Koushun Takami: Battle Royale (review)

It’s impossible to write a review of this book without mentioning The Hunger Games. So let me start there and then I’ll return to it later. When I heard there was a Japanese novel with roughly the same plot line as The Hunger Games, I had to read it. I mean – a Japanese author writing about kids killing each other on an island? Have you seen Japanese tv-/reality-shows? There’s no way this is not going to be good. So I got it from the library and dove right in. I read it as quickly as I could and I really enjoyed it.

Most people by now have either read or seen The Hunger Games – or at least it feels that way. At least everyone know what it’s about. Battle Royale is like The Hunger Games – but with more serious weapons, more violence and more deaths.

In Battle Royale, one class of 40 students is chosen to go to an island and fight it out until death. They’re drugged while driving in a bus, supposedly going on a school trip. Instead, they’re taken to a school on an island and here, they are informed that they are going to participate in the Program.

To convince them that this is real, they are shown their dead teacher who tried to stand up for them and when a couple of students either protest or whisper to each other, they’re killed by the soldiers. So now, everyone grasp that this is reality. Each student has had a collar put on and are told that if they enter a forbidden zone or if there has been no killings in 24 hours, the collars will explode, killing them. They are all given a random backpack with a weapon in – weapons goes from uzis and machine guns to rusty knives and binoculars. And then the games begin.

Some of the students don’t want to play the game and try to stay out of it while other immediately embrace it and go all in. Others still are so scared and panicked that they just act when they meet another student on the island. What Takami does very well is to show why these students act like they do. When reading books like this, I often wonder what makes people do what they do but then again, they are put in situations so extreme and are bombarded with impressions that are constructed to force a certain reaction out of them. And that is what happens in this book too. Some students react violently, some heroically, some rise above and some fall so far down…

When reading this, you get to experience every death. Whenever a student dies, you are right there with them. Some students are main characters – others are just featured for a few pages before they’re killed off by one of their class mates. It’s a bloody mess, frankly, and it’s so very good.

So did Suzanne Collins rip off Battle Royale when she wrote her hugely popular The Hunger Games series? There is no question about there being a lot of similarities between the two. But just because the basic idea is the same with teenagers killing each other off in order to win, and just because there are other similarities as well with some having to play the game more than once as well as some similarities in the endings, I don’t think Suzanne Collins did rip Battle Royale off. The Hunger Games is not Collins’ first book so she know how to write a novel. And I read one of her rare interviews where she talks about the inspiration for The Hunger Games. According to this, she was flipping through channels one night and saw young people competing for money on one channel and images from the Iraq war on another and these things merged in her mind and from that, she got the idea for The Hunger Games. This makes sense to me. Maybe she did know of Battle Royale when she wrote her books, maybe she didn’t. According to her, she didn’t. Either way, she certainly made the idea of teenagers fighting it out to the end her very own. She created something unique with her story and her characters and even if some of the themes are similar, the stories are different.

And maybe both Suzanne Collins and Koushun Takami owe something to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies where a group of boys get stranded on an island, tries to self-govern but everything breaks down and they end up forming two groups, fighting each other. Not many deaths in this novel though. But Collins and Takami step that part way up as well as change the reason for the children being there – from it being an accident to it being a planned situation, created to cause casualties.

I think both books – all three, in fact – have their own merits and I highly recommend them all. I can’t quite say if I prefer The Hunger Games or Battle Royale. I think they both have their strengths. Battle Royale is probably not suited for The Hunger Games intended readers but it’s a great, thrilling read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

And finally – here’s what Stephen King had to say about it back in 2007 on Entertainment Weekly:

Recommended to me by novelist Kelly Braffet (Josie and Jack), Battle Royale is an insanely entertaining pulp riff that combines Survivor with World Wrestling Entertainment. Or maybe Royale is just insane. Forty-two Japanese high school kids who think they’re going on a class trip are instead dropped on an island, issued weapons ranging from machine guns to kitchen forks, and forced to fight it out until only one is left alive. Royale bears some resemblance to Richard Bachman’s The Long Walk. You probably won’t find it at your local bookstore, but you can order it online. ”No prob,” as Takami’s Springsteen-quoting teenagers are fond of saying.

  • Title: Battle Royale
  • Author: Koushun Takami
  • Publisher: VIZ Media
  • Year: 2003 (original 1999)
  • Pages: 624 pages
  • Source: Library
  • Stars:  stars out of 5

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The Hunger Games – the movie

For the first time in a couple of years, my boyfriend and I was at the cinema last night and actually got to see a movie, eat popcorn and candy and drink cola – all the things one should do when going to the movies. And of course we chose this year’s probably most talked about movie – The Hunger Games.

I’ve read several reviews of this movie and most have been favorably, some even stating that the movie was better than the book.

Our impression was a bit different. Even though we both enjoyed the movie, we didn’t feel that it surpassed the book. Now, it’s been a while since I read the book but my boyfriend just read it, so we could discuss it from both these points of views.

Like some of the Harry Potter movies as well as The Golden Compas, this movie benefits from having read the book first. There are some things that are not quite clear in the movie, since it only has a bit more than two hours to tell the entire story. I feel that  for instance the character of Haymitch Abernathy, while perfectly portrayed by Woody Harrelson, changes from being not willing to help Katniss and Peeta to suddenly doing everything in his power to help them. If you haven’t read the book, I’m not sure you will pick up on him being a drunk and not only just enjoying a few drinks on the ride back to Capitol.

Also, the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale is only hinted at in the movie – it isn’t really elaborated on. I guess this will be one of the things we’ll learn more about in the the following movies.

I also missed getting to know more about the tributes. Only a few tributes are more than just future deaths. We don’t have any clue about who they are.

Also, I felt that when Peeta decides he wants to be trained alone, it’s not explained but just put in there to make his announcement of his love for Katniss more effective – but it doesn’t make sense in the movie version that he makes that decision.

I found one of the truly creepy things about the book was towards the end, when the mutts come and they each resemble one of the falling tributes. They didn’t in the movie and I missed that. I did hovewer love watching the gamekeepers at work – I found that to be so effective how they can change the fate of a tribute so easily but starting a fire, bringing down a tree etc.

So the movie is definitely worth watching. The aesthetics and visual qualities of Capitol are truly incredible and striking. They are so avant-garde and the people of Capital behaves so outrageously in their celebration of the games, that the difference between the outer districts and the Capitol really comes through. For them, it’s only a game, the highlight of their year, while to the people of the districts who give up the sons and daughters, it’s a question about life and death.

One thing the movie did exceptionally well was put focus on how much of the Games are decided outside the arena by how many gifts the tributes each got but also – and especially – by how President Snow and the gamekeepers saw fit to have the Games played. This political part was so interesting to follow and the movie nailed this. I’m looking forward to seeing more to Donald Sutherland as President Snow in the following movies.

Also, the character of Rue played by Amandla Stendberg was so sweet and innocent. You really felt for this little girl being put into this arena and it was very believable that Katniss started to take care of her – and that Rue took care of Katniss first. Katniss’ sorrow when Rue dies is portrayed beautifully, her singing of the lullaby as well as taking the time to bring flowers to the dead Rue is heartbreaking.

In fact, this movie contained some wonderful performances by several actors. As stated earlier, Woody Harrelson was perfectly cast. I thought Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta was great as well and the little we saw of Liam Hernsworth’s Gale worked too. But my favorite of all was Stanley Tucci. Now, I have had a lot of respect for Stanley Tucci since seeing him in Murder One but he’s so amazing with his blue ponytail in this movie that the scenes with him are some of my favorites. He was just so good! What we did get to see of Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket was great too – she was perfectly dressed for the part and played it so well.

Bottomline is that I was greatly entertained by the movie, I was happy to see it – but the books are better.

Are recommendations bad for you?

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

-Haruki Murakami

I was browsing Netflix recently and while looking at their suggestions for me based on my previous ratings, I started wondering whether recommendations like these are really the best way to go?

These recommendations are everywhere. Netflix, Amazon … You buy something or you rate something and immediately, you get more suggestions. So because I like Doctor Who, I also want to watch Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, right? Sorry – nope. Not a chance.

Some of these recommendations of course makes perfect sense. If I’ve bought The Brothers Karamazov, it follows naturally that I might be interested in Crime and Punishment or The Master and Margarita. But what I’m trying to get at here is, that as far as I know, these recommendations are based on the idea of ‘more of the same’. So if you like one British comedy show, you get recommended more British comedies. And you’ll probably like these as well. But maybe it would be better to be challenged a bit. To get a recommendation that takes you far out of your normal comfort zone and your normal go-to entertainment choices. And I don’t think these kinds of recommendations are able to do that. I think that if you just follow the recommendations, you might end up just reading the same thing over and over. And there isn’t anything wrong with reading all the Russian classics – in fact, they are definitely worth reading. But is it okay if that’s all you read? (This is probably a bad example for yeah, I’m pretty sure that it’s more than okay if you just read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and the others… but bear with me.)

I know that there’s frequently – or maybe constantly – a discussion about adults who read young adult (ya) fiction. The thought is that if ya fiction is not complex enough to be satisfying for adults and if you read it, you are under-stimulating yourself. I don’t buy in to this at all. First of, I think that if you’re reading, it’s a good thing, no matter what you read. But secondly, I also believe there’s a lot of really great ya fiction out there. The Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games Trilogy are two examples of this – and I’ve also enjoyed reading about Percy Jackson and all the Greek Gods. But I couldn’t just read this – I want to read … well, everything, really.

And because of this I dislike being told by Amazon or others what I should read or watch. I want to be challenged, I want to find something new that can shake my world and make me look at things in another way. I want my books (not all of them, but enough of them) to create new thoughts in my head. To change things. To bring new knowledge to the table so I can make new connections and get new ideas.

And if all I do is watch the same type of comedy shows over and over or keep reading the same type of fantasy as Amazon and Netflix prefers me to do, then I became locked in a box of repetitiveness. Or at least I’m afraid I will be. So instead, I read about a gazillion book blogs, I get inspired by Goodreads, I listen to literature podcasts – and through that, I get what I hope is a very eclectic reading list.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer reading the same genre constantly or do you spread out as well? Do you enjoy the recommendations from Netflix and Amazon and others? Let me know!

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