Imagine this: Japan is run by a totalitarian government, which occasionally selects groups of ninth graders to methodically destroy each other. On TV.
There now, isn't that chilling? It's the creepy, all-too-real premise of Koushun Takami's "Battle Royale," an intricate novel about a parallel universe, where Japan is part of a brutal, coldhearted empire. Takami's writing style is a bit too spare at times, but he's still able to inspire a sense of haunting terror in his readers.
A group of third-year high-schoolers are being transported on a bus, when they are gassed to unconsciousness, and taken to a distant island. When they awake, they have silver collars around their necks, and a man explains that they have been chosen for the Program: a military training exercise where you must kill or be killed. If you don't play, or stay in one place too long, the collars explode.
The teenagers slowly weed one another out, armed with weapons and random household tools, and monitored by the authorities to make sure they don't plot. Finally the entire class is weeded down to three young adults, including Shuya Nanahara and his girlfriend Noriko. But if they refuse to kill, then they must escape the fascist nightmare... which no one has done before.
"Battle Royale" was condemned in Japan for being so violent, and having a bunch of normal high schoolers killing each other off. So of course, it became a massive bestseller. But "Battle Royale" would have been striking even if it hadn't been publicized like that -- not only is it well-written, but it asks the question straight-out: how much will people do to survive?
Maybe it's also a parable about high-school life, and the struggle to succeed at all costs in Japan. However, Koushun Takami avoids any outright preaching or pondering. Instead he uncoils the tense plot, all about the kids fighting (they're told to "show no mercy") as they try to find a way out of their dilemma alive. Will any of them make it? There's a little glimmer of hope, since Shuya is trying to think his way out.
The pacing is pretty slow and intricate -- considering the large cast, it's not surprising. But the careful plot is punctuated with bursts of nasty action. And Takami writes in a spare, taut style, full of little details to add atmosphere and keep it from being TOO stark ("Under the moonlight, the bluish-white concrete pier gleamed like bone").
Shuya and Noriko are the main characters, and most of the novel's action is through their eyes. These are nice, normal, everyday kids like the ones who live down the street, but suddenly they're faced with their friends and classmates... wanting to kill them. Takami does a great job exploring their emotions as they struggle to keep their sanity and lives.
Violent, creepy and wonderfully atmospheric, "Battle Royale" is a brilliant cult novel that takes an exaggerated look at what it takes to stay ahead. Excellent piece of work.