The most terrifying version of musical chairs

Listen, folks, I am no wallflower. I breezed through the dissection of a fetal pig in my high school biology 122 class; I clean fish without batting an eye; I’ve watched cows being butchered, carried the heart and liver in for auntie to fry up. Poop, pee, farts and boogers…can’t scare me.

But Battle Royale (Toushun Katami, 1999, Haika Soru) made me wanna throw up.

I read all 608 pages in three or four days. By the end, I was bloody, ragged and gaunt, just like the surviving character(s) at the end of the book. And I felt…nothing.

And perhaps that’s what the author intended. Emptiness.

I understand now why it was harshly criticized in Japan for its gratuitous violence. And, unlike at least one of the characters, I will never endure that battle twice. This book is not for the faint of heart. If you don’t like lurid descriptions of spreading pools of blood and eyeballs being smooshed with an opponent’s fingers and axes through gooshing brains and subsequent vomiting, perhaps you’d better pick up Anne of Green Gables instead. Go for a nice walk by the Lake of Shining Waters.

(I can just imagine Anne Shirley in an alternate universe like this one, by the way. She might do something else entirely to Gilbert Blythe with that wooden chalkboard. Just a thought.)

The story opens with a class of 42 junior high school students in the “Republic of Greater East Asia,” who are taken captive by the military, dropped on a deserted island and forced to participate in a semi-secret experiment called “The Program”— an annual scenario involving approximately 1500 students per year throughout the republic. They are provided with arms, bread and water and forced to kill each other until only one survives.

Sound familiar? The book jacket describes Battle Royale as “a Lord of the Flies for the 21st century, a potent allegory of what it means to be young and (barely) alive in a dog-eat-dog world.” People have accused publishing darling Suzanne Collins of stealing this premise for her successful book “The Hunger Games,” but now that I’ve read both, I think the accusation is overblown. This story is not an examination of war and the division of rich and poor through the eyes of young people.

Battle Royale is about good-old-fashioned survival, and how far people will go to succeed. Turn one of the ruthless sociopathic characters in this book into a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and you’ve got it about right. There are misfits, brainiacs, introverts, snobs and maneaters—just about every kind of personality that exists in school or work.

I was disappointed that only one student out of 42 displayed pacifism—in other words, he makes a conscious decision not to fight his schoolmates. (Well, that’s not entirely true: a couple commit suicide together early on in the book. But they don’t do it because they’re pacifists, they do it because they don’t want to be killed by someone else.)

After reading the introduction, I suspected it would end up that way. The author defines a “Battle Royale” as a wrestling term in this alternate universe. He writes, “…In that [wrestling] match, though, one of the guys—I don’t remember which one—intentionally went for a count out to let his partner win, a display of comradeship that was kind of a letdown.”

Comradeship is a letdown? After I read that early passage, I wondered if the author was simply pointing out that people are not inherently peaceful. Refusing to fight is boring, a sign of weakness. We show our strength by fighting to survive, and deep down, we have no loyalties to anyone but ourselves. Might makes right?

Kind of throws the “all people are basically good” mantra out the window. As a person with a Christian worldview (that teaches all people are born in sin and need a Saviour), I find the book bleak, but true.

Takami is meticulous with his descriptions of various weapons and of the island, its zones, buildings and topography.  And in the beginning of the story, he does a good job of building a sense of despair at an impossible situation and how different personalities subsequently react. I particularly like his use of simile. He painted sharp word pictures, like this one: “He felt in awe of the boy, like a rookie boxer realizing he was doomed to mediocrity upon encountering a world champion. Mitsuru saw genius.”

But even though there was definitely one main character, I didn’t enjoy the shifting point of view. The author periodically jumps from character to character in subsequent chapters much like a movie does in shifting scenes. This was a bit distracting. I’m used to this method in movies, but not in books. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t find it as emotionally gripping as it could be. I just wanted the whole ugly thing to end, I wasn’t really invested in their lives. The story didn’t wrap up any hope that this barbaric practice might end in the future, either.

Just another reason to read it only once, like the Lord of the Flies: two books that deserve one another.


  • Yolande Leger on April 16, 2012

    Thanks for sharing; what a horrific-sounding book! I read one about the Crusades, a 1000+ page tome that gave me a jaundiced eye towards the romantism of the ‘chivalrous age’ of castles, knights and derring-do……

    I did read ‘Lord of the Flies’ one summer, read it sitting in my favourite, oversized chair, legs swinging over one of the arms; but the bleakness of the story carried me from away from those sunny, summer afternoons it took me to read it. It was really well-written, though, and I could read it again with a matured perspective. I think that’s the definition of a classic. Gratuitous violence doesn’t, however, change in perspective over time; which it sounds like ‘Battle Royale’ was. Thanks, again, for the review!

  • Rhonda Herrington Bulmer on April 18, 2012

    I probably should read Lord of the Flies again, I haven’t looked at it since high school. You’re right, it is so well-written. But quite frankly, I found it just as depressing as BR. Redemption is missing–and without that, life is hopeless.

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