Creative Control

Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist

High school is hell, especially in fictional Japan.

While doing a preliminary packing job at my apartment this Saturday–I’m moving this week into an apartment closer to the theater–I sat down in the kitchen to take a break and catch the end of the Cubs-Phillies game.

There on the table were the first two volumes of the controversial Japanese manga Battle Royale, with English translation by Keith Giffen. I had heard of the film adaptation before, and knew the basic concept well enough to know why said film adaptation was unlikely to be seen by many here in the United States, but didn’t really understand what the big deal was.

So I read the first two volumes, in about an hour.


It is one of the most vile and disturbing narratives I have ever read. It’s haunting. And it’s compelling as hell. I find myself unsettled by how much I’m anticipating reading the subsequent volumes.

Battle Royale tells the story of a socially corrupt Japan, run by a government that has devised a monstrous means of youth control–every year, one ninth-grade class is chosen by lottery and shuffled off to a remote island, where each student is given a pack of supplies, a randomly selected weapon, and three days in which they are to whittle their population down to a sole survivor. If three days pass without a clear victor, explosive collars decide that there will be no winner at all.

This is meant as an example to the other high schoolers.

By the way, did we mention that this twisted program is the most popular game show in this fictional Japan?

Yes, yes, everybody’s thinking of Running Man. This is different. This is, in fact, much better. By populating his bloodsport narrative with ninth graders, author Koushun Takami takes a look at the heightened emotions and brutal social cliques of high school through the ugliest possible lens–instead of a high school environment where different social groups inflict varying degrees of psychological violence on each other, they simply go after each other with weaponry. Furthermore, as most of these kids have grown up together, it raises the horrific dramatic issues of loyalty and betrayal. If you had to kill your best friend to survive an impossible situation, would you do it?

I can’t answer this question. Watching forty-two kids grapple with it and similar issues is excruciating.

Of course, this is a Japanese comic book, so it often goes well over-the-top with its expressions of sex and violence, at times to the point of being truly intolerable. This is unfortunate, because the story itself is so frightening and thought-provoking–there’s a point where you yourself start to root for the survival of certain characters, knowing that this sort of reaction is exactly what the narrative’s sick “home audience” does as well–that it deserves to be read even despite the gratuitous shock moments inherent in the medium.

I do not recommend it for everyone. Hell, I’m not sure I would have recommended it to myself. In fact, I’m not sure it can be recommended in good conscience to anybody; rather it must be mentioned and then never spoken of again, and if the person you mentioned it to gets curious enough they can seek it out and get sucked in themselves. I don’t know. It’s truly upsetting stuff.

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This entry was posted on August 2, 2004 by in Books, Comic Books, Critique.
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