In a near-future dystopia, a group of ninth-grade Japanese students wins the worst lottery in the world. Their government has chosen their class of 42 to take part in the hellish games known as The Program to help entertain the masses. Battle Royale may sound like a manga version of The Hunger Games, but it is infinitely more brutal and disturbing than those novels could imagine.
Battle Royale has been on my To Be Read pile for a few years now – ever since I finally managed to track down the final volume of TokyoPop’s English adaptation. With the publisher having gone through dire times since this series was launched, Battle Royale has become a difficult-to-find item, with each volume selling for three or four times the original price. This is a shame because this is a series that has influenced plenty of people, both for its dark subject matter and for the unbridled gore that is present from start to finish.
Battle Royale volume one: A grotesque set up
It is important to note that this manga is absolutely not my usual light-hearted fare. Beyond just the violence on the page in nearly every chapter, there are graphic depictions of rape and sexual assault throughout. Like Berserk, this is a story about the weight that those actions put on a person and how seemingly normal people can be driven to barbaric violence when pushed into a corner.
The manga of Battle Royale isn’t the first adaptation of the story. Originally it was a 1999 novel by Koushun Takami, then it was turned into a film of the same name. But manga, with its ability to allow the reader to linger on the violent images for longer, somehow feels more upsetting and, because of that, more effective than many previous versions of the story. Here, we can have those big, beautifully drawn splash pages by artist Masayuki Taguchi that will haunt the reader long after the story is done.
Why, if the subject matter is so obscene, do I still feel that this manga is worth a deep dive in the same way that series like Gal Gohan are? One is because of the influence that Battle Royale has had on media. Without it, we might not have shows like Squid Game or games like Danganronpa. While the “group of people forced to kill each other” genre didn’t start with Battle Royale, the novel, film, and manga all helped popularise it for a whole new generation of fans.
The second reason I think Battle Royale is important enough for this treatment is how scarce the manga is becoming. We talk about video game and anime preservation, but many old manga are getting harder and harder to find. And because of the tricky nature of licensing issues from the fallout of TokyoPop’s troubles, we may never get a reprint of this manga series.
Much of the first volume of Battle Royale is spent setting up The Program, in which 42 students are placed together and forced to fight amongst themselves. The key difference between other shows and movies with a similar premise is that all these students know each other. Some are friends. Some have crushes on each other. Many of them are introduced in much the same way that Danganronpa characters are, with a single defining characteristic putting them into an archetype that is easy for readers to understand and latch onto.
We have the young gang leader, the transfer student with a bad reputation, and the martial artist. Our main character, Shuuya Nanahara, is a wannabe rockstar with the hair to go along with it. Many of them exhibit near-supernatural physical or mental abilities, further solidifying them into these archetypes.
This first volume is setting up for what is to come and removing the illusion of plot armour from any of the students. Two kids are killed before they even leave the opening room. The game, it seems, doesn’t care if the numbers drop slightly before it begins. 40 is still plenty to create chaos with, after all.
Though Shuuya is ostensibly the main character of Battle Royale at this point, it is the overseer of the games that steals the show. Yonemi Kamon is a grotesquely drawn man who seems to revel in the fear and pain he instils in the kids around him. He goads them into attacking him so that they can be made an example of. He delights in turning their hope into fear. He is lecherous, cruel, and violent, making him the perfect antagonist to set the stage for The Program.
Fear is the primary weapon of Kamon and the government employees who run the games, and we see it turn otherwise kind students into murderers almost instantly. A character that is described as peaceful and gentle, incapable of hurting anyone, kills one student and tries to kill two more because of the fear these games create.
The hypocrisy of The Program is a central theme that is already emerging from the first volume. The kids are all given food and water as well as basic survival supplies, but each pack also contains a random weapon for them to use. Some will get knives. Some get guns, putting them at a distinct advantage. This inequality is further hammered home as Kamon notes that many of the students possess exceptional physical abilities, already giving them an advantage.
One thing that I am thankful for during my reading of this manga is that there isn’t a sense of glorification of the violence, either physical or sexual. It is a tool the artist uses, and it is meant to be upsetting. These are young people put into a terrible situation and forced to fight for survival.
The first volume tries to set up Shuuya as the hero of the game, but it is hard to see where his hope is likely to take him. His best friend is dead. His only ally has been shot in the leg, and we’ve already had several of the students killed. It seems clear that there won’t be anyone banding together to help each other here.
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