Battle Royale: Literary Masterpiece or Trashy Dime Novel?

For many years, I’d been hearing great things about Battle Royale. Everyone and their second cousin told me I just had to read it, and everyone who spoke of it did nothing but gush effusive praise. Last month, I was lounging around on a Saturday, and noticed that my housemate had left a copy of the book on the kitchen table. So I decided to finally take the plunge and read it.

I was hooked, and finished it in a single day. I enjoyed the book: it’s quite the page turner. But that’s pretty much all there is to it: it’s a thriller. Does it have any deeper meaning? Not particularly. Does the book have memorable, well-developed characters? No, they’re mostly cliché cardboard cutouts of each other. Is Battle Royale well-written? No, although I’ll be generous and blame part of this on an awkward translation. Is it as great as everyone let on? No. Is it the “Lord of the Flies for the 21st century, as the blurb on the rear cover proudly proclaims? Hell no. Battle Royale is to Lord of the Flies as the Davinci Code is to Foucault’s Pendulum.

It’s no Lord of the Flies

I wouldn’t think that the fact that Battle Royale is completely unlike Lord of the Flies would even bear mentioning, if the book jacket didn’t so obnoxiously proclaim it was and if so many people didn’t seem to believe it (just take a quick glance at the Amazon reviews page for Battle Royale – 111 / 167 reviews are five stars at the moment, with half of them seeming to think it’s better than Lord of the Flies). The main commonalities between the two works are superficial: children travel to an abandoned island and a breakdown of normal civilization occurs.

First of all, the conflict in Battle Royale comes across as black and white. The children (except for the few that enjoy killing their classmates) are the good guys and the organizers of the game are the bad guys. It’s the bad guys that are ultimately responsible for everyone’s deaths. There’s never any doubt of this. In Lord of the Flies, there are no organizers forcing the children to kill each other. They have absolutely no excuse for killing Piggy: it doesn’t even particularly benefit them to do so.

Battle Royale had to invent a boogeyman out of the autocratic government of Japan (which, I should point out, doesn’t appear to even have the tacit support of its citizenry as in most dystopian works).  In Lord of the Flies, the boogeyman comes from within innocent children, making it a much more stark and relevant commentary on humanity. One of the most haunting images of the book is when the Royal Navy ship, outfitted for war, appears on the horizon to bring the children back to the cradle of “civilization.” Battle Royale, on the other hand, is a simplistic, stark battle between good and evil, with clearly defined villains— the government and Kazuo.

Repetitive Story Arcs

After a while into the “game”, you can pretty much tell how the rest of the chapters involving the side characters are going to go. Here’s an outline.

  1. Two characters randomly meet up. They had some relationship before they were thrown on the island: either lovers, friends, or one-sided admiration, typically.
  2. They each fret over whether the other one is going to kill them or not.
  3. Someone dies. Possible causes:
    1. Intentional backstabbing.
    2. Accidental backstabbing due to confusion.
    3. Lover’s suicide.
    4. They reconcile and swear their eternal love / friendship, only to have someone else jump out of the bushes and kill them both. They die in each other’s arms.
  4. Repeat ad nauseum.

So the story is rather formulaic. There are a few more interesting segments: the introduction, the very end, and the short subplot involving Shinji’s attempts to sabotage the game, at least until he runs into Option D.

Still, the arc format would have some potential, if it weren’t for…

Formulaic Characters

All of the side characters are defined entirely by one or a combination of the following traits: membership in a school club, a tragic past, or a lover. None of them really get much depth. They don’t stick around long either, so from what I can tell, the only reason for any of them to even exist in the story is so that they can die a tragic death. Of course, the fact that their development is so shallow makes their deaths all the less tragic. For the most part, I couldn’t care less. And once again, the repetitive story format made me care even less about each individual death.

The main characters are also not too interesting. The male lead, Shuyo, is your standard loser harem protagonist, with the twist that he likes rock music, which the autocratic government frowns on it. This serves as an excuse for the author to add misplaced Bruce Springsteen references (more on this later). To continue our analogy, Noriko, the lead female, is the girl in the harem with the personality of a wet sponge that the male lead inevitably picks. She is quiet, and spends most of the novel asleep or injured. She is the sweet and innocent princess that our manly lead must protect.

Next is Shogo. Like many of the side characters, he also suffers from tragic past syndrome. He is on a quest for vengeance, and pursues this coolly and efficiently. The biggest issue I have with him and the other lead characters is that they just feel so fake. Shuyo is boring, Noriko is an angel, and Shogo is a cool, suave machine who always knows what to do and executes things perfectly.

Finally, we come to our villain Kazuo. He is simply the devil incarnate, with no positive traits to speak of. There is some half-hearted attempt to blame this on a birth defect. Not exactly the most compelling villain. The characters are, to be frank, simply not particularly interesting.

Subtlety and Depth

A big thing which bothered me is just how subtle this book is. For example, there are some obvious Orwellian influences surrounding the setup of the dictatorship. But instead of showing us the TVs that can’t be turned off, that we have always been at war with Eurasia, and that everyone loves Big Brother, the author just decides to have Shuyo tell us everything in a huge info dump. Not exactly the best storytelling there. As another example, each of the characters is introduced through narration rather than through action or dialogue. The author didn’t get the memo on “show, not tell.”

The author also likes to make references to Bruce Springsteen’s rock and roll, which is all about rebelliousness (?). The book ends with a quote from the lyrics of Born to Run, as Shuyo and Noriko quite literally run away from the police.

Baby this town rips the bones from your back
Its a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while were young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run

The novel refers to Springsteen’s song in the literal sense of running away and the figurative sense of fleeing from a physical death. To make an analogy, this would be like Murakami writing a novel about Norwegian lumberjacks.

Conclusion

Battle Royale was an entertaining book, but it certainly wasn’t “the Lord of the Flies for the 21st Century.” I highly doubt that most people will have heard of it fifty years from now.

What were your thoughts on Battle Royale? Am I an elitist prick? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!

5 thoughts on “Battle Royale: Literary Masterpiece or Trashy Dime Novel?

  1. Haha, I understand where you’re coming from, but I think you’re a little too harsh on the book due to the hype surrounding it. I think you would have enjoyed it more if not for your expectations going in…as for me, it’s not one of my favourite books, but I thought it was highly readable and surprisingly addictive, as you noted. It was an enjoyable but disturbing read, and while it has elements that can be criticised, I do think there are some decent ones too. The one that I thought came through particularly well was the deliberately constructed state of paranoia and fear — it was also interesting in that it seemed to be highly attracted to violence, but also repelled by it at the same time.

    I rolled my eyes at the protagonist and the amount of people who seemed to like him, but I thought Shogo was actually one of the more interesting depictions in the book — he seemed to have more substance to him than the other kids, and if I remember right, he’s more of an anti-hero than anything else. I’m also wondering why you didn’t mention Mitsuko in regard to the villains…I actually preferred her to Kazuo. Kazuo was threatening, but as you pointed out, quite flat as a character. (Although you can say the same about Roger in LotF, who is similarly a ‘one note’ scary and murderous character, although Roger doesn’t have the excuse of a childhood accident to fall back on. He’s just twisted, as far as I can remember, and that’s even scarier.)

    The book feels like it epitomises the ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ phrase. There are clunky areas, some shallow characterisation, etc, and yet as a total package I think it works. He sucks you into the story and gets his themes across at least fairly well. I wouldn’t call it an amazing book, but I wouldn’t deride it either.

    1. You’re right, if I had not gone in not expecting this to be on par with Lord of the Flies, but simply a fun, action-packed thriller I would have come away quite pleased, even if it didn’t make it on my list of favorite books. I actually still did enjoy it in this sense, but was expecting more due to all the hype.

      Shogo is probably the most interesting character in the book. My only complaint with him is that he comes across as too perfect in his physical abilities and in his preparedness. I guess he investigated and trained a lot, but still.

      Mitsuko was a much better character than Kazuo— the only reason I didn’t mention her was because I forgot. 🙂 She never came across as nearly as threatening as Kazuo though, who always felt like the biggest threat. Roger, if I remember correctly, was always a bully, but he didn’t start out as a murderer. He only became a murderer through his long stay on the island. Kazuo on the other hand never had any compunction against killing, which makes him feel much less human.

      Thanks for sharing!

  2. I haven’t read the novel, only the English version of the manga – which I read and realized did either make things up or portrayed things wrong in its translation that ends up making some mistakes.

    But I can overall agree with your opinion on Battle Royale. I recently read it and it has been on my mind lately. The manga is nicely drawn. Well, the art style took some getting used to for me, but the gorey deaths were nicely done. Downside, I either got used to the gore or they were a bit… less gorey than in the first few chapters.

    The students dying, really, nobody cares. 42 Students, killed off without any proper development and eventually mentioned, where I quite frankly couldn’t remember who they were talking about. Who was Megumi? …Oh yes, that girl that was killed early on with the sickle. Sakura and What’s-His-Face? Oh yes, the suicide couple. It’s incredibly easy to forget them, because they are so forgettable and there are too many characters to begin with to make them memorable.

    Kiriyama as a villain… quite honestly was quite annoying for me after a while. I don’t like invincible villains. They’re boring because you know they won’t get killed so easily and it’s annoying because of the same, so you know they’ll keep coming back with barely a scratch on them.
    Although I have to say, in the manga, the way he moves in the final chapters is freaking hilarious!

    The story isn’t overly interesting. Yeah, killing, whatever. I think I’d feel more compelled to feel sorry for the parents or guardians, and the horror they are going through than the kids.

    As for how the story ends… it was such a… bland, non-ending. Not that I wanted a conclusive ending, but I was expecting a memorable ending from this thing. And really, it ends with them running away… The fact that they didn’t fully defeat The Program and that it’ll continue on is nice, it gives it a nice edge to it. But I think I would’ve preferred the ending more, had it gone the whole hog of Shogo killing Shuuya and Noriko to win, betraying them, rather than this silly thing of the betrayal being played…

    Oh and I did not go into the manga with any expectations. Danganronpa’s Abridged basically made the joke that they’ll be doing “thins Battle Royale here”, so I decided, eh, why not read it. I wasn’t a big fan of Danganronpa – probably because that was something I went into because everyone said it’s so cool – but figured if Battle Royale did Danganronpa better, it would be entertaining.
    It’s a nice enough book, but not… overly memorable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.