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.