If you think that “The Hunger Games” is about the cruelties adults inflict upon children, then you should try reading Dostoevsky. In one of the most memorable chapters of “The Brothers Karamazov,” Ivan Karamazov confronts his younger brother, Alyosha, with a list of horrifying crimes against children (“I copy them down from newspapers,” he explains). One article tells how, as a punishment for bed-wetting, a middle-class mother and father beat their daughter, force her to eat her own excrement, and then lock her overnight in their freezing outhouse. In another, a little boy is hunted down and torn apart by his landlord’s prized wolfhounds as punishment for having thrown a stone at one of them. (The stories are likely true; Dostoevsky drew them from newspapers and court records.) Ivan’s question for Alyosha: How can you still love God when He lets such things happen? “I’m not talking about the suffering of grown-ups, they ate the apple and to hell with them… but these little ones!” Even supposing that the suffering of innocent children does, somehow, make sense to God, no amount of holy grace or harmony is worth the pain of that little girl “who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed to ‘dear God’ in a stinking outhouse.” In the end, Ivan concludes, “It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.” The chapter, appropriately enough, is called “Rebellion.”
Say what you will about the new film version of “The Hunger Games”—one thing it’s not is rebellious. A key to the film’s success is that it only flirts with real violence, pain, and outrage—in the end, it’s a family film, which offers parents a chance to bond with their kids over the bewildering nastiness that is adolescence. If it’s rebellion you want, you’re better off seeing the Japanese film “Battle Royale,” made in 2000 and newly available on DVD in the U.S., which anticipated “The Hunger Games” and, in many ways, bettered it. “Battle Royale” is also about a group of teen-agers murdering each other in a gladiatorial contest. But its extreme violence and candor—it was nearly banned by the Japanese Diet—lets it say the things “The Hunger Games” can’t quite bring itself to say.
“Battle Royale” was also adapted from a best-selling novel, and the two films tell similar (and similarly senseless) stories. “Battle Royale” takes place in a dystopian version of present-day Japan, in which a massive disconnect between the generations has led to the passage of the Millennium Education Reform Act. The Act requires that, each year, a ninth-grade class be transported to a deserted island, where they will murder each other until only one student survives. (The film opens with a shot of last year’s winner, a smiling girl in a school uniform, dripping with blood.) The first half-hour of “Battle Royale” is extraordinary and surreal. One minute, the students are horsing around on the bus, on the way to what they take to be a field trip; the next, a creepy teacher is giving them a murderous civics lesson. “Because of folks like Kuninobu here,” he says, pointing to one of the students, “this country’s absolutely no good anymore. So the bigwigs got together and passed this law: Battle Royale. So today’s lesson is you kill each other off until there’s only one left…. Life is a game, so fight for survival and find out if you’re worth it!” With that, the students are armed, and the killing begins. (Unlike “The Hunger Games,” “Battle Royale” is funny and self-aware: each kid’s backpack includes a randomly chosen weapon, and the two most likable kids are cursed—they receive a pot lid and a pair of binoculars.)
In terms of violence, “Battle Royale” is to “The Hunger Games” as punk is to emo; in “Battle Royale,” the killing is relentless, shocking, cruel, and bloody. In an early scene, two earnest girls stand on a bluff, using a megaphone to suggest that everyone put down their weapons, get together, and make a peace pact; they are machine-gunned from behind, and their killer uses the megaphone to broadcast the agonies of their death to the entire island. In another scene, a boy suggests to a popular girl that they might make love, so that they won’t die without losing their virginity; when he threatens to force the issue with his crossbow, she wrestles him to the ground and stabs him repeatedly in the groin. Quentin Tarantino cast this actress, Chiaki Kuriyama, as Gogo, the mace-wielding schoolgirl, in “Kill Bill.” He’s said that “Battle Royale” is the one film released since he started making movies that he wished he’d made.
If it’s your sort of thing, this violence makes the film dramatically more entertaining than “The Hunger Games,” which, because of its PG-13 rating, must be evasive and sentimental about the pain and killing that is supposedly its subject. But the violence also makes “Battle Royale” more horrifying and, in a disturbing way, more realistic and trenchant. Where “The Hunger Games” offers only a gentle critique of the culture of competition, “Battle Royale” is a terrifying, endless howl of protest. This, the film suggests, is what the adult world is really like: it starts with a period of longing and uncertainty, in which you wish, pointlessly, that things were otherwise; it progresses through a series of (literally) gut-wrenching and heart-stopping betrayals and compromises; and then it culminates in a slow, painful, lonely, and humiliating death. In the explanatory text at the beginning of the movie, we’re informed that things are this way not because some apocalyptic event has destroyed society but simply because of prolonged economic malaise and unemployment. “Battle Royale” isn’t a postapocalyptic movie. It thinks of itself as taking place in today’s world. Near the end, an intertitle offers some very sincere advice to the teen-agers in the audience. “No matter how far,” it says, “run for all you’re worth. Run!”
As it happens, that’s advice offered to the young from an old man: the film’s director, Kinji Fukasaku, was seventy when he made “Battle Royale.” “Those were my words to the next generation of young people,” he explained to an interviewer. In a conversation with Steve Rose of The Guardian, Fukasaku explains that, as a boy during the Second World War, he worked with other kids in a munitions factory; when Allied bombs fell, they would use each other as human shields, then work together to clear the bodies afterwards. “We didn’t really blame each other,” he said, “but it made me understand about the limits of friendship.” Fukasaku is especially famous in Japan for his classic 1973 yakuza film, “Battles Without Honor and Humanity,” which is based on the prison memoirs of an actual yakuza killer. It’s also an apt title for “Battle Royale_._”
Does “The Hunger Games” contain in it, somewhere, the darkness of “Battle Royale”? Probably not (although Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout film, “Winter’s Bone,” just might). The hopefulness in “The Hunger Games” is what ultimately makes it feel like a product designed for kids by their parents. It’s typical of parents, really, to try to turn every tragedy into a positive experience. “Battle Royale,” with its existential pessimism, seems truer to the teen-age id. As George Eliot pointed out in “Middlemarch”: “If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about us.” “Battle Royale” gives expression to that most teen-age of feelings: refusal.
Film still from “Battle Royale”: courtesy of the Everett Collection.
After reading the entire Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins over a weekend roughly a year ago, I became aware of the Battle Royale franchise, created over a decade ago by Japanese writer Koushun Takami. Both deal with the same grisly topic: a group of teenagers thrown into an arena forced to battle one another to the death (actually, this is a horrific concept; how did it ever become so popular?!). Collins has been accused of stealing the idea from Takami though she claims to have never heard of the franchise. I was able to compare them myself when I found the manga at my local library and dove through them. My clear favourite is The Hunger Games, though that’s mostly because I struggled with the sickeningly graphic content of Battle Royale, often skimming entire chapters to avoid it. But this aside, there are various interesting points of comparison.
The stories differed in their treatment of characters. The Hunger Games spent a large amount of time developing the central characters of the trilogy, forcing the audience to really invest in their struggle. Battle Royale, in contrast, would develop each character to the same extent and then, in most cases, kill them off shortly afterwards. This created a ‘shock factor’ but became tiring after a while, making me reluctant to care about any of the characters. The Hunger Games did this too, most prominently with Rue, but I feel Collins handled it better. However once the characters had been established it’s up for debate which franchise dealt with them better. I think they’re generally equal in this respect; The Hunger Games’ Katniss, Peeta, Gale and Prim are all very rounded characters, while a significant number of supporting characters also seem to have depth. I would argue that Battle Royale does well in establishing Shuya, Noriko, Shogo, Mimura, Sugimura, Kiriyama and Mitsuko, but the rest come across as a little two-dimensional, having just one defining characteristic such as ‘frosty’ or ‘elitist’.
In Battle Royale there’s a clearer divide between the students who are ‘playing’ the game and those who refuse to go along with it. This idea is briefly present in The Hunger Games where you have ‘Careers’, who volunteer in order to win, then just those who are scared and run, but I do like Battle Royale’s focus on battling the government. Mimura makes a bomb to target the base of operations and the story ultimately ends with the slaughter of the game planners. Katniss’ desire to simply keep her family alive fits with her character and I’m not criticising it, but as a reader the rebellion in Battle Royale was more fulfilling. That said, the subtle approach of The Hunger Games is also commendable. Katniss causes riots in District 11 through her televised honouring of Rue in death, and the country is brought to the brink of a full-scale uprising after she and Peeta attempt suicide to deprive the government of a winner. This develops in the subsequent novels, with a large group of tributes in Catching Fire refusing to ‘play’ and planning an escape. So it’s difficult to say which approach I preferred.
One issue I had with the characters of Battle Royale was the attitude towards female characters. With a couple of exceptions they were generally treated either as weak characters dependent on the boys or sexual objects. This particularly bothered me every time Shogo told Shuya to “protect Noriko.” It was Noriko who ultimately shot Kiriyama, fatally wounding him, but this is the exception. Katniss, in contrast, must be among the most resilient and able characters in the entire trilogy. Characters in general felt more realistic in The Hunger Games – girls were neither simply ‘weak’ nor ‘strong’ and the male characters ranged from fierce bullies like Cato to the softer personality of Peeta. A contrast might be made between Peeta and Shuya, both being idealistic and loving characters. I can’t pick a preference between them.
Both stories present fascinating dystopian worlds. The Hunger Games is set far in the future in a society built from the ashes of the USA, while Battle Royale is set in Japan in roughly the present day that developed along an alternative timeline. Both use their respective games to instill terror in the population and keep them in their place. Though I couldn’t help noticing the dangers of both systems in provoking the population into an uprising. This concept is eventually explored in The Hunger Games, where Katniss’ actions do provide ‘the spark’ for civil war. This indicates that Panem is near the verge of collapse by the beginning of the story, which I believe is partly a consequence of The Hunger Games providing a *major* grievance for the non-Capitol majority. The Capitol’s strategy to rule solely through fear is what ultimately destroys it – though that’s a discussion for another day.
Interestingly, I believe the original Japanese version of Battle Royale does not include The Program being a TV show. This solves many inconsistencies I found in the (somewhat sloppy, I have to say) English version. This could be one reason why the government is more stable; The Program is less prominent and more of a myth. Like how the Nazis deliberately released prisoners from concentration camps to spread stories and fear throughout the population, The Program serves as a stick to batter fear into the population, preventing them from speaking out in case their children are targeted. Indeed, there are no signs that the government is under any threat throughout the story. The Hunger Games explores the political and social situation of Panem more thoroughly than in Battle Royale, but both provide fairly realistic societies. However it’s worth noting that schemes like The Hunger Games or The Program have never to my knowledge actually been tried in history; the closest example I can think of is forcing slaves to fight to the death in Ancient Rome.
In terms of the world outside of the totalitarian state, Battle Royale is a clear winner. I was always frustrated by The Hunger Games’ lack of any detail regarding other countries in the world. Despite being set in a semi-post apocalyptic world, they live in a mostly functioning society which would suggest that the planet is capable of supporting life elsewhere. I don’t see why they shouldn’t have the capabilities to contact these other nations. It makes the story simpler and perhaps more coherent when Panem is the only country, but it’s less convincing. On the other hand I enjoyed the discussion in Battle Royale about escaping to the USA, and the idea that Japan was viewed by the rest of the world as a crazy, rogue state. It’s also hinted that the world doesn’t know about The Program, suggesting the depth of Japan’s hermit status – rather like North Korea in our world today. Battle Royale ends with Shuya and Noriko successfully escaping to the USA, though I’d like to have seen more of the international reaction to their testimonies. So neither is perfect in this field.
Overall, both The Hunger Games and Battle Royale provide great portrayals of the same concept. I can’t comment on the way they developed the ideas due to one being a trilogy of novels and the other, in the form I read it, being a manga. As I said my overall preference is for The Hunger Games, but Battle Royale certainly takes a different perspective on many themes. Both are worth reading, though Battle Royale isn’t for the faint of heart.
- The Hunger Games: 9.5/10
- Battle Royale: 7.5/10
- See this essay for a a similar comparison which comes to a contrary conclusion.