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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Battle Royale

Takami Koushun

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To purchase Battle Royale

Title: Battle Royale
Author: Takami Koushun
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 616 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Battle Royale - US
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DVD: Battle Royale - US
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  • Japanese title: バトル・ロワイアル
  • Translated by Yuji Oniki
  • Battle Royale was made into a film directed by Fukasaku Kinji in 2000

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Our Assessment:

B : good premise, decent thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Battle Royale isn't set in modern Japan, but rather the Republic of Greater East Asia -- which sounds like a mix of Japan and North Korea. State control is more far-reaching, and among the ways the state exerts its control is through the egalitarian but deadly 'Program', officially the 'Battle Experiment No. 68 Program'. Every year fifty third year junior high school classes are selected. Each is brought to some isolated area (an island, typically) and the students set against each other. Provided with a variety of weapons, it's a winner take all battle: the students have to kill each other until only one survives:

The final survivor of each class (the winner) is provided with a lifetime pension and a card autographed by The Great Dictator.
       Battle Royale is the story of one such class-battle. Beginning with 42 students, the novel follows their fates as they battle each other. Among the special rules of the game is that someone has to get killed every 24 hours or else everybody gets killed (which turns out not to be a problem -- the slaughtering occurs at a pretty good clip), and that more and more parts of the island where they are playing become off-limits as the game progresses. Control over the students is exerted via metal collars they've been outfitted with: explosive charges in them will detonate if they move in a prohibited zone (or if the 24-hour limit is exceeded).
       It looks like a no-win situation for the participants, or at least all except one, since there appears to be no way to turn against the game-keepers, or to stay alive without turning to murder. With the large number of participants at the beginning of the game Takami manages to go through most of the possible variations of reactions and attitudes. A few jump right into the game, readily willing to turn on their classmates, while others try to forge alliances and help each other out. Trust is hard to come by -- and hard to keep.
       Cleverly, the students are outfitted with different weapons, everything from a machine gun to a set of darts. One player only gets a bulletproof vest, another a device that lets him know the location of near-by players. Betrayal is common, and Takami comes up with some entertaining twists of fate.
       The novel centres around three of the players, Shuya and Noriko, who ally themselves with Shogo. Shogo has a big advantage over all the other players: he's played this game before. (It's his bad luck that he got left behind and had to repeat the year at a new school where the class he was put into then got selected .....) His enormous hatred for the country and the system drive him to subvert it, and his insider knowledge gives him a huge edge. Still, it's hard to know who to trust and how to act (and the authorities have a few more tricks up their sleeves as well).
       Battle Royale is necessarily a book of mass-slaughter: more than forty deaths, and practically each one is described, a litany of brutality and betrayal that even it its many variations can be a bit of overkill. Still, for such a long book littered with so many bodies, Takami manages to keep things moving, and to hold the reader's interest. There's constant tension, and a few good surprises. There are too many characters to really get much of a sense of many of them, but Takami does try to show the reasons for the way they act, a fun reflection of (junior) high school life which can often seem this brutal (just without the bloody consequences). In the extreme situations true colours are shown -- and they're often surprising ones; it certainly makes the book a fun reflection of typical teen life.
       Takami does have to take a few short-cuts -- convenient facts that allow this battle to be a bit different from most of the others. Ultimately, it's not particularly realistic -- but then one really can't expect a book with such a premise to be highly realistic.
       There are a few odd choices -- including the fact that the programme is so enormous (fifty classes a year ! that's roughly 2000 students killed, an enormous hit for even a large nation to take). (The purpose of the programme is never made clear either.) And the altered state -- the Republic of Greater East Asia -- perhaps adds an unnecessary layer. A closer-to-reality society in which one class a year is sacrificed in this way might have been more compelling.
       Still, Battle Royale is a perfectly fine thriller, with a fun premise, quite well drawn-out.

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Battle Royale: Reviews: Battle Royale - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Takami Koushun (高見広春) was born in 1969.

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