I really cringe at buying new books these days, because my attention span is too limited to bother re-reading most novels and therefore whatever I pay is for the one-time experience. It’s not that I’m unwilling to shell out $20 for a book, but rather that I hate to do so for a book I might not read ever again.
Still, occasionally I find myself in a bookstore browsing, and a couple months ago, Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale caught my eye. The cover is in stark red and black, and the silhouettes of a male and female stand beside each other under the jagged title. Eye-catching, to be sure, especially when swimming in a sea of lurid, Darrell Sweet-esque covers in the fantasy/sci-fi section. So caught my eye it did, and I picked it up. The storyline intrigued me: a bunch of students on an island are forced to kill each other. I resisted buying it until this past weekend, when I also failed to resist watching Ice Age 2 (I have a weakness for Scrat the squirrel). But I digress.
In any case, the novel was definitely my type of story. Take 42 junior-high students, toss ’em onto a deserted island, randomly hand out weapons and supplies, and force them to kill each other. Oh, put explosive collars on their necks as motivation and control. Every few hours, parts of the island become off limits, enforced by the collars. Failure to play the game is a sort of no-win prisoner’s dilemma: if no students are killed within 24 hours, everyone dies.
The story largely twists and turns around how the island brings out each student’s inner motivations. From the sociopathic to the psychotic, nihilist to hero, the students all respond to the unimaginable stress in their own unique ways. To say more would spoil the joy of finding these things out for yourself, but the read is worthwhile.
Oh, did I mention that the story is relentlessly gory? If you can’t take a description of a cut throat sounding like a fresh lemon sliced with a very sharp knife, or jelly-like brains exposed from a massive head wound, then this book is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, Happy Tree Friends fills you with glee, then you don’t want to miss this story.
My largest complaint, if there’s really anything to complain about, is that the story is set in an alternate timeline where Asia’s political map is completely different and where the US is some sort of Mecca for rebellious teenagers. I realize that this may indeed be the case for people living outside of North America or Europe, but North America is rapidly descending into the sort of totalitarian, mind-controlled state that the Republic of Greater East Asia is depicted as being in the novel. There is also a small exploration of rock-as-resistance, where the “rebel” characters in the story that distrust the state use their knowledge of rock music as a way to identify each other and to communicate unapproved ideas. It’s cute, but a bit boring.
I think if you overlook the quasi-1984 aspects of the story and treat it purely as entertainment and a character study on a large scale, you’ll find Battle Royale well worth your time. It’s a novel that, for once, I’ll definitely read again.