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 was propaganda and as a culture we should fight against it. There are similar Japanese cultural themes in Battle Royale, 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 the unlikely scenarios.
Koushun Takami was most famous for his 1999 book Battle Royale. Many people believe that the American book The 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. Everything he has written has been about this stylized idea of Japan government being corrupt. He has written nearly all of the manga books and a few of the graphic novels that are in the Battle Royale series. There is a new show on the American TV channel the CW that he is writing based on his book. Stephen King wrote an article in Entertainment Weekly about Takami calling his book a classic everybody should read.
There are common themes in Japanese books. One of the most popular is that people who are good and appreciate what they have will get their wishes.
Another theme is that the accomplishments of chosen people are incredible and they achieve almost every task they try, like heroes.
The characters in Battle Royale have many characteristics of Greek heroes. They perform extraordinary feats. They have noble character but they also have a fatal flaw. The suffering of the heroic character is physical and death occurs in an unusual way. 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.
The novel reveals many things about the culture of Japan. 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 is really some kind of samurai warrior in disguise. The samurai is wearing the same clothes as everyone else on the street. The samurai is not physically larger, yet you can sense the raw power in the samurai. It also 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. Everyone looks the same in the painting; they all share the same blank expression and dull blue suit. The most striking element of this art piece is that the main focus of the art does not catch your eye right away; it almost looks like daily life in Japan until you notice the guy with the long sword and awesome sunglasses. The painting by Shoten looks like part of a videogame, you can imagine the violence that is going to happen any second. In Japan there is a long history of conforming for the betterment of everybody. Everyone in the picture 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. The futuristic buildings show that Japan wants to be the center of the digital world in the future. There are many customs surrounding samurais as the protectors of the Japanese people and, for whatever reason, it does not look like the samurai will kill any of the worker bees going to their jobs. He looks very focused like he is after somebody bad.
Batoru Rowaiaru, or Battle Royale in English, takes place in the near future in Japan. The drama plays out on an island in Japan. The plot of Battle Royale is a lot like The Hunger Games. A Japanese school takes a field trip with two unsuspecting classes. Once they are on the island the children are gassed and fitted with electronic collars. The teacher then explains that the class has been picked to be in The Battle Royale. If they do not participate they will be killed. The teacher is named Kitano. 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. The teacher in the novel kills a student who is whispering to a friend just to show that he is the boss. All the students are given a bag of food, some water and a weapon. The problem is some of the weapons are firearms and some of the weapons given out are trashcan lids. There is a really strange video that explains the rules of the game. They have to kill each other until there is only one lone survivor. 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. 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 school bus to a chariot delivering innocents to God.
A few children are sadistic and they enjoy the idea of getting away with murder in the game. The author clearly lays out the characteristics of both the heroes and villains in the story. In American novels sometimes the hero is not all good or all bad. It is common in Japanese literature to make the villain simply evil and the hero simply good one hundred percent of the time. There are a handful of main characters including Noriko, Kawada, Kiriyama, Shuya and Noriko. They are the heroes of the story. The bad guys in the book are Kazuo and Mitsuko. From the first page of the novel the bad guys make bad decisions that are not for the collective good. In Japanese culture doing what is best for the collective is always more important than being selfish.
Kawada is one of the good guys and he has actually done this game once before. He came back because his girlfriend died and he wants to avenge her death. Retaliation and vengeance are common themes in Japanese novels. It is considered your duty to protect women and weak children in Japan. Japan has one of the lowest incidences of rape of any industrialized nation in the world. Many of the girls band together and hide. It is not unusual for women not to fight to protect themselves in Japan. It is part of the Japanese cultural identity for women to be weak and subservient to men. Noriko is a very unusual character for a Japanese novel because she is willing to fight for her own dignity. Noriko refuses to hide with the other girls. Shogo, Kawada, Kiriyama, Shuya and Noriko come up with a plan to try to outsmart the teachers by faking their own deaths. They use the microphones on the collars and pretend that they are dead. The evil teacher Kitano figures out that the kids are up to something but he cannot prove it so he ends the game and tells the monitors that they can go because he wants to personally kill the child that he believes is last survivor. Takami uses the analogy that Kitano cannot begin to bury himself until he spills the blood of innocents. This foreshadows Kitano’s suicidal tendencies early in the book.
Kitano, the teacher, wants to restore the honor of his name by killing the kids who he does not believe are really dead. Kitano feels that the children have disrespected him by not blindly following the rules of the government. There are only three survivors left and they confront Kitano. The evil teacher shows them a painting of the class where everyone is dead except Noriko. She survives and is the winner of the game. The evil teacher tells them that his own daughter Shiori hates him and that he thought of Noriko as his daughter. 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.
The movie ends with Shuya, Noriko and Shogo leaving the island on a boat. Shogo tells them that it was all worth it because he was glad that he found true friends, he says this just as he dies from his injuries suffered from the game. Shuya and Noriko are all alone on the boat and they hear an announcement that they are declared fugitive murderers. They get off the boat at a train station and start running. The message in the book is about trust and friendship. There is also a message about reality stars. The movie pokes fun at the idea that you can become famous for murdering thirty-nine fifteen year olds. The book asks tough questions like who watches this stuff? Then you have to ask yourselves we watch worse things now on TV don’t we? The book is about the evolution of what television could turn into if we are not careful and what the government can turn into if you are not vigilant.
It does not sound like an uplifting book about friendship but, in the end that is what it really is all about. Shuya is isolated and alone when his father dies suddenly. His not from the area and many of the children do not like him simply because they did not grow up with him. 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. It is dishonorable to take advantage of a woman just because they are smaller and weaker in Japan. In Japan it is very dishonorable to take advantage of the week and even criminals do not do so. People in Japan are not open and friendly with strangers. In the book Shuya is shunned because he is new to the school and everybody else at the school has known each other from the beginning so nobody talked to him. Even the nice people chose not to sit with him or speak with him. Japanese people do not like to be embarrassed. The evil teacher was so worried about being embarrassed that his daughter did not like him that he was willing to be part of this horrible massacre. Japanese children do what they are told to do and are taught not to cause problems. Even the sadistic evil children in the book did what they were told. The point of the game is to kill everyone and stay alive and they did exactly what they were told, they just liked it a little too much. Is culturally acceptable for Japanese young women to be meek. The Japanese women in the book, except for our hero Noriko, instantly hide and are killed first in the game. Duty, or accepting their fate, is also a cultural tradition in Japan. The guards and the teacher felt it was their duty to keep the game going because of some rule the government had made. There are many references in the book to politics. The Battle Royale started when children walked out of school and an act of defiance. Almost 100,000 children left school in Japan so the government passed a law to punish them with this Battle Royale. It is political move to make the government seem like they can do anything to control your life in Japan so you better not fight them.
The novel has two main ideas, the dumbing down of our intellect with reality TV shows and the problems of following governmental rules blindly by not thinking for yourself. 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 entrance. 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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