Sunday, February 9, 2014

I am a little behind the times, but . . .

I just finished Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami. I had a student, someone who's judgment I trust, tell me I had to read it and I would love it, and that it was even better than The Hunger Games. It took me a year to get past that final comparison, but I did finally read it (mainly because I've had her book for a year and it's time to get it back to her) and she was right; I loved it. I didn't, however, think it was better than Hunger Games. I don't necessarily think that Hunger Games is better than Battle Royale, either, I just find it a false comparison. Obviously, the premises are remarkably similar: kids being forced to kill kids, but the execution of those premises, and the contexts within which those premises are at work are very different for me.

For instance, in Battle Royale we are told very little about the setting--it becomes clear we are looking at an alternate history, a twentieth-century in which Japan won the second World War--or least did not surrender--and has become a vaster and more sinister empire. The United States is the source of all things evil for the fascist government, and the romanticized source of all things free for rebellious-minded youth.

In The Hunger Games, of course, we see a post-apocalyptic North America, but are not told what apocalypse (of nature, politics, or war) has brought us to Katniss Everdeen's future, but we know what the last 70 years have looked like, and Collins offers a convincing sense of a society deeply interpellated into its own helplessness. So much so that when Katniss finds herself in the arena she cannot fathom any strategy beyond playing the game. Battle Royale offers more protagonists who wish to rebel than characters who wish to play, which I like, as throughout the first two-thirds of The Hunger Games I repeatedly begged Katniss to "for pity's sakes, think outside the box!"

Battle Royale, as my student points out, offers us myriad points of view, backstories, and personalities (many of whom appear to be in love with the closest thing we have to a single main character, Shuya). This narrative strategy pleasingly complicates the plot and conflicts--it is harder to root for a single character (or team) when so many are presented as sympathetic and engaging; it is similarly hard to hate villains when you come to understand why they are the ways they are. Yet, I don't think this approach would have been effective in The Hunger Games. Because Katniss is so centrally our protagonist, because the narrative is focalized exclusively through her point of view, and from within her worldview, it is more effective to realize with her that she does not know anything about her competitors. As she learns from her allies, her world opens up, she sees perspectives the Capitol has deliberately withheld from her, and when she finally understands that her fellow tributes are not the enemy, but that the system which placed each of them into the Reaping is, the reader feels enormous satisfaction. That processes of building empathy, of making connections and intuitive leaps, the growth from acceptance to resistance, are what make the story so compelling.

The comparison still doesn't work for me, but I am very glad I finally overcame my resistance and read Battle Royale. It is a compelling narrative in a whole other dimension from The Hunger Games; it raises its own questions of acceptance and resistance, and similarly focuses the reader on the what-ifs: What if Japan had not surrendered in World War II? What if our country had a Program pitting teenagers against one another in a battle royale, a battle to the death? What if we have an equivalent? What do we accept without question, simply because the questions are too disturbing to ask?

 

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