For other Haikasoru novels: Sci-fi and Fantasy from Haikasoru
This review is for Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. This English edition was released by Viz Media’s Haikasoru imprint in November 2009. It was first published in Japan in 1999, and in 2000 was adapted into a successful live-action film. The first translation of the novel into English was released by Viz Media in 2003. The 2009 edition features an updated translation and an afterward by the author. There was also a manga adaptation for Battle Royale, which was released in English via Tokyopop from 2003 to 2006.
(Note: From time to time I will post a review for a book published through Haikasoru. Most of these Japanese titles [including the one for this review] are not light novels, but still may be of interest to those who enjoy them.)
I read Battle Royale earlier this year, but wasn’t sure if I should take the time to write up a review for it here. It’s not a light novel, but it’s a novel from Japan published in English via Viz Media’s Haikasoru imprint. And it’s an extremely influential work well worth-reading? I’ve long been meaning to read more of the Haikasoru novels, and this seemed like a good place to start.
For those who don’t know, Battle Royale is set in an alternate reality Japan in which every year a middle school class is selected to participate in a death match. The story follows forty-two students who find themselves on an island where they are ordered to kill one another, with only the final survivor being granted freedom. If they don’t comply, then the metal collars fastened around their necks will explode.
A couple years back I saw the live-action film adaptation, which is famous for not holding back on the violence between kids in their early/mid-teens. I felt that more than its action or horror though, what stood out to me most was its dark humor. The purpose of the yearly battle royale is to put the younger generation in its place–to tell those hedonistic teens to obey the older and wiser generation and become upstanding adults. The irony in all this is obvious… It’s the adults who are orchestrating a brutal death match and placing bets on which youngster will get out of it alive, after all.
Reading the original source material provides a rather different experience for the story, I felt. Battle Royale is a hefty novel that follows dozens of different characters, giving lots of insight on their backgrounds and providing their thought processes as they give in to the command to murder their classmates. The plot itself meanwhile plays out like a thriller, and it’s a page-turner that is equally twisted and entertaining. You keep hoping the students will be able to work out a way to get off the island–and while I won’t give anything away on that front, suffice to say even attempting such an endeavor is no simple (or safe) matter.
Battle Royale is the kind of popular fiction that can be delved into for its themes and ideas (and indeed, there is even a whole book full of essays on the novel), but it can also simply be enjoyed for the story it tells on a surface level. It’s a wild and intense ride, one that’s full of twists and turns. Perhaps my favorite thing about the book though was how it handled the characters and their motivations to engage in the death match. For the most part, they are simply afraid and prone to panic in moments of high tension. The biggest exception to this though is the main antagonist among the students, a boy named Kazuo. He is arguably both the strongest and the smartest student, and quickly manages to acquire the most powerful weapons. He also appears to have no issue with killing all his classmates, but I’ll leave it to you to find out why that is.
On the protagonist side of things, the trio we follow the most in this story is composed of Shuya, Noriko, and Shogo. Shuya and Noriko are everyday students, and their idealism is put to the test constantly as they struggle to survive. Shogo meanwhile is the mysterious gangster-looking wild card of the book, and as such was my favorite character of the lot. Learning more about him and discovering his role in the overarching story was highly satisfying.
I would not recommend Battle Royale to those who are squeamish about violence, because… yes, lots of highly-detailed murders. But otherwise, I’ll say it’s definitely worth everyone’s time to check this one out, especially if you’re already a fan of the dystopia or killing game subgenres. And for those of you who enjoyed the movie, there is a good chance you’ll like the book even more.
Cho’s Rating: Strongly Recommended