Reviewby Mike Crandol, Jun 1st 2003
Battle Royale Vol. 1
In a nightmarish alternate-reality Japan, the most popular show on TV is “The Program.” Once a year a class of ninth grade students is chosen at random to participate in the ghastly event. Shuuya Nanahara thought his class was going on a simple field trip, but when they wake up on a deserted island the horrible truth is made plain. Each student has three days to kill all of his classmates; if more than one remains alive at the end of the third day the metal collars secured to their necks will explode and finish them all. Shuuya tries to think of a way out of the Program, but the madness and paranoia the game breeds makes it impossible to trust anyone. He may have found a friend in Noriko Nakagawa, but with classmates like Mitsuko Souma eagerly murdering her friends in a desperate bid to survive, they will be hard-pressed to live through the Battle Royale.
One game. 42 student players. Only one can live.
Adapted from the infamous live-action movie and novel of the same name, the one-and-only Battle Royale manga has finally been unleashed in the US. While not as hard-hitting as its better known (yet still officially unavailable in America) cinematic counterpart, the manga version retains all the controversy that surrounds the Battle Royale name. Introspective commentary on the public's appetite for violence, or merely crass exploitation in disguise? Either way, it's a story you'll likely never forget.
Like its previous incarnations, Battle Royale is supposedly a satire of media violence, yet it often revels in its own gore to the point of hypocrisy. The story works much more effectively as an emotional human drama--it is the characters' varied reactions to their horrible predicament that make it a truly remarkable and thought-provoking work. Some kids outright reject the game and commit suicide, others try to beat the system while most try merely to survive until the bitter end. And a few actually embrace it, like Mitsuko, the class slut who has no qualms about carving up her classmates in order live. The pantheon of characters exhibits every logical and illogical response imaginable. Unfortunately volume 1 of the manga doesn't have time to get into all of that just yet and covers little more than the exposition. But it's a morbidly enticing setup.
Co-written by Koushun Takami, author of the original novel on which the movie was based, the manga sticks much closer to the plot of the book than the film version does. Takami takes more time to explore the backgrounds and motivations of the lesser players in his large cast. Paranoid, half-crazed characters that are dispassionately dispatched onscreen come across as sympathetic victims on the page. The political climate of Battle Royale's alternate future is also touched upon; the Imperial Japanese flag adorning everything from schoolbuses to water bottles suggests a totalitarian society in which Japan emerged victorious from World War II. And the notion of the Program as an enormously popular reality TV show is a brilliant bit of satire the movie chooses not to emphasize.
There is also a new addition to the cast, absent from the movie and barely mentioned in the novel, which adds greatly to the emotional impact of the story. Though her role is comparatively minor, the ill-fated Miss Ryoko provides motivation for the main characters and ups the chill factor of an already gruesome tale. The kindhearted foster parent of students Shuuya and Yoshitoki is staunchly opposed to the Program but never dreams that her own wards would be subjected to its horrors. After the children awaken on the island, Program Head Mr. Kamon gleefully recounts the torture Ryoko was subjected to after she objected to their inclusion in the game. Powerless to do anything about it, Yoshitoki launches into a rage with fatal results, while Kamon merely smiles.
Mr. Kamon makes for a suitably sadistic villain, but he's impersonal: the kids don't know him. Unlike the movie's Mr. Kitano, he has no preexisting grudge against these children, and in this aspect the film is decidedly superior to the manga. As evil as he his, Kamon is just doing his job; he's not out to exact revenge on “deliquent” children who refuse to attend school. In fact, the entire concept of the Program being in place to whip Japan's children into shape is mysteriously dropped. This was a key point of the film - an early scene shows almost all of the students boycotting Kitano's class. The kids in the manga are way too noble to do such a thing.
This idealistic, heroic portrayal of the children is at odds with film's cast of normal everykids and is the manga's biggest weakness. Shuuya is presented as a macho, pretty-boy rebel instead of the slightly nerdy, unassuming protagonist from the movie. The main heroine, Noriko, has been transformed from an “ugly shrimp” to a typically hot anime schoolgirl. Martial-arts warrior Sugimura and cool-as-ice Shinji look like the kind of guys who could take on an army of evil monsters without batting an eyelash. The movie's greatest appeal is its stable of ordinary children stuck in an extraordinary predicament; the manga's hyperbolic characters are far less engaging.
Artist Masayuki Taguchi's hunky heroes and buxom beauties may detract from Battle Royale's impact, but his is an unusual and very appealing style. There is a lot of detail in every panel, and although his character designs are sometimes bizarre, Taguchi gets a lot of human emotion into his drawings. But his over-the-top rendering of Battle Royale's wanton violence cheapens the horror of the situation. The brains splattering out of people's heads, the eyeballs dangling from their sockets, and the fountains of blood border on the ridiculous. The gore would actually be more horrific--and far more effective--if it were toned down a notch.
Overall, Battle Royale the manga is not as good as Battle Royale the movie. But it still manages to capture the macabre appeal of the film. Fans of the live-action incarnation should at least check it out. Newcomers to the shocking tale should definitely seek out the movie first, however. Though it will likely never be licensed for American distribution, legitimate all-region import DVDs with English subtitles are readily available for order online. Ultimately this deadpan spoof of TV and movie violence gone mad works best on the TV or at the movies.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B
+ a more intimate look at one of the most horrific & horribly gripping stories Japan has to offer
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