Royale Pain

The ruthless winnowing of characters has always held an appeal for me, so I happily read The Hunger Games trilogy well before it became a big deal. Once it started getting a lot of attention, I began to see a deluge of internet comments sneering that the concept had been completely ripped off of a Japanese property called Battle Royale. I wanted to compare for myself to see if that argument had any merit, but since I don't handle gory movies well, I opted for the book, instead.

This book is fascinating. Each year, a totalitarian Asian government keeps the populace subjugated by isolating a class of teenaged schoolchildren and forcing them to fight to the death. Each student is given a map, some supplies, and a randomly-assigned weapon, then turned loose. They also have explosive metal collars strapped around their necks, and as the game progresses, portions of the island that the students have been trapped on are declared "Forbidden Zones". Anyone caught in a Forbidden Zone goes kaboom.

Coming from a Western perspective, it was a little tough at first to keep the names straight (there are over forty characters to keep track of, all of whom have names like Toshinori and Yoshimi and Mitsuko). Once the story really gets going, though, it became much easier, thanks in no small part to the fact that all of the characters have distinct personalities. There are no background ciphers here; no matter how little time is spent with a character, author Koushun Takami gives them depth and makes them relatable. The ways these students react to their horrific situation are just as thoroughly explored and varied. The main protagonists (Shuya and Noriko) try to band people together and look for ways to escape the island. Some students murder with glee. Some attempt to be stealthy. Some only want to hide. Some panic. Some lose their grip on reality. Some decide that even attempting to survive is fruitless. Some seek to strike back against the government that put them there.

Now, to the argument that The Hunger Games was cribbed from this: It's pretty much bullshit. Aside from the base story idea of young people forced to kill each other at the behest of the government (which is not an incredible stretch, creatively), there are very few similarities. Arguments can be made that Battle Royale is a superior product -- and I'd probably agree with several points someone with that view would make -- but there's really no indication that Suzanne Collins stole any ideas. Both stories have things to recommend about them, and both can be enjoyed independently, without any parallels necessarily needing to be drawn between them.

I was a little dismayed when I picked Battle Royale up from the library, because it's thick, and with a hectic schedule, I worried that I wouldn't be able to get through it in my allotted two weeks. I tore through it in a day and a half. It's a riveting, exciting, saddening story, and if the internet whining accomplished nothing else, I'm at least grateful that it brought this novel to my attention.

Battle Royale: A


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