It may only be directly referenced in the title of the first part of the trilogy, but the eponymous Hunger Games are the driving force of the entire series. About four years ago, the young adult novels released to critical and commercial acclaim, spawning a successful film adaptation that opened earlier this year with production of the second in full swing. For society’s past transgressions, an annual law is instituted that lifts 24 hapless children between the ages of 12 and 18 from their homes, plops them into a technologically advanced, man-made arena, and tasks them with killing each other for the amusement of the elite. It’s a fine, if supremely messed up, idea. Tossing together harsh violence, a parent’s worst fear, and a generous amount of romance, and you have a recipe for successful entertainment. However, I don’t have much of an opinion of The Hunger Games. So, rather than serving as a subject for review, its purpose is to act as a point of reference for another series.
There’s an image meme that’s been circulating at least since the Games series gained widespread popularity that features Pulp Fiction’s Vincent saying to his partner, Jules, “Do you know what they call 'The Hunger Games' in Paris? ‘Battle Royale’ with cheese.”
Whereas The Hunger Games puts a large, large focus on romance, Battle Royale, a 15-volume manga written by Koushun Takami and first published in 1999, opted for the opposite route and made the violence its most immediate, but never glorified spotlight.
Much like The Hunger Games, the participants of Battle Royale’s competition are also chosen randomly. The notable exception is that a class of students is selected from all of the schools in the country. As such, rather than the individual participants being complete strangers, everyone picked to engage in the deadly game has likely grown up together. Many of them are friends while some are merely acquaintances, but they all really know each other.
The potential for drama from the innate relationships is incredibly deep and is played to its fullest.
A modern-day class of coming-of-age ninth graders find themselves on an isolated island – the location of the lethal competition – where they must quickly come to grips with their mortality. At the outset, each of the 42 (!) students is given a survival pack of rations and possibly a weapon. One of the main differences between the two similar series is that most of the participants in Battle Royale’s competition aren’t playing to win the game. None of them were bred and trained to kill as some in The Hunger Games were. What eventually forces them to actively murder each other is the fact that each student is outfitted with an irremovable explosive brace around their necks. If after three days’ time there is more than one survivor, the brace – which also acts as a tracker – detonates and everyone dies.
Takami wasn’t shy about killing off his young, teenage subjects in grisly fashion. Incredibly consistent throughout the series, Masayuki Taguchi’s illustrations of the characters’ individual fates are excruciatingly detailed. Even in its monochromatic depiction, the meticulousness of the horrific wounds will cause you to flinch each and every time. While there is a striking realism to the gory depictions, it is in the facial expressions where Taguchi’s art excels. The ever-present sadness in the characters’ eyes is palpable.
The story’s violence is only matched by its stellar characterization. Takami deftly manages to make each of his characters (again, there are over 40 of them) more than fodder for gruesome murder, instilling personality and, at the very least, motive to their actions. While the reader mostly follows a boy, Shuya, as he searches for and tries to protect his crush, every student is given time to develop.
Cliques naturally form or reform. Some groups eagerly hunt down classmates they just particularly don’t care for. Others hole up in what they believe to be safe houses, hoping for someone to find a way out of the competition. Rather than wait it out, there are a few who actively search for methods to circumvent their circumstances and fervently try to take the fight to those overseeing and regulating the competition.
Then there are the lone wolves, the most dangerous and efficient of participants whose killer or survival instincts trigger. One girl uses her sexual guile to get close to her prey before offing them. Another finds that he’s just a natural born killer. Further, two of the participants are past competition winners who have been put through this hell before. While one was dragged back into the game, the other is a sociopath who volunteered for this year’s battle just for the sport of it.
You witness how these people react to the gravity of their circumstances and you logically wonder how it is you might behave under similar conditions. The diversity of attitudes and actions that the characters take in light of the situation ensure that there is at least one character that the reader will agree with, and thus, be attached to and relate to.
This gives weight to each student’s death, no matter how small of a character they were. That is where Battle Royale shines. If you’ve read The Hunger Games, Battle Royale can be accurately described as the mature-audiences-only version that pulls no punches in any aspect of its storytelling. Surely, its display of violence and death is both clever and unflinchingly brutal, but it is in the exploration of instinctive human nature and in the nuance of burgeoning relationships that makes the story so memorable.
TL;DR – Innocence is destroyed as a class of young teenagers are forced to kill each other so that one of them might live. It predates the similarly themed The Hunger Games by nearly a decade and is generally more brutal, explicit, graphic, and effectively realistic.
Battle Royale is written by Koushun Takami and illustrated by Masayuki Taguchi. The manga adaptation was published by the now-defunct Tokyopop, but you can still find used copies here.