Battle Royale and the fragility of hope

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Conflict is the essence of all storytelling, and Battle Royale Volume Two has plenty of it. All the set-up for The Program is out of the way after Volume One, meaning that we are free to explore the island and the variety of characters within it. There is a lot of focus on the characters in this set of chapters, which is welcome after the groundwork done already.

The true theme of Battle Royale starts to emerge within its second volume. The idea of hope and faith being both bolstered and shattered by other people. The fragility of trust in a terrifying situation. The importance of acknowledging when you need others. There are some really great messages hidden between the gruesome images presented on the page.

The Battle Royale truly begins

Battle Royale

Volume Two picks up during the same night as Volume One. Mitsuru Numai, a loyal member of Kazuo Kiriyama’s gang, has been summoned by his boss to the southern-most rock on the island. There, he expects to find Kazuo and the other members of his crew waiting for him, intent on hatching a plan to game the system and escape from The Program for good.

That was an option until Kazuo flipped a coin earlier. Heads, he would stick with his gang. Tails, he would play the game and murder them all in an effort to get off the island. It didn’t go the way Mitsuru wanted and he became one of the thirteen students killed before The Program’s first day is up.

The manga spends two whole chapters setting up Kazuo as the Big Bad of The Program. He is ruthless, sociopathic, and brutal in the way he dispatches both enemies and foes, all without a hint of joy, sadness, or any other emotion on his face. He doesn’t seem to take pleasure in hurting anyone; instead, it is just a necessary task like brushing his teeth or putting on clothes.

Two lovebirds throw themselves off a cliff rather than take part in the killing before we are brought back to Shuuya and Noriko, who survive the first night together. They make a pact together to try to find anyone who isn’t playing the game and bring them into their group. Shuuya, in particular, is intent on approaching the other contestants in good faith, a strategy that nearly gets him killed twice in rapid succession before he is saved and joined by Shogo Kawada, the mysterious transfer student that seems to know far more about what is going on than he should.

Battle Royale Chapter 13 panel

The violence is less grotesque in this volume of Battle Royale, but it is still just as unsettling because we get the chance to know these characters before they are killed off. We also get the chance to see how their stories interact and intertwine, reminding us that these are all students in the same class, chosen to participate in The Program together. There isn’t the random allocation of Hunger Games or even the voluntary participation of Squid Game.

The participants here are friends, lovers, and teammates, yet they turn on each other just as quickly as total strangers would. As much as giving us all this backstory at once might seem to slow the pacing down, it also makes everything else that happens that much more haunting. With a further 13 volumes to go before we reach the end of Battle Royale, those relationships look set to become far more strained thanks to that extra familiarity we have with the contestants. A final confrontation looks like it’s coming between Noriko and Shuuya. Only one person can survive The Program, after all. Only one person can win in the end.

Even the addition of the extra side-story at the end, titled Energy, further serves as a reminder that all these students know each other. Many even love each other. The closeness of their bond is both a source of strength and the greatest liability that any of them possess. No one, not even Shuuya and his uncompromising hope, is totally sure of the intentions of other people.

Battle Royale Chapter 15 panel

Everything in this volume of Battle Royale comes back to the idea of hope and faith both being rewarded and being a weakness. Yumiko and Yukiko, two best friends who, according to Shuuya via a long flashback that included boiled eggs and superhero poses, are two halves of the same person.

They set themselves up on a lookout spot and broadcast their location to everyone nearby, claiming that they want to form an alliance with anyone not playing the game. Despite their belief that others are out there to help them, their faith soon proves to be misplaced when Kazuo finds them first and guns them down.

Battle Royale is not a hopeful story, but it is not meant to be. But it is not a totally grim story, either. As harsh as the world tends to be around us, it is never completely dark. Shuuya, for all his naivete about the people around him, still acknowledges that he is risking both his and Noriko’s lives by reaching out to others, but he also wants to believe that most are just as willing to band together as he is.

Repeatedly through the volume, people tell Shuuya that others are playing the game. That they are likely to kill him if he reaches out to them. “Most,” they tell him, “are going to be dangerous.”

“Some,” he corrects them nearly every time, in what is most certainly a purposeful refrain on the part of Koushun Tamaki. Some people can’t be trusted. Some people will let you down or try to hurt you. It is a fact of life.

But only some. Not all. Not even most. It is that message of hope that Shuuya tries to instil in those around him and himself. If they close themselves off from others, they will be safe, but they will be alone. They will survive but not be truly alive. As grim as Battle Royale is, I find myself, with each chapter that I read, hoping that he is right.

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