Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Tohyo Game: One black ballot to you
It's the start of a new school year, and Shuusuke Takayama is looking forward to getting to know his classmates in 2-A. So is his buddy Kazuto Satou, because he's created an online “voting game” to help everyone get to know each other. Unfortunately, the voting game turns sour when the first girl to lose hangs herself. Now what started as an ill-conceived joke has become deadly serious. Can anyone from class 2-A make it through the first weeks of school alive?
It isn't always easy to find the perfect metaphor for the kind of bullying that pervades the high school experience. Numerous manga authors have tried, with perhaps the most effective series being A Silent Voice due to its emotional honesty. We can't blame other creators for taking a more horror-based approach, however, because that's one of the best genres we have for exploring our fears. In this vein, a series like Tohyo Game takes the idea of a "harmless" bullying game and turns it deadly.
The basis for the story is the sort of popularity contest that we see crop up in middle and high school anime and manga: one student, usually male and kind of a jackass, decides that it would be funny to rate his classmates. In this case, that student is Kazuto Satou, the kind of guy who acts without thinking things through. In an effort to bring his classmates closer together for their second year of high school, Satou creates a web-based popularity voting game. Each week, his classmates will have the chance to vote for whichever of five girls they like best, followed by the chance to vote for the boys, until the lists are winnowed down to the most popular of each gender. Only boys can vote for girls and girls for boys, to make it “fair.” Needless to say, this does not go over as well as he thought it would, and one of the girls on his first list has suffered from bullying in the past. When she receives no votes, she hangs herself.
Thus begins a much deadlier version of the game, and students begin dropping like flies. Unfortunately, this is also where the story begins to fall apart, as neither original creator G.O. or story adapter Chihiro are able to settle on a set of rules or expectations for the game. It's clear that this approach was an attempt to make things scarier – if the rules keep changing, there's more tension over who is next in line to die. But on the other hand, if there's too much going on within a muddled set of expectations, it can make things more difficult on the readers, trading the intended tone of fear for confusion. Tohyo Game's horror components feel like they've been assembled from a mix of other more successful series, including Yukito Ayatsuji's Another, Natsumi Ando's Arisa, and Yoshiki Tonogai's Secret. There's the mysterious figure controlling everything, the curse on a specific classroom, the deaths that no one can quite explain away as suicide, coincidence, or murder, and so on. It's as if G.O. couldn't quite settle on one horror device to base the story around. While borrowing from other works is an acceptable (and established) practice, it simply serves to make Tohyo Game less scary, at least for seasoned readers of horror. Too much of the reading experience is spent thinking, “Oh! That's just like in ______!”, which makes Tohyo Game a bit like reading a patchwork quilt of the genre.
This is not to say that the story is a total loss. Artist Tatsuhiko takes an interesting approach to character design, with none of the boys being particularly good-looking, including Shuusuke. In fact, there's an impressive variety of male character designs, from face shape to nose to build, that makes everyone look like an individual. The girls are a bit more in line with manga design tropes, but there's enough variety there too that you never have to wonder which character is speaking. Some of the death images are also very powerful, which is all the more impressive when the deaths themselves aren't all that gruesome.
It is worth noting that the “explicit” sticker on the front of the book does not appear to be there because of either excessive gore or sexual content, making this the first time I can recall seeing what might be considered a trigger warning on the front of a manga volume. This subject matter will not be suitable for all readers, as the story deals with sensitive topics like bullying and suicide, but even as a reader sensitive to these themes, I was more caught up by the horror/murder aspects of the book than any underlying social themes.
Tohyo Game is not entirely without potential – Shuusuke is a sympathetic and interesting lead as he reacts to those around him, and the panic of his classmates – or their descents into madness – are also worth experiencing. It's the plot itself that currently suffers from trying too hard to cover as many horror tropes as possible to up the story's mystique. There's a good chance that we've already revealed the villain behind the scenes, although it feels awfully obvious and their motivations are entirely too clear, but with two more volumes to go, it's possible that this is still a misdirect of the kind this story has already indulged in twice. At only three volumes, the series is short enough to give the benefit of the doubt. Let's hope volume two establishes more of its own identity, rather than just borrowing from other stories.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B-
+ Highly individualized character designs, some good misdirects and death scenes
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