Friday, June 8, 2012

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

My friend Derek recommended Battle Royale to me and we typically like the same type of dystopian/sci-fi/apocalyptic fiction so I knew I should check this book out. Also I kept seeing Battle Royale mentioned on different message boards about Hunger Games, usually with the tag of “Hunger Games is just a rip off of Battle Royale.” Was it? I wanted to find out for myself. . .

Battle Royale is set in “present day” Japan (it was written in the late 1990’s). I would call it an alternate universe Japan, in which a fascist government rules Asia as if Japan had won WWII, but did not conquer America (it is not said how the government came into power). Every year, in each region, a class is chosen to have a fight to the death with only one survivor. The stats and winner of the game are televised, but the entire event is not. This book focuses on the Third Year Class B, Shiroiwa Junior High School class that consists of 21 females and 21 males.

The class believes they are on a school trip until a gas is released into the bus, knocking them out. They awake in a classroom with collars on their necks and a sadistic man, Sakamochi, in charge. He lays out the rules for the game, that there can only be one winner, that certain zones will be forbidden at different times (if you are in the forbidden zone the collar will kill you), and that if there is too long a period between killings, they will all be killed. Each student is released one at a time and has to take a bag of survival gear from the top of the pile. Each student gets a different weapon from a machine gun to a knife. The story explores the game and each member of the class has their own story.

Shuya Nanahara is a member of the class, a popular musician and athlete that is an orphan. His best friend Yoshitoki Kuninobu was killed in the first moments of the game for trying to defend the honor of the woman who raised both Shuya and Yoshitoki at an orphanage. Shuya teams with the girl Yoshitoki loved, Noriko Nakagawa. Shuya and Noriko run into and then team with the mysterious “brute” named Shogo Kawada, who turns out to be so much more than they knew. Shuya is the main character of the novel. He starts with the thought that no one in his class would reduce themselves to violence, but soon learns this is not the case.

Shinji Mimura, is an athletically gifted smart guy who learned computer hacker skills from his uncle. Although student cell phones are non-functional, Shinji worked his way around it and created a sophisticated plan to bring down the game. When he runs into and saves his friend Yutaka Seto, his plan starts to unravel.

An action novel wouldn’t be one without a good villain. There are two in Battle Royale. Kazuo Kiriyama is an evil guy who was born without emotion. He excels at everything, and that soon becomes an expert at killing people to survive. Mitsuko Souma is a morally corrupt girl who also excels at killing. Her hard youth made her the person she is, but she will use any advantage to take someone out. The appearance of either of these villains in the novel scared the heck out of me.

I loved this book. I literally couldn’t put it down last month while I was reading it. I enjoyed it so much; I was daunted by the thought of creating a review for it. Would I give it justice? How do I begin to review a book where so much is going on?

First of all, Battle Royale is a book with non-stop action. I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. Although the book was very violent, the deaths were not gratuitous. There was a back story given for all of the characters, some more in depth than others. Each one of their deaths meant something to the reader, and really made one realize how morally corrupt their government was for putting them in such a situation. Speaking of which, I kept wondering, what is the point of this program. I thought this quote did a great job of summing it up.

Sakamochi said, “I’ll tell you now, this country needs the Program. . . In other words, everyone ends up concluding you can’t trust anyone, right? Which would extinguish any hope of uniting and forming a coup d’état against the government, hum? And so the Republic of Greater East Asia and its ideals will live on for eternity.”

Battle Royale is also a book about acceptance and for not judging people by their outward appearances.

Shinji says to Yutaka when Yutaka wonders why Shinji is friends with him, “I am who I am. And you’re you are. Even if I’m pretty good at basketball or computers, or popular with girls, that doesn’t make me a better person. You can make people laugh and you’re kind. When you’re serious, you’re a lot more sincere than I am. Like with girls. I’m not resorting to that cheap cliché about everyone having something to offer, but I am saying there are a lot of things I admire about you. I like you. We’ve always been buddies. You’re an important friend. My best friend.”

The friendships were wonderful in this book, which made it all the more terrible when friends were killed.

How did this book compare to The Hunger Games? I liked them both, but for different reasons. Do I think Suzanne Collins blatantly ripped off Koushun Takami as message boards suggest? No. The stories are similar, but also very different. The overall themes are as old as the Roman gladiators and public punishment (beheadings, drawn and quartering, etc. were all ways for monarchs to control their society). Other authors have explored many of these themes in works such as “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, 1984 by George Orwell, etc. The Hunger Games focuses on one main competition a year with two teenage representatives from 12 districts. These games are televised and there can be only one winner. There is one main character, Katniss Everdeen. The government uses the games to keep the Districts under control. In Battle Royale, there is a main character, but all of the games participants are given a story and their deaths are more meaningful. There are many games (one in each district) per year and while the results are televised, the games themselves are not. There is only one winner and the government uses it to control the society.

I think the evil government of The Hunger Games works better, especially more into the series. The purpose of the games seemed much clearer in The Hunger Games. In Battle Royale, having so many different games going on at one time, made the deaths seem not as meaningful for keeping the country under control. In Battle Royale, they talked about not having enough kids and I thought, well, when you kill off a few thousand every year, it will make a difference in your population dynamics.

I liked Katniss Everdeen as the tough heroine that does what she can to survive, yet keeps her humanity. Telling the story from her perspective really makes one want to cheer for her and gives it a unique take for the viewer. On the other hand, I liked how Battle Royale made each character important and each death meaningful by telling the stories of all of the participants. The actual day-to-day stories of both books are very different from each other.

Overall, I loved Battle Royale. It was a great action dystopian novel that also had some wonderful themes to think about. Do I think that The Hunger Games or Battle Royale are the same book? No. They are both unique and worth a read.

Source: The Kewaunee Public Library


  1. Wow, what a well though out and written review - thank you so much for sharing it with us. I have seen this compared to The Hunger Games plenty of times, and so I also want to read it so that I can see what it's like for myself. Thanks for sharing, Laura!

    New to your blog!
    Steph @ Stepping Out of the Page

    1. I've never heard of this but love Japanese sci-fi. I'll put this on my list!

  2. I love Battle Royale too, for years now. I actually read it as a young kid but haven't re-read it since then! I just took it down from my bookshelf and realized how much I've forgotten... of course some scenes like the lighthouse stand out, especially if you see the movie; kind of like the rat scare torture in 1984 (shudder.) I'm so glad you reviewed it! I was so excited when I saw you were reading it.

    Shogo definitively made the biggest impact on me... now he, he was tragic. And Chigusa. And that girl who met up w/ her bf who flipped out on her and was almost going to kill her but then was going to make up and of course, Mitsuko steps in, the cold-as-Antarctica killer. I just have a lot of feelings for this book.

    PS. The movie is ok. Meh.

  3. OOOOh yes! I have heard this many times. I am also a big fan of Japanese manga so this is one of the stories that has been suggested to me time and time again. (And most mangas are free, anyway!) There is a great ipad app that lists them ALL. Any good one imaginable is listed on it to read, for free!

    I really need to start reading this one, ASAP!