Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Battle Royale

Battle Royale: The NovelBattle Royale Koushun Takami trans. Yuji Oniki

So a while ago, Leila put together a list of Hunger Games read alikes that included the following:

Okay, so Koushun Takami's cult classic Battle Royale comes up every single time The Hunger Games is mentioned within a three-mile radius of anyone with even the slightest leaning towards hipsterism:

"Blah blah blah Hunger Games blah blah."

"Excuse me. Just give me a moment to adjust my skinny jeans and Elvis Costello glasses. Now. Why on earth would you want to read that YA tripe when you could just read Battle Royale?"

"Um. Because despite the broad similarity in premise, they're actually completely different books, and were written with completely different audiences in mind? And maybe you should think about how ass-y it makes you sound when you dismiss an entire genre without even attempting to explore it?"

And yes, that made me kinda want to read the book.

In the Greater Republic of East Asia, every year 50 third-year junior high school classes are chosen for the program. Ostensibly, it's a a research program for the military. In reality, it's a form of control. Students are given a pack with water, food, a weapon (weapons vary from a fork to a machine gun) and the last one standing wins a salary for the rest of their lives and a signed card from the dictator.

Battle Royale follows the fate of Third Year Class B, Shiroiwa Junior High School.

Overall, I found this a very engrossing, fast-paced read (even though it's almost 600 pages long). It starts with a bus full of students who think they're on their way to a study trip and ends shortly after the Program does. There is a bit of info-dumping in the dialogue, usually when describing what happened in the various students' lives before the Program began. There's also some weird voice/word choice things that I can't tell if it's the author, cultural, or a translation issue. Like, a 15-year old popular girl with a rebel aesthetic refers to someone she's been "buddies" with for a number of years, but she's talking about a very close friend. I'd stumble across a few weird things like that and it would take me out of the story a bit.

BUT! I did really like it. It follows all 42 students and shifts who it's following pretty frequently, although it mainly focuses on three students trying to find a way to escape the island. There's a student list in the front and I found it pretty useful to photocopy it and then cross off students as they died. There's also a map (score!) and various zones become forbidden at different times, and it was useful for me to photocopy that and mark of the zones on the map, just like the characters were doing.

My real complaint is with book design. At the end of every chapter, in bold it says "X Students Remaining." It's really hard when you turn the page in the middle of a battle for your eye not to be drawn over and see how the battle ends. But, it was also helpful information to have, especially with so many students competing.

It's a great book that shouldn't be compared to the The Hunger Games because it's fundamentally different, even though the basic premise is similar, BUT, with Hunger Games so fresh in our minds, it'll be hard not to, so let's cave to temptation, ok?

One big difference is that while there are messages in the book on governmental control in a oppressive society, it doesn't explore these issues in the same way, or same depth. It instead focuses on the psychological toll of fear, and what makes classmates turn against classmates. It's more Lord of the Flies that way.

Also, there's a lot more blood. I noted in my review of Hunger Games that Sara thought the violence was more MG than YA and I more or less agreed. Battle Royale is high YA/adult on the violence scale.

I found Hunger Games chilling because of the government control aspect and just the general culture of Panem. Battle Royale is scary because everyone in the Program knows each other-- many of known each other for most of their lives. Also, it uses weapons and machinery that already exists* so you don't have things like trackerjackers and mockingjays that need explaining. You have guns. We know what guns are and what they can do.

While there is some romance in Battle Royale, it doesn't hijack the plot because everyone's a bit more concerned with survival than the objects of their affection. Or how to use them in order to win.

AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, Battle Royale has a HUGE cast. It's written in 3rd person narration and the focus changes frequently. This makes it a bit harder to read (especially if you're not familiar with Japanese names, because some names look very similar in English.) But, more importantly, if someone blacks out in a critical battle, the focus shifts so we can see the battle through someone else's eyes, not just get a summary of the action once the person who blacked out wakes up later.**

So I loved it. Was it better than Hunger Games? It was different. It won't appeal to all Hunger Games fans, but it's a great peace of dystopian fiction and I do recommend.

*The main exception is the collar they all have to wear so the teacher can hear them and track them and kill them remotely if they wander into a forbidden zone. Or just piss him off.

**And that's what I haven't reviewed Mockingjay yet. It's been 6 months and I still just want to say "GAH!"

Book Provided by... my local library

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