Around the time The Hunger Games movie was released and people were praising both the book as well as the film for being a very gripping and original tale, the agitated manga otaku of the world were crying foul and betrayal from the rooftops. They demanded that the teenage death match game show that preceded The Hunger Games, Koushun Takami’s novel turned manga Battle Royale. For those unaware of these two books, both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games is set in a distopian future where a group of teenagers are forced into a fight to the death for the entertainment of others. It is a straight up gladiator style tournament where out of all the contestants (42 for Battle Royale and 24 for Hunger Games) only one can achieve victory.
Even after the Hunger Games has been released, Suzanne Collins’ series finished, and the films are in the process of being made, there are still hardcore Battle Royale fans who are trying to spread the word that in fact Takami’s work did come out first. I’ll even admit that I was for the longest time one of the people who were crying foul every time somebody praised the book for being ‘new and original’ when Takami’s work came out a near decade before it. But now looking back on it, I originally had the misconception of hating the series simply for ‘stealing’ from Battle Royale… But at the end of the day, looking back on it I realized (as I think most fans have) that The Hunger Games is actually a pretty damn good series and it is just my hope that Takami gets the recognition he deserves as creating the series before Collins.
To compare and contrast these two stories is going to be a difficult process. While yes they are both ‘teenage death match’ stories (I can’t believe that is becoming a genre!) and yes they are both novels that have been turned into movies, I feel like the act of comparing and contrasting these two series is like comparing and contrasting an apple and a potato. They are similar in many ways but at the same time very different in their approach and the messages that they are trying to convey through their stories. But being the man that I am, I want to give this a shot and study both of these series from an unbiased eye and give both series the credit that they so richly deserve.
I do warn any viewers that I will be writing freely from this point onward and this entire review is going to be laced with copious amounts of spoilers for both books. You have been warned.
The Treatment of the Participants in ‘The Program’ and ‘The Hunger Games”
This is the first area I noticed in difference between the two stories and mainly because it is the most apparent, but it is something that is worth study. Both stories take a VERY different approach to how they handle the characters within their universe. While in Battle Royale the students who are placed into the Program are treated like chattel and lambs to the slaughter. After the collars are placed around their necks, these students seem to transform into subhuman beasts in the eyes of the soldiers and teacher and in a way to the general public whom I get the vibe seems desensitized to the act of fifteen year olds raping and murdering each other for their amusement. It is a very misanthropic approach to the teen death match and one that someone like the teacher takes great pride in.
The Hunger Games however treats these tributes like they are Gods among men, the true pinnacle of perfection. They are paraded around the largest cities in expensive clothes and given beautiful apartments and all the food they can eat. They are given trainers and fashion consultants and shown off as the gladiators who are nobly sacrificing themselves for their people and the winner will be revered as this great and glorious champion. It is easy to see while in Battle Royale the mere idea of people volunteering for the show seems almost ludicrous. But when a volunteer steps up in The Hunger Games it is much more believable.
I simply enjoy how two stories can adopt radically different concepts in treating their players. While Battle Royale treats them little more than creatures to fight for their amusement and gives an atmosphere of absolute dread and fear. The Hunger Games presents it in a much more ‘positive’ light, making the mere concept of a teenage death match almost preferable and exciting as oppose to watching everyone around you die.
The Political Tension and Its Purpose in the Story at Large
Both stories seem to use political oppression as a tool in which to push the idea of this game upon the reader. However the roles of these governments in both of the stories is vastly different. Battle Royale’s Imperial Government seems to take a less hands on approach to the Program. While they do give the teacher and a detachment of guards to running the Program, the game feels a lot more like ‘business as usual’ for the society. It is just a fact of life and nothing major in the grand scheme of things. As a result the government has a very faceless identity to it. It is something that helps drive the plot and build character development among the characters, namely Kawada’s, Shuya’s, and Shinji Mimura’s. But really the government is nothing more than a secondary antagonist, an omnipresent entity that is there, but not as big of an antagonist as The Teacher or Kiriyama and Mitsuko Souma.
The Hunger Games on the other hand, the whole story completely revolves around the Government. You can even say that President Snow is the central antagonist to the story. Unlike Battle Royale, The Hunger Games shows the whole process of choosing the participants, showcasing them, and goes into great detail to display the Government’s intentions for the Hunger Game’s existence. I would even say that it goes so far to make the teenage villains within the Hunger Games much more sympathetic as victims of the Government. Granted, Kiriyama and Mitsuko are both given a sympathetic story as well, but that is based around their history than the Government’s influence. The Government in The Hunger Games is simply a much more hands on antagonist. You understand them more and get a more clear back story of who they are and why they do what they do.
The Macro vs. Micro Approach to the Two Stories
I believe this one comes down to the fact that Battle Royale in its original form is only one novel while The Hunger Games is a series of three novels. As a result of this, each of these stories has a different style on how they approach the games at large. Battle Royale takes on a more micro approach. The whole story is centered around this one game. While there are flashbacks and references to other games such as Kawada’s experience, that is merely to assist Kawada’s back story. As a result you find yourself much more attached to the main characters but the secondary characters as well. Even players that died very early in the story or didn’t have much lines of dialogue, I felt more connected to and I was able to understand a lot more of there back story.
The Hunger Games on the other hand had much bigger fish to fry. They took a macro approach to their game and wanted to display the world around it as well as the Government’s hands on involvement. Not to mention the real story at large is not the Hunger Games but the overthrowing of the Government in later books. Because of this I feel a lot less attached to a lot of the characters within the first Hunger Games. Besides the major characters, little is touched upon the others participants. I learn about Rue of course as well as Cato. But the others are rather lost on me compared to the information we get about the 42 participants in The Program.
This really isn’t at fault to anyone, but merely where the priorities lie within the two stories. Battle Royale focuses solely on the Program and the characters participation in the Program. The Hunger Games focuses on political turmoil, upheaval, and the inner workings of society at large and The Hunger Games is just an event within that society. As a result we learn more of the people outside of the game and some of the lesser known character participants are lost to the crowd.
I’m just going to come out and say it. Katniss Everdeen is leaps and bounds a far better protagonist than Shuya Nanahara and it really isn’t at the fault of Nanahara or the writing from Takami. Shuya in his own right is also a very good protagonist. But really what separates both Katniss and Shuya is their goals within the story and what is at stake for them personally. In order to understand this we need to look at each character as an individual.
At the time of the story, Shuya Nanahara is 15 years old. Both of his parents died when he was young, thus putting him into foster care where he met his best friend Yoshitoki Kuninobu. At the time of the ill-fated field trip that landed them on the program, Shuya is a known rock and roll fan (something that is banned in the Japanese society) and frequently flaunts his rebellious nature and to hell with the consequences. When Kuninobu is killed in the class room by the teacher, Shuya feels compelled to protect the girl whom Kuninobu has a crush on, Noriko. The remainder of the story from Shuya’s perspective revolves around him and his relationship with Noriko and his gallant effort to protect her from The Program.
Katniss Everdeen however is the sort of ‘bread winner’ of her family. With her father dying in a mining accident and her mother slipping into a deep depression as a result of it, this leaves Katniss as the person who has to take care of her and her sister Primrose. When Primrose is selected to be the Tribute for District 12, Katniss volunteers in her stead. While there is a love triangle between her, Peeta, and Gale the real meat and potatoes of Katniss’s character is the relationship with her sister and her desire to win and return home so she can continue to take care of Primrose seeing as how her and her mother have very little chance of surviving without her.
The family aspect is what drives the reason why Katniss is a more well-rounded character and a better protagonist than Shuya. It is tragic that Shuya lost his family and Kuninobu who could be called a ‘brother figure’ do play vital aspects in his character development, really in the grand scheme of things if Shuya’s character were to perish in the Program… It would not affect the outside world in the slightest. He was an orphan and by all accounts a rule breaker who would probably end up in a jail cell for his rebellious rock and roll persona. His whole character is centered around the chivalrous act of protecting Noriko and beating the Program at its own game by saving her and him.
He is by no means a weak character but when compared to a woman who has a family at home who if she were to perish would most likely wind up dead… The character has a lot more at stake and as a result the audience at large tends to feel that. Katniss not only has the protective instincts with the character Rue, her relationships with Peeta and Gale, and the family dynamic gives her more to worry about. It feels a lot more like the weight of the world is on her shoulders, not helped by the fact that she basically becomes a symbol for the resistance in later books. This boils back down to the micro vs. macro approach of the two stories and in this instance it truly benefits Katniss Everdeen more because she simply has the most to lose as a result.
The final aspect of both of these stories that I wish to discuss is the overall tone that both of the stories provide. At the end of the day I am surprised to say that while Battle Royale has a very pessimistic outlook on society and life in general, The Hunger Games takes a much more optimistic approach which is certainly difficult to pull off when we are discussing a story where sixteen years olds hack each other to death with swords (over-exaggeration I know).
The story of Battle Royale is one of hopeful optimism quickly dashed by bitter despair. The whole story is built, in quite a genius way if I might add, to build up the readers hopes that these children will be able to escape the hell they have been put in… And then on the next page dash their hopes with one line of dialogue or one picture bringing back the somber tone of the whole story. Even the ending is very bitter-sweet as Shogo Kawada dies of his wounds sustained in the final battle with Kiriyama and Shuya and Noriko find themselves fugitives of the law in a desperate attempt to reach and find asylum in the United States. Even in the story it is never stated IF they even reach the USA only that they are ‘hoping’ that they will. The manga and the film give a much more ‘optimistic’ outlook than the book does but really the way it is set and the way the reader has been led, it is not incorrect to assume that if the book continued five pages further then it would be of Shuya and Noriko being captured by the Japanese Government. The story leaves on a ‘hopeful’ note but the tone of pessimism still remains prevalent in the story even until the end.
The story of The Hunger Games however is a much more optimistic note. Even if we removed Catching Fire and Mocking Jay from this argument, the idea of Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark being able to ‘defeat’ the Capitol through their devotion to one an other and to prevent an open rebellion on top of that screams optimism. Not only did Katniss and Peeta survive their game, but they did it legally. Granted at great anger to the villains but still they walked out of that, both still alive, and just by surviving together started to stir the rebellion in the hearts of the people. If this were Battle Royale the Japanese government would have just violently murdered the two and then enacted genocide on the masses just to prove the point that they are still in control. The Hunger Games takes the idea of a teenage death match and makes it an actual upbeat story with very poignant messages of hope and overcoming adversary sprinkled throughout the narrative.
This I believe is the number one area where these two stories separate themselves. Tone is such an important aspect in the story, it is how the entire story is structured and how we are supposed to feel while reading the story. Battle Royale is one of desperation. A fools hope that these two characters Noriko Nakagawa and Shuya Nanahara can overcome the extreme adversary that has fallen upon them even while all logic dictates that they will succumb to the same fate as their fallen friends. The Hunger Games is much more triumphant and leaves you with the feeling that the day has been one for the good guys and that Katniss and Peeta’s names will be shouted from the rooftops as the triumphant masters of oppression. The symbols of hope for the downtrodden to rise up from the ashes and claim freedom for themselves.
There is very little to separate these two stories. They are both phenomenal in their own unique way and a good read for anyone who wishes to read them. Really what it boils down to is your preferences. Battle Royale is a more focused book. It is set squarely in that one game, it develops its characters very well in that game, and as a result you feel much more connected to all of 42 students and even to an extent their relatives and the Teacher running the Program. The totalitarian regime is a much less involved entity and the story does lend itself to the idea of a fool’s hope.
The Hunger Games however takes a much wider approach. The story feels larger and Katniss Everdeen feels like she is able to accomplish more as a result of participating in the program. The story isn’t just about The Hunger Games, it is about political turmoil and how this girl from the poorest region of the world rises from the ashes to become a symbol of hope for a downtrodden society. There are a lot of characters who fall by the wayside but really that is okay in the grand scheme of things as it does focus on other aspects of the story instead of just one game.
Really there is little that can separate the two stories and it is just a matter of which of these two stories appeals to you more.
And with that I am putting an end to this analysis. If you enjoyed this please like and subscribe for more. Plus you can always follow me on twitter @TannerReviews.