I feel compelled to say a few things in preparation for this discussion of Battle Royale which I might not otherwise do for a book. The first thing is that, if I must compare it to The Hunger Games (and I must, because I want to do so) then I would say that I prefer Hunger Games. But this is not entirely fair. The book Battle Royale suffered in my reading of it as I had recently re-watched the film. As a consequence a large amount of the book was effectively spoilt by knowing the conclusion to events. This is especially unfortunate as many of the events in the book unfold in a much more interesting and involving way than they do in the film. This is not to disparage the film – in the earlier portions of the book when I was not enjoying it as much as I would come to do I described it as like the novelisation of the film. Compared to the film of HG, BR is a much more loyal and accurate adaptation which nonetheless manages to feel like a film rather than an adaptation – a point on which HG the film fails. So if I seem negative about the book, that is why. The last word on the HG/BR controversy really should go to Koushun Takami, with whom I essentially agree:
“I think every novel has something to offer,” Takami told ABC News, in an email. “If readers find value in either book, that’s all an author can ask for.”
I did struggle to find some of the value in Battle Royale, at least at first. The book was condemned as violent exploitation on its release, and I think this appears reasonably accurate at first. But then again, I was coming at this book from a teleological perspective, in that I knew where it was going when I began. There is, I would say, considerably more hope in the book than there is in the film. Without spoilers, it is difficult to discuss these things in detail. But several of the more developed characters are very enjoyable. Unfortunately I find the pattern of introduction, background, violent death of most of the characters to be a little bit repetitive and stale, deserving of the condemnation “violent exploitation” (although if this were a western book I would say that it does point at the original source of this story as the Iliad, and make the comparison with Hunger Games seem more plausibly coincidental). Ultimately I feel that there were too many students, and perhaps the educational system of alternative-relality fascist Japan would benefit from smaller class sizes.
The developed characters were very interesting, though. Shinji Mimura and Hiroki Sugimura especially so, although the contrasting figures of Kazou Kiriyama (whose actions are given a physical, if not biological basis) and Mitsuko Souma (for whom the proposed, although not completely validated, explanation is experiential) would reward further analysis. Neither is suggested to be wholly bad, and indeed the characters throughout the novel are very similar, reacting to the situation in which they find themselves either calmly, violently, with panic, or with disbelief. Indeed, the comparison to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is much more rewarding than to The Hunger Games, although the stresses placed upon the children in that novel are very different to those in Battle Royale where they are armed and under threat. (I have to stress that I am not comparing the two now because it has been over a decade since I read Lord of the Flies and I feel ill-equipped to do so).
Ultimately Battle Royale is good but too long; makes interesting points which are lost a little in the violence; and is perhaps not as studied as its predecessor, nor as blunt as its successor, on the issues which it addresses. There are also some problems in its origins – firstly some poor translation, with stilted English at times (although I was reading the 2000 translation, not the updated 2009 edition); and secondly the stresses which it examines seem to me to be those of Japanese society, not mine. This doesn’t make it an unrewarding novel, but I think I would like to know a lot more about its background before I pass complete judgement upon it.