Thursday, February 3, 2011

Review: the Battle Royale manga series

I think there’s a certain stigma surrounding comic books: “They’re just for kids. Only nerds read them. Superheroes aren’t complicated.”* Luckily, this is changing with the rise of “nerd culture,” web comics, anime, darker movie franchise reboots, and graphic novels. Comics are beginning to be cool again, and manga is a big factor in that. Manga has complex storylines, is made for both genders, and can be just as enriching as novels. Its distinctive style has inspired tons of kids to try their hand at creating their own art, emulating their favorite artist or forging something new from a blend of techniques, and that’s terrific in my (comic) book.

That being said, I’ve never tackled an entire series of manga before. When I was younger, I casually consumed anime, mostly because it was the predominant style of Saturday morning cartoon. I grew up watching Sailor Moon and Pokemon and other Japanese exports on Cartoon Network, but I never made the leap from TV to print. Anime acquainted me with the “shorthand” of the genre—big sweatdrops, tiny figures (“chibis”), mushroom sighs, and the like—but reading manga was a unique experience. I’m not sure how the pages are flipped (because I was reading online), but like Hebrew, manga is read right to left.** I read all 15 volumes in a very short period of time. (FYI, this series is based on the novel Battle Royale written by Koushun Takami. The manga version was written by Koushun Takami and Masayuki Taguchi.)

Let me make this clear: This is not for kids, y’all. (It’s definitely for a mature YA or even adult audience.) The extreme graphic violence (some of which is highly sexualized) drunkenly walks a line between having a point and being gratuitous. It’s as twisted and sick as its premise: a televised game show that pits 40 unsuspecting high school students against each other in a death match. The gore is going to upset anyone with a sensitive stomach. For instance, someone’s eyeball is ripped out and crushed underfoot before the game even starts. No punches are pulled.

It may seem a little odd, but I read this series in the aftermath of the Arizona shooting, around the time I wrote this. The timing was indeed strange and perhaps “inappropriate” to some, but it was cathartic. Yes, almost everyone the reader grows attached to dies in some terrible manner. Yes, there’s some serious maiming and shooting and psychological terrorism. Ultimately though, the series was not glorifying death or violence. It was doing the opposite. Woven in with the violence were much-needed messages: Injustice can be beaten by banding together and relying on others. It isn’t enough just to survive if you survived without honor, and survival is made sweeter because of love, trust, and cooperation. Additionally, the series explores the depth and breadth of the human psyche, examining the wildly varied reactions to tragedy. It takes the good guys and the very bad guys seriously.

A few years back, I read the novel Battle Royale and did not get the same messages. The book was a slog, a relentless stream of death and destruction. I couldn’t keep track of the numerous characters, who were often referred to by their “numbers,” nor did I care to. I couldn’t imagine that many individual faces, so it was hard to feel for them when they died. The manga, by its very nature, broke down these barriers.

The artwork did the lion’s share of the work. I had read the book long enough ago that everything but the basic plot—game show, everyone dies except the hero—was a surprise. How people died was very real this time around, thanks to the visuals. Putting faces to the 40 students was essential in conjuring up both empathy and sympathy for them. A particular sock to the gut was the repetition of a yearbook page that replaced the faces of slain students with Xs. Besides shaking me from my previous apathy, the artwork added to the storytelling in an authentic way. Sometimes, the frames were realistic and suspenseful. Other times, the characters’ emotions colored the landscape or their classmates. I was often struck by an interesting angle or perspective. Through these images, I could easily see how certain characters saw others, how they viewed the world, and what they thought of themselves, no explanation necessary.

The format also helped to further my connection with the characters. The serialization allowed for a longer length with frequent chapter breaks, freeing the creators to expand backstories without losing tension. The focus was also broadened from the novel’s heroic trio to seven characters, five “heroes” and two “antiheroes.” Still, all of the characters got their moment, thanks to some strategic flashbacks. The pauses were always relevant, and though they stopped the action, they added immediacy. The more I learned about certain characters’ pasts, the more I wanted them to survive in the present. I knew they wouldn’t, and it was heartbreaking.

This story has been compared to The Hunger Games trilogy, and I do concede the point on premise alone. Would I recommend it to fans? I’m not sure. The novels mainly differ in how deeply you can interact with the characters. I found THG much stronger in that respect. As for the ability to handle the violence, it’s up to the individual. The manga is more visceral than either book. Imagining a horrific death is completely different from seeing it explicitly on a page. All the same, the manga was a great read. I was completely engrossed, and I think I came out better on the other side.

*Totally grinds my gears. Any art reflects the society it’s made in, and superheroes are no different. In fact, it’s fascinating to see America’s growth through its superheroes. Or France’s, for that matter.

**I know, I know! My bad. If it’s any consolation, I didn’t intend to read the whole thing when I started. I was referred to one scene from an article I was reading, but then I got curious.

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