Reviewby Casey Brienza, Apr 27th 2009
Battle Royale -Ultimate Edition-
The Japan that Shuuya Nanahara and his fellow middle school classmates have been born into is quite similar to the one we know. But it is also very different. Shuuya's Japan is a ruthless military dictatorship where rock'n roll is illegal and children are routinely subjected to nightmarish televised reality shows where they are forced to kill each other—or be killed instead. Even so, Shuuya, Yoshi, Noriko, and the rest of these young people are basically normal, with their ordinary dreams and secret shames. On the eve of their graduation, the forty two students of Class B think they are going to celebrate. Instead, they awaken on an abandoned island and informed by a smarmy but ruthless “Teacher” that they are now officially playing The Game…and only one of them will make it out alive!
Battle Royale, by newcomer Koushun Takami, was a veritable sensation—and scandal—when the novel was published in 1999. The 2000 live action film adaptation, written by Kenta Fukasaku and directed by Kinji Fukasaku, likewise rocked the country. Battle Royale then became a cultural phenomenon and a merchandising machine, extending the impact of the brand worldwide, with everything from a line of accessories to an epic manga adaptation with art by Masayuki Taguchi serialized in Young Champion till 2006. This manga has been published in its entirety in English by Tokyopop in two editions, and this is a review of the first volume of the hardcover “Ultimate Edition,” an enormous brick of a book containing volumes one, two, and three of the original Japanese tankoubon.
Although it has been conveniently blamed for an uptick in youth crime (notably similar in that way to The Matrix, which came out the same year across the Pacific and coincided tragically with the Columbine shootings), in fact this brutal tale is an allegorical meditation upon Japan's Lost Decade and the brutal effects cutthroat standardized testing culture, combined with long-term economic malaise, had upon an entire generation of Japanese youth. In this way, this modern-day, dystopian fantasy of death, destruction—and the flickering dream of rebellion—continues to be upsettingly relevant fully ten years later. Particularly in harsh light of the global economic crisis.
Needless to say, Takami's original novel is brilliant—viscerally affective and flatly unforgettable. The movie is also amazing, for different reasons. So how does the manga stack up to the long, looming shadow of greatness in other mediums? The short answer: Pretty well, thank you very much, and with the stylistic flair of gekiga and/or vintage seinen manga. In fact, those familiar with other iterations of the franchise will be in for a pleasant surprise; particular plot points and background details of the characters differ from other versions—and they do so in an interesting, appealing sort of way that will keep even those who think they've seen Battle Royale before coming back, perhaps in spite of themselves, for more of its patented brand of sexualized violence.
Taken together, the first three volumes of Battle Royale provide an excellent taste of the range thematic and stylistic range that the series has to offer. Things take off quickly, and the game has begun after virtually a single chapter. The large cast of characters, their mutual histories and respective backgrounds, are fleshed out as the manga progresses, by jumping back and forth in time. Shuuya, the hero of the piece, proves pretty true to his original novel incarnation. He is even shown singing a rock'n roll song that is addressed to “Wendy.” This is an allusion to Bruce Springsteen's “Born to Run,” which was, for the author, a key image song while writing the story. Other characters, though, prove quite different, more along the lines of hardboiled noir archetypes than the troubled, desperately wounded adolescents originally conceived. Mitsuko Souma is the most obvious of these…let's just say that the victim becomes the victimizer. Anyway, about half of the forty two members of Class B are deceased by the end of the third volume. Given that the series is complete at fifteen volumes, it seems reasonable to assume that the narrative pace slows down significantly at some point in subsequent installments.
Taguchi's art style emphasizes both the noir and gekiga qualities of the storyline. Blood and boobs, to put it in three words of one-syllable each. If you don't like seeing stuff like rape/homicides (over and over and over again), you would be well advised to give this series a wide berth. Also, many of the characters, notably Shogo Kawada and Mitsuko Souma, look a heck of a lot older than third year Japanese junior high students (equivalent to first year of high school in the U.S.). Alas, Tokyopop does a disservice to the profusion of illustrative detail and screen tone that garners negative points when evaluating the art for this review: Although the first volume looks good, the second volume has a picture quality equivalent to a Xerox, and the third volume is so blurry that it's almost hard to justify the $24.99 retail price for this 3-in-1 omnibus at all.
Almost, but not quite. The Battle Royale manga, with its lively adaptation by Keith Giffen, does the original novel that inspired it proud, and it is easy to see why readers on both sides of the Pacific love returning to its lyrical yet terrible dance of adolescent death.
Overall : A-
Story : A
Art : B+
+ An intensely felt, unforgettable story adapted with vintage seinen manga flair.
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