Thursday, July 5, 2007

Battle Royale, Vol. 1

Battle Royale, Book 1
Koushun Takami & Masayuki Taguchi
English adaptation by Keith Giffen

I enjoy graphic novels - especially anything involving Neil Gaiman - but I've never looked at manga. My mental image was of stories involving pre-teen Japanese school girls with eyes the size of saucers.

On a whim, I picked up Battle Royale (BR) because it was sealed in plastic, had a parental advisory notice, and I had read a little about the story a couple of years ago. And I had a discount coupon.

BR takes place in an alternate time line where Japan is ruled by a military dictatorship. The state sponsors a TV "game show" called The Program. A group of ninth graders think they are on a field trip when they are gassed on the bus and transported to an island. They wake up and find that they are now in The Program. The rules of the game are simple. Only one student can leave the island alive and, to survive, each has to be willing to kill their friends and classmates.

This theme of human hunting has appeal in literature and movies. There is, for example, The Running Man, written by Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King). Here, one man volunteers to participate in a game named The Running Man in order to earn money for his daughter's health care. The game lasts 30 days. The contestant is pursued by team of hunters and he earns money for every hour he stays alive and extra for killing pursuers. It was made into a movie with Arnold Schwarzeneger. More recently, there is The Condemned, which is more directly related to BR. Condemned prisoners on an island fight to the death to gain their freedom. Not surprisingly, Wikipedia has an article on "human hunting."

Back to the manga. These comics are read right to left and the book itself is oriented the opposite to what we are used to, i.e. the spine is to the right. On a 5" wide by 7.5" high page, the artists fits up to 10 panels. That's according to the diagram on how to read manga. I think the maximum I saw in this volume was eight. The shape and placement of the panels is adjusted to match the actions of the characters. You will often see a smaller panel inset into a larger one. In a page showing martial arts action you can see a narrow panel extending across the page showing only a leg executing a kick. The page layout is very effective and contributes quite a bit to the readers involvement.

As for the characters, the facial features are very exaggerated. There are some of the large eyes I associated with manga. Tears and sweat are pronounced and copious. Like the page layout, the physical exaggerations go a long way to heighten the impact of the emotions the characters are experiencing. The drawing style isn't what we are used to in the West, but very effective.

What about BR itself? Yikes! This is one brutal story with graphic sex and violence and this is only volume 1 of 15. The Scoobie gang it ain't. Definitely not for the squeamish.

So what do we make of a book like this? Do we write it off as gratuitous sex and violence? I'm sure there are readers who like it only for the sex and violence but there is a bit more to it than that. I defy anyone to read BR without thinking, "How would I act if I was forced to participate?" "How quickly would I succumb to the imperative to kill or die?" One of the main characters Shuuya tries to get everyone to band together against the authorities without initial success. We'll see what happens to him as the series progresses.

"Could a government sponsor such a game?" is another question to consider. Could we find ourselves living in a bread and circuses world today? I'm cynical enough to see it as a possible scenario.

Battle Royale on Amazon

Interesting Wikipedia articles:
Battle Royale (manga)
Battle Royale (novel)