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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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10/07/2007 Archived Entry: "Book review: Battle Royale (Novel)"

Battle Royale
By Koushun Takami

Review by Tom Good

I bought the Battle Royale novel (not the manga) at the Denver airport because I needed something to read on a plane. (You know Japanese culture has made it big in America when you can buy Japanese novels and manga at the airport. Maybe soon the flight attendants will be handing out Pocky candy.) The book, a controversial bestseller in Japan, concerns an evil government program that forces 42 junior high school students to kill each other until only one remains alive. I expected this book to be trashy, exploitive, mindless, and a quick read -- in short, a perfect in-flight diversion. But I was only right about the "quick read" part; otherwise the book surprised me in many ways.

The book is more political than I expected. It does not take place in Japan, but in a fictional fascist "Republic of Greater East Asia." It is a horror story of sorts, but one where the government is the monster. The rules of the game are deliberately unfair: each student is randomly assigned a weapon, but the weapons are far from equal. One kid gets a machine gun, while others wind up with absurd implements like forks. The government uses the program to keep its citizens fearful and unwilling to trust each other.

The central theme of the book, repeated again and again, is how difficult it is to trust another person. If the kids do as they're told, only one of them will survive. If they band together they might have at least a small chance of outwitting and escaping the program, but most of them can't seem to risk taking that step. Any invitation to cooperate might just be a trap to score an easy kill on a gullible opponent.

The characters' thoughts about these personal and political issues have little depth or sophistication. Battle Royale will not be mistaken for something like 1984. Then again, these are scared teenagers, not adult philosophers, so their conversations are believable though sometimes superficial.

I found the writing style to be another surprising and interesting aspect of Battle Royale. Takami tells this tale in a brutally simple and direct way, for the most part avoiding figurative language, ornamentation, and emotion. The characters, of course, experience various emotions, especially fear, but the writing itself is curiously unemotional. Here's a representative paragraph:

Without any warning Kyoichi shot at Shogo. Shuya saw Shogo quickly duck. As he heard the explosion from the shotgun that Shogo held in his kneeling position, sparks flew from the muzzle like a flame thrower, and the next moment Kyoichi's right arm was gone. Bloody mist shot into the air. Kyoichi gazed blankly at the half-sleeve of his school uniform. The rest of his sleeve, from his elbow to the hand that was holding the gun, was now lying on the grass. Shogo quickly pumped the shotgun and loaded the next shot. A red plastic shell flew out to the side after spitting out its pellets.

Even in the phrase "sparks flew from the muzzle like a flame thrower" Takami seems determined to avoid overly "literary" language. Instead of evoking a fanciful image like a volcano, fireworks, or a dragon, Takami straightforwardly compares a weapon to another weapon. This sort of deliberate blandness goes on for hundreds of pages, with some added interest coming from the fact that the point of view keeps jumping from one character to another.

At first I wondered if this style was just a case of unimaginative writing, but it is really something more clever. The story is told from the point of view of the students, and so this writing accurately mimics the detached, affectless speech of a shell-shocked soldier or dazed accident victim. It is a type of realism that could only work in a story like this one, but it does work here. The style manages to be entrancing when it could have been aggravating.

As a pulp-fiction horror tale, Battle Royale delivers plenty of thrills, action, suspense and fun.

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