Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
At first I had planned for short reviews and links to the longer but I do not want to censure thoughts in the end. Especially since Sense and Scorn are so awesome at what they do :) First up is Scorn as she brings us a synopsis.
Welcome to a dystopian East Asian country (like Japan but larger) where people live happily and peacefully under the watchful eye of your average, sadistic Dictator. In order to keep things straight under control once a year a class of 15-year-old junior high kids is sent to an enclosed location. The kids are given different weapons at random, weapons as different as an Uzi is different from an ice pick or a crossbow from a fork, a day pack with a bottle of water and they are told to go and kill each other. The last survivor wins. It is called the Program. If it serves a purpose nobody knows what purpose exactly.
In order to ensure there is no cheating (you know those pesky teens, they always cheat) each of the students is fitted with a nice shiny collar which allows to track them and listen to their conversations. The collar has also an in-built explosive device. No deaths for longer than 24 hours? All participants are eliminated. More than one survivor? All the rest is eliminated as well. Trying to hide somewhere for too long or trying to run away? The same outcome – you are blown up to smithereens.
You follow 42 students – the newest batch of victims – who have to participate in the Program. Who will win this time: energetic Yukie, the class Representative, selfish and manipulative Mitsuke, acting as if she was a female Yakuza mobster, mysterious Kazuo, a boy so gifted and so calm that he is followed and admired even by thugs, Noriko, just your ordinary, averagely pretty girl, or maybe Shuya, a kind orphan boy who likes those forbidden rock and roll songs and plays the electric guitar? Or maybe somebody else? Can anybody truly be a winner in such circumstances?
What I liked:
There were many stories included in one bigger story and I found them the best part of this book. More than dozen of students were given an opportunity to tell you about their hopes and fears. Because of that they became real, three-dimensional characters, not just a shooting range dummies. It was really the "good stuff" for me - watching all the little petty relationships, conflicts and problems you have when you are 15 suddenly twisted horribly by the extreme fear of knowing only one person will be allowed to live and your classmates and friends have to become your deadly enemies.
Of course there was violence, quite a lot of it, but I would compare it to one of these cheesy movies of Tarantino - you are disgusted, you know it is bad but you still want to watch. Indeed it might be treated as great entertainment only by people with a tolerance for high amounts of guts-and-gore, but, as it was also a really well-done study of the psychology of extreme fear and included some insights about totalitarianism as well somehow I managed to survive. The personal stories, often told in an almost poetic way, stop Battle Royale from spiraling into a mindless bloodbath.
What I didn’t like:
First let me tell you that the first 50-60 pages were downright boring. Then the action accelerated and here I hit another snag - Battle Royale was a lot more graphic than I'd imagined. So instead of puking up the contents of my stomach, I just skipped the paragraphs describing blood and bashed-in brains. In fact from time to time the plot was so childish that it reminded me those computer games when you kill and kill and kill and finally you forget about the reason why you keep doing it because it doesn’t matter as long as the next opponent lies, neutralized, in a puddle of blood. Frankly the detailed descriptions of different violent deaths were horribly ridiculous.
What’s more even from the first chapter the plot was rather obvious – you could guess with a high success rate who would be killed and how soon. The style of the narrative I also found a bit uneven, or maybe it was the problem with the translation, I really can’t tell. Anyway the descriptions were very anime, which makes me think that if the writing had been really beautiful, or if any of the emotions had been deeper, I may have liked this book a lot better.
Finally the ending…I must say I was completely disappointed by it. It was a ridiculous and artificial construction of a plot-twist after a plot-twist (so you thought they were really dead?! No! They are alive! No, wait, they are going to be dead soon...or maybe not?). I was not amused.
Personally I liked this novel despite its many flaws but in my view it is not perfect and certainly not for everybody. Still cult novels (yes, it is one of them) are so hard to resist so how to tell whether or not it is your next best thing? Well, if you salivate at the mere thought of a book which combines Manga and Anime poesy, Hunger Games-style action, Lord of the Flies political undercurrents and an amount of atrocities straight from Quentin Tarantino movies this might be a perfect read for you. Do not read it if you are feeling nauseous even after my quite innocuous synopsis. Helpful? I hope so.
And now on to what Sense has to say
What can I say about this black and red covered brick that hasn’t been said already?
Not much. Nothing at all.
The translation sucks. It’s uneven, sloppy, and it’s painful to read at times. It’s the reason I kept putting this book down and reading something else instead. It’s not, however, enough to hide the great story underneath.
The beginning of the novel is bogged down by long infodumbs explaining the game, the government’s approach, and pointing out most if not all of the 42 players. That’s a lot of names and factoids for a reader to remember and I wish the author had just picked a handful of core characters to properly introduce before hitting the “start game” button. Takami doesn’t have any trouble introducing new characters later in the book while detailing the progress of the killing game, and I don’t understand why he couldn’t have used that same tactic from the start. And that’s what I loved most about this book. As bloody and gory as it is, it also gives voices and personalities to even the most obnoxious characters. They were the best part of this book.
The heroes and heroine, however, were not. Noriko redeemed herself somewhat towards the end, but in doing so she took away Shuya’s last chance to morph into an interesting character. Of the three, both in the book and the film, most interesting was Shogo. You can guess how I felt about that moment on the mountain top, if you’ve read the book.
There are two endings for this story, the first on the island and the second off the island. I would’ve loved had the first been the final ending, but I can understand why the second one exists. The confrontation with the government representative was necessary because of the world Takami created and because of the message he wanted to convey at the end.
I could have preferred had it been done without the lyrics, though.
And now on to Sensitivity (and I still claim I should be called Silly cos I have been harsh lately haha)
As ebooks always have funky pages I can't say for how long the book was REALLY boring, 60 pages perhaps. So very boring. If this had not been a Scoundrel book then I would have given up long before. So I read, but then I started to grow tired by it all again. It was not that it was bad, it as just long, and I read fantasy books longer than this. But it was slow and boring at times, and at other times it was really good
By page 300 or so I started to skim, and skimming on an e-reader takes time, so I still read most of it.
Why did it not work: A very SLOW beginning. The flashbacks, come on, flashbacks all the time, while I was all just kill each other and put me out of my misery. Also, what was up with the constant "who do you have a crush on?" Really, people are running around chopping each other to pieces and still everyone seems to take time and talk about crushes. I would be hiding and not talking..oh and checking so no one comes near. Stupid teens.
The violence was not that violent actually. I mean yes it was violent, but I would not say it was that graphic. Also it was interesting to compare with the Hunger Games. Yup she def took a few things from this one. And The Hunger games is a 8 year old girl's bday party compared to this book. Sure it's an adult book but you catch my drift. Games to the death should be bloody and freaking horrible.
I also did not like that there was no point to the Games. Other than a fucked up society. And the end, I did not like the end. I want conclusions. Not something that leaves me hanging. I hate that shit.
Good at times, boring at times. It gets an ok grade for me for that. Still an interesting insight into a society that is just all kinds of messed up.