5 Battle Royale Anime and Manga to Check Out
The Battle Royal is a subgenre of psychological horror where the main characters are involved in a game with life and death stakes. This has been an increasingly popular genre over the past few years, likely due to the popularity of series like Future Diaries and Danganronpa (and we'll get to those in a bit). The recently aired Darwin's Game (At the time of this writing) is having a small degree of success, though the genre's popularity is beginning to wane.
Some shows have gotten creative with the premise, such as Akuma no Riddle, where it's essentially every person against a team of two. Such shakeups can help reinvigorate the genre, but also become a lot more forgiving in it's premise and with smaller stakes, often resulting in a less intense story.
This genre isn't unique to anime. Stories such as Hunger Games or The Running Man have long popularized such stories in the west. However, as for anime and manga, the earliest example stems from a story in Astro Boy. In it, Astro travels to the year 1993 (Astro's past, but the future to the original reader's year) and discovers to his horror that in order to maintain peace, there is an amusement park where people may enter and fight to the death against others. All entrants are fully aware of the consequences and join voluntarily, and this allows people to release their aggression in order to continue to live peaceful lives outside of the park. A similar premise was used later on in films such as The Purge.
The appeal of the genre is akin to the classic novel Lord of the Flies. While the genre doesn't always limit itself to young protagonists, it often does center itself under a young protagonist, high school or college age but sometimes as young as middle school, being thrust into a very adult situation, and the expectations adult participants have thrust upon them. I mean, you tell a kid about a fun game, they're going to be interested, especially if they don't understand the consequences.
While this isn't a "top 5" list, and aren't in any particular order, I'll still have a few rules in this list: Firstly, death must be a potential consequence for all players, so that leaves the aforementioned Akuma no Riddle. Secondly, the Death Game must be the primary focus of the series, so that leaves out Deadman Wonderland, where there are games in which one's life is stake, but that only makes up one story arch within a longer and broader narrative.
This list is also of course, by no means comprehensive. There are many other series, in anime and manga, that involve Battle Royale competitions. Drop suggestions for ones you enjoy in the comments and perhaps I can do a second list!
Some spoilers ahead!
Kingdom Game/Oukoku game
Rules of the Game: Each team is referred to as a Kingdom. Kingdom members are assigned the roles "Plebians" or "Aristocrat" or "King/Queen." Aristocrats can give orders to Plebians, and the King or Queen can give orders to anyone. Orders are absolute, so people will be forced to follow orders against their will by a mysterious force. Plebians may declare a revolt. If all Plebians revolt, then the game is over for the King or Queen. The objective is to take over other Kingdom's through declarations of war, until one Kingdom remains.
The Story: A group of students on a field trip encounter the ghost of a martyred nun who gives them a simple command: Build a kingdom. The students find themselves caught up in a deadly game of conquest against other 'kingdoms' including students from other schools, kingdoms made of gang members, and more. But before they survive the oncoming wars, they must figure out if they can survive each other.
This is a more interesting series than one might expect, because it focuses on two dynamics. Firstly, there's the internal dynamics as a team. The team includes an egotistical bully, the person who he most often bullies, a girl who's obsessed with one of her teammates - who does not return her affection, and more. How will these teammates learn to work together as a team? How will they wield their power when they have their turn to rule? Can anyone really be trusted as King or Queen?
Secondly, it focuses on the relationships built between rival teams. Alliances are made and broken, teams conquer or are conquered. The fights are violent and very deadly. But in the end, only one Kingdom can remain.
This series has not been translated into English.
Trigger warning! This series contains scenes of sexual assault, bullying, and violence.
Format: Video game, anime, and other formats.
Rules: (First game only), Players are locked in a school with every possible escape route blocked off. In order to graduate from school, a player must kill another student without being caught. After a death has occurred, a class trial will begin where the students attempt to determine who the murderer was. If the correct student is identified, than that student is executed. If the murderer is not identified, then the murderer is allowed to leave free while the rest of the students are executed.
The Story: Hope's Peak Academy is a private school for only the most elite and talented students, known as Super High School students. This particular class is made up of fifteen Supers, and one average student who earned his spot in a lottery. Upon entering the school, they are all knocked unconscious and wake up to find the doors and windows barricaded, with no escape. They are then informed that in order to graduate, they must kill another student and not get caught, and they are to use their elite talents to either get away with murder or solve the murder.
The students slowly begin to waver between despair and hope as the murdering begins and alliances are made. The average Mokoto Naegi and Kyoko Kirigiri -the Super whose talent had been forgotten - build a friendship as they decide to go deeper than solving the murders, but solve the case as to who's behind the whole despair game.
This series has a strong cult following and is popular for its characters and art style. While it's characters are often over-reliant on tropes common to anime, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Tropes are tools after all, and Danganronpa knows it's target audience and knows them well. The game combines elements of survival horror storytelling with a Phoenix Wright style visual novel, investigation, and trial system. The anime does a great job of translating the writing and art style to television and both the games and anime have produced multiple sequels and prequels, though it is only in the first entry in the series where they are based on one another. You'll have to both watch the anime and play the games to get the full story, but watching or playing the first game is well enough for many.
The series focuses less on psychology for it's character building and storytelling, sticking mostly to already established formulas. If you enjoy general character archetypes, then you'll probably enjoy this series. If you prefer shows or games that take bigger risks, then this might be a pass, but I'd still recommend watching it just for the artsy and over-the-top execution scenes.
The Rules: The participants wake up in a room with a timer on the wall. Every time the timer runs out, they have to vote for one of the members to die. Every member must be present to vote. If there is no vote they all die. The game goes until only four survivors remain. Each player is provided a mask based on one of the seven deadly sins.
There are no rules regarding what factors people may use to determine who to vote for. They may vote for whoever's sin is greater, whoever isn't pretty, internal political alliances, or at random. If a vote ends in a tie, then the two tied must fight to the death.
The Story: On the anniversary of the death of his brother, Hiroyuki wakes up in a run down room with a mask affixed to him of a rabbit, the symbol of jealousy. After inserting a tape into a VCR in the room, they are told about their predicament. Each of them is there to pay atonement for their sins and are given the rules.
Hiroyuki now knows why he is there. Jealous over the relationship between his childhood friend and his brother, he told his brother that there was a change in the time of his upcoming date. This change in schedule led to his brother getting hit by a drunk driver on his way to the new time, thus meaning that Hiroyuki was responsible for his brother's death, and he must atone for his jealousy.
However, he's not the only one in the game tied to the incident. The son of the judge oversaw the trial regarding the drunk driver, as well as the daughter of a juror who accepted a bribe to acquit, and another juror of the trial are all there as well. It seems they all share a common theme surrounding that night's events. As the night plays out, they come closer to learning who is responsible for the deadly game.
The series is something of a spiritual sequel to Doubt, another battle royal manga written by Yoshiki Tonogai. He specializes in psychological horror, and while his mostly monotone artwork isn't always easy to read, his timing is absolutely masterful. Unfortunately, only select characters get growth and development and they aren't necessarily the characters we're supposed to care about, so how the audience reads the series might differ than the author's intent. Regardless of which characters you find yourself attached to, the concept is solid and the execution isn't so bad as to take away from overall enjoyment of the manga.
There is a live action adaptation of the series as well.
Format: Manga, Anime
The Rules: By downloading the mobile app, a player agrees to join "Darwin's Game." Any other player can challenge another to a solo match, or they can form a clan and go ahead in clan warfare. A challenge is won when an opponent either forfeits or dies. And these deaths are real. A player may use weapons of their own, or purchase weapons from the in-game store. They are also provided with a "Sigil," a special ability that can enhance their playing experience. Ultimately, the player's goal is to kill and earn points - which can be converted into real world currency - and climb the rankings to become the top "D-Game" player in the world.
Oh, and talking about Darwin's Game to non-players or in public is forbidden. You may, however, send an invite to join through the app, if you so desire.
The Story: Kaname receives an ominous invite to play a new popular game from a school friend who hasn't been seen in a few days. Curious, he clicks the link and is sucked unwittingly into the world of "Darwin's Game."
Still unaware of what, exactly Darwin's Game is, his phone goes off on his train ride home notifying him he's been challenged. The next hour is spent on the run from a machete-wielding gentleman in a mascot costume. Somehow surviving his first encounter entirely on luck, and having lost the only other friend he knew who played in the fray, he must seek out new allies who can tell him more about the mysterious game as he fights his way to finding out the secret behind what player's have begun to call "D-Game" in public. A special invite to an event in Shibuya might just be the perfect opportunity to learn more.
This series aired pretty recently, and was a bit on the impressive side. If you like gore and violence in your battle royales, then this show should hit those notes - and will even more when the DVD version is released. The series feels kind of short compared to other horror or thriller anime, and only a handful of characters get the desired growth arc, but we learn everyone's motivations and reasons for joining such a messed up game, and it's not like the main cast isn't likeable.
Besides, what can I say, I see Yandere or Yangire, and I like. Speaking of which, that leads me to my final entry...
The Format: Manga, Anime, Live Action Drama
The Rules: Each of twelve participants is a regularly keeper of a diary. When the game begins, their diary begins to tell the future right up to the end of the game. However, actions taken by the participants will change the diary's entries in real time, showing that the future can be changed. The participants are to use the information in their diaries - written as if the players had written them themselves - to hunt down and kill the other diary holders until only one remains. They have a very strict time limit as the winner is to replace a retiring God, without whom the world will fall apart.
Story: Yukiteru is an average middle school boy, who regularly writes his diary entry in his cell phone while speaking to his supposedly imaginary friend Deus. Deus, as it turns out is very real, and offers Yukiteru a chance to become his successor through a little game. This game has very high stakes, however. Life itself is the cost. Along with his new girlfriend Yuno, another player in the game. However, Yuno seems a bit off, and too eager to kill on Yukiteru's behalf for a game with only one survivor. Can Yukiteru survive the game before the world ends? And more importantly, can he survive Yuno Gasai?
Of course this list would have to include Future Diaries. Still thought of by many fans as the greatest Battle Royale anime, featuring the (arguably) greatest yandere character. For this light review, I'll be referring primarily to the anime instead of the manga. This series has some of the greatest character development among the genre, in part to it's twenty-six episode season compared to the more common twelve episode season. Released at the peak of action-horror anime's popularity, it innovated the genre and set standards that most other action-horror and battle royal series have to live up to.
This is in no small part to the popularity of Yuno Gasai, who the entire series hangs upon. As her motivations and her dark past become more clear, she somehow becomes more and more sympathetic, almost to the point where the audience feels even her most disturbing actions are justified. The audience learns why she has such an obsession with Yukiteru, and why she will stop at nothing to protect him. While she certainly wasn't the first yandere in anime, she redefined the character archetype. All violent, romantic girls inevitably get compared to Yuno.
While the series is a little outdated nowadays, it's still worth a watch if you haven't seen it yet and enjoy action series with a dose of horror. If you're a fan of violence, pick up the DVD for uncensored violence. If you just want the story, the versions available on streaming services should be more than enough.
And not to give the ending away, there is a twist. And then a second twist in the Future Diary: Redial epilogue released direct to DVD as a bonus for those who purchased a volume of the manga.
So what do you think of the list? Am I way off track? Are there other battle royal anime I need to talk about or should watch? Is the genre any good or do you hate it? Sound off in the comments below!
© 2020 Nigel Kirk