Last week on this website, I reprinted — by request — an essay from TRIGGER WARNINGS, which you can buy for your Kindle for just $2.99 right here. Because that was so well received, I decided to reprint another essay here today. This one first appeared in THE BATTLE ROYALE SLAM BOOK, an anthology of essays about the classic Japanese film, edited by Nick Mamatas which is currently available in paperback and for Kindle. My essay is ostensibly about the film — but what it’s really about is America’s ongoing gun debate. It was then reprinted in TRIGGER WARNINGS, and is now reprinted here again…because the gun debate is one we are still having.
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CHILDREN PLAYING WITH GUNS
There is an early scene in the film version of Battle Royale, in which a shotgun-wielding Kawada confronts Shuya and Noriko and demands to know what kind of weapons they’ve received. Shuya sheepishly displays an innocuous pot lid, and Noriko is armed with a simple pair of binoculars. Kawada shakes his head, obviously bemused.
Battle Royale is full of weapons—automatic submachine guns, double-barrel shotguns, axes, hatchets, stun guns, bombs, and even a ludicrous paper fan. Most of these weapons are used at some point throughout the film, but it is the scenes depicting the non-gun violence that are among the most graphic and disturbing. Killing a fellow student with an Intratec TEC-DC9 or a Hi-Point 995 carbine can be done from a distance, thus allowing the killer to somewhat disassociate themselves from the act. Murdering a classmate with a machete or an ice pick requires a more personal involvement—the bloodying of one’s hands, in a very literal sense. Shooting someone from seventy-five yards away keeps the brain matter off your boots. Stabbing them up close with a knife means you’re close enough to smell the very particular stench that wafts from a fresh gut wound.
In the hands of a determined killer, anything can be a weapon. The adults in Battle Royale knew this, as evidenced by the selection of weaponry they bestowed upon the unlucky students of class 3-B. And I knew it myself as a teenager in the early Eighties, when Frank Miller’s seminal run on Marvel Comics’ Daredevil introduced an entire generation to the ways of the ninja. My friends and I spent an entire summer obsessed with ninjas—saving money from our paper routes and allowances to order books and pamphlets offering ‘The Secrets of Ninjitsu’ from the backs of our fathers’ copies of Soldier of Fortune magazines. Because ninjas supposedly had the ability to turn anything into a weapon, we would often play a game, pointing out innocuous, common household items to each other, and asking how we’d turn it into a weapon. (My pals thought they had me when they suggested a sheet of typing paper, until I decided that you could use it to deliver a paper-cut to someone’s jugular vein).
My friends and I, it should be noted, were all normal (if somewhat hormonal) teenage kids. We may have listened to too much Iron Maiden and Black Flag, but none of us ever embarked on a shooting spree. Instead, we grew up to be parents and doctors and steelworkers, and, in my case, a writer.
It should also be noted that each of us knew our guns. I grew up in a small Pennsylvania paper mill town. Most years, it seemed like the union was on strike, which meant that funds were tight. Almost all of the families I knew supplemented their groceries and their government cheese handouts by hunting, and we were no strangers to venison, rabbit, or wild turkey on the table instead of Ballpark Franks. Hamburger Helper, it turns out, goes just as well with squirrel as it does with hamburger.
I learned to hunt when I was fourteen, and when I shot my first deer, I learned that I didn’t have the stomach or conscience to be a hunter. Some of my friends discovered the same thing about themselves. Others took to hunting with zeal. But all of us knew how to shoot. More importantly, we knew how to safely handle a firearm. Hunting was so widespread in our community that we had classes in middle school on firearm training and safety. The first, and most important, safety tip was this—lock your guns up so your kids don’t have access to them. And our parents did just that. In our households, we only handled those weapons with direct parental supervision. We played with toy guns, but we never played with real guns.
In today’s culture, according to the plethora of gun laws on the books in most states, it is supposed to be harder for teenagers to gain access to firearms, and yet, in case after disturbing case, we hear of them obtaining such weapons with ease. Seung-Hui Cho, the college student who killed thirty-two people at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, was able to legally purchase a number of firearms despite being diagnosed with several psychiatric disorders as far back as middle school, two previous stalking complaints by female students, and a history of abnormal behavior that concerned both family and friends. Sandy Hook Elementary shooter Adam Lanza obtained his guns at home, many of which were gifts from his mother, who encouraged his firearms training during trips to the local shooting range, despite a similar background to Cho’s. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the infamous teenaged Columbine gunmen, were able to obtain their weapons through straw purchases made by adult friends, paid for with money Harris earned working part-time at a local pizza shop.
So, obviously, the common denominator is guns. Except that it isn’t. Just like the class of 3-B in Battle Royale, the arsenal of Columbine’s Harris and Klebold’s wasn’t limited to firearms. The two had manufactured several different kinds of homemade bombs and pyrotechnics, as well as amassing a collection of knives and other non-explosive weapons. The pre-teen killer in Japan’s Sasebo elementary school used a common utility knife to butcher his victims. The juvenile murderer in Japan’s Kobe slayings used a hammer and a hacksaw on his targets. When Charles Carl Roberts besieged an Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania, his auxiliary weapons included chains, plastic ties, and a tube of K-Y sexual lubricant. And in the case of the Bath School massacre, a bomb and other improvised explosives killed thirty-six children and two adults.
In all of these cases except for the latter two, the massacres involved youth killing other youth. In Battle Royale, it is former teacher Kitano and his military cohorts who arm the students prior to turning them on each other. Can the same be said of these real-life cases of child-on-child murder? Perhaps not maliciously, but does gross parental irresponsibility (such as in the case of Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy) not equate the same thing? In some cases, possibly. It’s natural for us to wonder what Nancy Lanza was thinking, encouraging her emotionally disturbed teen to take up firearms and go target-shooting with her. We can’t ask her, since she was Lanza’s first victim, shot in the head four times while lying in bed. But we can wonder. Was she aware that she was arming him for a massacre to come? Or was she simply a stressed-out single mother, trying to do the best for her special needs child, a child who had trouble connecting with others? Did she find that connection through target shooting, a pastime enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of responsible parents and teens throughout America?
Or what of Eric Harris, whose basement bedroom was filled with explosives, detonators, ammunition, and bomb-making equipment? Were his parents culpable in arming him, simply by not going into his bedroom and finding such materials? Was the local sheriff’s department equally responsible by preparing a draft search warrant for his home after learning Harris and Klebold had been fashioning pipe bombs and threatening their classmates—but never formally filing the search warrant or following up on the claims?
Perhaps not. No parent wants to consider the possibility that their child is a murderous psychopath. Indeed, few parents even know what warning signs to look for. Focusing on greater mental health care and awareness is a good start. But so many of those “warning signs” are behaviors seen as normal in our everyday teen society. A fascination with violent video games, comic books, movies, or literature? Lock up ninety-percent of our youth. A fondness for heavy metal or gangsta rap? Ditto. Weaponry? What about those kids like me and my friends, hunting with our fathers or playing with ninja throwing stars we bought at a flea market for a buck a piece? We didn’t take those throwing stars to school and begin puncturing our classmates with them. At worst, we impaled a few trees.
Despite the plethora of plain sight evidence against Harris, most of his classmates and teachers described him as bright, friendly, and outgoing. His accomplice, Klebold seemed “nice, but shy. Kind of quiet.” To many of their victims, they seemed like normal kids, until the killing started—just like the children of class 3-B. Sure, we learn early on that Mitsoku is a sociopath. (In an extended-cut version of the film, it is revealed that murderous tendencies are rooted in an earlier attempted molestation at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, whom Mitsoku pushes to his death down a flight of stairs.) And sadistic transfer student Kazuo Kiriyama is certainly no stranger to killing. Indeed, he seems to revel in it. But the vast majority of the kids in Battle Royale are just that—kids, normal teenagers who are suddenly armed by adults and told to slaughter each other.
Because it’s the law.
It is easy to point to America’s gun laws, and argue for more restrictions. But the fact remains that in almost every case, the culprits obtained their guns either by circumventing the very laws designed to safeguard against such atrocities or through the adults in their lives. While an argument for stricter gun laws can certainly be made (and should be discussed—calmly, rationally, and without the hyperbole from both the Left and the Right)—the fact remains that such laws would not have prevented these massacres from occurring. Nor would they have stopped the culprits in the Kobe murders or the Bath bombing or so many other cases.
So, what then, are we to do? If enforcement of current gun laws or the passage of yet stricter laws won’t help, and if parents can’t responsibly access and identify if their child may be at risk of committing such heinous atrocities, then what are we to do?
Is it possible that Battle Royale, like the best dystopian science fiction, is a dark precursor to what’s to come—a prediction of what lies ahead for our children and our society? Could it be the antithesis to The Who’s statement that “the kids are all right”?
During Battle Royale’s climax, a mortally wounded Kitano tells his daughter, Shiori that “If you hate someone, you take the consequences”. As a parent, I’ve taught my children to always stand up for themselves and those they care about, and to never, ever tolerate a bully, be it a classmate or some aspect of the system itself. But I’ve also taught them not to hate. I like to think I’ve succeeded—that they don’t view others in terms of race or gender or faith or sexual preference. I’ve tried to teach them that love is the answer to all things, and that the only things that deserve hate are ignorance and oppression. I hope that I have armed them, not with machine guns or axes or pot lids, but with compassion and reason.
But every morning, when I drop my son off for another full day of kindergarten, and I watch until he goes inside and disappears from my sight, I’m left wondering what lessons his classmates are learning at home, or from each other, or from our society, and what the consequences of those lessons might one day be. I wonder what they’re being armed with, and what weapons are in their arsenals, and if compassion and reason and love are an equal match.
And then, I wait for the school day to be over so I can hold him again.