|Synopsis||In a dystopian future, 42 middle school students are forced to kill one another until only one of them is left standing.|
|Author||Koushun Takami (tr. Yuji Oniki)|
|Release Date||November 17, 2009|
Back when The Hunger Games was released, it spawned American interest in an older Japanese novel. That novel was said to be the precursor to The Hunger Games – its superior inspiration. That novel was banned in numerous countries because of its grotesque content. That novel went on to become a movie, which was also banned in multiple countries. That novel was called Battle Royale.
Violence/Scary Images: Lots of vividly described gore and carnage throughout. Some detailed explanations include eyeballs popping, decapitations, holes shot in bodies, exposed brains or guts, and more. This book is not for the faint of heart. Only a select few of the forty-two teens are left alive, and readers see every horrific death on page in great detail.
Language: Frequent strong language, including but not limited to h***, a**, b******, s***, and f***.
Drug/Alcohol References: A few minors smoke excessively.
Sexual Content: Mention of rape as a power move and casual mentions of virginity or lack thereof. A character is described as a “playboy.” One character seduces another in order to kill him. She winds up topless, but they are interrupted before engaging in intercourse. Some young male characters ogle female characters. One boy threatens to rape a girl if she does not obey him. A girl was running a prostitution ring with others in her clique, and their clients are described as older men. As a young child, one character was sexually abused by adult men; her mother was paid for this.
Other Negative Content: One boy is described as “queer,” and the descriptions of him are dated clichés of gay men. The government forces thousands of children to kill one another every year. Some of the youth go along with this plan without hesitation. Friends betray one another; some commit suicide. A character is misogynistic.
Spiritual Content: A couple of characters attended church, though neither of them is religious. Some characters cry out “Thank God” and/or hope there is a God or gods to save them.
Positive Content: Some students team up to thwart the government’s schemes. Others refuse to kill, no matter what happens. A couple dies together instead of becoming pawns of the government. The protagonist’s friend is killed trying to avenge his guardian’s rape.
Where Hunger Games only keeps up with Katniss and those around her, Battle Royale manages to follow every character, to some degree. With a cast of forty-two (42!) youths, excluding any mentioned adults, this is no easy feat. In fact, the novel itself is over 600 pages long! What kind of story could possibly warrant such a length without any extraneous scenes?
Battle Royale fits solidly into the death game subgenre with shows like Squid Games, games like Danganronpa, and anime like Future Diary. In a dystopian version of Japan called the Republic of Greater East Asia, fifty classes of forty or more students are drugged and dropped into abandoned places to fight to the death. Only one student may emerge from each group. The narrative follows one of these classes, from Shiroiwa Junior High School. Collars are put on the kids to monitor their conversations, health, and location; the explosives inside ensure obedience to the rules. If 24 hours pass without any killing, the collars explode and everyone dies. After a set amount of time, certain arena zones become forbidden, ensuring terrified students cross paths and violence ensues.
Original Novel vs. Infamous Movie
The reason for this death game is the same as in Hunger Games, although Battle Royale keeps the purpose secret until the very end. Because of the sheer amount of middle school students (approximately 9th grade to Americans) in the country, the government needs to send a message of fear and obedience. If any of the parents speak against their child’s participation in the game, they are terminated or raped.
A movie adaptation showcases the teens as wild and belligerent. They cut people with knives, nobody attends classes, and the teacher is fed up with them. While the book is set in a dystopian future, there is little to none of this rebelliousness in the novel’s Shiroiwa class. Actually, there is no reason this particular group is chosen except by luck of the draw. Some of the students are truant, but those same kids are faithful friends and stand up for their beliefs.
For the most part, the movie is faithful to the book, and both are enjoyable. The novel, as with any adaptation, explores the characters in a more nuanced, detailed way. Despite its page count, there are no prolonged or slow sequences. (There are even some sections fans want to be longer, which led to manga spinoffs.) Everything is paced to accompany the survival story of the main protagonists and other students. Each encounter develops a character by showing their terror, relationships, motivation, or demise. All the youth are important, whether they are in the book for a couple of chapters or the work as a whole.
When I saw the list of male and female students at the beginning of the book, I did not think every single character would be featured. The Hunger Games announces many deaths readers/viewers do not see, after all. Not Battle Royale.
The hardest part of reading this book was separating the characters. As an American who enjoys anime, I can usually keep up with Japanese names, but a lot of the students in Battle Royale have similar monikers. Even the characters mention this at one point; a couple of girls are friends because their names are alike. This probably will not be a problem for Japanese readers who do not need a translation, but I found the different people a bit hard to follow.
Because I wanted to keep track of everyone’s relationships and well-being, I made a chart. Whenever the author introduced a character – complete with a given name, surname, and identification number – I drew an emoji circle to represent them.
Every emoji had different hairstyles and facial expressions, though I admit, the “characters” shown above very rarely matched their description. One of the few flaws of Battle Royale is the author rarely describes physical appearances until just before the death. The chart did help me keep track of everyone, though, and I added little details to their icon once I learned more about each kid. With this knowledge, I could track friendships, enemies, crushes, and killings.
With Friends Like These…
One of the most amazing things about Battle Royale is how the author manages to give his characters fairly fleshed-out lives, despite how many students there are. Most middle school students in real life have cliques and crushes, and these are no exception. (See the circled labels and dotted lines in the chart.) Despite the danger, they find their friends and their beloved. Readers know middle school love hardly survives, but the characters want to die without regrets. They feel compelled to confess their feelings, lose their virginity, or apologize to their friend before they become the next target.
Most characters fall into a trope, but few of them are defined by it. I appreciated the stereotypes (except for the damaging one of a queer boy) because they helped me remember who was whom. For example, there is a group of male delinquents and female delinquents. Readers can assume these will be the students who willingly engage in the game. While that is mostly true, some of the characters continue to surprise.
Motivations among the group vary. While many of the students will kill, most do not engage willingly. Some murder for fun, but others attack to protect themselves or loved ones. The book includes suicides and accidents, and the reader never knows what will happen to any student at any time. Even the protagonists are not immune from danger.
Friends and lovers team up against enemies, some hiding away and others fighting in self-defense. The relationships really define the book almost as much as the graphic death scenes. In this situation, betrayal is inevitable, yet not every betrayal is obvious. I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the student counter at the end of each chapter to tell me how many survivors remained.
Now, let me address the elephant in the room. This book is extremely violent and graphic. The movie is rated R for a reason, and even that was not as gruesome as the written text. Battle Royale includes a shocking amount of gore. The descriptions set it apart from The Hunger Games, which is violent but not as detailed. Cannons boom and announce the death of an unnamed participant the story has never followed. This desensitizes the audience to hearing these announcements. Another boom, another death.
Battle Royale also includes death announcements, but they are only necessary for the characters. The readers watch every murder happen. These deaths are violent and horrific, but they are often shown through the viewpoint of the dying. A girl mourns never seeing her younger sister graduate high school. A couple leaps to their doom after giving one another a bundle of wildflowers. These deaths are not just numbers to the reader; they are children. Lives gone far too soon. Yes, this is a book, but these characters look and sound like real people.
The dialogue is natural and hardly ever preachy. Some of the kids involved in politics wax poetic about the country and its failings. Most of them, though, are content to gossip about their crushes or other students. They talk about their families, hobbies, and pasts. They make plans for a future they may never see.
While readers may have to skim some sections because of the gory imagery, this adds depth to the characters. The ways deaths happen are particular, giving the kids more complexity. One willing participant tends to shoot and not even look back, while others go for less lethal spots. Though the gore could have been avoided, it is a way to process the deaths of these kids and look into the minds of their killers.
Battle Royale is much more than “the first Hunger Games.” Its beautiful characterization of a huge cast is phenomenal. The teens are complex human beings, and both their lives and deaths reflect this. While the book is exceptionally gruesome, those deaths tell a story and give dignity to the young lives that just ended. Its pacing keeps readers on their toes, but never drags out too long.
The book may be graphic, but in the right hands, it has the potential for philosophical and even religious thought. After all, we may not live in the Greater Republic of East Asia, but fictional darkness can sometimes help us empathize with those stuck in the darkness of our own world. Once we can comprehend the trauma these fictional middle schoolers face, we are better equipped to share the Gospel with traumatized individuals in real life. Even in the darkness, even in a death game, our light can always point others to Jesus.
+ Lots of characterization for such a big cast
+ Gives dignity to the dead students
+ Detailed action sequences
+ Multiple jumps in perspective
- Not many physical descriptions
- Similar names
- Very gory
The Bottom Line
Battle Royale is an amazing feat of fiction, and it deserves to be read by any death game fan with a strong stomach.