This is not The Hunger Games. Not even close.
Class B of Shiorwai Junior High expected a regular study trip when they loaded into the charter bus one evening.
The next thing they know, they wake up on a deserted island to discover they have been selected for The Program, otherwise known as Battle Royale.
42 students awaken on the island. Only one is allowed to leave…
…on the condition that the other 41 are dead.
I know what you’re thinking, but that sounds exactly like Hunger Games!
In premise, yes. But in content? Heck no.
Battle Royale is bloodier, messier, and simply BIGGER than Collins’ series. I mean, not only does this series almost double the amount of players in the game, it explores each and every single one of those 42 viewpoints.
Thankfully, Takami only follows two main plots: Shuya’s and Shinji’s, dipping into other stories just long enough before their death.
The twist at the end is especially good.
The problem is that while most viewpoints are at least decent, the plot itself is kind of weak, riddled with plot holes.
The Program is well known, but not really known about. The government is oppressive, but I didn’t really get that vibe. What would have happened if Kazuo simply decided not to play the game?
The biggest hole is that the story doesn’t really have an antagonist. Sure, the kids complain about the government, but they’re kids and their attempts more often than not end in failure. Kazuo isn’t really a bad guy, and Mitsuko isn’t either.
The plot is also a little too convenient at times. Some characters seem to have things or be near things that are perfect for their situation. Shinji and Shogo are prime examples of this, either having or knowing things right when they need them. Granted, Shogo has a reason to know what he knows, Shinji has absolutely no reason to have <insert spoilerific object here>. And Shuya is like the standard for good luck. He could have died a thousand times in the book if not for pure luck and plot armour.
The characters themselves kind of split into two categories: decent characterization and less than decent characterization.
In the former category we have Shuya, Shogo, Shinji, Yukie, and most of the other boys. In the latter we have Kazuo, Mitsuko, Noriko and the rest of the girls.
The problem is despite the split, the characters fall into stereotypes. Shuya is the nice rebellious type who’s oblivious to everything. Shogo is Obi-wan, knowing everything and also having an answer. Shinji is the cool lone-wolf with a hidden nerdy side. Yukie is the classic class-president with amazing leadership qualities, Mitsuko is the damaged goods, Noriko is the poetic, quiet, good girl.
The only thing that really separates the two categories is that Shuya, Shogo, Shinji and Yukie have enough characterization for me to be satisfied. Meanwhile, I would love to know more about everyone in the latter category. A chapter in Kazuo’s point of view, or a better story behind Mitsuko—any story for Noriko. We have nothing about her except that she’s nice, she has a way with words, and she’s in love with Shuya. In fact, half of these girls are in love with Shuya and it’s annoying. Ironic that he chooses the one with almost no personality.
The girls are treated delicately, most of them are naive or airheaded, and they usually are just slaughtered without fighting back.
The writing is hard to critique because it is a translation, but it does feel unevenly paced due to varying investment in certain characters. It’s also a fairly graphic novel, with lots of description on the way the students die. In some cases it feels like the deaths and weapons are given more description than the students themselves. Guns are given names and description of corresponding bullets, meanwhile the phrases “closed cropped hair” and “permed” are used several times.
And yet I’m quite satisfied with this novel because of it’s discussion about human nature, questioning the motives, morals, and decisions of each character. Because of this set up, it doesn’t matter that the students all seem to blend together because their decisions differ from person to person.
My favourite and most prominent difference between this and The Hunger Games is that the characters appear to have a choice: kill or attempt escape. The characters acknowledge that escape is a viable option, and several refuse to fight. Of course, the game is designed to induce fighting, but the characters act according to their judgement rather than the rules.
This leads to speculation about who is killing and why. In some cases its fear, in others it’s insanity, but each case is carefully considered, and this is where the novel really shines. My favourite quotes from the novel tend to explore the psychology of the students. It’s what kept me reading the book despite the gore and bare plot line.
Recommendation: Maybe. If you’re into a story that’s more about it’s theme than it’s characters, this is the kind of story for you, especially if you’re okay with a bit of gore. It is quite descriptive with it’s deaths though, so if that makes you queasy, stay away.
What to read next? I say read Hunger Games if you haven’t yet for a different take on a similar set up, and Ender’s Game for a similar kind or thought/psychology analyzing narrative.