Battle Royale

I feel compelled to say a few things in preparation for this discussion of Battle Royale which I might not otherwise do for a book. The first thing is that, if I must compare it to The Hunger Games (and I must, because I want to do so) then I would say that I prefer Hunger Games. But this is not entirely fair. The book Battle Royale suffered in my reading of it as I had recently re-watched the film. As a consequence a large amount of the book was effectively spoilt by knowing the conclusion to events. This is especially unfortunate as many of the events in the book unfold in a much more interesting and involving way than they do in the film. This is not to disparage the film – in the earlier portions of the book when I was not enjoying it as much as I would come to do I described it as like the novelisation of the film. Compared to the film of HG, BR is a much more loyal and accurate adaptation which nonetheless manages to feel like a film rather than an adaptation – a point on which HG the film fails. So if I seem negative about the book, that is why. The last word on the HG/BR controversy really should go to Koushun Takami, with whom I essentially agree:

“I think every novel has something to offer,” Takami told ABC News, in an email. “If readers find value in either book, that’s all an author can ask for.”

I did struggle to find some of the value in Battle Royale, at least at first. The book was condemned as violent exploitation on its release, and I think this appears reasonably accurate at first. But then again, I was coming at this book from a teleological perspective, in that I knew where it was going when I began. There is, I would say, considerably more hope in the book than there is in the film. Without spoilers, it is difficult to discuss these things in detail. But several of the more developed characters are very enjoyable. Unfortunately I find the pattern of introduction, background, violent death of most of the characters to be a little bit repetitive and stale, deserving of the condemnation “violent exploitation” (although if this were a western book I would say that it does point at the original source of this story as the Iliad, and make the comparison with Hunger Games seem more plausibly coincidental). Ultimately I feel that there were too many students, and perhaps the educational system of alternative-relality fascist Japan would benefit from smaller class sizes.

The developed characters were very interesting, though. Shinji Mimura and Hiroki Sugimura especially so, although the contrasting figures of Kazou Kiriyama (whose actions are given a physical, if not biological basis) and Mitsuko Souma (for whom the proposed, although not completely validated, explanation is experiential) would reward further analysis. Neither is suggested to be wholly bad, and indeed the characters throughout the novel are very similar, reacting to the situation in which they find themselves either calmly, violently, with panic, or with disbelief. Indeed, the comparison to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is much more rewarding than to The Hunger Games, although the stresses placed upon the children in that novel are very different to those in Battle Royale where they are armed and under threat. (I have to stress that I am not comparing the two now because it has been over a decade since I read Lord of the Flies and I feel ill-equipped to do so).

Ultimately Battle Royale is good but too long; makes interesting points which are lost a little in the violence; and is perhaps not as studied as its predecessor, nor as blunt as its successor, on the issues which it addresses. There are also some problems in its origins – firstly some poor translation, with stilted English at times (although I was reading the 2000 translation, not the updated 2009 edition); and secondly the stresses which it examines seem to me to be those of Japanese society, not mine. This doesn’t make it an unrewarding novel, but I think I would like to know a lot more about its background before I pass complete judgement upon it.


The Hunger Games

I finished reading The Hunger Games this afternoon when I should have been learning some ancient Greek. I haven’t yet downloaded the other two books in the series, but I have to say it will not be all that long after I post this that I do. Also, I don’t want to say too much about the book right now, because when I watch the film, read Battle Royale, and re-watch Battle Royale the film, I will be comparing the two of them as far as I think the analysis will stretch. At this point, remembering the film from when I watched it something like a decade ago, I can understand why people choose to compare the two, but I feel that it is a very easy comparison which isn’t terribly rewarding. The concept of gladiatorial conflict was hardly new with BR (I can think of another 2000 film which also dealt with the topic, actually) and even if there is an influence on The Hunger Games the difference in approach and intention seems to me to support the necessity of variety over picking the better one.* But perhaps I don’t remember the intentions of BR very well. I do remember my sister saying that the book read like the wish fulfilment of a man who had wanted to murder his classmates. Then there is the different target audience, the different world in which we live post-11/09/2001, and with reality TV as it is now. I will say that I compared The Hunger Games mentally to the second episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, 15 Million Merits. But to be honest, I think that was at least in part the aesthetic of the trailer to the film of Hunger Games. Interesting, though, that people should be connecting reality TV and the ever-increasing polarization of the wealthy elite and the working classes on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is what I thought of The Hunger Games: it was a good start for children in their teens to start learning about social justice. To a far-left twenty-six year old perhaps the metaphor is obvious, even strained. But to a fifteen year old just starting to realise that there is an imbalance in this world, it could be much more potent.

The role of the Career tributes is one which I find fascinating, although perhaps under-explored in the way I had hoped it would be. To me, the Career Tributes were presented as those who had submitted to the dominance of the Capitol rather than those, like Katniss, who would rebel, or Peeta, desperate to retain his identity in their Games. I’m not sure if this was intentionally hinted, or if it was just my reading.

A review – or rather a mention on twitter – by Radio Times film editor Andrew Collins said that he felt that, in the film, the other tributes weren’t developed enough so that it was possible to care. In the book, with its first-person perspective, this is hardly surprising. But the aim of the Games is to divide – even the individual Districts – and to keep the lower classes fighting one another rather than the Capitol. Katniss cannot afford sympathy for the other Tributes, so how can we, seeing the Games through her eyes? I perhaps think that there could have been a greater element of menace to the other Tributes, but I am unsurprised by their (general) lack of development. It is a survival technique.

The after-effects of the Games on the Tributes is another under-explored area, although I suspect and hope the other books will explore this. Enough is said of Haymitch to hint that the psychological damage could be great, and one angle I had hardly considered is highlighted towards the end of the book. The descent into the necessary violence needed to survive would have to be traumatic, and whoever wins the Games must have killed at least one child – several seems more likely. The ill-effects of this I expect to see explored in Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

I liked Katniss. I’ve read some negative criticism of her, as well as some positive thoughts, but I understand the slightly bewildered response to being told that someone believes they are in love with you, and the possibly negative response which that can engender. She behaved, as far as I was concerned, like an ordinary teenager with too much on her hands, except perhaps for the obvious differences in her position:

Days of hunting and gathering for this one meal and even then it would be a poor substitute for the Capitol version. What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?

I did think, for most of the novel, that the love-story seemed tacked-in, especially the third angle. But then again, so did Katniss, it seems. It made sense to play the audience, and that the audience would be played by this. It also made sense that separation could make the heart grow fonder. I was happy to be following her through these games; definitely happier than I would have been following the sap Peeta, who I’m not entirely expecting to carry the film. Nonetheless, a book enjoyed. And more than I meant to said about it, now I come to think of it. More after I see the film on Wednesday! Apologies for indulging in hype…

* I will also confess a certain wariness which relates to the probability that people think Japan>America. Too much of me doubts the likelihood that the praise for Battle Royale is as simple as it being a better film.