Battle Royale is an extraordinary effort, regardless of the medium. First appearing as a 1999 novel, author Koushun Takami’s work was quickly adapted into a graphic novel of the same name, with director Kinji Fukasaku following suit within the year to bring us the film. The hat trick of all three is one lesser artists can only daydream of pulling off: getting the audience attached to all 42 students before watching their painful, inevitable deaths. In the middle of all this killing, all three versions have two universal antagonists: Kazou Kiriyama and Mitsuko Souma, the yin and yang of adolescent murder.
However, there’s a disturbing underlying difference between the brutal Kiriyama and the equally-lethal Mitsuko. Something that’s hidden in plain sight and carefully, lovingly cultivated in all three versions of the tale: Kiriyama functions as a cold, sociopathic killing machine with little explanation outside of childhood physical injury, while Mitsuko receives a tragic backstory to explain the main cause(s) of her complete psychosis. In fact, Mitsuko seems to require this backstory to make her motives and ultimately actions more sympathetic, as opposed to granting her the same freedom to kill that Kiriyama possesses.
The audience is asked to decide which is worse by comparing the three media: the young man that is incapable of feeling, or the young man that gleefully slaughters without a hint of remorse. Either way, it’s clear that Kiriyama is a character that’s missing a conscience, making him a villain we can’t ultimate sympathize with or root for: there will be no redeeming of Kazou Kiriyama in the end, and therefore, there’s no connection to him. While Kawada makes for an interesting protagonist due to his backstory and actions, we just can’t get behind feeling sympathy for Kiriyama. That’s intentional: the character is the Big Bad Wolf of The Program, who gets more hardcore with every adaptation. This is evidenced by the weapons he receives in each version: in the novel, he obtains a knife; in the manga, a pistol; in the film, a paper fan. The novel and manga present a wounded soul who pretty much can’t help himself from feeling a sense or right or wrong – therefore, he’s given deadlier weapons as a way to present a type of no-brainer choice: we know that someone without a shoulder angel is going to kill everything in sight when given the chance and a lack of consequences. The film ups the ante in a scarier fashion: he obtains the most kills, and he starts out with a paper fan. The quiet boy with the paper fan is not only going to kill you – he’s going to butcher you in front of your friends with a smile. He’s a progressively worse killing machine the further down the rabbit hole you go with the adaptations, culminating in someone who kills freely and without backstory.
Mitsuko is decidedly different, as her backstory becomes more and more tragic as additional layers are added. While her weapon of choice – a sickle – does not change in any adaptation, her backstory certainly does. The novel is quite possibly the most heartbreaking of the three: at the age of nine, Mitsuko is gang raped by three men who paid her mother to permit (and videotape) her assault; after telling a teacher about the incident, the teacher rapes the child. When Mitsuko’s mother is about to repeat the gang rape incident, the child kills her own mother and stages the scene to look as though the adult was killed in a botched robbery, swinging quietly by herself on a playground after the act. That’s not the end of it either: she’s then sent to live with relatives, where the male head of household begins to sexually abuse her. As though that wasn’t enough, the manga crafted a different story for her: her father walks out when she’s small, leaving her a special ring by which she’s expected to remember him. From there, her mother marries a man that begins physically, mentally and sexually abusing her; Mitsuko responds by falling into a pattern of drugging and robbing men she seduces, with the girl holding onto a warped view of sex as a means of righting a situation. In fact, Mitsuko uses sex to attempt to heal Takiguchi, who screams in pain and protest as she rapes the injured boy. She’s ultimately killed in the manga by Kiriyama, who shoots her in the face as she cries out to her absent father that she’s still “Daddy’s girl.” The film attempts to tie in both elements of Mitsuko’s backstory, as her drunken mother has allowed someone to pay her to sexually abuse her child. Young Mitsuko kills her would-be molester, and this is our root of bad behavior, including intimidation of other students and forced prostitution of peers. All the while, Mitsuko displays a detachment from the group, as though wanting to be included, but looking at the other students from the outside.
The point here is that we’re given many, many more chances to understand why Mitsuko behaves the way she does. All instances stem from a gross violation of a very young child, and repeated violations at that: we witness sexual abuse, parental abandonment, uncaring (and oftentimes downright predatory) authority figures that don’t care about the welfare of someone who clearly displays symptoms of abuse. While her past does not excuse her actions in The Program, we see her endure so much that we can’t help but feel a sense of both attachment and sympathy for the killer teenager girl. As evil as Hardcore Souma can be, we can cut her at least a tiny bit of slack because we’re horrified at how much she’s suffered. She becomes sympathetic, which – whether we want to admit it or not – changes our fundamental understanding of her. It displaces the blame of her actions from her onto her abusers, for they’re the ones that created this monster.
With Kiriyama, we’re not afforded this luxury – he gets to be the nasty piece of work that will kill you on a whim because that’s simply how he’s wired. Whereas Mitsuko was conditioned to kill or be killed, Kiriyama is hard-wired to not connect with anyone, and that’s something that is quickly explained, accepted as fact, and used to make him the clear-cut bad guy of the bunch. Kiriyama isn’t here for pity. He’s not trying to win the love of his daddy, and he’s not using sex to get what he wants because that’s a demonstrated piece of leverage. No sir – Kiriyama is going to shoot you and move on to the next target because he wants to win the game, end of story.
Stepping back from this interpretation, the gender lines displayed are infuriating. Why is the male afforded the ability to simply exist as a killing machine? Why must Mitsuko have reasons for becoming such a murderous creature? Why must she use her sexuality and abused past to justify her actions in The Program – why can’t she just be a terrifying example of someone who is wired to be a murderer? Why must we pity her and not him?
There are, of course, no easy answers to this, but plenty of anecdotal hypotheses. The one upon which I’ve settled is that as the female, we want to reconcile the notion that there’s hope that Mitsuko will redeem herself and thereby take up the role of the self-sacrificing mother. Deep down, there’s the steadfast belief that a mother would never let harm come to her child; this is a notion held dearly in many cultures, as the mother is seen as the nurturer and protector. When this role is in danger of being violated (right now, Casey Anthony springs to mind), the social response is to complete shock, disbelief and disgust. We don’t want to entertain the idea that a woman – the giver of life in many gender roles and cultures – could be the one that ends life. This is a violation of biology, and therefore becomes a psychological hurdle as we attempt to process it. So how do we overcome a woman that kills? We explain it. We justify why she’d do it, so that we can better understand what went wrong.
Which is completely enraging to anyone that wants gender equality. Had the playing field been truly level, Mitsuko wouldn’t have needed the melodramatic backstory of continual abuse and sympathy in order to make us understand why she’s such a horrible person that has to kill people. Kiriyama is allowed to kill others with a shrug because there’s simply no saving him – he’s a lost cause that can’t help it. I leave you with a challenge: remove all of Mitsuko’s backstory and then give her that sickle. Isn’t the teenage girl without remorse, without motive, and without redemption far more terrifying than the simpering victim trying to take revenge?