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Battle Royale
Reviewed by Kevin Pezzano, © 2003

Format: Book
By:   Koushun Takami
Genre:   Science-Fiction/Thriller
Released:   February 2003
Review Date:   April 08, 2003
Audience Rating:   R. Never has a book been more R rated.
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)
"Battle Royale" is not an easy book to read. In a time when school shootings and youth violence are so common as to be barely newsworthy any more, a book about 42 junior high school students forced to fight each other to the death is not exactly light reading. Especially when it's as brutal as this book is.

Although the setting of this book is a Japan of some alternate present (an Orwellian dictator has ruled the fascist Republic of Greater East Asia for the last 75 years, and is currently engaged in a cold war with the so-called American Empire), the science-fictional elements of "Battle Royale" are really incidental to the story. The main characters are a class of relatively average 15 year old junior high students, a mixture of the usual jocks, nerds, tough guys, delinquents, girls-next-door, and class sluts to be found in almost any high school the world over. They look and act, in other words, like students in our own world, idolizing pop stars, listening to Springsteen and the Beatles, and engaging in youthful rivalries and shy crushes. And that is author Takami's whole point.

The fascist goverment of "Battle Royale" serves only to provide the justification for Takami's free-for-all combat. Every year, a random class of junior high students is "drafted"; they're kidnapped, spirited away to a remote island somewhere, given explosive radio collars (to ensure that they follow the rules of what is euphemistically called "the Program"), armed with a random array of weapons from submachine guns to sickles, and forced to fight until only one of them is left alive. How these otherwise-normal kids react to the sudden and overwhelming violence thrust upon them is what drives the relentless narrative of "Battle Royale", and Takami describes every horrified thought, every sickening betrayal, and every gruesome death in exhaustive detail.

The back cover of this book decscribes "Battle Royale" as a "'Lord of the Flies' for the 21st century", but that's not entirely accurate. "Lord of the Flies" was mainly about how society's rules are all that keep humans, even (or especially) children, from returning to a savage, violent natural state. "Battle Royale" twists things just a little, saying that it's not society that keeps us from being savages; it's society that MAKES us savages. The kids in this book are forced to turn on each other, because their government and their society as a whole demand it. It doesn't matter what they want, or what their parents want (the book describes how many of their parents have been killed when they resisted their children's conscription into "the Program"). If they are to make a place for themselves in society, they have to become ruthless, amoral, and violent.

In the country this book was originally published in, the allegory is plain. We've all heard about the pressures of the Japanese academic system, with endless bouts of cram school and grueling tests just to get into a good high school, and then it's all repeated for college, and THEN there are the crushing demands of the Japanese corporate world and an often-repressive culture to contend with. Perhaps the present system is a little less raw and bloody than the system Takami describes in his book, but it still forces unprepared young people to become monsters in order to survive, and exacts a terrible price from those who just can't deal with it. And, despite the essentially Japanese nature of the metaphor, American audiences should have little difficulty in finding comparisons with their own culture. Let's not forget the recent controversies over college admissions and school bullying, after all.

Okay, so "Battle Royale" is trying to be something a bit deeper than a six hundred page "Faces of Death" meets "Sailor Moon". Unfortunately, the message does get a little lost in among the endless scenes of gruesome violence suffusing those six hundred pages. Though the book is more than half a thousand pages long, it covers barely more than a couple of days (essentially, just the events of "the Program" itself, from beginning to end). This is because Takami describes the deaths of almost all 42 members of the class tabbed to participate in "the Program" with horrifically graphic detail. Stabbings, shootings, throat slashings, eye gougings, poisonings, beatings...every spurt of blood and splatter of brain is exhaustively depicted. Even most horror novels aren't this gooey. Hell, most horror MOVIES aren't this gooey! As you might imagine, this will turn off a LOT of readers almost immediately.

Another major flaw in "Battle Royale" is its extremely large cast. Takami, in this novel, has set himself the rather ambitious task of revealing the thoughts, fears, and ultimate deaths of roughly two score young individuals. While he valiantly attempts to provide a bit of personality for all of them, even managing a bit of poignancy at times (such as the girl whose prize possession is a fan-club locket she's had since childhood, or the young couple who kill themselves rather than participate in the unthinkable), he just can't manage to make every character interesting and unique. Far too many of the students are introducted to the reader for the first time, given a brief moment to reflect on their pasts as they grapple with what "the Program" means, and then simply killed off in one gory fashion or another. After a few dozen of these, the reader soon stops caring about ANY of the doomed students, which dilutes a lot of the impact Takami was trying for.

Even the few characters that Takami focuses on at any length in "Battle Royale" are little more than ciphers. The male lead, orphaned Shuya, is a talented amateur musician whose best friend is killed in front of his eyes before "the Program" even begins, and he is driven as much by his desire to see Noriko (his poor deceased friend's crush) survive these terrible events as by his own survival instincts. But we never really get a good handle on what makes Shuya tick. Is his deepening attachment to Noriko perhaps related to abandonment issues from his childhood as an orphan? Does his musical soul give him the indomitability of spirit needed to survive "the Program"? How is the backstabbing betrayal of and by his classmates affecting his very sanity? Beats me.

The other main characters fare little better. Noriko herself does little more than play the damsel in distress for Shuya to protect, and even the two main villains (the vicious administrator of "the Program" and the coldly efficient killer in Shuya's class) are given no motivation or reason for their coldly cruel actions. Only Mitsuko, an abused teenager giving vent to her torment by becoming a coquettishly brutal huntress during "the Program", and Shogo, a laconic, scarred boy helping Shuya and Noriko who seems just a little too familiar with "the Program", are explored in any depth. Their stories are fascinating (in a dark sort of way), but in this book, it's too little, too late.

"Battle Royale" is a lot better for what it tries to do than for what it actually does. It has some very harsh, very true things to say about what it means to be a teenager in today's world, but the compelling message is almost literally washed away in a tide of blood and gore. If you can stomach the intense violence, "Battle Royale" is definitely worth reading.

But that's a pretty big if.

Anime Editor Kevin Pezzano hears that Fox has licensed this book to turn it into their next reality show.

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