(Episode Two: in which our manga dabbler accompanies the ninth grade class of Shiro Iwa Junior High to an island getaway.)
Sometime back in the 1980’s, during the heyday of Freddy Kreuger and Jason Voorhees, I remember attending a Freddy flick on a weekend matinee. I must’ve been going to the second show because I caught sight of a family on its way out of the theatre: father, mother and a boy who couldn’t have been older than six. What the hell are you doing taking a kid to this picture? I thought about fifteen seconds after the family had stepped out into the sunlight. (Mister Quick Reaction Time, that’s me!) When I was that age, the mere sight of a skull-and-crossbones on a pirate flag was enough to get me hiding behind the chair.
Standing at the bookracks – where All Age titles and Mature commingle freely – perusing the manga graphic novels, I was reminded of that moviegoing family. By now that boy is old enough to have kids of his own: do you think they read manga? Or read at all? I wonder.
The shrinkwrapped plastic covering the first volume of Koushun Takami & Masayuki Taguchi’s Battle Royale (Tokyopop) contains a stark Parental Advisory – and it needs one. If I were to compare ratings systems, I’d say the book was a solid “R,” for both graphic violence and a disturbing panel depicting rape. Tokyopop recommends an Age “18+” readership, though as with that Nightmare on Elm Street flick, you can bet that there are idiot parents out there, letting their kids read this stuff.
The cinema comparison is apt, since I’m told that this series also exists as a movie (and an actual prose novel). As I got into the first volume, I kept flashing on two filmic influences, The Tenth Victim and Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood. The first, a 60’s s-f film based on a story by Robert Sheckley, is easily explicated: it served as a source for Richard Bachman’s The Running Man. The second’s a bit more obscure: Bay of Blood (which was also released in this country under the much more evocative title, Twitch of the Death Nerve) is a darkly comic body count flick that features a large cast of difficult-to-distinguish characters bumping each other off. It served as an influence on the noticeably inferior Friday the 13th (some of that pic’s most striking deaths were directly stolen from Bava) and has been called the first “real” slasher film (it was originally released in 1971).
But Bay of Blood‘s stature in the annals of horror filmdom doesn’t just lie in the fact that Bava got there first. As a director (and cinematographer), he was also celebrated for a visually poetic brand of sadism that finds its manga equivalent in Battle Royale. Even when his films were nonsense (c.f. Blood And Black Lace), they were often visually breathtaking, especially when it came to visually documenting his movie victims’ leave-taking.
Which brings us (finally) to our graphic novel. Takami & Taguchi’s series is set in a future dystopia (“As military dictatorships go,” Keith Giffen notes in his efficient English adaptation, “it could be worse. But not by much.”) where the downtrodden masses are regularly entertained by a series entitled The Program. In it, a class of ninth graders are selected by lottery, transported against their will to a heavily booby-trapped island and then ordered to go General Zaroff on each other’s ass. It’s reality programming taken to the extreme – the only one allowed off the island is the ultimate sole survivor – with plenty of gleeful camera shots of each bloody victim. As readers, we get to glimpse several full-page panels of dangling eyeballs and gaping faces: when Volume One opens, two young orphan boys are shown watching their favorite anime actioner, only to have it interrupted by a news flash shot of The Program’s most recent “winner,” a mad teenage girl with her face half torn off.
Those two orphans, Shuuya & Yoshi, will of course grow to be drafted into the government’s Most Dangerous Game Show. Their entire class is gassed and shanghaied on a bus trip, then flown to a remote island. The students wake in an unfamiliar classroom where The Program’s gloating overseer, Mr. Kamon, tells them the rules of the game and brags about raping the sweet orphanage housemother, Ms. Ryoko. (Whether this last really occurred or not is up for interpretation – it quickly becomes apparent that Kamon is the kind of s.o.b. who’d say anything to work up his “students” – but we get a gratuitous image of the described event, anyway.) Each student, we learn, has been equipped with an electronic collar around their necks; should they attempt to opt out of The Program, the collars will be detonated.
Much of Volume One is devoted to explicating the story set-up; we don’t fully get out of Mr. Kamon’s classroom until Chapter Seven. In the opening chapter, we meet eight of the story’s forty-two classmates, but the only two who initially make a lasting impression are Shuuya & Yoshi. The other six are introduced through quick-cut vignettes that deliberately blend into each other. In a way, this confusion is consistent with the demands of a story where the primary conflict resides in the unknow-ability of other people, but it also forces the reader to do some work from the get-go. Each classmate is also assigned a number (our apparent hero Shuuya is Boy #15), which fits into both the game structure of The Program and also works to remind us that we’re reading a story with a high body count.
The art in Battle Royale is heavily textured with both cross-hatch and mechanical shading, which gives the figures more sense of bulk to ’em than I, at least, have associated with manga art. (This is particularly impressive in the looming shots of a menacing Mr. Kamon.) Some of the other manga art conventions prevail – big-eyed femmes, large beads of sweat and tears that (understandably) flow freely, occasional untranslated lettering that more typically appears during moments of intense emotion or sudden death – but none of it interferes with our understanding of the book’s violent action.
Or its central dilemma. At the root of the gore-riddled story lie questions of hope and trust: is either stance sensible in a setting where all of your peers have been set against you? Some of the students, we see, only too eagerly take to the Darwinian struggle. Others, like Shuuya and plucky Girl #15 Norika, work to build an alliance that will help them turn the tables. “I’ve thought it through,” Shuuya tells Norika, after seeing his best friend murdered and another student gone round the bend, “and opted for ‘hope.'” After we’ve read this inspirational statement, the book moves onto two other students who’ve gleefully chosen another path. Mario Bava would’ve definitely approved.
Who, the book asks, is better suited to survive The Program? It’s a testimony to Takami & Taguchi that I don’t know by the end of Volume One what the answer’ll be. But I definitely wanna find out.
(Originally posted in Pop Culture Gadabout.)