Mar 16 2012 12:00pm

Eternal Sacrifice of Youths and Maidens: The Hunger Games and Battle Royale

If you google “Hunger Games Japan” as I did, you’ll find an endless parade of articles and blogposts directly and indirectly suggesting that Suzanne Collins borrowed from (or less generously, ripped off) Koushun Takami’s novel Battle Royale, often with a list of point-by-point comparisons between the two.

Ultimately, though, that kind of discussion isn’t very productive, leading nowhere but a kind of literary he-said-she-said; and in any case literature and myth are laden with stories of sacrificing youths and maidens to a higher authority. It’s more interesting that each clearly struck a chord in their native countries when they appeared, each becoming a sensation that was quickly adapted to film.

Battle Royale, published in Japan nearly a decade before The Hunger Games first appeared, hasn’t really caught on in the United States, though it’s known just enough to provoke those comparisons and accusations. The ultra-violent film has a certain cult cachet among aficionados of Asian cinema and genre movies (particularly of the Quentin Tarantino sort), but neither book nor film has gained much cultural traction in America otherwise, not even enough to successfully spawn an American, English-language remake. (It’s probably safe to assume that the Hunger Games film effectively buries any possible Battle Royale American version, at least for the foreseeable future.) One might find it reasonable to wonder why one post-apocalyptic story about teenagers forced to kill teenagers has managed to gain a large mainstream American audience, while the other remains relatively obscure.

The language barrier, of course, is the obvious problem; most people, regardless of their own mother tongue and that of the film they’re watching, still don’t like subtitles. And it has to be said that the English translation of the novel Battle Royale isn’t great prose. Not being a Japanese speaker, I can’t speak to the quality of the writing in the original; however, for a long time, the only English version was a poorly-edited translation laden with typographical errors that was nearly impossible to read without wincing. The 2009 translation is a vast improvement — for one thing, it’s clearly known the loving touch of an attentive editor — but the writing still never quite rises above functional and pedestrian. Collins’ writing might not be the most refined, but it’s certainly engaging; you’re going to be turning pages a lot more quickly there.

Compared to the first-person narrative of The Hunger Games, which keeps the reader firmly in Katniss’s back pocket throughout the entire trilogy, Battle Royale operates with a chilly distance from its characters; even though we spend most of our time with the level-headed, likable schoolboy Shuya Nanahara, the narrative voice never seems gets as close to him as Collins does to Katniss. It’s a tone entirely appropriate to both the subject matter and the scale of the cast — with forty students, you can never really get that close to any of them, although Takami does manage to tell you just enough about each one to invest their deaths with meaning. That sort of narrative coldness seems to be a hard sell in the U.S., particularly in stories where young adults are involved.

As many of the other thoughtful posts here at have pointed out, The Hunger Games resonates with American readers in the ways it touches on so many of our current anxieties and obsessions: teenage violence, exploitative reality television. As well, the characters’ literal life and death struggles serve as a metaphor for the intensity of adolescent experience with its shifting loyalties and seemingly arbitrary adult-defined rules; the physical violence of the Games is felt as strongly as the psychological violence a teen bully inflicts on his victim. 

Though the cast of Battle Royale is a group of 15-year-olds, Takami’s target isn’t particularly youth culture or even popular culture, although the film does play up those elements, as in the unruly class scenes at the beginning and the game-show style video that explains the game to the students. The novel is a savage satire and an indictment of passive societal acceptance of authority. Unlike the Hunger Games, only the winner of the student battle makes it onto the evening news, and the game itself is conducted in secrecy. The battle system, to which a randomly selected class is subjected every year, acts as a kind of punitive tool on the subjects of the Republic of Greater East Asia — and in contrast to Panem, where force and starvation are systematically used to suppress the poorer districts, the Republic seems willing to offer just enough petty freedoms to their subjects to guarantee their acquiescence to the annual slaughter of children. The reasoning for why this works is arguably intimately tied into the context of Japanese culture, as the character Shogo Kawada points out:

I think this system is tailor-made to fit the people of this country. In other words, their subservience to superiors. Blind submission. Dependence on others and group mentality. Conservatism and passive acceptance. Once they’re taught something’s supposedly a noble cause by serving the public good, they can reassure themselves they’ve done something good, even if it means snitching. It’s pathetic. There’s no room for pride, and you can forget about being rational. They can’t think for themselves. Anything that’s too complicated sends their heads reeling. Makes me want to puke.

Of course, a reading not just of Collins, but of the dystopias of Huxley, Orwell, and Atwood that passive acceptance of authority isn’t unique to Japan. Still, Kawada’s rant, positioned halfway through the book, seems to be specifically directed inward, toward his native country, regardless of what name it might be going by. 

These differences aside, both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games are driven by disgust at systems that are willing to throw their children to the wolves — whether it’s to maintain order, provide national entertainment, gain a touch of economic security, or some dreadful combination of the above. As such, it’s not really helpful to argue about whether Collins was even slightly influenced by Takami or by the film — and she says she wasn’t. It’s more interesting to read them both for their respective central themes, and to note that in both cases, the literal sacrifice of the future leaves the characters — and by extension society at large — with deep psychic wounds that will never really heal.

Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.

This article is part of The Hunger Games on ‹ previous | index | next ›
Jeremy Goff
1. JeremyM
This was a nice side by side comparison. This is actually the main reason why it took me so long to read Hunger Games, because I had read Battle Royale first and I kept on thinking that it was a blatant rip off. Once I read the Hunger Games I realized that, though they may have the same central theme, they're very different books. Personally I liked Battle Royale a lot more than I like Hunger Games. The Hunger Games doesn't even come close to the brutality that you see in Battle Royale, it was too clean for me in regards to the premise of the story. On the other hand I cared a lot more to what happened to Katniss than I did the characters in Battle Royale.
Ryan Hodge
2. Ryan Hodge
My first thought on hearing about The Hunger Games was that it was a ripoff of Battle Royale. Reading it changed my mind. As you mention, BR is a scathing indictment of Japanese culture and blind adherence. HG was born in the financial meltdown of 2008, and I'm rather surprised that people are talking about it in terms of "kids and violence" and not as almost a caricature of the current "99% vs. the 1%" discontent leading to rebellion.

Both BR and HG owe as much to King's The Running Man, which in turn is heavily indebted to Steve Allen's early 70s short story (whose name escapes me), which in turn owes much to the 1965 movie The Tenth Victim, based on Robert Sheckley's 1953 short story, which undoubtedly owed a lot to the classic short story "The Most Dangerous Game." (1924). Collins also patterned HG after the myth of Theseus and the labyrinth, and it shows (even down to Katniss' prowess with a bow).

So saying that any of these "stole" from each other is a bit simplistic.

BTW, the Battle Royale manga actually sold quite well in America for TokyoPop.
Ryan Hodge
3. N. Mamatas
As the abovementioned loving editor of the 2009 edition of Battle Royale: The Novel, I have to say that I'm perplexed by the claim that Battle Royale never really caught on in the United States. It's been a consistently excellent seller for nearly a decade now, and any American publisher would be pleased with such a strong title as part of its backlist. The 2009 edition is already in its fourth printing. This is hardly a trade secret; such information is on the credits page of most copies on bookstore shelves today. The buzz around The Hunger Games film has further increased interest in Battle Royale: The Novel. I'm sure this essay will help as well. People are certainly interested in this book.

The idea that the novel is simply not popular enough to spawn a Western remake also implies that a) only popular novels are made into films (no), and b) the only obstacle to a Western remake of a film is lack of relative popularity (no). The actual story behind the lack of a remake thus far is interesting and in parts tragic—the horrible Virginia Tech shooting of 2007 was a factor.

I have no particular knowledge of the state of any negotiations today, but I find it odd that anyone who has paid any attention to the motion picture industry for the past century would think that one popular movie would lower rather than raise the chances of thematically similar films being made.

Ryan @ 2: good call with regards to Stephen King. In the afterword to Battle Royale: The Novel, Koushun Takami cites King as an influence. There are also hints throughout the book itself. For example, the fictional city the characters are from, Shiroiwa, means "Castle Rock." The main influence isn't The Running Man however, but The Long Walk.
Ryan Hodge
4. Ryan Hodge
@N. Mamatas: Thank you for mentioning The Long Walk! To be honest, I thought that Hunger Games owed it more than any other thing listed here, and I completely forgot to mention it. To anyone who hasn't read it, I highly recommend it as one of King's better novels, if only because of it's (sorry about the pun) pace.

Also, didn't the BR manga precede the novel & film? I think it's getting short shrift here; it's awfully well done.
Ryan Hodge
5. N. Mamatas
The novel was first. The manga is certainly a lot of fun, and was also popular for its publisher, as you mentioned.
Michael Grosberg
6. Michael_GR
Most of the people who maintain that HG ripped off BR forget that the idea of pitting children against each other in a fight to the death is simply not that original to begin with. Look at it this way: some ideas are a unique creations of the minds that first thought of them. Asimov practically owns the detective-robot-mistery. Tolkien defined how epic fantasy should be written for decades with his invented races, good-vs-evil plot, mysterious wizard and perilous quest. But a reality show where people have to kill each other? that's not anyone's invention. That's just the zeitgeist, the obvious reaction to watching seasons of "Survivor" and "Big Brother" and "Fear Factor". And having kids as protagonists? well, YA is currently the biggest market for this type of book, so OF COURSE you'd write it with kids as central characters. And it's not like the reality show aspect is that new either. Robert Sheckley wrote a bunch of stories and novel about a reality show where people hunt each other. There was even a movie:
And that was back in 1966!
Ryan Hodge
7. Jessica Strider
Interesting article. And thanks commentors for mentioning other books/stories I need to read. I like dystopian fiction, having read and liked both BR and HG, so it would be cool to read some of the works that influenced them (or at least have similar themes).
Sky Thibedeau
8. SkylarkThibedeau
Like someone else said both are patterned after Theseus and the 14 Athenian Child Tributes to King Minos and the Minotaur.
Ryan Hodge
9. teel77
Yes, I always think of Stephen King's "The Long Walk" when I read the Hunger Games. It's part of The Bachman Books and was originally written under his pen name.
Ryan Hodge
10. Terror and Love
When I first heard people comparing them I got a bit disgusted.

I am not even familiar with either story and I had come to conclusions that the comparisions being made were the type of surface level laziness that alienates me from internet culture sometimes. Unecessary comparisons. Or "OH it has all been done before."

Best thing ever! Worst thing ever! Man its like our scales are busted.

I didnt care who came first or who they took as their inspiration. In fact I like learning who was influenced by what, it makes me want to check out stuff more!
Ryan Hodge
11. mirana
As an American who saw the Battle Royale movie adaptation the year it came out, and remembers the history of it, I can tell you with complete certainty why BR is..."obscure" to you. Something that I'm surprised was over-looked.

BR was released in 2000. The Columbine High School Massacre was in 1999.

BR was shopped around repeatedly for a US release and EVERYONE turned it down due to the timing. The Japanese nearly banned it themselves. American fans tore up the internet trying to get it here. It had a theatrical release internationally in Europe and elsewhere in 2000, but WE still don't even have an official DVD release in this country! Everyone you know who's seen it has a bootleg or watched it online. If you consider that, and the amount of people who know about it, then it is pretty impressive.

In 2000, Hong Kong bootleggers made a killing I bet. The internet buzzed about it. Everyone I knew wanted to see it. A friend of mine told one of his professors that I had a copy, and the prof (of a school I didn't go to) begged me to bring it in so his classes could watch it. As another commentor mentioned, the manga did quite well when it came out. I like it as much as the movie. As the translator pointed out, the book has sold strong as well.

It was an interesting hypothesis on why The Hunger Games might be more popular than BR, but I have to disagree completely. The unfortunate high school shooting spree made everyone shy to bad press from a movie . Foreign film is always going to have a hard time here in wide release anyway (if not re-made first, of course). The book and manga audiences were considered more "niche" and the marketing was not the same as what it is for western books selected for promotion. Etc. Etc.

I will say that though I did find some chapters of BR rather annoyingly optimistic and long when in Shuya's POV, the overall book is impressive. You need to remember that the author of the book, and the director of the film, were WW2 child survivors. They wrote/made BR because they wanted the younger generation to understand what it was like to see your friends die all around you because no one would stand up to a deranged government. The solution they came up with to make it relatable was INGENIOUS and carries much more weight for me.
Jennifer McBride
12. vegetathalas
I loved the Battle Royale manga but never read the book. I also liked Hunger Games. I think that, while the settings are similar (especially since the english translation of the manga makes the games into a TV show), you can appreciate both of them on their own merits. Battle Royale focusses more on violence, while Hunger Games spends a great portion of the games on the pagentry surrounding the violence. Not to mention the sexualization of it.

My preference will always be for the manga, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate Hunger Games, too, especially for having a violent, cranky female protagonist with hints of vulnerable rather than your stereotypical frigid ice princess or damsel in distress whose competence suddenly vanishes when a male character needs to save her...
Theresa DeLucci
13. theresa_delucci
@11 and @3 Yes, I was surprised that Columbine wasn't mentioned at all. I remember when BR came out. While Asian movies and Tarantino fans might not be in the majority, there's still a lot of us. And BR had a LOT of buzz around it among film people because it was so controversial.

My experience watching the movie was identical to @11. We had a region-free PAL DVD player and we scoured the net for places to buy a copy. There was a ton of buzz about it and Tarantino did in fact spread word about it. He cast one of BR's stars as Go-Go Yubari in Kill Bill. I didn't know the film still wasn't available here though! You figure some smart and greedy company would try to capitalize on the popularity spike.

I haven't read HG yet. But enough BR fans have read it and enjoyed it, so I'll give it a shot. On the surface it seems like BR for the squeamish. But I'm sure the voice, as the blogger argues, has more appeal to an American audience and sets it apart in some way.
A.D. Puchalski
14. adpuchalski
Battle Royale is hardly obscure in the West despite the film's obstacles in distribution. While I do think it is the superior project (compared to the Hunger Games) I also feel they are two very different stories. This article could have benefitted from a little more research, especially considering a quick scan of the introduction to the new translation of the novel carries the entire history of the novel and film's journey. Nice that N. Mamatas weighed in and filled in the gaps.
Ryan Hodge
15. Tedhohio
Having read both, it's easy to recognize the similarities, but it's the differences that make each one unique in it's own way. Battle Royale is a much more broad in scope. You don't get emotionally invested in a single character until the book has nearly reached it's conclusion -- even then it's not that much of an emotional investment, more of an emotional curiosity. In HG you are immediately drawn to one character and ride along with her through the entire story. You like her and you care about her and you enjoy her triumphs, even the smallest ones.

The cultural differences also give a clue as to why one would be more accepted in a certain culture. The political points of BR as opposed to the personal issues of HG reflect this as well. But I think the main reason is the storytelling. BR has sold OK here in the States, but nothing like HG. What I am curious about is how of Collins trilogy selling in Japan? Anyone know?
Ryan Hodge
16. Slouie
Just to update everyone about the DVD of BR, it came out this week on March 20th. I heard about it and wondered if the studio doing the DVD realized, or possibly even planned, for the DVD to come out the same week as THG's movie.
Ryan Hodge
17. That Other Guy
Battle Royale (especially the Manga) > Hunger Games
Ryan Hodge
18. Corinna
Saying Hunger Games ripped off Battle Royale is like saying The Lion King ripped off Hamlet. It's pointless. Of course they're simmilar, odds are Battle Royal was simmaler to something too. In the age of information we live in it's essencially impossible to have an original idea. Everything's been done. But that's not the point. You can't read both books and honestly say neither had different elements to the overall experience. Odds are this idea will be used again and again, but that's okay because each author brings something new to the idea and makes it their own. The fact that The Lion King and Hamlet are both about banished princes who's uncles killed their fathers doesn't make them the exact same thing does it? Didn't think so.

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