How Battle Royale Helped Me Grow

(TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNING: I’m going to be discussing the violence in Battle Royale at length. In this day and age, it is really hard to take a movie about the wholesale murder of students at face value, especially when we have seen that exact scenario play out on the news time and time again.

My thesis is more about the reaction to said violence and thematic material and how it sparked a change, not a glorification or–God forbid–an endorsement of said behaviors and attitudes.

I’m also going to discussing a particularly toxic group of people I used to pal around with. While I refuse to replicate their speech patterns here explicitly, please expect a discussion of racism and general misogyny. 

Thank you for your time.)

It is 2005. I am 16 years old, a sophomore in high school. Hanging out with a particular sophomoric, yet shockingly popular group of dudes. I have glommed onto this group because I made them laugh once. I repeated a Lewis Black routine at an end of the year freshman dance, and they have accepted me into their group.

They are crass and obnoxiously confident. They partied (as in DRINKING and SMOKING WEED party, something unheard of to my severely uncool self). And best of all, they have status. The elusive social ambrosia I was obsessed with chasing at the time. Status meant more relationships, which meant more people in my sphere of influence, which was something I thought was oh-so important at the time. Invites were everything, and this group always got invited everywhere. Even, I had heard, to a college party one time up near Lake Kickapoo last year. That is a real lake near my hometown, btw. That wasn’t just something I made up. I promise.

I am particularly keen to gain the eye of the leader of this rag-tag group of proto-edgelords, who we will call T.B. He was blonde, boyishly handsome, and upper-middle class. His mom was never around, so his nice, large, empty house–which was always stocked with food and the latest video games–became our base of operations. He is also almost cartoonishly cruel to everyone and everything. Nothing is sacred to him, and he expresses it with hateful language. I’m not great with this, and I hesitate to even engage in it fully like the rest of the “gang.”

But I don’t say anything because I’m a coward who so sorely needs social validation.

T.B. had a right-hand man, Shawn (not his real name either), who once tried to guzzle a half-full handle of cheap, rotgut vodka in the shower before school because, quote: “I didn’t want to show up not fucked up.” This morning he bursts into the cafeteria like he’s just discovered the lost city of El Dorado.

“You guys…” he says breathlessly, bloodshot eyes bugging out of his sallow skull. “Did y’all know… there is a movie… all about killing your classmates?!”

The excitement is palpable. At this time, school shootings are only a macabre anomaly and not just grim business-as-usual. The act seems to fascinate the group, forming one of the longest-running inside jokes. To this day, I’m not sure what the “joke” was, but the mere mention of it was enough to send Shawn and some others into uncomfortable giggles.

T.B. puts the word out. We had to see it. And it becomes my job as the group’s “fuckin’ dork” to find it. I have a slight advantage with my position as Third Period Library Assistant. The Library of a small, largely white Texas high school isn’t ever busy on the best of days. I am left to my own devices more often than not. I devoured books that I didn’t have the emotional intelligence to fully comprehend yet. They stayed with me forever, revealing themselves more and more as I get older and return to them.

I also have a wondrous item on my side. The Internet. That wild, fairly unrestricted internet one could find in schools in the early 2000s. The internet is where budding film blogs and critical voices were popping up like beautiful digital wildflowers, just waiting for impressionable youths like me to bask in their light. It doesn’t take me long to find information on the movie. Information I relish. I learn about the original novel’s fascinating author and the scope of his entire storied career. I learn about the incendiary controversy surrounding the film; the restrictions and re-cutting and its resonance with the youth culture of Japan. 

I know it is going to be impossible to get a tape of the movie. Outlandish to even think I can obtain a vaunted DVD of it instead. I am stuck in the middle of bum-fuck Texas. How the hell am I supposed to get a DVD?! Our video store still has a rewind machine behind the counter and porn behind a beaded curtain. Thankfully, another library comes through for me—my local public library. Placing a well-timed inter-library loan request, I check out the original novel. It took a moment after being handed the volume to appreciate the striking minimalist cover.

I read it in two days flat. I eschew what I hear was a particularly “bitchin'” weekend party (at this party, Shawn had cracked the neck off of a wine bottle with a pot over someone’s sink after failing to uncork it properly). The book’s violence is shocking, for sure. Made even more shocking because I am reading about kids around my same age being mowed down and devolving into baser instincts. But the thing that bonds to my bones is that these kids felt everything I am feeling. Anxiety. Fear. Longing, both to connect and become. Sexual frustration. Distrust of adults and institutions. It is so exhilarating to see myself in not only a foreign work but something that seems so “taboo.” As if it was using the violence as some kind of … theme blanket!! (I don’t know a lot about narrative structure or devices at this time.)

I try to report my findings back to the boys. They all laugh at me. They hurl slurs at me for daring to look beyond what was there, for having “f***y feelings.” Even worse, that I would dare to sympathize with someone who wasn’t straight and white. It is a bracing social experience and, in hindsight, a very sharp turn in my own personal morality. I have often neglected to recognize my own privilege by hand-waving it away, saying that that stuff “didn’t matter to me.” A luxury of growing up in a homogenized setting. However, it clearly matters to my friends. And in the wayyyyy wrong fucking way. From there, the casual racism of my family became apparent. The whole fucked up morass of it.

It was, as they say, a moment of clarity.

The second moment of clarity comes that summer, right before our junior year. The group is aiming for more chaos and more power in the coming year. I am aiming to join show choir. But they are my “friends,” and I still want, for god knows whatever reason, to impress them. I do so by finally arranging a screening of the film after finding a dubbed copy at a Hastings two towns over. We procure a case of beer and wait until T.B.’s mom leaves for work. We settle in.

From the jump, they refuse to meet the movie halfway, forcing me to skip all of the vital world-building of the opening text in favor of seeing “Asians being murdered.” I instantly protest, not solely due to the grossness of the comment but just because they need to read this shit to get the movie. I try bringing up the book again but am shouted down, derided again as lesser for simply feeling. The movie is quickly replaced in favor of something actually lesser. I don’t remember as I start the not-fun kind of introspective drinking.

Later on, when everyone is passed out, I put the movie on again. This time, I am free to experience it cleanly. The adaptation wrote large all the things I responded to in the novel; now, it is tightly rendered into darkly funny, wonderfully engaging scenes. The film is strung together by the raw moxie of young actors and support of a director who understood that this was more than mindless bloodletting.

Again, the violence is striking and just as sudden as it was in the novel. Kitano’s opening volley against the students jolts me, even through the Natural Lite-induced haze. Even with that haze, all the emotions, alienation, fear, horniness, and general unease of being a teenager are there on the screen. The emotional interludes and pathos-filled turns are personified and acted beautifully by a troupe of actors who couldn’t have been older than I am while watching them. Again, that connection sparks in my chest. The feeling that empathy isn’t the enemy. Nor is the “other.” Everyone is just as fucked up as I am, even on the other side of the globe. That fills me with hope, hope that I can be more than just a teenage dirtbag. That kindness isn’t a liability. Caring isn’t a weakness.

That next year, I subtly begin to disentangle myself from these friends. I am always busy when they call. I sit with choir and theatre friends at lunch. I start the tough process of finally deciding who I am. I may not find the answer immediately, but I know I am not going to be them. Misanthropic, hateful, and careless. That got them nothing eventually. Leaning into empathy, respect, and tolerance will get me to realize just who I am and how I occupy the world.

Now. This isn’t some 30-Year-Old Justin trying to absolve 16-Year-Old Justin for poor behavior. Nor is this me trying to justify myself or my choices back then either. I was struck by how something so small as reading a novel written outside your experience can end up informing it. How seeing yourself in the “other” is so powerful to some people that it can turn them towards self-improvement and empathy.

It’s probably a weird message to get from a novel and movie about state-mandated murder, but it’s a weird world. I’m just happy it happened when it did.

Be seeing you…