Because of the new hype surrounding the Hunger Games and its upcoming film, I figure there’s going to be a lot of film snobbery about “Well, Battle Royale did it first.” Which, now having both read the book and seen the 2000 film, I really think that’s an unfair assessment of the respective books. Battle Royale is a brutal gut-punch of a story that treads much deeper into the heart of human darkness that Suzanne Collins only scratched at in her series. Unlike many of the dystopic settings found in the current craze crop, Battle Royale takes place in an all-too familiar fascist regime, the Greater Republic of East Asia, that only resembles present-day Japan. There’s a quiet paranoia that lingers in the background, as many students relate stories of cousins or uncles or their own parents dying in accidents amid whispers of anti-government talk. And keeping the next generation in order is the Program, wherein fifty third-year junior high classes are chosen annually for a gruesome massacre, with only one student standing. This covers the particular program of Shioriwa Fourth Junior High, Class 3, and the consequences faced within.The thing I loved about this book is that there’s a sense of anger and frustration bubbling underneath the surface as we discover more about the Greater Republic and the details of the Program. A lot of the frustration comes from Takami’s satire and criticism of Japanese government and conservative ideology, but aside from one lengthy rant in the middle of the book, it’s reined in and feels believe. A lot of the frustration comes from Shuya, the focus character. He’s a kid who’s been kicked around—raised in an orphanage, no one expects much of him, just found out that he is going to die. And his best friend Nobu has been senselessly killed right in front of his eyes. Shuya knows that there is nothing he can do to fight back against what’s oppressing him and it pisses him off that he can’t do anything about it, aside from survive as best as he can. There’s a few things that he can do, like blowing off his baseball team and listening to black market Western rock, which is the equivalent of giving the government supporters the finger.Shuya’s love of Western rock intrigued me—most of his favorite musicians are name-dropped with a few lyrics, but one keeps popping up throughout the book: Springsteen. When I read the opening epithet from “Born to Run,” I got wary about where this was going to go. It could have been a name-drop of the best-known Springsteen song, but the song fits Shuya so well, especially as the climax ramps up and the game gets deadlier. The song’s about being stuck in the place you can’t get out of, being so frustrated at the world that all you can do is run. Yes, the final time Takami uses the lyrics is when we see Shuya and Noriko literally running away from the police, but it doesn’t feel like it’s being witty. (This is a personal thing, really; I was raised on Springsteen, so I get tetchy whenever I see his work referenced.) Adding to that frustration is the emotional weight and consequences of what all of the characters go through when they’re forced to participate in the Program. Aside from two students (Kiriyama and Mitsuko), every character has to deal with the very likely possibility that they will die, and it will be at the hands of someone they know. Which then leads into this claustrophobic paranoia of who can be trusted—would a friend secretly stab another in the back? There are several instances when people die because of some slight that was committed in the past, and doesn’t feel like it should be important in the face of the current situation. And the paranoia just keeps growing as the book continues and there’s less students running around. A few characters attempt at banding together, but outsiders willing cause chaos and the result is even more bodies. This is where I think Battle Royale is vastly different from The Hunger Games. In the latter series, characters mark and congratulate each other on individual kills. It’s extremely detached, and the only emotional reaction that’s ever seen is the deaths of characters we’ve come to know. In Battle Royale, the kills are personal and we see the different reactions of each person. Shuya makes an accidental kill shortly after the game begins and immediately, he’s repulsed and starts throwing up. There’s a few characters who snap and lose rational thought about how easy killing feels. There’s a few scenes that feel like exploitation and gore for gore’s sake (Example, one of the girl retaliates a creepy come-on by stabbing a guy IN THE MOUTH WITH AN ICE PICK. And the movie version of this scene is worse), but most of the deaths carry consequence and you feel like these characters are in shock that they’ve just killed someone or watched a friend senselessly die in front of them.Aside from the first handful of kills at the beginning of the book, we learn each character’s backstory throughout the course of the book. In most cases, it’s right before the character in question gets offed, but there are few who get more development as the story goes on. You really get to know who these kids are, what they wanted from life before it bit them in the ass.There are some problems with the book. The translation’s choppy at times, and the prose and dialogue don’t flow well on occasion. There’s also a lot of informational asides in the book; particularly, mentioning every single make and model of the various handguns scattered among the students. I could see why they wouldn’t be automatically referred to by the specific make, but a simple “automatic” or “handgun” would have worked better. I really didn’t like how Noriko’s character is treated—she remains a sweet girl who doesn’t get her hands dirty at all during the course of the game. There’s one implied moment that she may have killed someone near the end, but she remains very much the idealized girl at the end of the book, and I think it would have been better if we had seen her kill someone. The opening prologue referring to a leaked government memo disappears for the majority of the book, and the character most likely to have discovered this doesn’t do anything with it. The revelation about this memo feels thrown in at the last minute, as if Takami forgot about it for five hundred pages and threw in an explanation at the end.However, I could not put this book down. It’s an engrossing read that still managed to shock and surprise me, even when I knew what was coming. I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone, as it is extremely brutal and emotionally exhausting at points. I loved it, and would say that if you’re interested, definitely check it out.