Classics, Japanese, John Okada

No-No Boy by John Okada

John Okada’s No-No Boy is the story of Ichiro Yamada, a young Japanese-American man who comes of age during World War II. He and his family are forced into a Japanese internment camp for two years, after which Ichiro is ironically drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. When he refuses to serve, he is arrested and imprisoned, ultimately losing his freedom for another two years.

The story begins just after Yamada has been released from prison. The war has ended and the Japanese-Americans are coming to terms with what this means for them. Some, like Ichiro’s friends, served as “proud Americans” and now look to return home as military heroes, taking their place in a grateful society. Others, like Ichiro’s mother, refuse to believe that Japan lost. They consider any anti-Japanese sentiment, even the most clearly documented, factual evidence, as nothing more than American propaganda. And others, like Ichiro, who refused to serve, struggle to find a place at all. They are neither American nor Japanese, anymore, and they are vilified by almost everyone.

No-No Boy was a surprise for me, in two ways. First, it is not the story I expected. I went into this believing that it would be a direct and damning critique of what the United States government did to the Japanese-Americans during World War II. But, it’s not that. Ichiro’s character, and those who surround him, elucidate just how complex and convoluted the reactions to this time were, even for those whose lives and livelihoods had been robbed. It was uncomfortable to read any perspective that was at all gracious to this time period, but even more so discomfiting to read it from the perspective of a young Japanese man.

The second surprise was in the prose itself. Reading Okada had me thinking of a bizarre marriage between F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.D. Salinger. I imagined the two had a young Japanese-American child, and that child became a writer named John Okada. His style is acerbic and beautiful, pointed and meandering. He reveals, in his prose, the same complications and confusions reflected in the time and people surrounding his main character. Even the somewhat cliche ending, which felt, in the moment, like a tragic disappointment to me as a reader, developed in my mind over the ensuing twenty-four hours into something obvious and unavoidable, and painfully sad.

To put it plainly, Okada is a subtle genius, and his work is both challenging and unique. I believe Asian-American writing is on the verge of being more thoughtfully recognized and fully embraced, something that is long overdue. Okada should be a staple in this deserved renaissance.

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Book Review, Dystopia, Fiction, Horor, Japanese, Koushun Takami, Politics, Pop Culture, Sociology, Violence

Review: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 25


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Every year, in the Republic of East Asia, one 3rd-year Junior High class, made up of 15-year olds, is selected at random to participate in a Battle Royal – an epic fight to the death, where the final student to survive is crowned the winner.  The rationale for this yearly “program” is that the totalitarian government uses the events as a learning exercise for their military but, in reality, it is simply a way of generating fear and total devotion to the government.  The kids believe they are on a school trip, but as they are journeying via bus, a sleeping agent is released and everyone wakes up inside a classroom, where they discover they have been collared with an electronic device which not only monitors their whereabouts but will also explode if they try to escape or are caught in certain “forbidden zones” on the island where they have been relocated. The kids each get one bag of supplies, including one random weapon (ranging from simple instruments like a sharp stick or ice pick, to hand grenades and even a machine gun).  Suddenly, these classmates and friends are pitted against each other – some become killers out of fear, some because they were destined to be all along, and others only take lives while trying to save their own. 


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

There is a wide range of characters in this story, which is necessary with a cast of more than 40 people (42 students, initially, plus their schoolmaster, the game director, security guards, parents, etc.).  While there is a lack of depth in the more “evil” of characters (those like Kazuo and Mitsuko who are soulless and violent for the sake of being violent), there are certain characters who are truly interesting to watch, and who the reader might root for, such as Shinji, the sweet and brilliant computer nerd who has a plan to escape, and Shogo, the boy who seems a bit older than the rest and who has incredible secrets.  The two main characters, Noriko and Shuya, develop well over the course of the story – they grow somewhat as individuals and also as a couple (and, with Shogo, as a team).  The varied responses and ways of “playing the game” are reflected well in the diverse types of personalities present in this group of school kids, which makes a sometimes unbelievable plot feel more realistic and natural. 


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

The story reads somewhat like an action movie-meets manga/graphic novel.  It is, at times, ridiculously over-the-top and cheesy.  Some of the dialogue, particularly the internal dialogue, is silly and very much “Japanese Pop” in nature.  The dialogue felt, at times, stiff, unnatural, and not at all in keeping with the age level of these kids or with the nature of the story which is quite dark, but which sometimes feels self-parodied (as if the writer sometimes felt self-conscious about his own seriousness, or lack thereof). Still, the book is appropriately fast-paced and the breaking up of chapters to focus on different characters is interesting in that it allows the reader an inside-look at everyone involved.  Keeping the book narrated in the third-person also means that the reader does not need to rely too heavily on a possibly flawed narrator.  The book’s structure might be its greatest achievement, as it is extremely difficult to care about characters in a book whose point-of-view, so to speak, changes on a constant basis.  There was some choppiness and grammar/spelling errors due, in part, to the translation – but which should have been caught and corrected during the editing process. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

First of all, it must be said that the similarities between this book and The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (which came after Battle Royale) are prevalent enough that it would be irresponsible to ignore them.  From the premise itself, to the idea of trackers, from the importance of the bird call to the inclusion of “bags of supplies” for the contestants, from betting on winners to televising the results, from manipulating the game to discourage participants from being idle to awarding the winner a lifetime pension and national fame, the similarities go on and on.  The primary difference, though, is that the Battle Royale game is seen as a military training necessity for Greater East Asia, where as the Hunger Games are specifically meant to be a reminder to the districts of how the Capitol punishes disobedience and disloyalty.  Slim difference.  That being said, the primary idea (which has been retold many times by many authors in many different forms, by now) is brilliant and original.  Although the author does not mention it, it would be hard not to see some minor influence, at least, from The Lord of the Flies.  The study of human nature, group dynamics, and survival instincts by witnessing the actions of teenagers isolated on an inescapable island – of course the influence is there; however, the important distinction is that these children did not land on the island by mistake, they were kidnapped and are being manipulated by their government and their elders.  This says just as much about society and politics as the microcosm of Golding’s island did.  The influence of action films and rock music, too are clear – both in the themes of the story and in its structure; for example, the main character and two main supporting characters (one who aids the main character, the other who is hunting him) are directly inspired by the movie Terminator 2.  The questioning of blind obedience to authority, the themes of oppression, fear, trust, isolation, and the dangers of totalitarian governments and violent Nationalism are all explored and effective.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Pop Culture, Youth Violence, Survival of the Fittest, Fight to the Death, Action, Humanity, Politics, Society, Japanese fiction, Dystopia.


Quotes:

“And so his choice to reduce the numbers of “the enemy” as efficiently as possible wasn’t motivated by rational thoughts but instead by a deeper, primal fear of death.”

“Please live. Talk, think, act. And sometimes listen to music . . . look at paintings, allow yourself to be moved.  Laugh a lot, and at times, cry. And if you find a wonderful girl, then you go for her and love her.”

“It’s not a bad thing to be loved.”

“Their two bodies danced in the air beyond the cliff, their hands still clasped together, the black sea under them.”

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