Buy it on Amazon, Buy it on Indigo
Koushun Takami's notorious high-octane thriller is based on an irresistible premise: a class of junior high school students is taken to a deserted island where, as part of a ruthless authoritarian program, they are provided arms 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 a 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. Made into a controversial hit movie of the same name, Battle Royale is already a contemporary Japanese pulp classic, now available for the first time in the English language.
I don’t really need to tell anyone what a Battle Royale is. Thanks to Fortnite and before that, the Hunger Games, everyone knows what it is. People are dropped into a death map. They need to kill each other. The last person standing wins.
Only kind of. Battle Royale is a Japanese novel from the nineties written by Koushun Takami. It was groundbreaking in its time not just for the writing, but the shock factor of it. The book was criticized by some for its violence. Where the Hunger Games feels futuristic enough to give us some distance, Battle Royale doesn’t allow it. This isn’t meant to be a comfortable topic that’s made into PG-13 movies. Even in movie form, Battle Royale doesn’t shy away from its horror.
Each year, a single class participates in a Battle Royale. It’s a shock tactic to control the children who are growing too wild for their parents. The class is picked from a lottery and there’s no guarantee that any child will be safe as they grow up. Therefore, everyone’s at risk.
The kids we follow this year? They’re in 9th grade. To put that into perspective, they would be around 12 to 13 years old when they were brought to the island.
Similarities between Battle Royale and Fortnite/The Hunger Games:
1) Kids fight in a map/location far away from civilization.
2) Combatants find their weapons on the island. People don’t come in with their own machine guns.
3) The landscape of the map changes as the time goes on, shrinking and forcing people into a smaller area. You die if you go outside the approved boundary.
4) You have no choice but to fight until you are the last person standing.
Battle Royale doesn’t shy away from Violence
Where Fortnite is cartoonish and its violence feels unreal, Battle Royale doesn’t allow us that comfort. Like I said earlier, that distance from the text or the characters isn’t allowed.
Kids are killing kids for the entertainment of adults. Kids are killing kids for the safety and mental security of adults.
So, how could you sanitize that?
This, more than anything else, was my main problem with the Hunger Games. The world had a vibrance to it, but wouldn’t embrace its seedier undersides. In the Hunger Games, deaths felt poignant and we had a moment to grieve for the ‘good’ characters.
So you may have guessed that Battle Royale is not a book to give to younger readers. It is a horror novel before anything else. The deaths are violent and gruesome. The kids determined to be safe, yet forced to unthinkable acts. Battle Royale also doesn’t choose a main hero and heroine to focus on in the same way that the Hunger Games does. Every kid gets their time in their spotlight and you get to know them before they die. Die isn’t the right word. These kids don’t die. Their classmates murder them.
To add to the horror, remember that these kids all know each other.
Battle Royale Isn’t Here for Victory
Where the Hunger Games is an underdog story cloaked as a survival narrative, Battle Royale is just about survival. No one’s making it out of this unscathed. There’s no easy deaths or ways to stomach it. All of these children are going to die. They are going to die in terrifying, brutal ways.
Above all, they’re going to die because the adults failed them. Because their parents were cowards. Because people couldn’t handle the changing norms of their children.
The brutality of the world isn’t just the island. The island is brutal, but it’s almost a pared down version of the brutality of the society. However proper society seems on the outside, it’s still sacrificing kids.
Due both to the subject matter and the bizarre way the novel is structured, it’s not an easy read. Having read Battle Royale first, The Hunger Games felt like a cheap copy. It was disappointing and trite by comparison. Although now I’m curious to see what it would be like for someone who read the Hunger Games first.
Would Battle Royale seem overwrought and melodramatic?
Has anyone else read both? Please let me know in the comments below.