Battle Royale has a simple concept: 42 students are abducted to an island, provided with weapons and made to fight each other. What would they do? Some would fear for their lives and attack first. Some would form allies (and later betray). Some would go on a rampage, while some would seek for peace. Koshun Takami plays at these possibilities and delivers the details of the battle at an unimaginable level. Here I discuss some of the themes I discovered in Battle Royale.
- Authority, trust and rebellion
The novel is set in the fascist regime of the Republic of Greater East Asia (RGEA) in 1997. The country is basically Japan in an alternate timeline. However, from the details in the plot, I could sense that the Republic of Greater East Asia also included China.
I wonder how the fascism originated in the Republic. Could it be the Chinese communist influence, or could it be the World War II Japan? The latter feels more likely. During the Second World War, Japan was an imperialistic force that had sided with Germany. Japan even invaded China until they were sent back the PLA led by Mao. In the alternate timeline, Japan might have won both the wars and established an authoritarian rule. But we do not know.
Here is a conversation that makes it difficult to know the country’s history.
Noriko interrupted him, ‘Seventy-five years ago?’ Hugging her knees under her pleated skirt, Noriko tilted her head with a puzzled look on her face.
Noriko then looked over at Shuya. Shuya nodded and then looked back at Shogo. ‘I heard something about how the history they teach us is a big lie and that the current Dictator is hardly the 325th Dictator. In fact, he’s only supposed to be the twelfth one, right?’
Shuya glanced at Noriko’s surprised face, but when he heard Shogo’s next statement, ‘Well, even that might not be true,’ he raised his brow.
‘What do you mean?’
Shogo smiled and said, ‘There is no Dictator. He doesn’t exist. He’s just made up. That’s what I heard.’
‘That can’t be…’ Noriko said hoarsely, ‘but we see him on the news…and on New Year’s he makes an appearance in front of everyone at his palace…’
‘Right.’ Shogo grinned. ‘But who is this ‘everyone at the palace’? Have you ever met someone who was actually there? What if they were actors too, just like the Dictator?’
Battle Royale (Chapter 31)
Though the history is dubious, it is clear that the government wants control over its citizens. Battle Royale Programme (aka Battle Experiment No. 68 or the Programme) is a form of control. The abducted children are forced to fight and one of them stands out as the winner. These children fear (and/or mistrust) each other. In the situation, they forget the good times they had together. Some examples are:
- Yoshio Akamatsu is the first to be grabbed by fear. He kills a girl from a safe spot and attacks Shuya Nanahara.
- Yuko Sakaki sees Nanahara “kill” Tatsumichi Oki and out of fear, tries to poison him. Her action causes a shootout in the Light House (the most intense scene in both the book and the movie), and five girls kill each other. She herself commits suicide.
- Kayoko Kotohiki attacks Hiroki Sugimura thinking he is going to kill her. Hiroki’s only mission, however is to search her, protect her (if possible) and to confess his love for her. (This is one of those scenes which is better than in the book than in the movie.)
What about the parents and guardians of the students who are abducted for the “Experiment”? They get informed about it. Some protest. They are killed or tortured by the government. Shogo’s father was killed when he was the participant of the previous Programme. Kinpatsu Sakamochi (Programme Supervisor) raped Anno, Nanahara’s caretaker. And the others accept their fate of having to lose a child. Noriko Nakagawa’s parents are said to be alive at the end of the story.
Any resistance against the Programme or the government is crushed. Mr. Hayashida (the teacher) is killed when he resists to cooperate with Sakamochi. Shinji Mimura’s uncle is said to have died in an accident but Shinji believes that he was murdered by the government for being rebellious.
Also, the Programme is equal to all. The participant could be the son of a bureaucrat or an aristocrat or may be an orphan. None of it matter. No one is spared. The moment between Kyoichi Motobuchi, the class representative and Kinpatsu Sakamochi makes this concept clear.
Some of his classmates might have been hoping that Kyoichi would provide some adequate rational form of protest. Kill the friends you were hanging out with yesterday? It was impossible. Someone’s making a mistake here. Hey rep, can you take care of this one for us?
“’M-my father is a director of environmental affairs in the prefectural government. How could the class I’m in be selected for th-the Program?…’
Due to his shaking, his tense voice sounded even more wound up than usual.
The man who called himself Sakamochi grinned and shook his head, his long hair swinging in the air. ‘Let’s see. You’re Kyoichi Motobuchi, right?
‘You must know what equality means. Listen up. All people are born equal. Your father’s job in the prefectural government doesn’t entitle you to special privileges. You are no different. Listen up, everybody. You all have your own distinct personal backgrounds. Of course some of you come from rich families, some from poor families. But circumstances beyond your control like that shouldn’t determine who you are. You must all realize what you’re worth on your own. So Kyoichi, let’s not delude ourselves that you’re somehow special—because you’re not!’”
Battle Royale, Chapter 3
But the characters do not stop thinking about the rebellion. Shinji wants to avenge his uncle and tries hacking into their Programme computer which is in a school. When he fails, he makes an explosive to blast off the school. He fails again.
Shinji might have also been successful if he had tried to look for more allies but he does not seem to trust people. His uncle had told:
‘It’s best not to trust groups and movements. They’re not very reliable.’
He even kills a friend, Keita Iijima when he feels that he would leak his plan of blowing up the school.
The conversation between Shogo Kawada, Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa provide insight into whether the rebellion would be successful. Shogo, who seems to know a lot, believes that people wouldn’t resist the government and a revolution for freedom may never occur. Their prosperity had made people oblivious to freedom. They believed in what the government believed: “controlled freedom is necessary for prosperity”. (Personally, I too feel this is true but I believe in soft control, unlike that of the RGEA.)
Even though Shogo has personal grudge against the government, he begins a rebellion by saving two people from the Programme and hijacking a military boat. Nanahara and Nakagawa are in the run in the book and the movie. Battle Royle 2 is the movie (I haven’t watched yet) in which the government has declared them as terrorists.
- Kindness and Love
The novel has a lot of moments in which one character says to another: “You’re kind.”
Shinji Minura helps Noriko Nakagawa during the briefing by Kinpatsu Sakamochi, when the bullet ricocheting through Yotitoki Kuninobu hits her leg. Shuya Nanahara helps Noriko after they are sent to the “battlefield”. Shogo Kawada helps both of them. And though Hiroki Sugimura cannot help as he would like to, he has also been described as kind. Hiroki is also the tragic hero, who dies at the hands of his beloved.
On the opposite spectrum are Kazuo Kiriyama and Mitsuko Souma. While Mitsuko’s backstory makes one sympathetic towards her, one can’t even sympathize at Kiriyama’s death. His apathy makes him a one dimensional character—one who is perfect and wants to win the battle. However, he does not succeed. Had he succeeded, kindness and love would have lost. Rebellion would have lost. Battle Royale would have ended in a darker note, with a loss of hope.
Sakura Ogawa and Kazhuhiko Yamamoto are among the first to die. I felt their suicide was a symbol of lost love. Mitsuko Souma is one of the girls who has involved in prostitution even before her puberty. The book says she was gang-raped, the movie shows her mother forcing her into prostitution. The way she acts during the battle was also the result of lost love. Hiroki’s loss is also an instance of love losing to fear.
So the one way to make love victorious was to save Noriko and Shuya. Shogo, who himself is a tragic hero from the previous battle, helps them. He had been their savior and their guide. It was extremely tragic that he died. Had he survived, it would have been a wonderful journey for the three.
- Mutual Respect among teachers and students
The theme of mutual respect is not prominent in the book. The movie is different in this respect. The whole Battle Royale Programme stems from a law (BR Act) to control the rebellious youth. The school students frequently bunk Kitano’s classes and attacks him with a knife in the corridor. When Kitano enters later as the Programme Supervisor, he seems to be taking a revenge.
However, the individual youth might have also been thinking: Why should I respect elders who don’t respect me? The characters have gone through a lot due to the neglect of the adults. Shuya has been an orphan when his father couldn’t bear the pain of poverty. Mitsuko has been pushed to prostitution by her own mother. Yoshitoki Kuninobu and Fumiyo Fujiyoshi are killed by Kitano against the rule and no one punished him, though he talks about following rules.
The second epilogue in the movie (Requiem II) shows the common dream of Noriko and Kitano. Noriko says she had taken the knife that had been used to attack him. He asks, “What am I supposed to say at this moment?” Though Kitano likes Noriko, and Noriko respects him, her statement is surprising. I felt that the complexity of the relation between adults and children is shown in that scene.