kingshearte's Reviews > Battle Royale

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
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's review
Oct 09, 10

bookshelves: 2010, books-for-boys, effed-up, fiction, post-apocalyptic-dystopian
Read from October 01 to 07, 2010 — I own a copy

** spoiler alert ** When The Hunger Games came out, it definitely garnered some comparisons to this book. These comparisons frequently declared THG a wussier version of this book. Having now read both, I don't think agree. There are obvious similarities, of course, in the whole notion of the killing game, but the two are ultimately about different things, and I don't think this one is actually more brutal than THG. More graphic, yes. But if you read the subtext in THG, there is some pretty awful, awful stuff going on in there, so I'd hardly call it a fluffy substitute for people who can't handle the level of graphic violence in BR. Don't get me wrong. It's brutal, and Takami does not shy away from describing any of it. The main difference is that BR deals mainly with the brutality inside the game, where the brutality in THG, although subtler, is wider spread and more pervasive, largely because of its very subtlety. The messages they leave you with are quite different too. By the end of the THG trilogy, the nasty regime had been overthrown, and there's hope for a better future for everyone. At the end of BR, nothing has been changed, there's no indication that it's going to, and even our heroes immediate situation is not optimistic. So in that respect, ultimately, it's much bleaker.

IN any case, this book was extremely compelling. I haven't had as much time lately for reading as I did for much of the year, so things have been taking me longer to get through, but I blasted through this one pretty quickly. It was one of those books that had me looking for opportunities to read it and flipping pages pretty fast in some places. One of the things I thought Takami did an amazing job of is really showing (not telling) how it is that the things that happened could happen. It's so easy to look at the situation and go "No way. If I were there, I wouldn't play." What's shown here is that yeah, you would. And Takami shows us how. He shows us how easy it is for the fear, the doubt, the first hint of mistrust, a single miscommunication, or an accident can suck in even the most peace-loving, altruistic, completely-devoted-to-fighting-the-system-instead-of-each-other kids. We saw it many times, because, with a few exceptions, nobody wanted to play this game, but if you have even a smidgen of a doubt that maybe the kid you've just run into might kill you, chances are that you might try and beat him to the punch. And having a bonafide sociopath in your class is just going to speed up the process.

Of course, suicide is an option, one taken by a few of the kids, and one I'm pretty sure I would take if I found myself in this situation (although who knows). And I found that interesting, again, going back to THG, because that idea didn't really cross my mind when reading that. But in BR, as soon as they told the kids what they were facing, my immediate thought was, "Oh my god, I could not do this. I would just kill myself." I thought about why it should be so different, and I came up with two main reasons. One, THG gave very clear indications that the Capitol would take out any ire with the players on their loved ones. And suicide, being a pretty clear statement of refusal to participate in the super-happy-fun Games, would be almost guaranteed to generate some ire. And it's bad enough that I'm probably going to die. No need to make my family suffer even more. And the second reason is that the prize in BR is simply not worth it. A signed picture of the dictator and a lifetime pension doesn't sound too terrible, but it's stated that the pension isn't that great, and, even more to the point, there's no indication that it's necessary for normal survival. The society appears to be fairly prosperous, and with the killing off of hundreds of teens every year, the population stays pretty low, so job prospects are probably pretty good. So a pension, while it might be nice, is just not a significant enough prize to be worth it. Compare that to THG. Many of the districts are extremely poor. Their people are starving. Winning can make a difference, because it not only sets you as the winner up for life with a nice place to live, and enough provisions to live on for life, but, for the year until the next Games, it also feeds your entire district. Winning these Games doesn't just give you a luxury. It gives you the means for continued survival. And that's a prize that is worth fighting for. It would still be awful, but at least I could see a reason to even try. In BR, not so much.

One thing I wish he'd done differently, though, is really make use of his third-person narrative. In THG, because it was first-person, it was clear from the beginning that Katniss would survive. With third-person narrative, it doesn't have to be so obvious. True, having a specific protagonist allowed for a climactic showdown between the heroes and the "bad guy," but I think this story could have worked with those lines less clear, and it also wouldn't have been quite so predictable who was going to be left standing at the end. I think that leaving that a little more open could have made things very interesting. As it was, you pretty much knew who was going to survive, and who was going to be the last one killed, and it made you (a) not worry as much about them, and (b) know better than to get too attached to anyone else. If you really didn't know, this book could have had a much greater emotional impact, and could have been the sort of book that leaves you feeling kicked in the gut every so often, when it kills off one of your favourites.

That said, that final showdown was pretty good. Gotta give him that. I was less a fan of how regularly he felt it necessary to have the boys (especially Shuya, but I don't think he was the only one) think to themselves how incomprehensible it is that girls are actually playing this game, and girls never hurt other people, and surely a girl would never kill someone, and blah blah blah. I get thinking that initially, especially if the culture you've been raised in happens to be one where girls are groomed to be polite and sweet and docile and whatehaveyou, but give it a rest eventually. Seriously.

Reading this book in translation also brought up some interesting issues. For one thing, it took a while to get the hang of the names. It's always a little confusing when you start with more than 40 characters, but when their names are unfamiliar, and don't even follow the cultural conventions of gender that you're used to (fantasy names, for example, can also be unfamiliar, but you can at least tell, with many of them, what sex the character is), it can be very hard to keep track of. I'm sure it's not so bad for Japanese readers (or maybe even westerners well versed in manga or anime), who are used to those names and their conventions, but really, between Yoshio and Misuho, I have no idea how to tell which one's a girl and which one's a boy. So that (although no fault of the writer or the translator) was a little confusing initially, but eventually, I just knew who was who. Of course it helped that they were frequently labelled, "Mitsuru Numai, Male Student #17." But anyway. There were other parts with odd syntax that also made it obvious that this was a translated book, but nothing egregious. Hell, I might not have even noticed so much at all were I not currently in the middle of studying translation.

Ultimately, I'd say this was a good book. Perhaps not so good for younger or more sensitive readers, because it is pretty graphically bloody. But it had a lot of heart, and managed to work in a surprising amount of backstory for a surprising number of characters, without being annoying with excessive details. If you figure you can stomach a bunch of fifteen-year-olds brutally killing each other, it's definitely worth a read.
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