangible lives before the Games—people and things they want to get back to. And I wanted them to survive, even though I knew they couldn’t.

Of course, there were some characters I didn’t sympathize with as much, and I wasn’t crushed when THEY died. But then again, you can’t exactly read this book with a marshmallow heart. Just to give you some perspective, 42 teens go in this arena. Only one is supposed to come out. Attachment is a luxury you can’t really afford.

So now for the stuff I didn’t like as much.

The Writing. I didn’t feel BATTLE ROYALE was that well-written, but I do want to be a little more forgiving because who knows how much artistry might have been lost in the translation from Japanese to English. And there’s style to take into account (BATTLE ROYALE felt a bit too anime for my taste, but that’s a personal thing). [Side Note: If you’re wondering, I bought the 2009 edition from Haikasoru, translated by Yuji Oniki. I’m told this is an improvement on the last version, but not as good as the next. I bought this one mainly for the cover, because I’m deep like that.] 

Repeated Information. I only needed Shuya’s and Shinji’s nicknames explained once, likewise I only needed to be told a single time that both Shuya and Shinji Mimura are stars in their track team or that Yoshitoki Kuninobu had told Shuya he had a crush on Noriko. I didn’t need to be reminded of each student’s seating number (there was a chart at the beginning of the book, anyway, so I could have referred to that if I’d needed to). Also, while backstory does make the characters relatable, repeated or irrelevant information does not serve to advance the plot as well (in my opinion). Overall, I felt the narrative could have been trimmed down a little, especially considering the book is 600 pages long.

Target Audience. The novel may be about fifteen-year-olds, but I’m thinking the target audience should be a bit higher. Of course, maybe I’ve forgotten what it was like to be fifteen. So many of the students are gang members, prostitutes, druggies, etc… Oh, those poor little darlings. Perhaps Japan is a rougher place, perhaps I am merely naïve, or perhaps this was just for the sake of the story? I’m open to any of these options. But I spent the whole book half-wondering if the students should have been a couple of years older, although that would have detracted from the LORD OF THE FLIES vibe (which I kind of sort of loved). Also, there’s some sexual content and some strong language, which made it a little more uncomfortable, considering these are fifteen-year-olds (did I mention they’re fifteen?). (Actually, Shogo is sixteen, but that’s beside the point.)

Overall, despite its pulp fiction feel, BATTLE ROYALE shares a powerful message about the uglier parts of human nature. And though, I feel, it could have been strengthened in some places, it was still haunting.


  1. This sounds fascinating. I like the fact that it's written by a Japanese author (I'm guessing it's not actually set in Japan?).

    I love multiple POV characters! You get the whole big picture of the story.

    I could see things getting lost in the translation. And it does sound very brutal that they are only fifteen!

    I will admit though, I don't like the author repeating themselves. It drives me crazy. I see it done a little too often (especially by well-known authors) to be much amused by it.

    1. I liked it. And I liked the bits of Japanese culture it included. And the setting is a bit hard to pinpoint. I do think it's in Japan, but it's like an alternate yet contemporaneous version of Japan where the Republic of Greater East Asia has absorbed some other Asian countries. At least, I think that's what's happened. It was a little unclear.

      *high five for multiple POV love*

      Yeah, I always wonder about translations, because when I love a translated book for its artistry, I have to wonder whether that was really the author or if it was the translator instead, and vice versa. And yes, it was pretty brutal for a bunch of fifteen-year-olds--I think The Hunger Games is a little nicer that way since there's a greater age range and the brutal people tend to be the older ones.

      Ack, repetitive information drives me nuts. I feel like sometimes authors forget readers have decent memories, or they don't exactly trust us to pay attention. And it may help to remind some people--it even helps me on occasion. But it usually just bugs me, especially when it's not done well.

  2. I really enjoyed this book. I think some of your criticisms were mine too, but all in all it's a fascinating political commentary. This plotline has been done a lot of times over the years, but I still think this book stands apart from the rest.

    1. It's funny, because as much as I had some reservations about it while I was reading it (and I was enjoying it then, even so), I have a lot of fond memories of it looking back, and I might even reread it this year. It really is a fascinating political commentary, and this one does stand apart. Granted, I will always stand by The Hunger Games as well, but I definitely think there's room in the world for the both of them.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. I read this book (it took forever) but I really liked it despite the foul language and strong content. It seemed very realistic. It showed me that people are not always what they seem. It also showed me to be careful.

    I was sad when a certain intelligent person died with another person. Those people had such an awesome plan... why did they have to die?!

    However, it also made me laugh. "Brush your teeth, man" - Shinji xDD (he was one of my fave characters along with Shogo and Takako)

    1. It is really good. I just reread it this week, and I did enjoy it even more on my second time. It's a very good psychological study.

      Yeah, I was so sad about that part. I was rooting for Shuya most of the time, but yeah, I really didn't want that person to die. And the very last death in the book just... *sobs*

      It does have some really funny parts. I would have to say that Shogo and Noriko were my top favorites, but Shinji and Shuya were pretty much tied for second place. Takako was great. And I quite liked Mitsuko and Kazuo. They were great aggressors.

      Thanks for commenting! :)

    2. You liked Mitsuko? That's not something you hear everyday xD

    3. :P Odd, but true. I wasn't rooting for her or anything, but I understood where she was coming from, and I found her more psychologically interesting than some of the others because of her past and how she's dealt with it. XP