Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
Translated by Yuji Oniki
Read by Mark Dacascos
Length: 19 Hrs 34 Min
Genre: Dystopian Action Thriller
Quick Thoughts: Battle Royale is so compelling a tale, that despite this disappointing reading, I was engaged through most of the tale. While, at times it can be hard to swallow and plagued with inconsistencies, it is a fascinating experience. You can’t help but empathize with the children’s plight and wonder just how up for it you would be in such a situation. This is a novel that can tell you things about yourself, and some of those are things you just don’t want to know.
Years ago, back in the late 90’s I read a book called Ill Wind by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason. In the book, there was a huge oil spill off the coast of California and a special microbe was released to eat up the spilled petroleum. Except it mutated and became airborne, and started reeking havoc on the world destroying anything that was petroleum based, including rubber and plastics. About 10 years later I found a book called Black Monday by R. Scott Reiss. In Black Monday, a shadowy group releases a plague that attacks oil, rendering the fuel inert and plunging the world into chaos. About 3 years ago I listened to an audiobook called Directive 51 where an organized radical group released a nano-swarm that attacked Petroleum based products, and of course that leads to OMG! The World is ending. All three of these authors are well established writers who have no need to rip anyone off. Sometimes, writers just happen to get inspired by similar things. When The Hunger Games came out and as it began to gain in popularity, I began to hear many calls that it was plagiarized from Battle Royale. Now, first off, two books with similar themes does not make plagiarism even if they share a wealth of similar plot elements. If that was true, then every cop show on TV would be a case of plagiarism. Yet, to even call The Hunger Games idea theft is a huge stretch. We don’t know the motivations and inspirations behind Susanne Collins development of the story. The idea of a dystopian government placing its citizens, whether children or adults, into a lethal battle simulation is nothing new. Hell, Stephen King did it twice with The Long Walk and The Running Man. If anything, I think fans of Battle Royale should be appreciative that the Hunger Games have made more people interested in Battle Royale. Heck, we now have an audiobook version, and there are rumors of a potential TV show. Battle Royale was a novel I have been interested in since a friend gave me the Manga version, and I’ll admit, my interest was even more piqued after the success of The Hunger Games.
Battle Royale takes place in an alternate history in a totalitarian country called The Republic of Greater East Asia. Every few years the government taps a Third year Middle School class for a military simulation where the class must fight each other to the death and only one child can survive. Thrust into the games, a trio of students try to survive while looking for a way out without having to kill each other. Yet, some members of the class are up for the game, willing to ruthlessly murder their classmates to win. Battle Royale is a dark exploration of paranoia told with over the top violence and stark contrasts. I think that there is a method to Koushun Takami’s madness in choosing the age range of children that he does. The range of maturity, both physical and emotional is often striking, making the motivations of each child hard to determine until their actions play out, and Takami shows us flashbacks of their lives. This mix allows the reader to both experience the horror of children being slaughtered, while still achieving some level of entertainment in the experience. This is the interesting rub of Battle Royale, we should be mortified by what is happening, feeling for these children who are put in to such a harsh reality. One moment these kids are discussing who their crushes are, or what they want to be when they grow up, and the next they are slashing throats and slaughtering classmates in hails of gunfire. You are disgusted, yet compelled to find out how the next one dies. The novel is full of stylistic violence, paranoid delusions and bursting hormonal young teenagers, and it’s a combustible mix. I will admit, about two thirds of the way through the novel, I became seriously fatigued with the mayhem. There is never a comfortable moment in the novel, and there comes a point, as the numbers dwindle, that you just want it to be over. The novel is also full of some interesting social and political commentary. It’s interesting to see such a callus and heavy handed government, but one that is also relatively successful. I do have to admit, I never really bought the reasoning behind the games from the governmental stand point, though I did find the exploitation of the games interesting. I am glad I finally got a chance to experience the novel version of Battle Royale, and while it was hard to swallow and full of inconsistencies, it was a fascinating experience. I really wonder sometimes what it says about us when a novel like this becomes popular. You can’t help but empathize with the children’s plight and wonder just how up for it you would be in such a situation. This is a novel that can tell you things about yourself, and some of those are things you just don’t want to know.
I can totally understand the thinking behind the producers in casting Mark Dacascos for the reading of Battle Royale. He is a professional Actor and martial arts expert of partial Japanese ancestry. Sadly, his performance is extremely lacking. Battle Royale would be a hard task for the most talented of audiobook narrators. There are 42 young, Asian characters. Reading Battle Royale allows us Western listeners to differentiate the Asian names by sight, yet aurally it was very hard to keep straight. Two of the main characters are named Shogo and Shunya, and when it comes to the female characters there are Yuka Yuko, Yukie, Yumiko, Yukiko and Yoshimi, and it’s all a struggle to keep straight. Dacascos doesn’t even try. He reads Battle Royale in a flat, unevenly paced manner, as if he was reading the story to his kids at night, with no pre-knowledge of characters or plot. He makes no attempts at characterization, reading them all, male and female in a flat unemotional narrative voice. It got to the point that when he did show excitement or fluctuate his voice, it was so unexpected it came off just weird. Not all of this is Dacascos fault, this particular translation was clunky, with repetitive word choices and little narrative flow. A talented narrator could have smoothed it out and brought more life to this tale, but sadly, Dacascos’ reading only illuminated the problems with the translation. I have to say, Battle Royale is so compelling a tale, that despite this disappointing reading, I was engaged through most of the tale.