Battle Royale

Author:Koushun Takami

It's not often I read a book that's billed as a "high-octane thriller," but when I do, I guess I usually enjoy it. This was no exception - it's a gritty, ultraviolent story of 42 junior-high classmates who are forced by a totalitarian government to fight each other to the death. It could easily have turned into a one-dimensional hack-and-slashfest, but the author decided instead to give some little bit of personality to each character. It sort of felt like being in a big public school class - some people only appear briefly and you only know them as "track and field girl," "pop idol-crazy girl," or "baseball jock." The others - the ones you spend more time with - you get to know well, especially who they have a crush on. Yes, in between machine gun rounds, jungle tracking, and survivalist techniques, these 14-year-olds are realistically boy- and girl-crazy.

While I was along for the ride, I enjoyed Battle Royale, but it didn't quite live up to my expectations in the end. For one thing, it invited comparisons to Lord of the Flies, but I remember Golding's book as having much more to say about tribalism, mysticism, and brutality, while Takami falls short. The first few deaths did seem to symbolize the vicissitudes of life under a totalitarian regime - the student killed on a whim of a government agent, the couple whose love is so perfect that they commit suicide together rather than risk being murdered apart - but in the end, the story just hammers away on the idea that people will do anything if circumstances are extreme enough. I didn't really need "Sweet Valley Death Match" to tell me that.

My other complaint was that the ending was too easy to figure out. If you take it as a given that the end of the "game" can't go as the government intended, you're only left with so many possibilities. Really, most of the suspense comes from wondering which supporting character will die next, and how.

Most of the deaths are pretty gruesome and graphic. Seems like this guy hated junior high school even more than I did.

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