Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 633, August 21, 2011

"Country folks are different than city folks."

Previous Previous Table of Contents Contents Next Next

Two Dystopias
A book, movie and manga review

by Eric Oppen

Bookmark and Share

Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, Haika Soru, 2003
Battle Royale: The Manga by Koushun Takami and Mayasuki Taguchi, translated by Keith Giffen and Tomo Iwo, 2006
Battle Royale: The Movie directed by Kinji Fukasuku, Battle Royale Production Committee, 2000.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2008
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2009
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2010

Picture a world where children are randomly selected, and forced to fight each other in an arena until only one survives. Is this Hell? No, this is the future—the future of Battle Royale or The Hunger Games.

Battle Royale came first, being published in Japan after it was rejected from a writing contest for being too bloody. As can be imagined, this led to a considerable succes de scandale, and the book was a huge seller. It was adapted into a manga (Japanese comic) and made into a movie; all three versions vary somewhat, but the basic plot is the same.

In an alternate-history Japan that apparently won World War II, (book or manga) or a future Japan plagued by serious youth delinquency (in the movie), a program called the "BR (Battle Royale) Program" is initiated by the government, a dictatorship called the "Greater East Asia Republic." Under the auspices of this program, randomly-selected classes of 9th-graders (approximately fifteen years old) are taken without warning, fitted with remote-controlled explosive collars, placed in an isolated area, issued with food, water, maps, and weapons or "random surprises" and made to fight each other until only one survives. The rationale for this varies according to the version: in the novel, it's originally a military program designed to test response to extreme stress situations, in the manga, it's a very popular reality-TV show (at least in the English translation; I am informed that this is a change from the actual Japanese text, but I do not have access to that, nor to anybody who can reliably tell me about this) and in the movie, it's an attempt by the government to deal with a huge rise in juvenile delinquency and youth rebellion.

One of the actual reasons is not stated openly, but is admitted to in private during the story. The real reason for the Battle Royale program is to terrify and awe the citizens into compliance with government dictates, and to make it clear that nobody at all can be trusted. Seeing young children, just like their own, killing their best friends, drives that lesson home.

Despite her works' clear similarities to Battle Royale, Suzanne Collins has stated that before her work hit the market and people began comparing them, she had never heard of Battle Royale. And while the scenarios are very similar in many ways, there are also a lot of differences.

Unlike Battle Royale, which takes place in a Japan that is at least recognizable, The Hunger Games are set in a future society called "Panem," which is said to be in North America, and to have arisen after a catastrophe of some sort.

Panem consists of twelve "Districts," each one devoted to a specific industry. One district, for example, specializes in electronics, another, in timber and wood products, yet another produces fish and seafood, and another mines coal. All twelve Districts are ruled from a city known as "The Capitol," which is stated to be set somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.

At some time after the founding of Panem, the Districts revolted against the Capitol, which fought back with, among other things, newly-created creatures designed to make things difficult for the rebels. After the Capitol crushed the rebels, it was decided that, to punish the Districts, every year afterward the "Reaping" would be held, in which the names of all children aged twelve to eighteen would be placed in a container, and a boy and girl, selected at random, would be taken to the Capitol, and placed into "the Arena" to compete in the Hunger Games. The winner gets to go home alive, while the others return in boxes.

To make the deal more interesting, the Capitol adds yet another twist. Life in many of the Districts is very hard, and starvation is by no means unknown. Those subject to Reaping can receive "tesserae" entitling them to extra rations of food and fuel, by putting their names in for Reaping more than the single time that is mandatory.

For the winner, life can seem very sweet. Winners get nice houses, stipends from the government, and a good many privileges, particularly vis-à-vis their neighbors. Also, even if they're still young enough to be eligible, they are exempted from future Reapings. However, this does come at a price. Winners are required to mentor and help train their districts' future tribute children, and accompany them to the Capitol to see them compete in the Hunger Games. And winners' children are not, themselves, exempted from Reaping in their own turn when they come of age for it. Many winners also come out of the arena traumatized; PTSD is very common. The winner we see most is an alcoholic, and others are portrayed as addicted to "morphling," a narcotic.

We see very little of the winners of the BR Program, in contrast. At one point, the viewpoint characters watch the coverage of the end of one Program, and the winner, a girl, is said to be the first insane person they've ever seen. Another winner is portrayed in some detail, but he is extremely atypical. It is stated in passing that BR Program winners have a very high suicide rate; they're set up with pensions and new places to live, but many of them cannot live with what they've had to do.

Both these works follow contestants in these deadly games, who find themselves thrown into a terrifying situation, and have to somehow survive.

Shuya Nanahara (called "Shuuya" in the manga for unclear reasons) is the main character of Battle Royale. An orphan, he lives with his best friend Yoshitoki Kuninobu at an children's home run by a religious organization. He's popular with his classmates and good at sports, but his true love is the outlawed music known as "rock and roll." He jams on his electric guitar every chance he gets, heedless of the fact that being caught playing rock can land him in prison.

One day, he and his class go on what they think is a routine trip. While on a bus, Shuya notices that everybody seems to be falling asleep, and is puzzled by the actions of a burly, scarred transfer student, Shogo Kawada. Shogo tries to break the bus window with his bare fist, finally succumbing to slumber with a muttered "bastards..." just before Shuya falls asleep himself.

Along with the rest of his class, Shuya awakens in a strange classroom that he's never seen before. In the movie, a man who was once their teacher before resigning in disgust at their delinquent ways comes in; in the book and manga, a stranger enters. (The book, movie and manga have different names and personalities for this person.) The newcomer tells them that they have been selected for the Battle Royale program, and sets out the rules:

Everybody participates. Nobody is exempted, period. The child of a prominent or wealthy family has the same chances to win as the child brought up in an orphanage.

The collars they have been fitted with are equipped with electronic transmitters, and are explosive. At various times, "forbidden zones" will be announced, and five minutes after such an announcement, any collar detected in a forbidden zone will be exploded by remote control.

They will be issued a bag, containing a map of the area they are in (an island, although other Battles Royale have taken place in fenced-off urban areas, at least according to the manga) with the zones marked, a supply of food and water, a compass, and a randomly-selected weapon or a "surprise."

The game ends when only one player is left alive.

If no kills are detected in twenty-four consecutive hours, all collars will be detonated automatically. (The collars are able to detect if their wearers are alive or not.)

Other than that, there are no rules. Any method of killing is fine. With this, the players are issued with their supplies and released, one at a time.

Shuya has always been a rebel against the Greater East Asian Republic's government, and refuses to go along with the program, though. Teaming up with a couple of his classmates, he sets out to try to escape.

In contrast, the Hunger Games' contestants know in advance what is coming. Every year, the "Reaping" takes place. The Reaping is a random drawing of the names of one boy and one girl, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, from every district of Panem save only the Capitol itself.

Katniss Everdeen is a survivor type long before the novel opens. After losing her father in a mining accident, she was forced into the role of family provider, learning to illegally hunt and trap and find wild plants for her own use and to trade for other necessities. She is very protective of her little sister, Primrose (Prim); refusing to allow her to enter her name in the Reaping extra times for extra rations and entering her own name as often as is allowed.

When, to her horror, Prim's name is drawn, despite the thousands-to-one chances against it, Katniss refuses to allow her to come forward, volunteering to take her place, as is permitted by the rules of the Games. This touches the hearts of her fellow citizens, who offer her the only salutes in their power: refusing to applaud on command, and, instead, giving her a gesture of farewell normally only used at the funeral of someone very much loved.

Her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark, is the son of the town's baker. When Kat was in a very bad way after her father's death, he saved her and her family by deliberately burning bread and then giving it to her instead of throwing it out. He shows, in many ways, that he loves her, but Kat is determined never to marry or have children. She does not want any child of hers to be subject to the Reaping.

The actual Hunger Games come only after the tributes have been made over and made into temporary media stars. Kat and Peeta have the luck to have a very talented designer, who comes up with some extraordinary costumes for their presentation to the people of the Capitol.

In both books, the protagonists are merely trying to survive at first, but inadvertently become focuses of resistance to the game, and the regime that sponsors it. Katniss becomes "the Mockingjay," a symbol of the rebellion that simmers under the surface of Panem, by resisting the games in little ways: by befriending Rue, a wispy little tribute that reminds her of her own sister, even when it would have been easy to kill her; by singing Rue a lullaby when she's dying and covering her with flowers once she's gone, and, at the end of the game, openly planning a double suicide with Peeta rather than win at his expense. She goes on to be the public face of rebellion, and one of its titular leaders.

Shuya, on the other hand, becomes the most wanted man in the Greater East Asia Republic when he, along with a girl classmate with whom he teamed up, slips through the nets and escapes the island alive. In a very bad movie sequel, he joins a terrorist movement dedicated to bringing down the Republic's government and ending the Battle Royale Program.

The action in the two works is quite dissimilar; the Hunger Games and its two sequels focus almost entirely on Kat, while Battle Royale gives its readers or viewers a look at nearly every member of Shuya's unfortunate class. We meet the class beauty (a terribly damaged person who uses her sexuality as a weapon), a pacifist kung-fu expert, a group of girls trying to hole up and hide, and one extremely deadly opponent who turns out to be the biggest threat of all. In the book and manga, far more than in the movie, we get to know all of these people, at least somewhat, and to feel the loss at their deaths.

I have been asked the question of which would be worse to deal with: the Battle Royale Program or the Hunger Games? While both programs, and the governments that sponsor them, are as vile as can be, I would have to say that I would infinitely prefer the Greater East Asian Republic to Panem.

First off... I would only be in danger of my life at one point in the Republic; after I had exited ninth grade, I'd no longer be eligible for the Battle Royale program. In contrast, in Panem I'd be facing the Reaping every year from my twelfth birthday on to my nineteenth.

Secondly, and very importantly, the Republic does not change the rules in the middle of the Battle Royale just for grins and giggles. An important plot point in The Hunger Games comes when a major rule change is announced, then rescinded, then un-rescinded at the last possible second to prevent a catastrophe. In the second book, Catching Fire, against all prior expectations and their own announced policies, people who have already won the Games once are forced back into the arena; this is so appalling, even by Panem's standards, that even the jaded citizens of the Capitol are moved to protest. In contrast, the rules of the Battle Royale program are laid out in advance, and adhered to. Get caught in a restricted area, and your explosive collar will blow your head off; it's each contestant's responsibility to keep track of where those areas are. But they are announced ahead of time, on loudspeakers that can be heard throughout the entire area of play, and nobody is killed by remote control while the loudspeakers chortle: "Oh, we changed our minds—Sector D-4 was a danger zone half an hour ago!"

While these are very different works, they bear enough resemblance, accidentally or otherwise, to repay comparison. And both works deserve to be examined and studied. Katniss Everdeen and Shuya Nanahara are young people who richly repay the readers who follow their adventures.

Was that worth reading?
Then why not:


The Ready Store

Big Head Press