By Koushun Takami
First Published in Japanese: 1999
1st English Edition: 2003
2nd English Edition: 2009
English Translation by: Yuji Oniki
Review © 2010 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Modern Fiction, Thriller, Pulp, Alternate Timeline
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami is one of the most intense action packed thrillers I’ve read. This is a novel that should be part of the definition of a “book you can’t put down”. The action starts early, the tension ratchets up quickly, and the tension increases right up to the incredible finale. Aside from the action, there’s a lot more character development than you might expect in a “pulp” novel. There is also a substantial amount of satire aimed squarely at reality and game shows.
Upon its initial publication in Japan, Battle Royale attracted a lot of attention and controversy due to its startling premise; a nightmarish “game” where young 15 year old students are given lethal weapons for a fight to the death. People raised concerns that this novel was primarily exploiting youth violence. In addition, the novel was first published in Japan in April 1999, the same year and month as the Columbine High School shooting massacre in the US. How’s that for a coincidence! Needless to say, Battle Royale was held up as another example of the increasing amount of violence found in entertainment.
Having heard the reputation for extreme and disturbing violence, I was a little worried that it might be too much of a splatter horror novel for my taste. I was also worried that Battle Royale might have gained its popularity primarily due to the sensationalism of the subject matter rather than the quality of the story and writing. However, within the first 40 pages both of these concerns were laid to rest and I was hooked.
While Battle Royale takes place in Japan, it is not the Japan of our world. It is a Japan in an alternate timeline under the rule of a fascist dictatorship called the Republic of Greater East Asia. This is a totalitarian government that maintains its iron grip on the country through fear. One of the most bizarre methods it uses is the battle simulation “Program” where a full class of 3rd year junior high students (equivalent to high school freshmen in the US) are taken to an isolated battlefield, issued weapons, and forced to fight to the death until only one student is left.
Battle Royale is the detailed account of a “Program” that is unique because this is the first time that a prior “winner” has participated for a second time in a “Program”. In addition, the government has discovered that someone has hacked into the government computer system that stores secret information about the “Program”. The hacking incident creates the potential for more problems than usual so the military director of the operation has taken extra precautions to ensure the game goes according to plan.
The strengths of this novel are the unrelenting tension, tremendous unpredictability, and surprising character development. Within the 42 students, you get a mixture of all types of students including popular kids, the kids that get picked on, neutral kids, student government leaders, a gang of bullies, top girl and boy athletes, a beautiful and intimidating queen bee girl, and a complete psychopath. The protagonist, Shuya, is a likable male student who is popular with the girls because he is not only an excellent athlete with good looks; he’s also a skilled guitar player.
The odds of being selected for the “Program” are very low so most students never seriously considered the possibility of being in this situation. When the director explains the rules in detail and demonstrates just how vicious he is, they find themselves in an unimaginable nightmare. Under the incredible stress, some students panic, some crack up completely, and others demonstrate amazing resourcefulness.
The novel is told in 3rd person but most of the time it is told from the perspective of a single student per chapter. With 79 chapters and 576 pages, the reader gets to experience the perspective of most of the more than 40 characters and there is ample room to flesh out at least some background material for all the characters. Of course the reader gets to know some of the characters much better than others, including the most sympathetic and the most unlikable. A couple of the students end of being serious villains along with the director of the “Program”.
Surprisingly enough, the large number of fight scenes does not become repetitious at all. Every confrontation is different. There is an incredible variation in the situations, weapons, action, and results. Many of the scenes are also quite emotional and the emotions intensify as the number of students dwindles. Mixed in with the confrontations and fight scenes, are interesting and varied backround materials surrounding the students and their relations with the others in their class. Throughout, Koushun Takami does an incredible job of keeping the reader off balance. There are sudden changes of fortune, continuous surprises, and twists right up to the very last chapter.
There is plenty of violence in Battle Royale but the violence is not excessively graphic. The violence doesn’t approach the extreme scenes in horror novels that try too hard to shock readers. Other than the violence, there isn’t any graphic sex at all so this novel is appropriate for most teens and adults. As far as realism, I have to admit that the abilities of some of the students in this novel definitely stretch the boundaries of believability. After all, these students are only 15 years old! But the story plays out so well and the characters are so engaging that I didn’t have any problems with suspension of disbelief.
The second English edition of Battle Royale was just released in 2009 with a newly revised translation. This is the edition I read and I was impressed with the quality of the translation. Apparently, the first edition had quite a few errors that were corrected in the second edition. Also, the second addition has an 18 page afterword by the author that was quite interesting.
While Battle Royale won’t be winning any awards for being the most intellectually challenging novel, it’s quite well written with real emotional depth for an action packed thriller. The quality story, strong emotions, and elements of satire ensure this won’t be mistaken for another example of cheap exploitation. In fact, this novel succeeds at providing the ultimate in action adventure. If you want to experience an awesome pulp novel, read this book. The one warning I would like to give is that you should plan on setting aside some generous chunks of time when reading Battle Royale because it’s not short and it’s incredibly addictive. Once you start, you’ll be hard pressed to put it down until you reach the last page.