Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bread and Circuses: Battle Royale, The Hunger Games and the Public's Bloodlust

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.

Some of the children adapt quickly and begin the relentless killing of their classmates; some take what they feel is an honourable end: suicide; in some cases, double suicide, another ancient Japanese tradition. Sure, the characterization isn't much. Many of the 42 children are ciphers that we do not get to know (they are cardboard figures designed to be cut down – something like the 'red shirts' in Star Trek). Though some we do learn who they are and what caused them to rebel in the first place, including the last one standing. The film is far from perfect. One of its major problems is that it creates too many expectations of what certain characters will do but have no pay off. (The less said about Battle Royale II, the better. Now that is a loathsome, America-hating piece of idiocy that makes virtually no sense. Do yourself a favour, don't watch it since it barely counts as a sequel and is mostly a turgid left-wing slamming of Western society with no real point or logic that I could find. Except something that has been explored with far greater meaning elsewhere: the old always send their young to do their fighting and dying for them.)

Yes, the story of Battle Royale, from our Western perspective, seems pointless and despicable. However, in a Japanese context, the premise makes sense. In a society that respects order and honour above all else, if the young in that culture refuse to obey or bend to the will of adults, and if society is starting to collapse (as Japan was in the latter half of the 1990s as a crushing financial crisis hit the country), drastic measures could be taken. Japan, as we know, descended into fascism in the 1930s through WWII – a period where obedience was paramount above all things and millions were slaughtered because of it – so the fact that such drastic measures like this could possibly occur in a society and culture such as Japan are terribly plausible.

And yet, as I said, there isn't a heck of lot of originality in the premise of these films, or in The Hunger Games. In fact, they are part of a very old tradition in life, literature and movies. For example, in films before Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, there was The Running Man, Death Race 2000, Logan's Run, Lord of the Flies, The Road Warrior, Series 7, The Handmaid's Tale, Predator, The Most Dangerous Game, etc. And in the real world, the actions of the Roman citizens at the gladiatorial games is little different than what these films are about, or what is going on right now in our hockey rinks. (In fact, the ratings for NHL playoffs this year are up, especially in the US, because the fighting and dirty hits are seemingly out of control and the viewers are screaming for more. The only difference, so far, is that nobody's been killed.) I think it's in our nature to be attracted to violence. (How many times have you found yourself rubbernecking at a car crash?) When we’re watching it in films, gladiatorial games, or the hockey rink, it ends up being a release for us – a catharsis, if you will. As long as it's not happening to us, it's all good. Without these spectacles that help us release our pent-up violence, we might see the fabric of society begin to fray. Homo sapiens have always been a pretty violent species (just look at our eternally long history of slaughter throughout the ages for proof), so the fact we are all, in some ways, attracted to violence is not that surprising. (I freely admit I've always enjoyed a well-made action film filled with mayhem.)

I also have a theory that has no definitive proof, but it makes a lot of sense. The question has long been asked, what happened to the Neanderthals? Some say, we interbred with them and they were absorbed into our DNA. Others say, climate change in the form of ice ages was too severe and they, unlike us, were unable to adapt. There is another theory that I have long believed and I'm not alone. We slaughtered them because we could. Remember, we also have a history of killing and/or displacing the “other.” And we are very good at it.

Movies like The Hunger Games, Battle Royale and their ilk (and the current mayhem in the hockey rinks) isn't really that surprising. They depict an aspect of society that we find appealing. And it taps into the “us against them” mentality that has always been part and parcel of who we are. Sometimes we try to deny it within ourselves when we call people like Hitler and Stalin monsters, but they too, alas, are also recognizably human. They may be our dark and more despicable side, but they are, in the end, also as human as we are.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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