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I haven’t read that much manga and what I have read so far has been mostly unfinished series or a few volumes long. I say that as a disclaimer – maybe there are many great long manga series out there and the heaps of praise I intend to write for Battle Royale would be an expression of my relative inexperience as a manga reader. But I can’t help it, this manga has affected me too much, so I have to write down my impressions.

The premise of Battle Royale is simple, if extremely brutal and disturbing. In a totalitian ruled Japan the greatest entertainment show is simply called The Program. Every year a random (or not so random as it turns out) school class is picked, delivered to a certain location and told the rules of the game. Every student receives a random weapon, they are all in a restricted area and they have three days to win the game. How does one win? By being the last man standing. Literally. So the choice is kill or be killed. And if they don’t want to fight – they all die. So we have 42 ninth-graders (or third year middle school students if you want the Japanese system) battling it out to the death, TV ratings soaring with each juicy murder or rape attempt, plot twists are in abundance – treacheries, alliances, plans, detailed action scenes with their own twists – it’s not easy to guess what comes next, even for people like me, obsessed with guessing exactly that. And now I know why the final third of Mai-HiME is so often compared with Battle Royale and as much as I love Mai-HiME, I think Battle Royale is better, not least because it doesn’t have the an ending that ruins everything but also because it is even more brutal to its characters.

As great as the plot and art of Battle Royale are (more about them later), I think what I like the most is the emotional intensity. It makes you hate certain characters with a passion (sure the boss of The Program is a way too one dimensional villain but he still made my blood boil with anger) and hope agaisnt hope that your favourites will somehow survive against all odds. Sadly this did not happen to my favourites and not surprisingly the manga is full of sad scenes, of people mourning their dead friends and people losing their lives in all kinds of ways – from heroic to so absurdly trivial and random that it makes the loss of life even sadder. A lot of times I was unable to continue reading despite the gripping plot because I was overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness for a character who had just kicked the bucket.

But as much as one is inclined to despise those of the teenagers who kill their classmates in cold blood, the big issue in the manga, in my opinion, is what kind of society can be so full of miserable voyeours that something as monstrous as The Program is seen as pretty much the best entertainment show – people even bet who will win. With the rising popularity of all kinds of “reality” shows and films or games full of violence, I can’t help but wonder whether something very similar to the game depicted in the manga will not appear in the near future. Yes, it does not seem likely but even the slim possibility is chilling. We can try to explain the popularity of The Program with the dictatorship but I doubt any dictatorship would bother forcing people to make bets, so I guess a lot of people actually di like The Program.

As far as deeply moving, even to the point of being traumatising, events in the manga go, I think the lighthouse massacre tops them all. Things go from joyful reunion to a horrible sequence of deaths in at an appallingly fast rate and in a hauntingly absurd, yet ghastly logical fashion. And to make things even worse, you can’t point out the real culprit among the direct participants in the events, it’s basically a horrible misunderstanding with disastrous consequences. Of course, the root of the disaster was the suspicion that everyone playing this horrible game had to live with, the suspicion that his friends just wait for the best moment to kill him and increase their chances of victory.

Battle Royale really manages to make one care for characters who have only recently been introduced…and then kill these very characters right when you want to read more and more about it. Yet, this rarely seems to be a crudely manipulative trick to sadden the readers, I see it more as a way to really emphasise the horror of The Program – any participant can die any minute. No one can feel safe, even among people he regards as his or her best friends. It’s actually a bit unbelievable the teenagers trust each other as much as they do in the manga, even considering the paranoia and distrust are rampart. But it would have been an extremely boring action if everyone just played for himself, exactly like in some multiplayer deathmatch shooter PC game., so I am more than willing to accept this as a bit of suspension of disbelief. Plus, I am no psychologist, maybe people would actually behave like this, deny the reality that tells them only one is going to leave the island and stick with their friends.

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The plot concentrates on several main characters, who not surprisingly last until the late stages of the deadly game. But the mangaka has tried to give enough background for virtually every character and has done that with a heavy use of flashbacks showing moments of the students life prior to being forced to fight for their lives. This is wonderful for the character development, of course, because the game lasts less than three days and it’s much easier to see the changes in personality by comparing the character in the flashback with the present version, so to speak. However, sometimes this does get repetitive and slows down the break-neck pace of the “non-flashback” plotlines. Also, sometimes the flashbacks seemed forced since the situation does not seem suitable for a character to reflect on his or her past. But since he or she is going to be killed next and not have much screen time overall, I guess the mangaka (or the author of the book) did not really have that much choice.

Due to the extreme nature of The Program there are many plot twists. The problem is that it’s not difficult to perceive the most skillful characters early on and guess that most of them are there to stay up until the final volumes. That said, Battle Royale is full of small surprises – for instance one characters defeats an opponent after a protracted and painful battle, only to be shot like a sitting duck while still catching her breath after the previous deadly duel. This comes as a total shock to the reader – in mainstream manga or anime you’d expect almost any character of some importance to have a chance to do something, even if even he understands it’s impossible, not to be shot just like this. I guess one could feel cheated by such a death but even though the character I am talking about was one of my favourites (more in spoiler section of this review), it served to prove that the game was not fair at all, it was simply a terrible, pointless waste of wife. Also it hinted that anyone could die but sadly this was subverted later and some characters were saved by “plot shield” or Deus Ex Machina a number of times. Mind you, this is not really over the top like in a stupid shonen series where the hero survives against all odds so often that you’d think he should use his luck and win the lottery, but nevertheless I can’t help but feel cheated when Kiriyama seemed like an indestructible force of nature while my favourite characters were dropping like flies. But overall the plot is simply addicting, I read the entire manga, which is fifteen volumes long, in a few days. It actually took me more tiem to write this review than to read the manga. Of course, I am talking about the number of days passed since I first started writing it, not actual writing time but still, this serves to prove how addicting and good the manga was – I just had to write a very long entry about it.

I think one of the main flaws of the manga is that there are just too many extraordinary persons in that class. I guess the author of the book on which the manga is based wanted to depict the class as a miniature Japanese society but it just had too many geniuses, heroes and psychopaths. Kiriyama especially is just out of this world, not only he is a genius who can put Einstein to shame, he is also fast as lightning and dies harder than Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzeneger. And let’s not forget lucky as the devil himself. It makes you wonder why is he losing his time in that public school, with these skills he should have already been rich and famous at the age of 15 and making his first steps towards conquering the world.

Mitsuko, Takako, Shuuya, Sugimura, Mimura, Kiriyama, etc are simply too extraordinarily gifted in certain areas – it’s quite the coincidence that they have all ended up in one class, a class that’s also full of many other interesting people. Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome that every character has a distinctive personality and is interesting in his own way but I think the manga goes too far, I would have expected to see more similar characters, even some characters who are so plain and unmemorable that they are utterly boring. We have so many nutjobs in this class – Mitsuko, Kiriyama, Yuko, the girl who was obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons (forgot her name), Kaori and some milder cases, too. Yes, the situation was insanely tough but most of these people seemed to have already been quite mentally unstable even prior to their arival on the island. Unfortunately, I have to describe the characters in detail in the spoiler-full part of this article due to the nature of the manga but I can say that the effort to create interesting cast has been largely successful and every reader should find at least a few characters to be partial to. And of course, it’s better to have too many extraordinary people in the cast than too bland cast full of walking cliches and boring people.

Let’s move on to the art – as far as I am concerned, there were no real flaws here. The backgrounds are detailed enough but what I loved was the character design. It’s realistic and it is also rather beautiful, something that I haven’t seen that often in manga. Also the faces do reflect the personality of the respective characters rather well – from the lizard eyes of of the psychopath Kiriyama to the wide-eyed hopeful expressions of Noriko which reveal her naivety. And with 42 people in this class, most of whom are in the spotlight at least for a chapter, being able to differentiate between them is crucial, especially for people like me who tend to have difficulties keeping track of Japanese names. With the realistic-looking faces this was easy to do, while I often have difficulties with anime or manga with characters who mainly differ only in their hairstyle or height because of the stylised facial features. The action scenes are good, not great but good. I usually find it hard to keep track of things in manga action scenes but this rarely happened while I was reading Battle Royale.

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The realistic approach, combined with the rather graphic violence and sex will probably turn off a lot of people from Battle Royale which is totally understandable. But I have to say that I don’t like graphic violence either, yet I was only really disturbed once or twice while reading this manga (the eyeball scene was nauseating, indeed). I think the point of all this was to show us what the viewers of the Program were watching – bullets piercing skulls, broken bones, poisonings, stabbings, rape attempts and so on. And to paint an exact picture of the terrible plight of the participants in the game, not to make this some “sport” we watch and root for this or that character, detached and not caring about the ultimate price that was being paid so very often in the process of the game. The sex is also very graphic and it features child abuse, prostitution, murder of the one partner by the other while they were having sex, etc so if you are a puritan you’d better find something else to read. And of course, the characters having sex are some of the nine-graders and because of their age things are all the more disturbing and potentially scandalous, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

SPOILER ZONE! READ ON YOUR OWN RISK!!!

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YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!

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The ending could, no – it should have been better. There – I said it! Don’t get me wrong, even I don’t like the deaths of many characters that much as to demand that only one student survives in the end and not two as it is in the manga. But things just ended a tad too easily for Shuu and Noriko while Shogo was portrayed as pretty much a superhuman who was pathologically obsessed with revenge. So far so good but instead of trying to kill the dictator or some politicians or the organizors of The Program he deliberately transferred to the class he knew would be chosen for participation in it. Talk about masochism – the man who was so traumatised by his victory put himself in that hell again and yet kept his cool throughout all the tribulations of the devilish game. And let’s not forget that the manga followed one of the most common cliches – everything, even top secret stuff, can be found the Internet by hacking. What a disappointing plot device. Furthermore, Shuu not only somehow defeated several soldiers on that ship but he even did it in a Kira Yamato fashion – without killing them. Gimme a break, I am so tired of protagonists who are so gentle and loving that put Jesus Christ himself to shame. It was so unfair that Shogo who did 95% of the work had to die while Shuu, the idiot and Noriko, the damsel in constant distress, survived in the end. I think I would have liked an ending without the final twist in which Shogo kills those two and then turns against the Program people or the authorities or even one in which he is a cruel bastard who has simply used Noriko and Shuu as means to achieve his goal. Oh, well, at least it was not a reset ending, so I am not that unhappy with it.

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I have started listing things I don’t like so I might as well continue with Kiriyama’s invincibility. It was bad enough that he was an incredible genius who didn’t really have a place in a realistic manga but the bastard was more or less invincible and immortal until the author decided he had had enough of him and killed him off. He survived a massive explosion, dozens of bullets in his bulletproof vest which should have in the very least caused bruises and injuries, stayed alive for a time after being shot in the head and hit by a metal blade in the eye and won a martial arts duel by learning something that had taken his opponents years to develop in a matter of minutes. And the icing of the cake was that his character development can be summarised in two words “brain injury” – that is to say he suffered from a condition that prevented him from having any feelings and emotions. Boooring…

Continuing with the villains, Mitsuko was a lot more interesting. What I loved about her was the way she used the romantic notions of her classmates to her advantage – even after knowing a lot about her, some of them still tried to believe she was innocent girl who had to be protected. In volume 8 she played the role of innocent girl, so typical for anime and manga to perfection which allowed her to get out of nearly impossible situation. The combination of childish antics and powerful sex appeal just proved to strong for the two boys which I think was a very good subversion on the Japanese obessession (at least in their popular culture) with girls who look young and innocent. Even after trying to kill them they were reluctant to see her as a psychopath or at least a murderer. And the contrast between her innocent words and ultra-cynical thoughts was simply superb. The problem with Mitsuko is that she is too cliched too – is it only me or something like 70% of female character with mental problems in popular culture have been sexually abused as kids, often by their fathers? Yes, sexual abuse of children is an appalling thing but surely there are myriads of reasons for a descent to insanity? Why use abuse so often? That said, the strugle of Mitsuko was portrayed well and I felt some pity for her which is a lot than what can be said for Kiriyama, the robot. And of course, Mitsuko is sexy as hell which is always a bonus, especially for psycho-bitches. 🙂

Shogo Kawada was one of my favourites. He shined especially in contrast with the idealistic fool Shuuya. OK, I am not as cynical as Kawada and in the flashbacks he often went over the line with his rational approach to everything but in a desperate situation like the one in Battle Royale, you need competent cynics, not naive do-gooders. If it wasn’t for him Shuuya and Noriko would have been one of the first victims. Shogo tried really hard to redeem himself for what he did in the previous edition of The Program and did it in the end, against all odds.

Yukie took part in just several chapters but really managed to make me like her. She was the one who had the guts to go back to the school and assemble a group of friends in order to find safety in numbers. And by had the guts, I mean she showed amazing bravery – she trusted her friends at a time no one knew who will pull the trigger, who will play the game and who won’t. Of course, the reason for going back was kind of silly – her infatuation with Shuuya of all people, but still I liked her from the start. Her saying “We could be dead tomorrow” and jumping on Shuuya to kiss him was so moving! And then the seeds of distrust, in other words Shhuya’s presence, disprupted the balance among the girls because of all the suspicion in the air, Yuko made a horrible mistake, the lighthouse massacre occured and Yukie died. She could not even live until “tomorrow”. I think it was the best example of the utter cruelty of The Program, along with Takako’s death.

Talking of Takako I was really rooting for her against the bastard who tried to rape her and then she died immediately after a hard won victory. This was an insane twist – I really wanted to scream “NOOOOOOOOO!! Don’t you dare kill her!” but I guess that would have been useless. She had the spirit and determination her friend Sugi missed so much and he got on my nerves so often for that very same reason. Don’t get me wrong, Takako’s death was not only a very sad moment for me but also the moment when i decided that this manga is awesome because anything could happen, and yet it would have been better if she had stayed alive for longer, a final duel between her and Mitsuko would have been a lot more interesting for me than the awfully protracted battle between Sugi and Kiriyama. Furthemore, Takako’s character design is just perfect – her utter determination is obvious in her sharp features and yet she is also very beautiful and can be caring and tender – but only for the right people.

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Mimura was quite interesting, the rebel playboy, who suffered from somewhat excessive pride but was human enough to see his errors from time to time. I think I would have preferred the final climactic scene to have involved Mimura’s bomb, rather than Shhuya and Noriko capturing that ship, it would also have stretched my suspension of disbelief to the limit but not as much as the actual ending and Mimura was a lot better character than Shuuya. But sadly he was relegated to the role of ghost who helped the latter make up his mind in critical situations. What a tragic fate…

The same Shuuya who needed so much contemplation even to kill Kiriyama because “no one is born evil”. I am a coward who really values human life and is agaisnt the capital punishment but Shuuya’s indecisiveness was simply stupid – this same Kiriyama had killed many of his friends and was threatening to kill him and his last surviving friends. And the idiot still hesitated and when he finally pressed the trigger, he even tried to revive Kiriyama. I mean, how stupid can you get?

Most of the supporting cast does not disappoint either – even the rest of the lighthouse girls, who had a very short life after appearing for the first time had distinct personalities. The rich kid who hated his classmates, the girl who was forced into prostitution by Mitsuko, the homosexual who was stalking Kiriyama, etc – they all managed to keep me interested in their story, in seeing the world through their eyes. I love it when detailed plot and character development can coexist – sure there are some flashbacks which are stopping the flow of the story in the worst moments possible but they are not that many and most of the drama depends on knowing the characters better. If you know only the names, the deaths are mostly just stats. The different way the students reacted to the miserbale situation was one of the highlights of Battle Royale – we had all kinds of reactions – denial, madness, suicide, sticking with friends, going on a killing rampage, lurking, hiding and so on.

Last, but not least, the manga is full of scenes that are so memorable that are more or less haunting – Mimura’s final missed shot, the whole lighthouse sequence of events, Shogo killing his girlfriend by mistake, the boss of the program killing a girl simply for talking in class, Kiriyama crippling that martial arts instructor and so on.

 

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SPOILER END!

 

Yes, Battle Royale is a manga that is definitely not for everyone – it is often unbearably sad, not to mention full of violence and sex; the plot has few but rather annoying flaws, the art might be considered to be too realistic and boring by some. But it is also one of not so many mangas that have made me think, it is full of quality suspense and plot twists and it has many characters that managed to stir my emotions time and again. I value such moments, not least because they tend to get rarer and rarer. So if you can tolerate graphic, violence-full mangas and do not suffer a mental breakdown when your favourite character dies, you can try reading Battle Royale. I doubt it will succeed to impress you as much as it impressed me but even if the odds are low, I think it’s worth a try.

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