No, this isn’t another “oh my god Suzanne Collins ripped off Koushun Takami” blog post, as people have flogged that dead horse quite enough as far as I’m concerned. It’s like people who bitch about “Lost Girl” because it’s a rip-off of Jim Butcher‘s Dresden novels – yeah, you can make an argument for it, but is it really worth the effort? Just go enjoy the original; it’s much better.
Like The Hunger Games, Battle Royale started as a novel first. I originally came across it back in 2003 when it was translated into English, while I was working at one of the best independent bookstores in the country. I was one of the inventory monkeys in the back that processed shipments through the computer system and then unboxed everything when it came in, so I was always watching and waiting for the next awesome thing to come in from the Baker & Taylor shipments every Tuesday (I also spent more time reading the books than putting them away, much to the consternation of my bosses who nevertheless somehow didn’t fire me).
Anyway, I knew Battle Royale was going to show up, so I put a special order in and snapped it up as soon as it hit the receiving table. I don’t even think I put a sticker on it, I just paid for it and took it home that night, and I finished it by about 2 or 3 in the morning.
It’s basically everything you’d want in a big, thick, dystopian novel in the vein of Stephen King’s The Running Man combined with all those horrible reality television bullshit shows like Survivor. The whole concept is that a Japanese high school class is selected at random every year and taken to this island in the middle of nowhere, fitted with electronic bomb collars that explode if they try to escape, and are told that they need to fight their classmates to the death in order to have a chance to survive. The whole thing is used for military research by the government and to keep the populace cowed in fear of having their own children selected for the brutal game.
The book excels at not just providing gory entertainment, but also insight into how people choose to react in insane situations. The high school kids in the novel range in their goals from using subterfuge in order to take down their former friends and classmates and ensure their survival, allying with others, only attacking in self-defense, refusing to fight at all, or embracing their inner sociopath and mercilessly slaughtering everyone they come across.
Truth be told, there are a huge number of themes that run concurrently within both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, such as defiance in the face of oppressive government regimes and refusal to play by the rules of a game that is inherently unfair. There are romantic elements in both, with both having a teenage couple as protagonists, and both stories can be seen as a condemnation of materialism, mindless entertainment, and succumbing to the whole “bread and circuses” scheme that pacified both the ancient Romans and that threatens to obscure modern society’s important issues as well.
I think that a lot of Battle Royale fans are angry at the fact that The Hunger Games novel series (and now film) has become so wildly popular, while their favorite has instead remained more of a niche product. The Japanese language version of Battle Royale came out 12 years ago, and while it might have reached cult status, it never broke into the worldwide mainstream in the same way as The Hunger Games is doing, which can leave some people pretty pissed off.
The thing with the BR movie, though, is that it is incredibly violent – much as the novel is – and would never be as widely adopted as its American doppelganger. It pretty much relegates it to the same niche as the Evil Dead series and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which is actually a blessing in disguise. Whitewashing the violence in BR to a level more palatable for the young adult crowd would completely defang the story, leaving it as toothless and weak as a lion that’s fed only tofu at a vegetarian zoo.
So do yourself a favor – go and enjoy The Hunger Games, but if you want more of the same, and you’re not afraid of a little of the old ultraviolence, pick up Battle Royale in paperback or on DVD. Judge for yourself if there was any plagiarism involved, but it truly doesn’t matter – they’re both good stories in their own right, and I think it’s more of an instance of parallel evolution than any nefarious plot by Suzanne Collins to rip off an obscure Japanese novel and movie. One could even argue that if she had kept Battle Royale in mind, then The Hunger Games might have been that much better.