Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Other Hunger Games

A class of junior high students is taken to a deserted island where, as part of a ruthless authoritarian program, they are provided arms and forced to kill until only one survivor is left. Collars are strapped to their necks containing monitors that keep track of their movements and bombs that will go off if a certain amount of time passes without a death. This isn't the Hunger Games trilogy, it's Battle Royale, a novel written in Japan by Koushun Takami in 1999.

The teenagers (in Japan middle schoolers are usually 14) wake up in a classroom after being gassed unconscious. They are given their instructions and sent out into the island one at a time, each given a duffel bag containing a random weapon. Some of the bags contain guns, crossbows, knives, and other obvious weapons. One bag contains a bulletproof vest. Another a common dinner fork. Then the students decide how they react to the game.

Koushun Takami's novel triumphs in a couple of different ways. The first is by showing a broad range of reactions to the situation while fully developing dozens of well-rounded characters. Some students completely break down. Some decide to play the game. Some focus on using weapons, others on using cunning. Some form teams. Others go it alone. The heroes of the story are constantly trying to organize the students to not fight each other, but the system that created the game. Another group uses their computer and engineering smarts to try to attack the adult compound using a computer virus delivered by a makeshift weather balloon. What's amazing is how Takami maintains a sympathy for the students, even those who act evil, by always showing how they were put in situations they could not control. Only the adults and their system are accused of being evil.

The second triumph is that, despite the bite-your-nails pace of action and tension, and the stomach-churning violence, Takami tells a story about the importance of trust and love in the human community. The tragedies that occur, and there are many, are always preceded by a break down of trust, by fear temporarily defeating love. In all the horror and gore that distinguishes this book, there is a beautiful undercurrent. By the end of the book, it isn't cunning or violence or physical strength or martial prowess that triumphs, but love and trust.

I should warn readers that the violence in the book is akin to contemporary "Mature" rated video games and that parents should use their discretion in deciding whether it is appropriate for their teenagers. But the violence has a point. It's not just for the adrenaline rush; it critiques the violence inherent in any society that treats people like objects. This is a difficult, emotionally challenging book, but it is worth the heartbreak. In the end, the other Hunger Games is a beautiful appeal to what is best about people, and I for one, was more willing to trust when I closed the book.

1 comment:

Brandy said...

This is a great synopsis--I wish I'd been able to say it so clearly when I compared BR and Hunger Games! I was impressed (though horrified) with Battle Royale, far more than I'd expected to be. Kudos to PSB for promoting it!

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