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'Battle,' 'Games': Cold Brutality A Common Theme

Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) are two Japanese high school students among 42 left on a deserted island, each with a bag of supplies and weapons, and forced to fight to the death in Battle Royale. (Toei / The Kobal Collection)

Perhaps you've heard of a wildly popular novel about teenagers fighting to the death in a televised match meant to cow the members of a dystopian society — a novel that was then made to a hugely successful film?

We're talking Battle Royale, of course. It's a Japanese novel that was adapted into a blockbuster movie in 2000 — eight years before the American book The Hunger Games.

Among the admittedly select group of people who like both Japanese movies and young-adult fiction, it's been a burning question: Did author Suzanne Collins knock off Battle Royale to write The Hunger Games?

Grady Hendrix, for one, says he can't help but wonder, and he's in a unique position to do so: Hendrix writes YA fiction, and he's one of the directors of the New York Asian Film Festival.

Hendrix has read the interviews where Collins has flatly denied knowing about Battle Royale before she wrote The Hunger Games. But Hendrix says the plots are eerily similar: school kids chosen by lottery, given a variety of weapons and survival packs and taken to a remote, restricted area to take part in a televised death match.

"I like The Hunger Games fine," Hendrix says pointedly, "but I couldn't help but make the comparison."

Hendrix is hardly alone in believing that Battle Royale is the better story. But its ultraviolent reputation has kept a lot of people from seeing it, including Anne McKnight, who teaches Japanese film at UCLA and who'd heard about it for years.

"I'm not a big horror person myself," she says. "But I did finally go see it, and was really pleasantly --" she catches herself, laughing at the idea of "pleasant" in this context — "surprised."

"Because it wasn't the nihilistic bloodbath I had expected," she says.

McKnight is a fan of Battle Royale director Kinji Fukasaku, best known for a series of incredibly well-respected gangster movies — kind of a Japanese version of The Wire. With Battle Royale, she was surprised by its evenhanded gender politics.

"Girls were imagined to be just as vicious as boys," she observes. "And not just in the backroom-gossip and catfight mode, but out-and-out violent."

The violence in Battle Royale is certainly bloody and intense, but it's never gratuitous, says Grady Hendrix. As with The Hunger Games, he says, the story is intended as a jolting parable about war.

Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins came from a military family. But Battle Royale director Kinji Fukasaku actually survived World War II. He was just a teenager himself when he was put to work in a munitions factory in Japan.

"It was bombed, a lot," Hendrix says. "And one of his jobs, at the age of 15, was to take a wheelbarrow around the factory and pick up body parts after bombing raids."

The experience left Fukasaku with a lasting abhorrence of war — and a profound sense of betrayal by grownups that persisted into his own adulthood. And it fueled his decision to film Battle Royale, which was both highly controversial and a massive theatrical hit when it was released in Japan, despite a rating that kept young teenagers from seeing it. That irritated the director, says Hendrix.

"He gave a very famous statement to the press where he said, 'Kids, if you have the courage, you can sneak in. And I encourage you to do so.'"

The Hunger Games novel was gory and disturbing for a reason, says Hendrix. Just like Battle Royale, it's supposed to communicate war's horrors to young teenagers. Hendrix worries that the Hunger Games movie will tone down the violence, and thereby make it exciting.

"The line between making violence graphic and upsetting and making violence graphic and cool is a very narrow one," he says.

Hendrix says one of the most important things Battle Royale and The Hunger Games share is the idea of teenagers trapped in a ruined society, coerced by grownups into doing horrible things.

Even so, they both make it clear — there's nothing more utopian than a teenager. Even in a dystopia.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's a movie coming out this week based on a wildly popular novel. It's about teenagers in a dystopian society fighting to the death on TV. If you think I'm talking about "The Hunger Games," you're wrong. It's a movie called "Battle Royale," a hit in Japan 12 years ago. This week, the DVD is released in the U.S. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Among the admittedly select group of people who like both Japanese movies and the young adult fiction, it's been a burning question.

GRADY HENDRIX: Did Suzanne Collins knock off "Battle Royale" to write "Hunger Games"?

ULABY: Grady Hendrix happens to be a young adult author and an expert in Asian film. He's read the interviews where Suzanne Collins has flatly denied knowing about "Battle Royale" before she wrote "The Hunger Games." He says the plots are eerily similar. "Battle Royale" is about a bunch of school kids picked by lottery...

HENDRIX: ...who are in a near-future society taken to an island to be part of a game show...

ULABY: Much like "The Hunger Games."

HENDRIX: ...where they are fitted with explosive collars and told that they now are each going to be given a weapon ranging from paper fans to Uzis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BATTLE ROYALE")

ULABY: Also like "The Hunger Games."

HENDRIX: And they're released onto the island, and they have to kill each other until there's only one left.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BATTLE ROYALE")

ULABY: Sound like "Hunger Games"?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BATTLE ROYALE")

HENDRIX: I like "The Hunger Games" fine. I couldn't help but make this comparison to "Battle Royale."

ULABY: Grady Hendrix thinks "Battle Royale" is better than "The Hunger Games." Anne McKnight was afraid to see it for years due to its ultraviolent reputation. She teaches Japanese film at UCLA.

ANNE MCKNIGHT: I'm not a big horror person myself, but I did finally go to see it, and I was really - I would say pleasantly surprised because it wasn't the sort of nihilistic bloodbath that I had expected.

ULABY: McKnight is a fan of "Battle Royale's" director. He's best known for a series of gangster movies, kind of a Japanese version of "The Wire." With "Battle Royale," she was surprised by its evenhanded gender politics.

MCKNIGHT: Girls were imagined to be just as vicious as boys and not just in the sort of backroom gossip and catfight mode but out-and-out violent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BATTLE ROYALE")

ULABY: The violence in "Battle Royale" is not gratuitous, says Grady Hendrix. Again, like "The Hunger Games," he says it's intended to be a jolting parable about war. And director Kinji Fukasaku survived World War II.

HENDRIX: When he was 15 years old, he worked in a - I think it was a munitions factory in Japan during the war. It was bombed a lot. And one of his jobs at the age of 15 was to take a wheelbarrow around the factory and pick up body parts after bombing raids.

ULABY: That left Fukasaku with a deep abhorrence of war and a profound sense of betrayal by grown-ups. That lasted into his own adulthood, and it fueled his decision to film "Battle Royale" with sweet-faced teenagers wreaking mayhem on each other to a soundtrack by Verdi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BATTLE ROYALE")

ULABY: In 2000 when "Battle Royale" was released in Japan, it was both highly controversial and a massive blockbuster in spite of the fact that young teenagers were not allowed to see it. And that irritated the director.

HENDRIX: So he gave a very famous statement to the press where he said, kids, if you've got the courage, you can sneak in. And I encourage you to do so.

ULABY: Grady Hendrix appreciated how "The Hunger Games" book was gory and disturbing. Like "Battle Royale," it's supposed to communicate war's horrors to young teenagers. Hendrix worries "The Hunger Games" movie will tone down the violence and make it exciting.

HENDRIX: The line between making violence graphic and upsetting and making violence graphic and cool is a very narrow one.

ULABY: Hendrix says one of the most important things "Battle Royale" and "The Hunger Games" share is the idea of teenagers trapped in a ruined society, coerced by grown-ups into doing horrible things. Even so, they both make clear there's nothing more utopian than a teenager, even in a dystopia. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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