What’s it about? As a child, Katagiri Yuichi’s parents each told him about the most important thing in life: his mother, friends; and his father, money. As a high schooler, Yuichi’s life is filled by part-time jobs and time with his four friends. When the money for the class trip goes missing, Yuichi and his friends are abducted and forced to play a mysterious game. Not only was the missing money apparently paid by someone as an “entry fee,” but the five have also been saddled with a 20-million-yen debt. The fastest way to pay it off is to play, but the stakes are far deadlier than they initially appear.
There are two roads one can follow with a death game story. There’s the high road, which puts a heavy focus on a smaller cast and psychological horror in hopes of making the audience sympathize with the characters and probably attempt to say something about Human Nature™; and there’s the low road, which dives straight into the exploitation bin while rotating a large cast into the meat grinder for shock value points. Tomodachi Game, bless its heart, is trying to take the high road.
It’s easy to see why the majority of works in the genre go for the latter option, as the time required to get invested in a cast of six or more tends to conflict with the need to get into the action as quickly as possible. Danganronpa remains perhaps the most iconic example alongside Battle Royale at this point, but it had dozens of hours to introduce its sizable cast. Most anime have, at most, 15 minutes to get to either the bloodletting or some panty shots before the audience starts getting antsy. Which is all to say that I at least respect Tomodachi Game’s attempts to be classy, even if I’m not convinced it has the goods to back it up (or how the manga has somehow racked up 19 volumes since 2013 and is still going).
There’s definitely not anything particularly new on display: the show is desperately trying to pretend Yuichi’s friends aren’t one-note by putting up mini-bios you have to pause to read as they’re introduced, but you’ve still got the lighthearted-but-secretly-suspicious guy, the stoic but reliable guy, a girl who is stern (but hot and in love with the protagonist) and a girl who is shy (but hot and in love with the protagonist). There’s a cutesy mascot who says ominous things, because Monokuma was but three when the manga started up. Scenes are broken up oddle by title card eye-catches multiple times throughout the episode, and neither the director nor series composer’s CVs inspire a robust sense of confidence.
Even the praise I have to offer comes with caveats attached. The bar is subterranean for this genre when it comes to treatment of women (not hard to do better than weaponized rape accusations), but Tomodachi Game manages to go a whole 23 minutes without any fanservice…until the last lines of the episode, when Yuichi—presumably as a way to shake up the mind games being played on them—asks if anyone knows the color of their friend’s panties. There’s also a pretty good sense of building paranoia and claustrophobia during the first game as we’re locked in Yuichi’s perspective…until halfway through, when we zoom out to a control room that’s making color commentary and placing bets on the group’s probability of success. Its dedication to a lack of blood in favor of going hard on psychological horror is admirable, but that also means there’s little in the way of visual spectacle if the tension goes flat.
As a horror fan I was engaged enough to give this another episode, but I’ve got next to no confidence that this single-cour series will be able to maintain tension and wrap up in a satisfying way (NINETEEN VOLUMES). If you’re curious about this type of story but put off by the gore and sleaze of other titles this might, so far, be a more restrained option—but I can’t vouch for whether it’ll keep that up going forward.
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