Japanese Cultural Themes in Battle Royale
Koushun Takami’s novel Battle Royale is influenced by the Western literary tradition of unexpected heroism. Japanese culture values placing others before yourself and the novel Battle Royale exemplifies the virtues of an unexpected hero, in this case a group of gangly teenagers in middle school. Battle Royale is a very unusual book for Japanese literature and it tackles some difficult themes. Koushun Takami believes that the culture in Japan of obeying your elders and the Japanese government is propaganda and as a culture we should fight against it. There are also traditional Japanese cultural themes in Battle Royale that can be found in Japanese folklore and modern Japanese art. These themes include ideas of conformity being positive, heroes being born of ordinary people and the idea that honor can be found in unlikely scenarios.
Koushun Takami was most famous for his 1999 book Battle Royale. Many people believe that the American book Hunger Games is based on this novel. Koshun Takami was born on January 10, 1969 near Osaka, Japan. He graduated from Osaka University with a degree in literature. He worked as a journalist for the news company Shikoku Shimbun. He was a beat reporter and he wrote many articles about politics, the police and economics in Japan. It is during this time period that he began to feel disenfranchised from the Japanese government. He felt he could not write in-depth stories criticizing government waste and nepotism without losing his job. He wrote the novel while working as a reporter. Battle Royale, unfortunately, was originally rejected as an entry into the Japan Grand Prix Horror Novel competition in 1996. They wrote him a letter explaining that although the novel was well written they felt that no one would ever publish a book about junior high school students being forced to kill one another by the government. Takami did not give up and eventually in April 1999 his novel was published. The novel was well received and became an instant best seller in Japan. It was later made into a manga book and a feature film. An English edition was published in 2003. The manga book was even more popular than the original novel and the Battle Royale series has become famous around the world and has earned cult status. Takami has not written anything since the release of this book. He has written nearly all of the manga books and a few of the graphic novels that are in the Battle Royale series.
There are common themes in Japanese folktales and literature. One of the most popular is that people who are good and appreciate what they have will get their wishes. In the folktale Issun-boshi an elderly couple “went to a shrine and prayed, oh please give us a child we want one so badly,” every day for years until their prayers were answered with an inch-high samurai child. In the book Battle Royale Shinja and Noriko are both good people and they pray that they live through their horrible experiences. Their prayers are also answered and they are the two characters that live through the book.
Another theme in Japanese culture involves the heroic accomplishments of chosen people. The characters in Battle Royale have many characteristics of Aristotle's Greek heroes. In Battle Royale Shuya fights to save other children telling them “You want me to just sit back and watch them get killed?” In Greek mythology Hercules defended Thebes from the armies of the neighboring city. The notion of virtue is important in Japanese literature. Nearly all of the heroic characters in the novel are innocent children. The heroes of the book all have courage, pride, honor, and an innate sense of justice. But just like in Greek novels they need to look out for shame, cowardice and foolishness. In Battle Royale Kitano dishonors himself in front of his daughter so he is on a suicide mission. In Greek mythology Medea in a jealous rage kills her own children to hurt her unfaithful husband.
Japan has a culture that respects conformity. In Japanese culture doing what is best for the collective is always more important than being selfish. The artist Kadokawa Shoten is well known in Japan for his futuristic style and surrealist elements of his art. I was attracted to this art piece because I like the idea that everyone looks exactly the same yet one of them lives secretly as a samurai warrior in disguise. The samurai wears the same clothes as everyone else on the street. The samurai, although not physically larger, has raw power in him. The painting conveys the feeling of blank sameness in everyone else. In Japan not sticking out or being noticed is the cultural norm, and what everyone aspires to. In the novel Shogo says “ We don't want to be standing out”. (119) In Battle Royale one of the teachers kept the children in line by saying, “one must be responsible for the thing one says “. (34) Even our hero Shuya tells his friends “I'm so glad and so relieved we have met someone else who's normal”.(119) In the Shoten painting everyone is dressed the same, including the samurai. In Japan it is very popular for men to work long hours because it is considered honorable to be a hard worker. It is also culturally unacceptable to wear anything other than blue or black suits to work every day.
In Battle Royale there is an ongoing theme about honor. In Japanese culture a teacher is considered beyond reproach. Everything they say you do, without question. In Japan it is considered a serious offense to speak poorly of your teacher under any circumstances. Kitano, the teacher in Battle Royale, kills a student who is whispering to a friend just to show that he is the boss. At the end of the book he is actually on a suicide mission because he has dishonored his daughter. Four children kill themselves right away because they feel they cannot participate. Japan has the highest suicide rate in the world. Children as young as eight have committed suicide in Japan because they have done poorly on exams or disrespected their parents in some other way according to a Michael Zielenziger article from the Tribune News Service from 1998. None of the children in the novel are surprised when the four children commit suicide and each of the heroes of the novel consider it for a moment or two. The author uses allusion comparing the suicidal kids on the school bus to a “chariot delivering innocents to God” (267). Takami uses the analogy that Kitano cannot begin to “bury himself until he spills the blood of innocents”. (311) This foreshadows Kitano’s suicidal tendencies early in the book. Kitano feels that the children have disrespected him by not blindly following the rules of the government. He says it is unbearable to live with the guilt that he feels and asks Noriko to kill him because he has embarrassed himself and humiliated the school. Kitano is shot and killed and as he is falling to the ground he shoots what looks like a gun and you can see for the first time it is really a water gun. You realize then he was on a suicide mission.
It does not sound like an uplifting book about friendship but in the end that is what it really is all about. Shuya is so lonely and cannot even find someone to eat lunch with during the school day. He thinks everything that happened was worth it because he found true friendship. Honor was talked about over and over again in the book. In Japanese culture your honor is a very big deal. The teacher would rather die than be embarrassed. Japanese people do not like to be embarrassed. Japanese children do what they are told to do and are taught not to cause problems.
The novel has two main ideas, the dumbing down of our intellect and the problems caused by following governmental rules blindly by not thinking for ourselves. Although this book has a very Japanese perspective it could be any country in the world. If we are not careful we could end up blindly following the leaders in our nation. I would definitely recommend this book to others. It is incredibly bloody and violent but I believe it has a positive message. The Hunger Games is very similar story. So similar in fact that I believe the Hunger Games ripped off the entire idea from Battle Royale. It has been suggested that the entire novel is a metaphor for the Japanese cutthroat entrance exam system for college. Japanese culture is very different from Western culture but similar themes can be found in art and literature. Japanese ideas of “self” not being as important as “country” and heroism being possible in the faceless masses can be found in the novel. It is easy to dismiss the novel as a teen horror fantasy, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is a deep and moving story about social rebellion in the digital age and the bonds of friendship. Battle Royale has many characters that I liked and even the violence has a stylized beauty to it.
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