TokyoPop used to have a reputation, and in some circles they still do, as a publisher of “girly” books. When other English-language manga publishers concentrated on shōnen, the boys’ books more likely to appeal to existing comics readers who presumably expect fistfights and cheesecake from their comics, TokyoPop were translating many of the shōjo titles for girls, series like Sailor Moon and more recently, Fruits Basket, which have the cheesecake but less of the fistfighting. Obviously there are readers who don’t fit the stereotype and don’t care whether they’re in the right target market for a book, but with a series like Fruits Basket, which is about people who transform into animals when given hugs, it’s safe to say that TokyoPop know they aren’t aiming at the average Batman reader. It’s a gamble that has worked, and the publisher has built a loyal readership out of fans who were being ignored by typical Western comics publishers.
Given this, when Tokyopop announced they would be publishing Battle Royale, based on the book that also inspired the excellent film directed by Kinji Fukasaku, it came as a surprise. Battle Royale is about a Japan that has become a fascist state where the youth are kept in line by having one class of high-school students each year selected to participate in a deadly game. Each student is given a random weapon and an explosive neck collar that is set to detonate if they leave the playing field—the year of the story it’s an island—or if they fail to kill each other off until only one is left. It’s a cross between Lord of the Flies and The Running Man, and is clearly not a hugs and kittens kind of book.
Fan-favorite Keith Giffen was hauled in to rewrite the translation for flow and naturalistic dialogue. Giffen is known for his mainstream superhero work, especially a popular run on Justice League that treated the stories with a humorous, light-hearted touch. Getting Giffen’s name on the covers was obviously a move to help market the book to the mainstream. Unfortunately, some clumsy dialogue slipped past him, including exchanges like:
“You watch that tone, young man!”
“I’m looking like I care?”
It’s also unfortunate that Giffen’s trademark humor is absent from Battle Royale. His usual light-heartedness wouldn’t be at home here, but some of the black comedy that enriches the movie would have been nice. Instead, the manga opts for sentimentality, and is filled with portentous speeches about staying true to yourself, the power of love, protecting your friends, and other such mush that is oddly jarring when it alternates with the violent scenes. And there are a lot of violent scenes. The artist seems to have a thing for gruesome acts visited upon eyeballs, and the number of eyes that are popped, split, or cut in the course of the story is high enough that a Battle-Royale-eyeball-damage drinking game would probably end with your stomach being pumped.
There’s a lot of gratuitous nudity and sex as well, especially involving Mitsuko, the femme fatale of the series. It’s a card that gets overplayed, and honestly I don’t need to see her masturbating as often as she does. By the time she ditches the school uniform for something sexier I was shouting at the page, “High heels are not a good idea for battle to the death, Mitsuko!” The slide from titillating to ridiculous happens very quickly.
The story is broken up with lengthy flashbacks showing the students’ ordinary lives before the contest, scenes which detract from the flow of the story and have an oddly alienating effect. In the movie there was less time to develop the characters, and their simple, believably teenage reactions to the events made them easy to empathize with. The flashbacks, which show students mastering kung fu or joining a gang to beat up Yakuza, distance us from them. As with most horror fiction, identifying with the characters is vital in a story like Battle Royale.
Despite all of these flaws, or perhaps because of some of them, Battle Royale, sells well in the comics shops. It is usually sealed in plastic to keep its contents safe from the eyes of children, but it sells anyway. As an exercise in rebranding a publisher it is a success. This doesn’t mean it’s actually any good, though.
The next time there’s a moral panic about what entertainment is exposing our children to, this will likely be one of the comics dragged out to be pointed at by accusing fingers. And it will be hard to defend as an adult work when its exploitative tone is so clearly geared towards a juvenile audience and it is completely lacking in authentic messages or any other redeeming qualities.