Books With Friends: Battle Royale

Books With Friends: Battle Royale

My friend Brittany had been bugging me to read Battle Royale for months because it’s one of her favourite novels. After finishing it, we had multiple discussions about the book, its characters, and overall themes present throughout the narrative. Now, here are some of her thoughts on this Japanese cult-classic.

Why did you originally read this book?

I’ve always been interested in Japanese culture. Most of my exposure to Japanese media has been through video games, anime, and manga. At the time, when I began to indulge more in Japanese media, there weren’t many novels available. The only popular Japanese authors were Banana Yokohama and Haruki Murakami. It was through a chance encounter with my step-sister, who was reading a Japanese novel, Battle Royale, when I learned there were more authors beyond the two I’d already seen.

I went in blind for Battle Royale and I don’t regret it. My first impressions were: Japanese author, a silhouette of a female and male student on the cover, and in between the two students there’s a gun. Were the trying to kill each other? Were they trying to protect one another? Does the black and red book cover signify death and terror? All I knew was, it’s “a potent allegory of what it means to be young and (barely) alive in a dog-eat-dog world.” Even though I was probably only 12 when I first read Battle Royale, I still believe that it is a dog-eat-dog world, especially if you’re young and trying to survive all the bullshit that’s going on around you.

Who was your favourite character and why?

Mitsuko Souma, for sure. Maybe Kazuo Kiriyama and Shogo Kawada, too.

Even though it’s been over ten years since I’ve read this novel, there’s something about Mitsuko that really made her memorable (compared to the three “we’re the good guys, we’re going to survive this” main characters). Mitsuko had such a tragic childhood upbringing and thanks to that, she wears a listless, strange expression that could be scary but also sad at times. She was repeatedly violated in her youth and hurt by people she thought she could trust which turned her into a manipulative young woman who used her sexuality to get what she wanted, unable to trust others. During her time in school, there were multiple rumors of her flying around: prostitute, drug addict, blackmailer, shoplifter, and so on. Imagine being only 14 or 16 years old and having to hear those terrible things being said about you, and having almost all of your classmates terrified of you. It makes school tough, and you just start to give less of a shit about people and their opinions about you. You just keep on living the way you are, with or without friends.

During her time on the island, she’ll do whatever she can to survive, even if it means manipulating others and killing her classmates (with no remorse; I think her body count was six or seven). She knows she can depend on herself and doesn’t waste any time in believing “we’ll survive this if we tell others not to kill each other” because Mitsuko has the mindset of “if the cuckoo does not sing, kill it” mentality. She’s a doer and realist in a situation that’s completely barbaric.

Relating to a “villain” compared to the main characters may sound odd, especially with Mitsuko. Maybe the reason why she’s so memorable to me is because I can relate to her the most. I’ve been in almost familiar situations as her (sexual assault and abuse, physical and mental abuse, harassment), and I feel the same as her, “hurt by people she thought she could trust which turned her into a manipulative young woman … to get what she wanted, unable to trust others” especially after everything I’ve gone through. I just don’t really care about others (who aren’t close to me) as much as I care for myself, as ruthless as that sounds.

Kazuo Kiriyama… This character was on a whole different level for me and just as memorable as Mitsuko. Due to his brain injury, he lost the ability to process basic human emotions (notably remorse). He’s smart and talented when it comes to quickly adapting to new situations, and it shows when he’s on the island. You would never expect a character who sat in the back of class, received the highest grades among his classmates, and mastered difficult tasks to be capable of killing anyone on a whim. And honestly, it makes sense. He was able to kill 12 of his classmates either with a knife, a gun, a hammer, or by tricking a classmate into a forbidden zone. The dude is a genius.

I loved everything about his character because it was all perfectly balanced. From his backstory (brain injury, school and personal life), how he’s described (average height, slicked back black hair, good looking, and his eyes are described as blank and empty due to his lack of emotion), doesn’t have any real friends or enemies, to the way he thinks (often makes choices on a whim as he has no particular incline or desire to act on anything). His persona really makes you think, “How can someone so ordinary and boring, be so capable of committing such tragedies? Was he really just hiding behind a mask this entire time?” It kind of wakes you up and makes you realize how people can hide behind a façade so easily, and you would never guess it.

Shogo Kawada is a prime example that no one is exempted from the program. He was left with scars and gunshots all over his body, he found his girlfriend dead when all he wanted to do was protect her, he had nothing left. He needed to survive, but at what cost?

As for his character development, at the beginning he’s got this rough, harden and intimidating (and even badass) exterior who doesn’t try to get too close to others or trust them, but once the main characters (Shuya and Noriko) team up with him, you begin to realize he really is a kind, gentle (and still very badass) person with a great sense of humor. He is also resourceful and will do anything in his power to get Noriko and Shuya off the island. He doesn’t care if he gets off the island or not, he just doesn’t want more people to die thanks to this twisted government game.

Were you expecting someone to be the winner, as the game intended? If so, who?

I honestly didn’t want there to be a winner. I genuinely wanted them all to die. The reason why I say this is because the entire premise is focused on “one winner” and, although this is fiction, I couldn’t imagine how the PTSD would impact their life. How do you go back to living a normal life after possibly killing one or more of your classmates? Is it possible to trust or establish relationships with others again? Could you go back to being naïve and pretend everything is alright?

These are all questions that can’t be answered and I don’t expect or want an answer. All I’m saying is, I would rather be dead than have to live for less than a few days in complete terror and constant paranoia. To the adults this is just a game and entertainment, but to the kids it’s life or death.

What do you think you’d do if you found yourself in this game?

This is a really good question and I’ve thought about this a lot. I personally feel like attempting to make alliances with others would be a complete waste of time. Due to the high-stress nature of this game, and after reading this book, you can really see how some people broke even in the accompany of friends.

Sometimes I want to believe that I would be a mix of Shogo, Kazuo, and Mitsuko: fight or flight, don’t trust others, keep your distance, manipulate if you have to, and find various ways to keep yourself alive without ever really exposing yourself. Even if you get a weapon that’s a farmer’s sickle or a pocket knife. I just couldn’t get behind the whole, “I’m not going to kill anyone! We’re all going to survive!” You’re not going to survive that way when others are going to hunt you down and are only thinking for themselves. Maybe I’m only thinking this way because I’ve recently been reading a lot about samurais and their way of life, but there’s something romantic about fighting until your last breath and keeping your pride: even in the face of death, you fight.

I also just want to be like Shogo and claim “this isn’t my bag” and completely scare the rest of my class into thinking I mean business.

Battle Royale on a bookshelf

The story is very violent and graphic, yet incredibly popular. Why do you think people are drawn to such a violent novel?

I think the reason why people, myself included, are so interested in stories like this is simply because it’s not real. We’re not sending a class of students to their deaths to fight each other while we watch it live on television back in the comfort of our own home.

There’s also the human condition that plays into this, and why some people may enjoy violent movies or novels:

  • Many cannot or will not act out on our violent fantasies because we understand that there are repercussions if we do (i.e., sentenced to jail).
  • People are just simply attracted to violence or gore for no specific reason.
  • To fulfill our hedonistic pleasures: some people get a thrill out of watching or reading about bloodshed.

There are multiple reasons why humans can be attracted to something so dark, and this is where the charm that lies in Battle Royale comes from. It just comes from us and our need to fulfill certain desires. You’re reading about students who have to fight and/or kill each other because if they don’t, the big bad guy will kill a student at random. During this chaotic time, you want to understand their motivations, reasons, and actions because maybe you just want to justify your own reasons why you fight for life or live the way you do every day.

There’s a quote which can better explain a human’s nature than I can: “If there is evil in this world, it lurks in the hearts of men” (Tales of Phantasia). We all have a some darkness in us, even though we don’t want to admit it.

Battle Royale and The Hunger Games are often compared to each other. Do you think it’s fair to compare the two, or do you consider them to be in different spheres? Why or why not?

They shouldn’t be compared at all. They are different types of premises and the storytelling is different as well.

I personally haven’t read The Hunger Games and I don’t really plan on it. However, from what I remember (after reading a tl;dr summary), is that The Hunger Games is more of a team-focused story about teenage love, killing strangers from different districts, and winning to get resources for back home. The people participating not only get PTSD, but they also get something else out of competing in it. 

Battle Royale is a dog-eat-dog, survival to the fittest, only one can survive, there is no time for love, and there is no real reward. You fight, you kill, you survive, you get off the island, and then you are forced to assimilate back into society. Another point too is that you’re killing your classmates (who you may be more intimate with) this time around, instead of strangers from different districts.

Storytelling-wise, Battle Royale is more violent compared to The Hunger Games. You’re going to read every explicit details about how someone dies and how much blood is spewing out of their body, with sound effects included.

Maybe the only character similarity is Katniss’ and Shuya’s stupidity throughout the entire novel(s) with their “saving everyone else over myself” mentality. Get a grip. Oh, and people having to kill each other and living in a dystopian future, I guess there’s that too.

In my honest opinion, The Hunger Games is a complete rip-off of Battle Royale, but you could also say the same in that Battle Royale is a rip-off of The Lord of the Flies. To each to their own, don’t @ me.

Who would you recommend this book to?

If you love violence and reading about people killing each other, read this book as soon as possible. Other than that, I would definitely recommend this book to individuals who are interested in cult-classic Japanese fiction, people who have read and loved The Lord of the Flies but want to experience a Japanese version of it, and anyone who has read The Hunger Games who needs to read a real novel about battle royale style survival. Sorry, not sorry.

What’s next on your reading list?

This year it’s my goal to read as many Japanese novels as I can. I am currently I’m reading a Japanese young adult novel Chain Mail: Addicted to You. I don’t normally read psychological, mystery novels, but it’s a really good one and I haven’t been able to put it down. It’s about how the boundaries between reality and fantasy become blurred when four Tokyo teenagers, who have never met in person, collaborate to write an online fictional psychological thriller story told from four different points of view: a high school girl, her boyfriend/tutor, a detective, and a the high school girl’s stalker. If you can find a copy that’s not $200 on Amazon, I suggest you pick it up. Plus, you can have all the bragging rights about how it’s no longer in print production, so it’s a collector’s item.

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