Btooom! – Battle Royale Without the Good Bits
October 9, 2012 2 Comments
Survival games can produce fascinating stories; following the intricate psychological and physical battle and punishment that fighting for your life can bring it in the ordinary person. What might be considered one of the original, and easily the best survival game has to be Battle Royale. It explores the social, cultural and political landscape of modern day Japan, looking at the stresses of everyday life and the almost tyrannical laws and political system that the Japanese live under. The Battle Royale act is passed after 800,000 students walk out of school, refusing to attend the rigid and almost militaristic education system which punishes anyone for insubordination or not living up to the expectations of the school. Through the eyes of Shuya Nanahara we see his middle school class go slowly (on in the case of some rather quickly) mad – they are forced to kill in order to survive, and while Shuya, Noriko and eventually Kawada attempt to work together as they try to survive this brutal game of life and death while the world watches in horror and perhaps awe.
All of the characters inherent flaws and problems come out over the course of the game, with Mitsuko Souma and Kazuo Kiriyama appearing as the most dangerous and most damaged individuals. The problems of each character are brought out for the world to see, problems that were kept hidden by a society that does not want to see the inherent flaws in how it is run. They are left alone without anyone to help them, and instead of attempting to rectify this situation; the game is set up to scare others into obedience. There are other equally fascinating survival game anime or films, including Gantz, and in some respects Sword Art Online (although in this case the survival aspect is often forgotten or pushed to one side). They all have elements of fighting for survival through a series of strange and deadly circumstances. More recently we had Mirai Nikki, a heady mix of psychotic main characters, a warped game involving numerous dimensions and a twisted romance between two people who inevitably try and kill each other.
It was a fascinating series that was both well written as well as being utterly bonkers, with characters that were larger than life and quite clearly mad. In all of these cases there have been very specific reasons behind the survival game, although they may not be entirely obvious. Btooom on the other hand has none of this – it is not an interesting or intelligent exploration of Japanese society and culture, neither does it have the heady psychotic elements of Mirai Nikki or Gantz, it is grey, dull, and flat. Btooom is Battle Royale Lite, everything that made Battle Royale, and indeed any other survival game (excluding Sword Art Online) interesting has been taken out and thrown out the window, leaving only the gratuitous violence and similar setting. In the anime as with the manga Btooom is an online computer game where teams of players fight each other with bombs rather than guns The main character Sakamoto Ryouta is a 22-year old NEET who is utterly obsessed with the video game to the point of spending the majority of his time in his room playing instead of being out and doing other things. He utterly ignores his mothers attempts to help him find a job, simply yelling at her and treating her like dirt – all for the sake of getting a job at Tyranos Japan, the company behind Btooom.
The setting lends itself to a fascinating story, with Ryouta as a clearly troubled individual who has numerous issues and instead of attempting to confront them has disappeared into an online game where he can be one of the best in the world and gain the respect that he clearly craves. But, none of these points are picked up or explored in any real depth, instead they are brushed to one side and we are left with the impression that Ryouta isn’t an especially nice individual who spends his days either playing computer games or verbally abusing his mother. By glossing over these issues the series has already failed at exploring the inherent flaws in elements of Japanese society and daily life. The focus on finding a good job, along with the societal pressures of doing well, going to university, having a stable income, marrying and having children all come together to produce people who simply shrink into their own little worlds.
Battle Royale and even Mirai Nikki succeed partly because of their exploration of the problematic relationship that the main characters have with each other and society at large. They all have their issues and the education system, along with society in general only helps to further push them into the ground, telling the characters that they are not good enough or have not lived up to the expectations that society and culture have. The psychotic nature that many of these characters exhibit is not inherent, but is instead the only way that they can express themselves when all restraints have been removed. Characters such as Mitsuko and Yuno may be completely insane and are willing to kill anyone that gets in their way – with Mitsuko willing to use her body to get her own way having been abused as a child and simply assuming that sex makes things better – but they also want to belong and to be happy.
Because no one has ever helped them before they have grown up into warped individuals, abandoned by society and left to fend for themselves – the survival game in this respects brings to the surface all the inherent flaws in their lives and shows how society allows people to fall through the cracks. None of this is used in Btooom, and while the main characters have back-stories and reasons for being part of this survival game, these stories are simply there as a reason for their current predicament. They are not used to add any depth or meaning to their current physical or mental states, and are little more than window dressing for a game with what amounts to pornographic levels of violence and explosions without any real depth or meaning. Then we come to the issue of atmosphere or lack thereof in Btooom, while other survival games have successfully produced a thick, almost tangible atmosphere in the opening sequence, Btooom does not.
Battle Royale has a very direct introduction to the game with certain members of the class being executed as examples of what will happen is they disobey for example. Gantz on the other hand has the fairly direct deaths and reawakening, and then for unknown reasons are ordered to fight aliens in order to survive. The mystery and reasons for their sudden rebirth as tools of Gantz is one of the main driving forces behind the beginning of Gantz in this case. And of course, in the case of Mirai Nikki, Yuki is given a very direct introduction to the battle royale by Deus Ex Machina and the appearance of Yuno and his first opponent, the psychotic teacher and serial killer Takao Hiyama (The Third Diary user). In all of these stories the first episode or introduction to the series has been atmospheric and filled with the feeling of dread and terror on the part of the main protagonists. They know they have to fight for their lives, and while they may not wish to, the ever-present feeling of dread, along with the realisation that they must kill to survive pervades every part of the series.
Btooom has none of that, owing largely to the ineptitude of Ryouta, a character who is as thick as a brick and spends the entire first episode questioning his own existence on the island, along with almost everything else he sees or hears. There are certain problems that a series like K has in terms of dialogue, being overly reliant on the stylish visuals to move the first episode forward and generally lacking in dialogue despite the excellent voice cast. There is little or no real explanation as to what is going on or why, something that isn’t necessarily terrible, but neither does it help in terms of story telling. Btooom does the opposite, and while there is not as much dialogue as series like Fate/Zero, everything that Ryouta says, asks or thinks is some sort of exposition of question. He questions absolutely everything about his current situation, thinking in the most irrational and stupid way imaginable. Such thoughts and questions are acceptable to a certain degree considering how he woke up hanging from a tree while strapped into a parachute, but considering he questioned where he was, why he was there, and why someone was trying to kill him, it would not have been surprising if he also questioned the state of the universe and why he was cuddling a policemans helmet.
However, it is the constant exposition and random silly questions about what the pouch full of what are obviously bombs is, and why one is counting down. As a viewer we can clearly see that they are nearly identical to the ones that he has used countless times while playing Btooom online for example. Not to mention that he manages to survive roughly 10 explosions to the face and seemingly escapes with only a few burns and his clothes and other belongings intact, where this any other survival game and he would have at least had some wounds and ripped clothes to show that he had somehow miraculously avoided death for the 10th time. The stupidity that Ryouta exhibits, along with the ridiculous nature of the entire setup succeeds in creating a series that is as boring as it is pointless. Btooom lacks the threatening atmosphere of other survival games, largely because of the incessant and annoying exposition of Ryouta who succeeds in destroying what little atmosphere that remained. K may have its own problems, but it has style to push those to one side, in the case of Btooom it does not have style and instead has to rely on a dull protagonist and a story that is both bland and rather generic. It lacks any of the intricacies of Battle Royale, with none of the brilliant political, social and cultural commentary that made that story such an interesting one to watch and read.
Furthermore, while the characters all have potential, with clear and quite disturbing (in the case of Himiko) pasts that should have an impact upon their current lives but are never explored fully. Instead their pasts are simply used for setting and are pushed to one side to make way for outlandish levels of violence and explosions. It truly is Battle Royale Lite – everything that is good about survival games has been picked apart, put into a pile and left, leaving only the most basic elements of survival and a fight to the death. Madhouse is a studio behind some excellent series, including several quite insane anime, involving fights to the death such as Black Lagoon, Highschool of the Dead, and even Perfect Blue, but they seem to be a few cards short of a full deck here. Now this is likely largely due to the original source material and script rather than the studio itself, without a good original source with the necessary depth in its characters and plot to move the story forward even the best studios will struggle.