THE BOOK: In this blood and gore soaked tale, a class of 40 junior high school students is brought to an island and told by the fascist government that they must kill each other in an all out battle with only one survivor.
This book is definitely comparable to exploitation films and literature, in which violence over storyline is key. It starts with a brief introduction to the kids and its main character Shuye, before launching almost immediately into the slaughter of the kids (unlike its successor Hunger Games, which has a long lead up and gives you time to care about the main character). So, as the first bodies started to fall, I was not fully attached or bothered much by it.
However, this changes as the book goes on and each character is explored more in depth. Takami uses omniscient narration to jump from character to character. So that as the students wander the island, some looking to kill, some trying to just survive, others trying to plot escape, you get to know a little bit more about each one, including what their life was like before and why they are the way they are. (This omniscience also helped me keep the 40+ characters straight and helped to root the main characters in my mind.) So, by the middle of the book, I was definitely invested in seeing what the handful of good guys, who were trying to fight back, would do.
Along with the overriding theme of distrust and betrayal, followed by bloodshed, there was another interesting theme that I’m not sure gets talked about much. Almost all the students had crushes on someone, and who they loved and who loved them was a conversation that was repeated over and over again. Several characters were driven by their need to connect with the person they cared for, but never said anything to, even if its the last thing they do. Even the main character Shuye is focused on saving and protecting Noriko in order to honor his best friend, who had a crush on her. I’m not sure what all this is supposed to mean, but I thought it was very interesting that in a book so filled with death that there would be such a focus on unrequited love. Perhaps it has to do with life and what we really regret when we leave it behind.
I can definitely see why some people would hate this book; it is very bloody and bleak. But as a teenager I spent many of my days avidly reading the horror novels of Stephen King. They, too, were blood-soaked and filled with gore and I read them obsessively. Reading Battle Royale felt like a similar experience, in which I would sit at my desk, eying the book out of the corner of my eye and resenting the fact that I had to get work done instead of read. (Apparently, this comparison to Stephen King is apt, as Takami notes him as a great influence in the afterword.) Neither the works of King, nor Battle Royale are great literature, but they are most certainly readable and, if you’re into horror, very entertaining.
THE MOVIE: I didn’t quite understand why the director made some of the choices he did. In an interview (which was included in the back of my version of the book), the director talks about making these changes so the story will be more believable. However, I didn’t quite buy that students boycotting school would make adults so afraid of them that they would start a program like the Battle Royale, as they do in the movie. It seemed more likely to me that the book’s version of using the Program as a way to institute fear and control made more sense.
Also, because the book was so fresh in my mind, I had a bit of a hard time with the movie, because there is almost zero chance to get to know and care about any of the characters. The students do die in bloody and entertaining ways — a lot of spinning is involved, actors pirouetting when shot multiple times — but it wasn’t as gory as other movies I’ve seen. Some of the dialog was kind of cheesy, too.
However, I ended up watching the movie twice, and in the second go around, I definitely was able to stop over critiquing it and enjoy it more. In fact, I really liked it the second go around, which makes me think that I probably would have loved it, if I hadn’t hadn’t read the book first.