Battle Royale, Koushun Takami

battle-royale

Sorry guys, it’s another repeat review.

So. Battle Royale. Overall, not a happy book. I’m not usually bothered by violence or gore in fiction, but there were moments in Battle Royale that shocked even me. The violence is overwhelming, yes, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous. The violence is the point of Battle Royale, in many ways. I enjoyed the book a lot (more, I think, than Kelin did).

The kids in Battle Royale are all members of the same third-year juniour high class, which has been chosen to take part in this year’s Program. Every year, 50 such classes are randomly selected for the Program, which is billed as a highly necessary military research experiment of some sort. This causes one of the biggest differences between Battle Royale and the Hunger Games, in my opinion, and one of the factors which makes Battle Royale so chilling: these kids all know each other. They are classmates, even friends. They are offered no time to prepare for the Program, merely gassed on a bus ride, dumped on an island, and told to kill each other. The emotional fallout from that setup is devastating.

And these kids are wonderfully written. Takami does a brilliant job of helping you keep track of his 42 characters, which was my biggest concern going into the book. He also keeps his characters very realistic, 15-year-old students. It’s disturbing, actually. One moment, they’re chopping at each other with axes or playing complex games of emotional manipulation or threatening sexual violence, and you forget how young they are; in the next moment, they’re huddled together, whispering about who they like, and you’re back to the gruesome reality of the situation.

The whole book is like that. There’s a shocking moment near the beginning where Sakamochi, the nasty, awful, disgusting, greasy, terrible  instructor running the Program — I don’t like Sakamochi, can you tell? Well, there’s a moment where Sakamochi admits to raping a young woman who tried to fight back when told that two children in her care had been selected for the Program. That was the moment I knew this book was not pulling any punches. There’s another chilling moment when Sakamochi (see a pattern here?) is on the phone with one of his superiors, discussing the bets they have placed on this year’s Program. Before they begin debating which juniour high student will survive the bloodbath, Sakamochi mentions that his own wife is pregnant with their third child, stating “Well, we just want to contribute to our nation, joining the fight against its dwindling youth population.”

Ughhh, I fucking hate you , Sakamochi.

Don’t get me wrong though. I like to hate Sakamochi. I like that this book gave me serious wiggins. I like that it made me cringe and cry at the violence and loss. I like that the morality of the kill-or-be-killed was so murky.

There was some things I didn’t like. Battle Royale is definitely not a SUBTLE book, in it’s premise or it’s execution, and everything was explained so neatly. Every awful character had a tragic backstory (except for Sakamochi, but seriously, fuck him) that perfectly explained their behaviour. Every action by a classmate was debated until a detailed and fitting motivation was discovered and agreed upon. There was very little room in this novel for ambiguity or nuance. Now, that could be something that was lost when the novel was translated from Japanese to English, but I doubt it — to me, it seems a fundamental aspect of Takami’s s writing style.

The one explanation that fell flat to me was the real reasoning behind the Program. When Sakamochi spells it out for you in the end, it feels tacked on. I don’t buy the “logic” behind the Program one bit.

On a similar note, the other thing I found the book lacking was serious social criticism. In my (very biased) opinion, science fiction, dystopic fiction specifically, is one of the best tools an author has for disturbing the current social order. There’s no easier way to talk about the present than to do it by talking about the future (or an alternate universe or divergent timeline or another planet or you get my drift). I love my sci-fi with a heaping serving of social criticism. With Battle Royale, it was hard to pin down what exactly Takami was trying to take a shot at. There’s the usual anti-government control, and a certain amount of focus on isolationism policy, but none of it was very specific. Of course, this could be a cultural translation that couldn’t be made — perhaps the original, Japanese readers of the text could tell exactly what Takami was trying to critique. Or perhaps he wasn’t trying to critique anything, and the dystopic future setting was simply a convenient window dressing for the story he wanted to tell. Either way, whether it was there or not, I missed it.

My other complains are that the female characters are all pretty wimpy and emotional, save for the total psychopath and maybe one or two others. The girls all died pretty easily too. The result was a bunch of boring, stereotypical girls; most of the interesting characters were dudes. I miss Katniss Everdeen!

Also, there was one queer character, but he was a nasty, disgusting piece of work, and in the scant few pages he graces, he’s painted as a deviant for his queerness. Really not cool, Battle Royale.

…sorry for the lengthy review, everyone. I’ve got a lot of Battle Royale feelings. To continue the dystopic sci-fi trend (and the already-read-and-reveiwed-for-Bookstravaganza trend), next is the classic 1984!

Books: 5

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