[Content Note]: Violence, rape, suicide, totalitarian government
I found out about Battle Royale during the Hunger Games hype when I was perusing through book reviews of the series. A lot of people said it was better than the Hunger Games, and some even accused the author of ripping off from Battle Royale, which was published nine years before in 1999. They both have very similar storylines about a group of teens being forced by the government to fight to the death.
Battle Royale takes place in an alternative Japan that became an authoritarian state called the Greater Republic of East Asia. Every year, 50 3rd year junior high classes are chosen to participate in a fighting program where they are stranded on an island and fight to the death There can only be one survivor. If the students somehow grouped together and refused to participate, their collars would explode, killing them all anyway. The forbidden zones get more restrictive over time, forcing them together, so that hiding and waiting for it to blow over won’t work either. Ships are stationed out in the ocean to keep them from escaping by sea. Overall, this is the most hopeless situation that I’ve ever encountered in a book.
The government claims that this program is for military research, but they actually made it to terrorize people so that they will be less likely to organize a protest. Sometimes people do try to protest individually, but the government shuts them down quickly by raping or killing them.
I stuck it out with this book because I cared too much about the characters to put it down. Shuya, the main character, wants to find a way to escape and save as many people as possible. Even in this situation, he looks for the best in others and trusts them readily. Shogo, his more level-headed counterpart, is slower to trust, but has the strength and skill to help their group survive. Shuya has also taken Noriko under his arm because his best friend, Yoshi, had a crush on her before he was killed by the program leader. Shuya’s original plan to group everyone together and make an escape plan didn’t work, but at least he had these two to fall back on.
Shuya’s group, as well as a few other characters, stayed calm and continued to plan strategies and hope. They still managed to think of others’ well being in a situation that would make a lot of people paranoid and desperate to do just about anything to survive. If I was in that situation, I would probably have been finished off very quickly. I am not fast, strong, or skilled in survival tactics, and some of these characters have much more courage and intellect than I. The story was very humbling and these characters had my respects. I was rooting for them.
The author, Koushun Takami, does a great job of showing the wide variety of ways people might react in this situation. Some characters, like Shuya, tried to work with others to protect each other and/or make plans to escape. Some committed suicide. Others killed out of paranoia or delusions, or even because they already had desires to hurt people and this program gave them an excuse to act on them. Others took a more passive route and simply wanted to hide. And there was a character who, to my surprise, took a risk to find their crush and confess their feelings.
Overall, the characterization was really strong, but there were a few things that bothered me. For one thing, there were too many extreme characters; saintly or ruthless, super attractive, martial arts master, genius computer hacker, and so on. I found it a little over the top, especially since they are only fifteen years old. Sometimes the book leaned too much on tired stereotypes. Predictably, a couple of the girls fell into the ‘damsel in distress’ stereotype; one of which being Noriko, a girl who didn’t do much for most of the book and mostly relied on Shuya and Shogo. The other was a girl who put on the act to get characters to let their guards down and then kill them. Also, the only LGBTQ character in the book was a boy first shown fixing his appearance in the mirror, and later revealed to have a stalker complex. He didn’t have a single redeeming quality. This doesn’t help with the stereotypes that LGBTQ males are appearance obsessed, creepy, etc. I think the author should have made him a more balanced character, or added more LGBTQ characters with more stable personalities, or both, so that he would at least not add to the stigma.
Sometimes the plot moved slowly because there were sooo many characters (probably over 50, 42 in the bulk of the book while they’re on the island). Most of those characters have at least some kind of back story, and their death scenes are shown in detail. However, I don’t really count the slow pace as a flaw because all of that backstory helped me understand why the characters responded the way that they did. It would have been nice to have more information about their government and how the program came into being.
I would not recommend this book for people who:
- Don’t want to deal with a lot of violence
- Lose track of who’s who when there are a lot of characters
- Are looking for something more LGBTQ friendly
- Want a book with a stronger/more well developed female character
This book has its issues, but it was a gripping read. It gets 4 out of 5 stars from me. I would recommend it, especially to those who enjoy political or dystopian fiction.