The story is fairly dark and twisted. In an alternate version of Japan, middle school students are forced to participate in a murderous version of king-of-the-hill. The children are drugged and transported to an island. When they wake up, they are instructed about the rules of the program and given random weapons. The rules are very simply: kill your classmates, your friends. The last kid standing wins.
What makes this novel so compelling is the insight into the characters. The writing style is simple, even sparse at points. I find that this accentuates the story incredibly well. The writing doesn't get in the way of what is being conveyed, if that makes sense. Takami provides an incredibly clear and in-depth look into the characters, their motivations, their fears, their selves.
Another reason that I find this novel so compelling is that I'm a psych major. The range of reactions that the students have to the situation that they're thrust into is truly fascinating, even if you've only taken Psych 101. There are characters from all walks of life and each of them reacts in a way that makes sense based on their background and the aspects of their personalities that Takami gives them.
The other overarching theme is a political one. Through his characters, Takami discusses government corruption, western influence on eastern cultures, rebellion against an oppressive government, as well as active participation and support of an oppressive government. While this confluence of ideas could bash you in the head, à la Margaret Atwood, Takami's understated style kept me reading instead of rolling my eyes and sighing that "I get it already."