This question originally appeared on Quora.
By Monika Kothari, Anthropology and political theory student
This is going to be mostly speculative on my part, because I haven’t read Battle Royale, though it is somewhere on my list. I guess the answer to this depends on what you mean by a “hit”. I think that, taken in context, Battle Royale actually was quite a hit, but it never really stood a chance against The Hunger Games for a couple of reasons, none of which have any bearing on the quality of the work itself (because again, I haven’t read it):
- It wasn’t written in English.
- It was published almost 10 years earlier.
- It has no sequels, or American tie-ins.
I’d say that Battle Royale actually was a hit, because it was quite popular in Japan. We define a “hit” as something that’s popular in the United States because, let’s face it, everyone wants to break into the American market. That’s where the real money is. But based on the answers to Is The Hunger Games well-known in the UK? I don’t think we can assume that The Hunger Games is really an international phenomenon just yet (at least not until the film comes out), especially since the books are likely more popular in the UK than they are in, say, Japan. As for Battle Royale, it’s undeniable that the book was a huge bestseller in Japan, and a major success in Asia in general. As a Euro-Americentric society, we really only look at and care about the American and European markets, but East and Southeast Asia are freaking huge. Part of its apparent lack of success is a visibility problem on our end, as Americans.
But moving on to my actual reasoning, regarding Battle Royale’s popularity…
Point 1: Language and Culture
I think this is actually a big deal. How many Amazon top-sellers or New York Times bestselling books can you count that weren’t originally published in English? Translations rarely have the same appeal, especially for contemporary works. Because the book was written in Japanese for a Japanese audience, we can also assume that it didn’t have the same marketing push in the United States, or even the backing of a major American publisher for distribution. How long did it take for copies of Battle Royale to reach American bookshelves?
Another major difference is the cultural issue. This book, wasn’t just written in a non-English language, it was written in Japanese. There are positives to this in the American market; there are some people here that are obsessed with Japanese culture. But that obsession is still pretty niche, and those fans are often stereotyped as socially awkward, pimply fanboys. Japanese media, despite its popularity around the world, is still not mainstream, and Americans often can’t even get over simple things like Japanese names and geography.
Moreover, there are some cultural differences between the United States and Japan that make translations difficult, and lot of the cultural content and relevance is lost in the process. I’m not an expert in Japanese, but having watched enough anime to pick up a few phrases and meanings, I can tell that the complexity of the language and subtleties in the way people discuss relationships is extremely difficult to translate into English. Would the average American teenager that has little knowledge of the Japanese political and education systems, and culture in general, really enjoy this book? I don’t know.
Japan has a great tradition of dystopian literature, comics, and television to which most Americans have never been exposed. Japanese science fiction and horror has a distinctive flavor that doesn’t always appeal American tastes. Battle Royale was clearly written for a different demographic; it definitely leans into the horror genre and was far more controversial than The Hunger Games. In some ways, it seems darker and unsettling, more similar to Lord of the Flies. (Of course, the Battle Royale still did reasonably well in the United States, but the number of reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads are negligible compared to The Hunger Games.)
Point 2: Publication Timeframe
In some ways, this relates to Point 1 and Japanese culture. Japan has a really rich tradition of horror and dystopian works, and Battle Royale fits into that tradition very well, combining both genres. The book was published almost a decade before The Hunger Games, in 1999. In the United States, this was before the War on Terror, before most reality television, before a lot of other popular YA dystopian works like Feed, The House of Scorpion, and The Uglies more firmly established the genre on this side of the Pacific.
It may have been the right time for a book like Battle Royale in Japan. Just a few years prior, Japan experienced a couple of incidents of domestic terrorism, like the Sarin gas attacks, which some say really shook up the national psyche. The Japanese, at the time and historically, tended to be more dissatisfied with the direction of their government, and even events as far back as the nuclear attacks continue to shape national consciousness. Japan’s economy stagnated throughout the 1990s, which is commonly referred to as “The Lost Decade”.
That’s not to say that Japanese culture is more pessimistic, as the West has had its own share of dystopian moments (and corresponding literature) at various points in history. But in 1999, America was relatively prosperous, happy, and satisfied. Perhaps a book like Battle Royale wouldn’t have been relevant to our cultural needs. We were all reading about Harry Potter’s exploits during his first couple of years at Hogwarts, which are notably lighter than the later books in the series. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time and place. (At 600+ pages, it was also super-long for a high school-level book, by American standards in 1999.)
The Hunger Games, on the other hand, was published in 2008, post 9/11, as a book that tackles themes such as poverty and war–themes that were, by then, familiar even to average Americans. Collins herself said that she was inspired in part by footage of the Invasion of Iraq, footage that we’ve watched in horror, combined with a reality TV show, which we’ve also experienced with the explosion of American Idol, Survivor, etc. Even earlier, better-written YA dystopias by other Americans never reached the heights that The Hunger Games has, which leads me to believe that at least part of the appeal is a matter of timing.
I randomly stumbled upon this article that explains some of the cultural significance of Battle Royale in Japan, and puts into better words than I have to convey just how much of a hit it really was (although it’s about the film more specifically): http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,501030707-461891,00.html
Point 3: Branding and Franchise
How popular was The Hunger Games when it was first released? Okay, yeah, it was pretty popular. But in some ways, it was slow to boil, and its popularity didn’t take off the way it has to today until its sequels were released. I think the same could be said of Twilight, which I read in early high school before it was really famous…or as famous as it is now. Yeah, some people knew about it, and it was on some bestseller lists, but it wasn’t a phenomenon until it built a franchise: Twilight books, movies, merchandise, tramp stamps, etc. became ubiquitous cultural icons years later.
Battle Royale doesn’t have a sequel. It’s a stand alone novel, which limits its hype. In a world of media sequels, originals just don’t cut it anymore. What does it have? A popular manga adaptation, which Americans aren’t going to read, although it has been released in English. A critically acclaimed and commercially successful film, which was never properly released in North America. A sequel to the previous film, which again, Americans would likely never see. The odds were stacked against its success overseas.
The Hunger Games, on the other hand, has been the center of a media frenzy, especially with the first feature film soon to be released. Battle Royale never got that media treatment in the U.S., and to be honest, few East Asian books and films do. Most Americans have never heard of the highest grossing films in China, Korea, and Japan. We just don’t care. They don’t make it here. That doesn’t mean they’re not popular, it just means they’re not popular here. It also means studio executives think that Americans are too stupid to handle English subs and Asian characters…and maybe they are.
(I mean, how long did it take for Disney to start distributing Studio Ghibli films in the U.S? And that’s Studio Ghibli, the most popular animation house in Japan, and probably second in the world next to Disney in terms of general popularity. Even so, the films are all dubbed and usually have relatively limited releases. Yet you would rarely, if ever, see that same treatment for live action Japanese films. Instead, we remake them to fit American tastes–back in 2006, there was serious consideration of an American remake of Battle Royale–and perhaps one could interpret The Hunger Games as a “cultural remake”.)
I feel I should add that, in reference to the Battle Royale film, not only was it a huge commercial success, but a critical one as well, with a u00a53.11 billion domestic gross, an 84% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, a number of nominations at the Japanese Academy Awards, and a stamp of approval from Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorite films. The film got a ton of publicity in Japan due to its controversial content (I can’t emphasize enough how controversial it was). There was also a huge frenzy over the release of its sequel. But aside from a few screenings at film festivals, and the circulation of Chinese bootleg copies, it never gained anything other than a cult audience in the U.S…until fans began pointing out the similarities to The Hunger Games.
If nothing else, The Hunger Games has sparked much more interest in Battle Royale. According to Wikipedia, the film had its first North American theatrical run in a Los Angeles theater, 11 years after its original release. It’ll be available on DVD in North America on March 20, 2012.
Here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-T7yPJVvXw
Check out the comments. They’re almost all about The Hunger Games.
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