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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Koushun Takami's "Battle Royale" VS. Suzanne Collins's "Hunger Games"

Author:  Koushun Takami
Title:  Battle Royale
Plot Type:  Dystopian Horror
Ratings:  V5; S2; H2
Publisher:  Haika Soru, a division of VIZ Media, 2009

     This is the book that has been called the "Japanese Hunger Games." It was originally published in Japan in 1999 and was first translated and published in English in 2003. The 2009 edition of the book contains interviews with the author and with Kinji Fukasaku, the director of the film (made in Japan in 2000). The story has also been published as a manga series.  This is a big book (79 chapters, 576 pages), but the story is so compelling that I read it in two days. The first chapter is slow going as all of the members of the huge cast of characters are introduced, but once the action gets going, it never stopsright up to the very end and beyond. 

     The story is set in an alternate Japan that is called the Republic of Greater East Asia, a totalitarian state ruled by a dictator. In the Republic, the citizens blindly follow the government's rules and regulations. In order to maintain a sense of uneasiness and distrust amongst the populace, the government has enacted the Battle Experiment No. 68 Program (aka the Program) in which 50 groups of junior high students (14-16 years old) are selected annually to participate. Each group is taken to a small offshore island (one group per island), given weapons and minimal supplies, and told that they must fight to the death. Each group's session of the Program ends when just one person in the group remains alive. The winner gets a lifetime pension and an autographed card from the dictator. The selection of the groups is (supposedly) random, with the students being plucked from their lives without a moment's notice.

     Here, Shogo, one of the book's protagonists, gives his views about the government and the Program: "My guess is that when this lovely game was first proposed....there was no opposition. You don't want to stir things up by questioning the specialists. And it's terribly difficult to end something that's already been established. You interfere, and you're out of a job. No, worse yet, you might be sent to a forced labor camp for ideological deviation. Even if everyone were against it, no one could say it out loud. That's why nothing changes." (p. 202) Later, he continues, "I think that this system is tailor-made to fit the people of this country. In other words, their subservience to superiors. Blind submission. Dependence on others and group mentally. Conservatism and passive acceptance." (p. 207)

        THE TITLE        
     The name of the book comes from a sports term used to describe a professional wrestling match in Japan in which, as a pro wrestling fan describes it in the Introduction, "ten or twenty wrestlers all jump into the ring. And then you're free to attack anyone, one on one or ten against one, it doesn't matter....In any case, the ones who get pinned or otherwise lose, they have to leave the ring. Fewer and fewer wrestlers remain in the game. There're only two left in the out of those two will eventually take the fall. Then there's only one player left in the ring, and he's the winner." (pp. 1-2) This pretty much sums up the plot structure of the book, with each chapter ending with a posting of the number of students still alive.

        THE STORY        
     As the book opens, 42 mid-teen students are on a school bus on their way to a field trip. Along the way, they are gassed into unconsciousness and wake up to find themselves on an island under the control of Sakamochi, their Program Instructor. Sakamochi tells them that they are the newest participants in the Program and that they have no choice but to follow his orders. Each student is ordered to head out into the dark with a backpack, each of which contains a weapon (a different one in each pack), a bottle of water, a piece of bread, a compass, and a map of the island. Each student wears an electronically enhanced steel collar that is programmed to explode if he or she strays into a forbidden zone or tries to remove it. If there are no deaths within a given 24-hour period, all of the collars will explode. Ships circle the island to prevent the students from escaping across the water to the mainland.

     In the first chapter (Chapter 0), Shuya Nanahara (the primary protagonist) names and describes each one of his classmates. This is a bit mind boggling since there are so many of them, but don't worry too much about that. Just skim through that chapter quickly and keep in mind that the main protagonists, in addition to Shuya, are Noriko Nakagawa and Shogo Kawada. Shuya is a popular, good looking, athletic young man who loves to play rock songs on his guitar, and Norika is the girl with whom Shuya's best friend is in love. Shogo is an older, mysterious new student whose body is covered with scars, and he keeps to himself most of the time. Much of the story is seen through Shuya's eyes, although Takami actually lets us see parts of the action from each student's perspective as the story advances. Sakamochi is, of course, one of the villains, but some of Shuya's fellow students also turn to the dark side. The plot follows the schoolmates as each one takes a slightly different approach to the disastrous situation. Some try to gather in groups; some become instant killers; and some hide themselves away. The weapons given to the students make a big difference in who survives because they cover a wide range of lethal effectivenessfrom a machine gun to a sickle to a dinner fork—and some are not weapons at all, but are defensive in nature (e.g., a bullet-proof vest).

     The teens go through stages that are comparable to the grieving process. At first, they are shocked and disbelieving, then angry. When Shuya's best friend questions Sakamochi during the rules-setting session, Sakamochi has him shot dead, which causes the students' attitudes to change immediately from anger to pure terror. Once the teens are out on their own, the betrayals and the killings begin. Almost immediately, trust is lost, and friendly school relationships disappear into a miasma of suspicion and fear. In one appalling scene near the end, a group of girls—formerly friendsacts out almost the same situation that Quentin Terentino stages at the end of his film, Reservoir Dogs.

     The question you will ask yourself as you read the story is, of course, what would I do? For the students, that question is not rhetorical; each one must decide on a course of action immediately or be killed. Sometimes even the pacifists are put into situations in which they are forced to kill to save themselves, and then they have to live with what they've done. It's a powerful story with an intense emotional undercurrent throughout.

        THE COMPARISON        
     So...How does Battle Royale (BR) compare to The Hunger Games (HG)? Both are extremely violent, with totalitarian governments forcing teenagers to kill one another in unspeakable ways. In both, a few plucky kids outwit the evil bureaucrats and military specialists. Both sets of protagonists are filled with rage at the government that has put them in this situation. But now, let's take a look at the differences:

     POST-APOCALYPTIC VS. DYSTOPIAN: HG takes place 75 years after a rebellion was put down by the Capital, which then took over the Districts and has ruled them with an iron hand ever since. In contrast, the Republic in BR has had no past rebellion. The country became a totalitarian state decades ago when its apathetic populace allowed the government to make one controlling decision after another, removing freedoms as it tells its citizens that it is working for the good of the country. As Shogo says, "Of course, this country is essentially totalitarian, but....[the government] skillfully managed to leave little bits of freedom intact. By providing this kind of candy, they can proclaim, 'Of course, every citizen has the right to freedom. However, freedom must be controlled for the sake of the public good.' The claim actually sounds legit, huh?" (p. 204)

     DISTRICT CULTURES VS. AMERICAN POP CULTURE: In HG, each District has its own unique life style and customs, and the participants in the games manifest the cultural traditions of their Districts in their costumes and in their various skills. In BR, many of the teens look to American culture for their touchstones, particularly to rock musicians like John Lennon, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan. The lyrics to Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" (especially the last verse) become extremely important to Shuya and Norika. (Click HERE for a YouTube video of the song.) These teens memorize American song lyrics and some, like Shuya, long to be rock stars, even though the government bans all rock music (but allows it to be played on the slyjust one of the "candies" that Shogo mentions). The teens don't respond much to the traditions of the Republic, although some of the girls have been trained in the art of the Japanese tea ceremony.

     FRIENDS VS. STRANGERS: The biggest difference between the two books is that in HG, a contestant knows only the other person from his or her District. The others are complete strangers. In contrast, the BR participants know each other quite well. They play on the same sports teams, attend the same classes, and, in some cases, have known one another since kindergarten. This means that the killing in BR is much more personal than in HG. The BR group is made up of geeks, jocks, smart kids, mean kids, and "normal" kidsjust like any other class in any other place. Like teen-agers everywhere, these kids have secret and not-so-secret crushes on one another, all of which are now undermined by distrust. One moment you may have a fond meditative memory of another student who has always been your friend, and in the next moment, that "friend" cuts your throat. It's that sense of betrayal in BR that you don't get in HG.

     COMMUNITY SUPPORT VS. COMMUNITY APATHY: In HG, the Games are publicized, from the lottery through the actual violence and the follow-up victory celebrations, while in BR, the children are snatched up in secret and then just disappear, never to be seen again. If the parents know what's good for them they just try to forget about their missing children. So, while the HG contestants know that their families are rooting for them, the BR kids know that their families and friends are trying to forget them and go on with their lives.

     STRONG FEMALE LEAD VS STRONG MALE LEAD: In HG, we have Katniss, a brave, talented, driven heroine who takes life into her own capable hands and makes it through the Games through determination, skill, and intelligence. In BR, the strongest protagonist is Shogo, the orphaned outsider who has never bonded with his classmates. Shogo survives each attack through intelligence and a determination to make the government pay for what they have done to him. In contrast to Katniss, Shogo has no particular physical skills. Shuya and Norika, his allies, are very passive; in fact, Noriko is ill throughout much of the book, having been shot in the first scene. Shuya defends himself well enough, but he views Shogo's mysterious plan as his only hope for getting out alive. The boy who turns out to be their toughest opponent is the gang leader, Kazuo Kiriyama, a brain-damaged sociopath who turns into a mindless killing machine. He could, I suppose, be compared to the Mutts of HG (without the shape shifting). The strongest girl is Mitsuko Souma, one of the mean girls of the school who does whatever she must to survive—until she doesn't. None of the BR students have the skills with weapons or tools that we see in HG. These are city kids who live relatively pampered lives, so they're not at all comfortable in the outdoor setting of the island.

     HOPE VS. DESPAIR: HG always maintains an element of hope. The participants know that their families and neighbors are watching them on TV, cheering them on and sending gifts to help them out, but no one from home helps out the BR contestants. They were kidnapped and have dropped out of sight. They know that some of their parents and teachers have been killed for protesting against their involvement, and they know that the parents who did not protest will do their best to forget their sons and daughters. The BR teens are all alone, and they know it.

     TRILOGY VS. SINGLE STAND-ALONE: Some of the differences between HG and BR are caused by the fact that HG is a trilogy that fully tells Katniss's story from beginning to end, with a resolution that is mostly satisfying. In BR, there is no resolution for the protagonists, only an extremely uncertain future. BR is HG without Mockingjaywithout the revolution that frees the populace from the oppression of the hated Capital. BR has no underground force of citizens fighting against the government. In fact, that's the whole point. In the Republic, people don't question the rules they are made to follow. They have watched the Program continue for more than 60 years, costing the lives of thousands of children, and no one has lifted a single voice in protest.

     FOLLOWING VS. DEFYING THE RULES: In HG, the game planners change the rules in the face of the heroine's bluff, while in BR, the Program supervisor has the island sprayed with poisonous gas when he believes that someone may have escaped. In BR, no one bends the rules; no one cares about anything but the end results of the Program, which means death to all but one—with no exceptions.

     Click HERE to read my review of the HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY.

     In an interview at the end of the book, Takami references Stephen King (Richard Bachman's The Long Walk) and Robert Parker (Spenser series) as influences. In fact, he states that Shogo Kawada's final line ("That's what I want,") "is nothing more than an overt copy of the last line of "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" (a King novella). The name of the children's hometown (Shiroiwa) is a direct translation of "Castle Rock," the fictional Maine town that shows up frequently in King's fiction. Takami's reference to Parker is interesting in that he says that he modeled Shogo's manner of speaking after Spenser's character, Hawk. "Or, to be more precise, after Hawk's way of speech as translated by Mitsu Kikuchi." (p. 597) In this book, then, we are reading Takima's Hawk-esque dialogue in English as translated back from the Japanese, so we're now four degrees away from Parker's original writing, and it still sounds like Hawk. Tamaki's writing style sometimes seems awkward, particularly in some of the dialogue and the interior monologues, but it's difficult to tell whether that is due to the author's style or to the difficulties involved in translation. 

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