The original Hunger Games?

BATTLE ROYALE’S blurb proudly exclaims the controversy that surrounded its original release in 1999. An earlier version of its manuscript had been rejected from the Japanese Grand Prix Horror Novel Competition due to its content; something about students being forced to kill other students in a government enforced gauntlet to help protect the nations domestic security didn’t appeal to the competition organisers.

battle-royaleThe Battle Royale of the book’s title is an annual war game involving a randomly selected class from which only one young adult can emerge victorious. This may sound like a flimsy premise, and that’s more or less because it is. Takami’s vague dystopia is not really the focus of the novel and anyone looking for something a shade more Orwell might want to look elsewhere (for example Yevgeny Zamyatin’s mesmerising We) as Takami’s Japan serves as little more than a framework for his murderous games.

Once the opening chapters stumble through their awkward exposition and plunge the characters into the war game, the book really hits its visceral pace, and much for the better.

Takami makes great use of his plethora of characters, a rag-tag bunch of school stereotypes, as they naturally form allegiances, enemies and then eventually die throughout the course of the Battle Royale. The few characters who do rise to the foreground, such as the protagonist Shuya, are for the most part likeable, and the island of the Battles setting makes for a tense waiting game of who will bump into each other next. Takami’s villains deserve special mention for their ability to swing between chilling and cartoon-like with such happy abandon.

As it reaches its final pages Battle Royale falters slightly with what seems like an overly rewarding ending, considering what comes before it.
In many ways concepts such as ‘plot’ and ‘satisfying character motivations’ are not really what Battle Royale is about. Instead the book thrives in the taut confrontations between its characters and the faux calm that fills the gaps. If you want a magically painted war game world, Suzanne Collins nailed it 2008 – but this is the book for the gore loving war game fan.