How Battle Royale Shows Like Squid Game and Hunger Games Comment on Society |

battle royale

With the huge popularity of Squid Game – it’s the most-watched series on Netflix – it’s opened up discussions about the idea of survival games. In fact, this type of game where people fight to the death to be the last man standing even has its own genre-specific name: battle royale. 

Battle royale films and series aren’t just about showing who’s got what it takes to survive (or the bloody battle it takes to eliminate other contestants), they actually reflect the state of current society wherever they’re made.


When talking about Japanese survival shows, the most revered is Battle Royale (2000). This critically-acclaimed film became so influential it became the genre’s namesake. It’s about a group of high school students who are forced by a tyrannical government to fight to the death. What makes the film so profoundly Japanese is that it’s the most extreme outgrowth of Japan’s well-documented school bullying problem. 

Many Japanese can relate to the existential dread of being thrown into a metaphoric meat-grinder of a high-school setting where bullying turns lethal, and the authority figures that are supposed to protect you from it are making it happen.

Japan’s more recent incarnations in the battle royale theme include the movie Gantz (2011) and the Netflix series Alice in Borderland (2020), both of which are adapted from original manga titles. Both titles tap into social issues that highlight the prevalence of outcasts like hikikomori (shut-in) and freeta (forever part-time worker) in Japan – namely, the predominantly young male phenomena of withdrawing from society, refusing to work, study, or leave their bedroom. 

In both shows, the social outcast participants are dropped into a parallel world where they have to choose between killing mysterious aliens and foes to survive, or simply give up and die. Dumped into the game against their will, their only measure of control is in their refusal to engage with the life-or-death games. On the bright side, the idea of these scenarios sends a message to all social outcasts: everyone has their worth, whether they see it or not.

The common theme that seems to run across many Japanese survival titles is the danger of social isolation – those who don’t get to be part of a “normal” clique will have a tough go of life. Being different in school can lead to bullying – a report found that bullying cases across all of Japan’s schools have been rising consecutively for 6 years since records were first kept in 2013. Surveys have also found that half of the children have experienced both inflicting and receiving it, with the main type of bullying being teasing, threatening, or insults.

It’s no surprise then, that outcasts like the hikikomori become withdrawn from society due to bullying or harassment from schoolmates and even teachers. 


Squid Game (2021) charmed audiences worldwide for its blend of gritty survivalism set against a backdrop of colourful children’s games. As with many Korean shows, Squid Game has its fair share of social commentary, most notably for its showcase on class differences. Even among other contestants who are in it for the cash prize, we still see underdogs in plenty of contestants, from the illegal immigrant Ali to the divorced father Gi-hun and the North Korean defector Sae-byeok.

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Capitalism and wealth gap is another issue that Squid Game tackles, and we also see this theme in the movie Big Match (2014). It’s also about an elaborate game where Korea’s wealthiest citizens can bet astronomical sums of money on life-or-death situations experienced by real people. In both situations, the characters of the game are often used as pawns for the wealthy – this message resonates around the world.

While South Korea is a largely prosperous nation, many of these shows tell us that not all this wealth is distributed evenly. According to an article on FT, poverty now affects more than 40% of South Koreans over the age of 65 (the highest percentage among OECD members), while nearly one in 10 young South Koreans is jobless. As the South Korean economy advances, there’s a widening wealth gap – a recent analysis suggests that it has the second highest income gap in the OECD, with a poverty rate of 17.4% which is second to the US (17.8%).

A Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs survey in 2019 found that over 85% of South Korean respondents feel that due to the “very big” income gaps in society, only those from wealthy families can be successful.


Hunger Games (2012), adapted from Suzanne Collins’ novel of the same name, represents the American version of the battle royale genre where teenagers from a dozen Districts are randomly picked to fight to the death in a televised game of survival.

Hunger Games is a broad anti-capitalist critique of western society with the wide wealth gap represented by the rich Capitol and the impoverished Districts. Here, the capitalist society is driven by violent exploitation and oppression by betting on the outcomes of the District representatives, called Tributes. It was released in 2012, an election year in which inequality and wealth distribution were major talking points. The book was written in the decade where capitalists became 20% richer, and child poverty increased by 21%. 

Other aspects it explores include the obsession with reality television which proliferated American television and of course, the atrocities of war. The war and deaths were arguably purposeless but were also glorified, reflecting the American sentiment of the various wars it’s been involved in. 

Hunger Games also rode the huge popularity of YA fiction that swept across the US, which also saw the rise of other dystopian survival series like Divergent (2014) and Maze Runner (2014). The former focused on the sense of belonging, while the latter is a subtle nod at racial politics. 

All of these capitalised on the struggles of the youth, specifically about the sense of belonging. In all three titles, the protagonists had to learn to find their place in society in a world that’s increasingly segregated.

In conclusion

No matter what the setting, dystopian films that pit one person against another for the prize of surviving often serve as a warning for the future. These films and series are the easiest way to spark discussion on social commentaries.