|A scene from Battle Royale (2000)|
In the lead up to the release of The Hunger Games, many commentators repeatedly mentioned that the book and film were derivative of the Japanese book and film, Battle Royale (the book came out in 1999; the film in 2000), and its sequel Battle Royale II (2003). Having now watched the two Japanese films (but not The Hunger Games itself), the comment, though basically true, is completely beside the point. None of these films are terribly original, since their conceit – the spectacle of citizens watching or following for the purposes of entertainment the slaughter of a specific group of people – is as old as the Ancient Romans' gladiatorial games, and probably much older.
Although I know what my colleague Steve Vineberg meant in his review of The Hunger Games when he said he thought Battle Royale was loathsome, but I don't completely share that view. From a North American perspective, there seems to be no point to the slaughter that takes place in Battle Royale. For those who are unfamiliar with the plot: in an unspecified future, Japanese society has come unstuck with children rebelling against adult rules. As a result, the government passes the BR Act to try to bring the children back under control (and by extension, society). Once a year a middle school class is selected. On what they think is a field trip at the end of the school year, the children (or rather teens on the cusp of adulthood, as all are around 15 years of age) are knocked out by gas, kidnapped and awaken in a military camp on an island. They are told by their former teacher that they have been selected for the annual Battle Royale contest. The contest is simple. The children are released on the island, with various weapons, and, given only three days, must kill each other until only one is left alive. The survivor will be celebrated and revered by the rest of society. Needless to say, after much resistance, they are convinced that it is either play the game, or be executed right then and there (they all have a device around their necks that can be made to remotely explode at any time). So the game begins.