christa's Reviews > Battle Royale

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
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Feb 08, 12

Read in February, 2012

The first thing you should know is that I’m a pussy. When I imagine pitting myself against another adult human being in combat, I imagine my own arms flailing, missing targets, a sort of bird-like noise coming from my throat. If I found myself in a situation where I was on an island with 41 of my peers and an assignment to kill each other off, big prize going to the last one standing, I would hide. I would hide somewhere high and hidden with a wall I could lean against and a view of the land. I would sit quietly and only move enough to soil myself twice daily. If pressed to fight, say someone snuck up on me, I’d probably do it with my eyes squeezed shut and giggling nervously.

This is the sort of thing you think about when reading the Japanese novel “Battle Royale” by Koushun Takami, your own personal method of battle.

For a reason that doesn’t seem to translate from Japanese to English, each year a class of 15-year-olds are selected randomly to participate in the Program. They are taken by bus, seemingly headed on a field trip, then gassed. The students wake in a classroom wearing electronic ID collars on an island that has been cleared of its inhabitants. They are given instructions: They must kill each other off, winner is the last one, and there can only be one, standing. They are given a pack that includes some food and water, a map and a weapon -- in some cases a gun, in other cases a bullet-proof vest, in another case and electronic device that helps it’s holder locate other students. Then they are released in 2-minute intervals to run and hide or stick around and engage in immediate combat with their former friends.

First the obvious: Yes, the premise of “Hunger Games” is similar. But where “Hunger Games” is seemingly a vehicle for a strong female protagonist who never begs a vampire to please take her virginity, there are relatively few heroic pretensions in this version. There are 42 characters and a sadistic puppet master goading them along with four daily updates on dead classmates and zones on the island where they can no longer hide or hunt. Some of the 42 characters aren’t actively competing, some are confused about their role and some are painting the island blood red, unflinching sociopaths.

Also: I remember a few bleak death scenes in Suzanne Collins’ first book. In this one, Takami at times rivals Japanese horror master Ryu Murakami with his scenes of eyeball gouging and a machine-gunned head looking like meat sauce in a broken bowl.

Mostly the story is a multi-layered murder sandwich, gruesome scenes followed by lulls of movement and character development, followed by more murder. It is deliciously fun. It’s hokey. It’s gross. It’s exciting. Each chapter ends with the number of students remaining, which can be a bit of a spoiler to a person who likes to flip around and check out the length of chunks.

One of the best parts about reading “Battle Royale” is the opportunity to play the “Battle Royale” home game. To look around every time you walk into a room and imagine this is the competition. That guy over there, he’s a wild card. Hard to say what his approach to the game might be. He might prefer hand-to-hand combat or cyanide in your campfire coffee. Or maybe he would lay low, watch others get offed and then stand up, brush off his pants and challenge the winner with a burst of previously unseen strength. Her? She would win. She’d never lose. It’s impossible. Lose isn’t in her vocabulary. And her over there? She’d scratch your eyeballs out and make a necklace from your teeth. This game never gets old.
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