by Koushun Takami; translated by Yuji Oniki
Koushun Takami’s notorious high-octane thriller is based on an irresistible premise: a class of 42 junior high school students are taken to a deserted island where, as part of a ruthless authoritarian program, they are provided with weapons and forced to kill one another until only one survivor is left standing.
Criticized as violent exploitation when first published in Japan – where it then proceeded to become a runaway bestseller – Battle Royale is Lord of the Flies for the 21st century, a potent allegory of what it means to be young and (barely) alive in a dog-eat-dog world.
Like the majority of people who were reading YA in the late noughties and early 2010s, I was a lover of dystopian fiction for several years. I loved (and still love) The Hunger Games and also really enjoyed 1984 and Delirium.
Unfortunately, YA dystopian fiction became such a trend that publishers were throwing all kinds of dystopian fiction out into the wild in the hope that it would stick, and a lot of it, to me, felt like a YA novel with a dystopian element thrown in as an afterthought to help the book sell.
In fact dystopian fiction was so prevalent in my reading during my teens and my time as a student at university that I even ended up doing my third year dissertation on dystopian fiction. Once that was handed in, I never wanted to look at another dystopian novel again. I was burned out and, for the most part, disappointed by a lot of what I came across.
I don’t think I’d read a dystopian novel since I read Lauren Oliver’s Requiem, around six years ago, until I picked up this book.
Battle Royale has been on my TBR for a long time. I bought my copy years ago and with its constant comparisons to The Hunger Games I knew I’d still want to try it one day even when I fell out of love with dystopian fiction.
I’m so glad I kept it on my shelves, because I had a lot of fun with this novel!
Set in a Japan that is ruled by a fascist dictatorship, Battle Royale follows a class of 42 students who believe they’re going on a school trip, only to be gassed and wake up on an isolated island where they’re told they must stay until only one student remains.
We mainly follow Shuya, a 15 year old boy who has been orphaned since he was fairly young because his parents were involved in political protests, as he fights to survive and keep his classmate, Noriko, safe.
Considering this novel is over 600 pages long, it’s a fast-paced, unputdownable tome. While we do follow Shuya for the most part, Takami also allows us insights into all of the other students and how they’re dealing with the situation they’re in, and that’s what I loved most about this novel. That Takami was able to write 42 teenagers who all felt very real, and didn’t feel like 42 versions of the same person, is a real skill. In fact my favourite character in the novel is one of the many side characters, Takako, who probably has one of the goriest fight scenes in the whole book.
I suppose it goes without saying that if you’re not a fan of violence and gore, this book probably isn’t for you. The violence in this book makes The Hunger Games look like an episode of Recess. That’s nothing against The Hunger Games at all, but I think it’s compared with Battle Royale so much because of their shared basic premise when, in reality, many people who enjoyed The Hunger Games probably wouldn’t enjoy Battle Royale, and vice versa, because they’re very different novels.
In fact this whole idea that The Hunger Games ‘ripped off’ Battle Royale is kind of ridiculous. Fights to the death have been in stories for years and years; in The Hunger Games we’re given a commentary on how the Capitol uses fear to control the Districts and uses the Games as entertainment to control the people in the Capitol, because if they actually felt outrage at what was happening the Games wouldn’t continue.
Battle Royale, on the other hand, is much more of an exploration of violence, of what people are capable of when they’re put in this kind of situation and how these situations can sometimes coax out the real person that, perhaps, we never knew about. It’s much more insular, we have no idea what’s going on outside of this island and the rest of the country doesn’t know the outcome until the winner is announced because it’s not televised, and that makes the book even more tense. There are no sponsors in this world; these kids are on their own.
I must also praise Yuji Oniki’s translation skills. I’ve read translated books in the past that haven’t quite gripped me the way the book probably would if I could read it in its original language – such as Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby – but I really enjoyed this translation. In fact I kept forgetting this book had been translated and, to me, that’s always the sign of a great translator.
Whenever I put this book down I couldn’t wait to pick it back up and find out what was going to happen next. I’m so glad I finally crossed it off my TBR, and it’s even got me feeling ready to dip my toes back into a little dystopian fiction from time to time. I’d recommend checking it out, especially if it’s been on your radar for a while now, but prepare yourself for an awful lot of violence.