An entire high school class of 32 people receive a message on their cellphones from a person known only as the “King.” The messages contain orders that the students must obey, or they risk the punishment of death. With their lives on the line, the students soon find out that the orders are getting more and more extreme as time goes on.
Source: Anime News Network
It’s possible I wasted my Battle Royale comparison too quickly. King’s Game isn’t just a murder dwindling story like Royale—it wants to be the classic guro manga so hard it hurts, down to stealing the gimmick of X-ing out dead students’ faces on a class photo.
I suspect King’s Game has seen many bloodbath anime; unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have any concept of what makes those shows work. It wants to have the class photo and school set-up like Battle Royale. It wants to have cell phone orders like Future Diary (an extra dose of irony, given that the Future Diary director is currently working on the far superior murderous spectacle, Juni Taisen). It wants an unseen supernatural killer like Another. But while those shows at least knew how to set up a moody premise and then build in such a way that created tension for the gore, King’s Game just kind of….screams impotently.
No, literally. There is a ton of screaming in this premiere, usually courtesy of the shell-shocked protagonist. Nobuaki is the only survivor of a previous King’s Game, you see; we know this because the series’ cold open involves him watching (and screaming) while his naked-because-reasons girlfriend is chopped into pieces. That opening image—violence toward women for the sake of imparting manpain—casts a pall that the episode never really recovers from.
It doesn’t help that as we’re introduced to the various bits of Expendable Meat, the clear choice for new leading lady is Natsuko, an orphan (because of course she is) who allegedly falls for Nobuaki at first sight. The watchword for her is “cheerful,” which in this kind of show tends to mean she’ll be punished by having to do, witness, or suffer horrible things. The fact that all of the most prominent female characters are smuggling grapefruits under their chests likewise fails to inspire confidence.
The difference between a show like this and Juni Taisen is that King’s Game spends a lot of time pretending it wants us to care about the characters. And that’s pretty much the death knell for it on a conceptual level. This genre can go one of two ways: a slow-burn that introduces the cast and their relationships before slowly picking them off, or an over-the-top campfest that primarily relies on spectacle.
King’s Game wants to have it both ways. Whole scenes are given over to Natsuko and the others attempting to befriend Nobuaki (he screams about it), and that cheerful class photo is so prominently featured in-episode before the DID YOU SEE WE’RE BEING IRONIC post-credits callback that the writers are clearly angling for some kind of feeling of tragedy.
But this first episode also kills off nearly a quarter of the cast by way of grizzly hanging (it also doesn’t help that the punishment is always death, cutting off all kinds of inventive opportunities to calculate when to obey). The shocker deaths so consistently spaced throughout the episode that there’s no sense of build to the final bloodletting kill.
“A guy dies of blood loss because it has BURST FROM EVERY ORIFICE” should feel more impressive, damn it. And it certainly doesn’t help that this falls under that most obnoxious of horror tropes: “everybody acts as stupidly as possible in the face of good sense so that they can die in contrived ways.”
While gore as a subgenre is understandably repugnant to a great many people, there’s nonetheless an art to it. Endless fountains of blood lose their shock value quickly, and a sense of build from minor to major spectacle is what successfully sells the impact. King’s Game has some horrific imagery that could, conceptually, be effective. But it’s too eager to show it to you, and it’s already leaning disproportionately toward one of the worst tendencies in horror: men die, but women suffer.
All of this is without getting into the fact that a lot of this episode involves Natsuko trying to kiss Nobuagi at the behest of the King’s Game even though he repeatedly asks her not to. Because, y’know, ignoring a person’s boundaries is totally fine if a girl’s doing it to a guy. Or the fact that there is a lot of text onscreen that flashes by too quickly to read without pausing. Or the ugly, ugly mid-2000s art. THERE ISN’T TIME TO GET INTO ALL THE UN-FUN STUPID HERE.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to watch another episode out of morbid curiosity, but don’t mistake this for fun trash. There’s an aura of sleaze and nastiness that’s hard to shake while you watch, and the lack of craft in the storytelling or the characters leaves pretty much nothing to recommend otherwise.