Let’s Battle

Six volumes in, I think it’s safe for me to declare that Keith Giffen’s English-language adaptation of Takami & Taguchi’s Battle Royale is a frigging mess.

I know Giffen’s presence on the project is at least a part of what made this book such a manga gateway drug for Western comics fans like many of us in the blogosphere, but yikes. Simply put, have you ever met anyone–kids, grown-ups, Japanese people, paranoid schizophrenics–who talk anything like this? Does anyone aside from Penthouse Forum writers and the film critic for Hustler use the phrase “a peek of pink”? What in God’s name is a “bad poking kitty”? Also–bear with me for a minute here–left out the subject in this sentence. Makes it seem casual. Sounds informal. See if it doesn’t. (Wait for it…) It doesn’t! Sounds maddening! Maddening like the bad poking kitty! Want my peek of pink! See if I don’t!

The insane idiomatic translation is certainly not all that’s wrong with this ultraviolent manga series. (To start, there’s the fact that it renders all reviewers incapable of discussing it without using the term “ultraviolent.”) While not as hole-ridden as I found the movie’s to be, the comic’s plot is still kinda wonky: If this is a reality TV show, where are the goddamn cameras? And yes, this matters beyond the “maybe they just goofed” factor–much of the plot revolves around various groups of kids trying to do things undetected by the authorities running the show. But if it is a show, shouldn’t everything that’s happening be, y’know, shown to people, especially the show’s very producers? I just don’t get it.

And as with the movie, the conventional action-thriller contrivances leave me completely cold. The film seemed to have been molded in the Simpson/Bruckheimer/Bay mold, while the manga goes the karate-choppin’ kung-fu-fightin’ leaping-forty-feat-in-the-air Dragonball route, but either way, they took a Lord of the Flies/A Clockwork Orange idea and made a Lethal Weapon/Bad Boys out of it.

And, loathe as I am to admit it, there are some manga conventions that I just can’t wrap my head around. I’ll never understand why everything is translated but the sound effects, for example. Nor can I figure out the reason behind the bizarre kabuki-like faces of the lecherous Program director and the mincing homosexual student slash Yakuza soldier (yeah, it’s that kinda book). And I’m sure John Jakala would just call it “fanservice,” but isn’t the impact of the scene in which young Shuuya shows his terminally ill mother his sand-castle sculpture of the two of them with his late, politically liquidated father a teensy bit diluted by the artist’s depiction of the mother’s bare ass? (I guess this is what John Jakala had in mind when he explained the concept of fanservice to me, but still, that’s just weird.)

So anyway, yeah, it’s a big fat mess.

Why, then, is it so awesome?

Yes, I really enjoy Battle Royale, warts and all. Giffen’s brusque, unnaturally direct dialogue has the perhaps unintended side effect of brightly highlighting the most compelling aspect of the book–the relationships between the student protagonists. The intensity of first love, adolescent lust, inter-social-caste idol worship/caretaking, best-friendship, and platonic opposite-sex friendship are crackingly well-depicted–every conversation and interaction is hard-sold by the outrageously staccato dialogue, and I for one am buying. It works. And even putting aside the words, perhaps it’s only when we throw 14 year olds into a contest in which they’re forced to murder each other that we can truly replicate the near-operatic emotional turmoil of pubescence and adolescence. All I know is that reading this book takes me right back to Garden City Middle School.

Speaking of which, would this not be the most fucking awesomest comic ever if you were a fourteen-year-old? Casting the kids in your grade in the different roles would be at least half the fun, I’d imagine. Hell, I could still tell you which lacrosse player from the GCMS Class of ’92 would be Kazuo, and which cheerleader would be Hardcore Souma, and which girl I crushed on would be Noriko. (I’d be Shuuya, duh. My buddy Kennyb would be Shogo, because he owned nunchucks and throwing stars and stuff back then.)

As for the art–well, to use my extremely limited manga reference pool, it doesn’t even approach either the lovely poetry of Planetes or the utter madness of Uzumaki, but then again it doesn’t need to. And thankfully, it steers clear of the glorified stick figures that inhabit a lot of the manga I’ve seen on the racks. It’s clear, realistically detailed when it needs to be, stylized and clever when it needs to be that, and a solid conveyer of plot-driven action at all times. And the violent interludes, when they come, are pitch-perfect. Speaking as a gorehound, that is some fine, mentally sticky, disturbing gore.

And at the heart of it all is a surprisingly effective and affecting story of one kid’s refusal to compromise his morals and his friendships. Actually, as the story expands, we’re now following six or seven kids who’ve made similar deals with their own hearts, and it all makes for propulsive reading. I’ve enjoyed this series a lot (a lot more than I expected to, I think), and as it’s been different enough from the movie thus far to make me wonder if the ending isn’t different as well, I’m truly looking forward to seeing how this one ends up. See if I’m not!

(PS: For past thoughts on Battle Royale, about which I’ve written a surprising amount, go here, here, and especially here, here, and here.)

(PPS: While writing this post I sort of wandered around a bunch of old posts and links and such, and can I just mention how neat it is to visit the Tokyopop website, as it is a comics-company site that doesn’t have the stench of death, desperation, and bilking aging fanboys about it? This just tickled the hell out of me, I tell you. Courtesy of John Jakala. Speaking of whom, how did I miss this? Hilarious!)

(PPPS: Jeebus, did I really used to be this sharp of a writer? Complete sentences, complete thoughts, and hardly an em-dash in sight. Sigh. I guess that’s how one writes when one is gainfully employed as a professional writer, and when one’s ADD isn’t so out of control that one is finally getting a scrip for it, as soon as one can get an appointment out of one’s goddamn general practitioner. Unless, of course, it’s not pro writing but writing on message boards that brings out the best in me… The horror! The horror!)

Digression over. Battle Royale is good. The end.