Hunger Games v. Battle Royale: Deja vu in simplification

No. No, no, no, no, no. For once, I will step out of my normal realm of being ironic and trite to give a solid argument on something that has been bothering me for the past few weeks.

Hunger Games v. Battle Royale

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins and “Battle Royale” By Koushun Takami have nothing to do with each other. They both, however, have young children committing terrible acts of violence upon each other. The same can be said for “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, which also features children killing each other.

Much like how I said so in a review of Usamaru Furuya’s “Lychee Light Club,” while it is similar to “Lord of the Flies,” it is unfair to compare the two books based on the goring of young children (Furuya’s work is better explained as Macbethian than anything). Just the same, back when I first read “Battle Royale,” I argued that the book was nothing close to being a modern day “Lord of the Flies.” They both simply take place on an island where children kill each other. It would be like comparing “A Farewell to Arms” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” because they both feature the First World War and its anguishing experiences, or that Takuya Kimura and Jin Akanishi are the same because they’re both successful Johnny & Associates boy band members — one’s a suave lady killer, the other married Meisa Kuroki.

To begin, I’ll orient people very quickly in case either book is unfamiliar. To clarify, I’m not going to talk about the manga or movie rendition for either book, as 1) I have yet to see “Hunger Games” in theaters 2) I have never bothered to see the “Battle Royale” movie 3) the manga is horrible and 4) it allows me to eliminate confounding variables.

In “Battle Royale,” a class of 42 third-year middle school students living in an authoritarian Japan is forced to kill each other on an island. “The Hunger Games” follows the story of 24 children sent to kill each other for the entertainment of an authoritarian regime. Both, of course, feature isolation, murder and teenaged children as a central theme. However, the meaning of death in each instance is drastically different. “Battle Royale” has forced agency (an outside force strong-arming the children) to kill while the “Hunger Games” has voluntary aspects to its participation.

Each of these books deals with young adolescent children killing each other for various reasons. photo by Tomo Hirai

As senseless as the violence is in “Battle Royale,” the combined deaths of all the students tell the story. While it ultimately focuses on Shuya, Noriko and Shogo’s bid for survival, the deaths of each student also tell the story of failure to survive. Takami begins with 42 students to dwindle the numbers down, showing off each death in an act of futility. Takami uses the deaths as something like a countdown timer by noting how many students are alive at the end of each chapter. A central theme throughout the story is the undying hope that someone in the game will find a way to escape, while the number slowly dwindles down into the single digits.

In contrast, while Katniss, the heroine does not necessarily want to be in the Hunger Games, her participation is voluntary. Much the same, several of the more affluent competitors from other sectors volunteer themselves after training the better half of their early lives to become champions. While some of the competitors are given forced agency to kill each other (such as Rue), the greater half of participants in the game train themselves to win, not escape. Thus, the deaths carry on an entirely different meaning. While the Games require two children from each sector, they are not necessarily friends, and they certainly are not aiming to become friends with the children from any of the other sectors. Katniss, throughout the games, does not think about escaping, but to triumph.

Combined with the death, the authoritarian law also is treated very differently between the settings. While cruel governments are central to both stories, the goals differ. One is based in psychological warfare, but the other is based on punishment. The intents are spelled out clearly in both cases. It is also important to note that that both governments are thus subverted in completely different ways.

The Games are based on the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. Collins said her Panem was like Crete, demanding children as sacrifice for punishment. She further drew from Roman gladiators, which combined mortal combat and entertainment, and updated it to have a more modern reality TV setting. Thus, its subversion is based on the very media its orchestrators rely upon. Katniss is as much a political player of images as she is a fighter. Ultimately, Katniss subverts the Games and Panem through its own devices.

Meanwhile, The Program in “Battle Royale” is pitched as an “experiment” orchestrated by the government, but the real meaning is made apparent later in the book. The Program ultimately sends a psychological message to the people of Japan: “don’t trust anyone but yourself.” It is a tactic to keep anti-government forces at bay in an authoritarian state. The media plays a smaller role and is only meant to instill the fear with the fact that The Program exists. The children thus are driven by a more basic drive for survival. The subversion of the Program can then be described as simply surviving the ordeal without being the last man standing.

Whereas Shuya spends the greater portion of the novel working to rescue his friends and find a way to escape, Katniss spends the book preparing to kill everyone with whatever it takes. She was sure 23 people were going to die — and those she didn’t want to kill, she wished in the back of her mind that she would not be the one killing them. Katniss’ goal lay more on flipping the bird at the privileged denizens of Panem as much as coming out on top. She is conscious of the millions of onlookers watching her on the battlefield and many of her actions throughout the book are driven by the cameras focusing on her. Shuya’s world is smaller and while he hates the government, he is far more focused on escaping. While, in the end, he is successful in landing a solid blow to Japan’s despotic government, it is more an icing on the cake for the readers.

Ultimately, both books are individually good and well worth the read. I don’t think either book is better than the other. Enjoy them both, but don’t judge a book by another’s cover.

As a blog located on a nonprofit based on ethnic empowerment, you’d think I’d talk about the exasperation surrounding Amandla Stenberg’s casting as Rue, but you see, I’m not about to waste my time arguing against a bunch of bigots.

About Tomo Hirai

For more than half a decade, Tomo Hirai has whittled his time away playing video games and reading comics. He has been writing about Japanese pop-culture since his start at the Nichi Bei Times working on Anime/Manga special issues.

Comments

  1. Well… $#%&@! That was in no way helpful. I’ve just feihsind The Hunger Games. I can’t get it out of my head, so I can’t read anything else, so I’m rereading it (and only 50 pages from the end now, again). And it’s very likely that the bookstores here in our fairly remote community won’t even get in their copies of Catching Fire till well after Sept 1–and my family will be visiting me from Sept 5-13, so I probably wouldn’t be able to get much reading done then.Clearly, I just have to win your giveaway in order to have any hope of getting it read before the family arrives. Otherwise, I might perish from suspense! (But then–oh dear, how will I wait for the third one?)

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