Shelf Life
King's Game

by Paul Jensen,

I've had all kinds of problems getting my anime streaming apps to work lately, but at least this has given me an excuse to binge some nature documentaries. And yes, I absolutely make up obnoxious dialogue for the animals on screen, because that's the only correct way to watch that stuff. Welcome to Shelf Life.

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King's Game

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Shelf Life Reviews

Shelf Worthy
Nothing this week.
Nothing this week.
King's Game

Gabriella took on the worst that fanservice comedies have to offer last week, and now it's my turn to do the same with the horror genre. Here's my review of King's Game The Animation.

If there's one thing the horror genre specializes in, it's coming up with new ways to kill off high school kids by the boatload. Sometimes they're hunted down by seemingly invincible slashers, and in other cases they're tossed into situations where they become the monsters. King's Game sits somewhere between those two concepts, in that its cast is being tormented by some kind of evil mastermind but the teens themselves are often the ones who end up with blood on their hands. This kind of survival game formula can be a trashy good time when it's done well, but King's Game most definitely does not do it well.

Our protagonist is Nobuaki Kanazawa, a decidedly ordinary dude who just so happens to have the same name as the author of the novel this show is based on. Everyone in Nobuaki's class suddenly starts receiving text messages from a mysterious “King,” and the punishment for disobeying the King's orders is a gory and inescapable death. While his classmates are understandably freaked out by this turn of events, Nobuaki has a secret: he's been through all of this before. As the lone survivor of an identical incident at his previous school, Nobuaki is determined to keep his new friends alive and find a way to defeat the King once and for all. Unfortunately for him, terrified high schoolers aren't always the most rational or cooperative folks in the world.

In order to be enjoyable, a story like this needs to get at least one of three things right: it can make the audience care about what happens to the characters, it can deliver clever and well-timed plot twists, or it can fully embrace its status as a self-indulgent bloodbath. As far as the characters go, King's Game falls short of the mark. With two separate high school classes to kill off, the series throws a lot of names at us during its twelve-episode run. This means that the average supporting character gets a few minutes of screen time at best, which is barely enough to establish a basic backstory or develop a single personality trait before getting the axe. With so little for the viewer to latch onto, even the most tragic deaths don't have much of a dramatic impact. As for our hero, Nobuaki is a bland viewer-insert character who spends most of this time despairing over the demises of his recent acquaintances. He's not even particularly clever or inventive in his attempts at beating the system, and he frequently survives through pure coincidence or the sacrificial actions of other characters. The closest thing I have to a “favorite” character in this story is Natsuko, Nobuaki's homicidal rival whose plan for survival is to kill off all her classmates. If I find myself rooting for a psychotic villain to behead the protagonist with a chainsaw, it's usually a sign that a series isn't very good at character development.

But hey, even the blandest of characters can be tolerable when they're placed into a tightly paced narrative full of intriguing mysteries and shocking twists. King's Game certainly tries to keep us guessing with a steady stream of new revelations, but most of these plot points are either too insignificant to make a difference or so totally bonkers that they defy all belief. Connections between the two games have little to no effect on the characters' actions, and the “truth” behind the King's identity is so laughably ridiculous that I refuse to spoil it here. The show's narrative structure doesn't help matters, as it essentially uses the current game as a framing device for Nobuaki's story of his experience in the previous one. Since his “sole survivor” status is revealed almost immediately, we know that everyone else in the flashbacks is going to die, and that robs these scenes of any real tension. When the characters are forgettable and the story isn't exciting, there's only one option left: good old-fashioned spectacle.

It's in this area that King's Game comes closest to being worthwhile, and you could even argue that the weak writing is an asset in this regard. For one reason or another, bad horror stories offer a twisted kind of entertainment value that you rarely get with bad dramas or comedies. Once you give up all hope of being scared or caring about the outcome, it's possible to enjoy King's Game as a kind of spectator sport where you root for the characters to die in gruesome and unintentionally funny ways. That grim visual comedy is amplified by the lack of a physical killer in most situations; since the King's punishments are invisibly and supernaturally inflicted on the victims, we get plenty of shots of characters' limbs flying off like classic mecha rocket-punches or their heads rotating around like bottle caps being twisted off by an unseen hand. It's neither tasteful nor artistic, and the novelty wears off eventually, but it can be the show's sole redeeming value if you approach it with the right mindset.

Sadly, if you're hoping for detailed, lovingly-animated gore, the production values in King's Game will be something of a disappointment. The animation does occasionally improve during the death scenes, but the baseline level of quality is low enough that even the highlights are average at best. There are also a few instances where headless bodies and other gruesome sights are obscured by blurry shadows, which isn't unheard of in simulcasts but is kind of lame in a home video release. Aside from that, Funimation's Blu-Ray version of the show is fine, and the English dub does as much as it can with the source material, with Bryn Apprill's suitably crazy take on Natsuko being the standout performance.

King's Game might be worth a single viewing if you enjoy the “so bad it's good” variety of horror, but that's not enough to merit a general recommendation. This story either needs to be shorter (apparently there's a live-action film version, which sounds easier to sit through) or better-written to fully justify its existence. You're probably better off watching something along the lines of Another or Higurashi, both of which scratch the same teen thriller itch but are held in significantly higher regard. As for King's Game, the only way to win is probably not to play at all.

That's all for this week. Thanks for reading!

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