Warning: I’m not being hyperbolic about the graphic nature of these books. Images below are intense and graphic.
The massive murder ballad that is Battle Royale started off as a traditional novel by Koushun Takami. Written in 1996, Takami’s controversial book wasn’t published until 1999, and after that, it was adapted twice: as the bizzaro, violent exploitation masterpiece film, but also as a manga written by Takami and illustrated by Masayuki Taguchi.
If you happen to tap Battle Royale into Google image search — you know, if you’re game for finding pictures of Japanese kids killing each other — images from the manga are the first thing that come up, and boy-howdy, are they all kinds of weird.
Story wise, the manga version of Battle Royale isn’t too far off from the movie (or the book too, I guess; I’ve never read the book), a group of kids get taken to an island as part of some weird government program* where they’re forced to butcher one-another for… I’ve never really been able to figure out why. To send a hard message, I suppose.
While the movie leans more towards the fun side of exploitation, the manga is a real meat grinder. It marries really troubling emotional damage with grotesque violence and sexual depravity.
Below we’ve put together some panels from the U.S. version of the manga to illustrate some of the differences.
Long and short: it’s a tough read.
It’s Extremely Violent
No, seriously. Battle Royale is loaded with untold amounts of crazy, unflinching hyper-violence. Stab wounds, head-shots, mangled bodies, and quite a lot of severe facial damage (everyone gets it in the face in this book, for some reason) and many of them get the full page treatment every issue.
A bullet wound that would flash by in a few frames in the film adaptation get frozen at the moment of impact in the comic. Bullets rip through flesh and bone in slow motion, and from several angles, with the victim’s gaze locked in permanent shock, the pain not even registering yet.
It makes for intense and repulsive reading. These kids get straight up mangled in this book, which is gross, for sure, but it’s also oddly magnetic. It tickles some horrible lizard part of the brain that’s probably best left untickled.
This is where things get really weird. The cast of Battle Royale is largely comprised of teenagers — young ones. Considering their age, it would be dishonest to ignore their fascination with sex, but Battle Royale portrays sex in the same lingering, fetishistic manner as its violence, which gets pretty heavy pretty quickly. This is especially the case with the character of Mitsuko Souma, the class’s tall, beautiful and positively bananas lead female psychopath.
Mitsuko largely gets by in Battle Royale by playing the sex card, using her looks to draw hormone addled teenagers within range of her sickle. The extent of Mitsuko’s tactics gets glossed over in the film, but gets full, explicit treatment on the page.
This is honestly the most uncomfortable part of reading Battle Royale. Mitsuko spends a lot of time in a state of undress, luring men in by touching herself and acting out the porn-muddied fantasies of these dumb kids. This happens all of the time in the book, right up until Mitsuko meets her inevitable end.
It’s More Character Oriented
The Battle Royale manga would be complete trash were it not for Takami’s strong emphasis on character. Unlike both the book and the movie, Takami took his time establishing each and every student as a fully-formed character, which makes their inevitable violent ends all the more difficult to bear.
There’s no glee in the way that Takami’s kids kill one another, and even his crazier characters, like Mitsuko, become pitiable as the story progresses. An incest victim from childhood, Mitsuko gets depicted as a girl whose been used so often for her looks that it’s perverted her sense of self, and explains her disdain for the world around her.
This brings me to my next point.
It’s Batshit Crazy
Takami uses a lot of storytelling tactics that toe the line of tacky throughout the series. Over its 119 issues, Takami reveals some of the extremely troubling emotional and physical hurdles that these kids have had to deal with before they were brought to this island.
In frequent flashbacks, issues like incest and rape are prominent — and depicted. Characters wrestle with the death of parents, cruel bullying, torture, eating disorders, religious delusions, social snobbery, just… everything you can think of.
In this regard, Battle Royale manga really is a miserable piece of fiction — but it should be. It’s a story of a government that forces children to butcher one-another, not exactly a light topic. The movie version of the story, which is great, is kind of toothless in its approach. Characters are practically interchangeable, and the violence gets glorified as a consequence, like running over pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto.
Takami’s manga, though, is rough. It’s not a fun or especially enjoyable read, and though it veers too often into gross sexual exploitation, at least it’s honest with its subject matter.
Battle Royale isn’t carnal joy, it’s a tragedy.
Though I found it both fascinating and repulsive, I was never able to make it through the entire Battle Royale series, it was just too much. If you can find an issue that isn’t wrapped in plastic at the store (obvious reasons), it’s worth a flip-through, it will definitely change your perception of the story.
*There’s all sorts of controversy about the English adaptation of the Battle Royale manga. Essentially, the publisher, Toykopop, handed writing duty over to popular US comic book writer Keith Giffen, who made several story changes. Most notably, he changed the BR Program from some government mandated populace control program into a Reality TV program. Fans get kind of annoyed by that fact, but it’s not really surprising. After all, Giffen wrote the translation in 2003, Reality TV was the only thing people wanted to talk about in 2003.