Battle Royale: Culture, Writing, & Representation

TW: Brief mentions of suicide

A few posts back, I wrote about my difficulties in finding something to read with my current state of mind. That problem persists, sort of. New books are still gathering dust on the shelves. But I have found refuge in some of my old favorites. (I reread Richard Adams’ Watership Down at least once a year, and that’s a soothing one for anyone out there also trying to stay away from darker material.) Except, for some reason, in my foray into lighter fare, I have somehow stumbled back into Koushun Takami’s infamous Battle Royale.

Spoiler alert: The book is full of blood, murder, suicide, oppression, and tears.

I think, a few sleep-addled nights ago, I decided that this book would somehow be uplifting. What a reflection of the war of chemicals in my brain! Life is a battle; now, fight! This is not a train of thought I recommend for the general public, but — so far — it’s actually going surprisingly well.

I love this cover because of the gun design between the two students. But what a weird quote from Stephen King.

For those not in the know, Battle Royale is the first and only novel written by Takami, a Japanese author, in the late ‘90s. The book was both wildly popular and deeply controversial in both Japan and then America following its English translation and the book’s subsequent film. (Note: The movie only skims the surface of the book, but I know it’s most people’s intro to the pop culture context.) I read this in high school and it blew my mind. This is maybe my second reread since then and it is still an emotional minefield.

Since Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Game trilogy there have been a lot of references to Battle Royale as some people claim Collins ripped off Takami, citing myriad similarities between the books (or the films). Battle Royale follows 42 high school students participating in one of fifty yearly Programs designed by the government, supposedly for military experiments. The students are taken to a remote location, armed with menial supplies and grab-bag weapons, and told to kill each other until only one survivor remains.

To add fuel to the fear, each student is fitted with a collar that not only tracks their location but can be triggered to explode if they are caught in a forbidden zone (six new zones on the grid of the map they are given), if they try to remove the collar, or if they otherwise piss off the Program staff. If no one dies within 24 hours, everyone’s collars explode.

By now you should be wondering: “But, Cheri, this is the darkest shit ever. Why are you doing this to yourself? You just bared your soul to us and said you couldn’t handle the darkness anymore. You wanted prancing Austenesque fare with which to gallop off into the sun. Why the lies?”

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This is true, dear readers. I have been giving it a lot of thought and this fluke may be due to one of two things: 1) All these characters are struggling in different ways because they want to live. That’s a brilliant model for my brain to latch onto. Granted, some of the characters are of the more murderous mindset of wanting to live, but the main characters fight with idealism, morality, trying to understand their government, corruption, complacency, and what it means to be alive. The loftier philosophies all boil down to this one very primal emotion, which my brain apparently is open to processing.

It’s either that or, 2) I’ve also been thinking about this potential blog post concerning Takami’s writing and its connection to Chebk’s post on Cultural Views and my post on Culture + Writing.

Popular as the title is, I thought this would be a good general example of incorporating culture into PoC character perspectives as well as general world-building. Previously, Chebk and I have both discussed how a character’s cultural background can and must inform their present personality, mindset, and actions. For example, if you are writing a Japanese character, whether in present-day L.A. fighting zombies or in space as captain of their own spaceship, they will not always follow traits and trains of thoughts as regular Americans.

Chiyoko from Millennium Actress is everything from a feudal noblewoman to an astronaut.
Chiyoko from Millennium Actress is everything from a feudal noblewoman to an astronaut.

In BR, Japan has become the Greater Republic of East Asia, run supposedly by the Great Dictator (or perhaps just a very secretive bureaucracy), continued its policy of isolationism, and trades only with countries considered neutral (i.e. not allies of imperialistic America). Takami is generally making a criticism of his actual government: the figurehead of the Emperor and the unwillingness of politicians to rock the boat and therefore follow each other through excessive or harmful policy-making. The government stresses conformity on pain of death, which also plays on Japanese cultural practices tending towards extreme conformity.

The culture — fictional and real — informs every character in the book. There are characters who contemplate suicide in terms of how they can remain morally responsible in the face of the Program: should they prevent themselves from killing others as well as keeping their blood off another’s hands? (This stems from Japan’s history with hara-kiri and seppuku). There is the girl who focuses (to the point of insanity) on her favorite Japanese pop star to get her through the game (a modern look at Japanese pop culture).

There is the boy who criticizes the culture outright, saying, “I think that this system is tailor-made to fit the people of this country. In other words, their subservience to superiors. Blind submission. Dependence on others and group mentality. Conservatism and passive acceptance.” (Whether or not this is true or right is debatable and is debated immediately after. Takami’s a little long-winded.)

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Be aware of these minute ways culture can affect your characters. How do they react in stressful situations alone? In a group? What are their feelings towards the opposite sex? Towards the same sex? How do they feel about their governmental structure? What informs their opinions on violence?

Remember that a character’s cultural background doesn’t exist in a background. Remember that your Western upbringing (or whatever) also influences your writing of this character. There is no way you encompass everything, but trying to think about the relevant issues your character will encounter in your story can help to inform how you will portray them accurately, rather than a cardboard cut-out of a Person of Color.

Oh, and to get back to that first point: I like seeing these characters with my cultural background — Japanese — fighting just as hard as I am to live and exist and be. Cultural representation matters. That can make all the difference to readers, too.

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