How these shows care for their characters, even as they make their heads roll.
Some people, like myself, will scan over a seasonal anime chart and skip over the battle royale titles. They just don’t like the graphic and gleeful violence that the battle royale genre suggests they’re all about. There are a couple of battle royale shows that are more than that though. One is the Fate series, and another is Juni Taisen. They care about their characters, even as decide to kill them.
If someone mentioned “battle royale” and asked me what came to mind, I’d describe the following scenario. Eccentric, unhinged, and murderously adept individuals are rounded up by some shadowy entity and tasked to kill each other however they can. Perhaps they kill because they feel like they have no choice. Perhaps they kill because of a fabulous prize. Or maybe they just kill because they enjoy the act. The battle royale genre has become a specific stereotype of thriller-based survivor-style entertainment: visceral, cruel, pulpy, violent. Now, there is a place for those battle royale shows. However, not everyone is into that.
Relying on violent spectacle alone alienates those who might otherwise get something else from the battle royale framework. To some in the audience, it doesn’t matter all that much who meets their end by whom or how, at least alone. In a stereotypical battle royale production, that’s due to the participating characters not being exactly relatable. Even as these battle royale shows eventually kill their characters off thouh, there are some examples of battle royale anime out that do care about their characters’ lives. They portray aspects of their lives sympathetically and give audiences facets of them to identify with. One example is the ever popular Fate series. Another is the seasonal current Juni Taisen.
Adapted and spun-off from a visual novel by Kinoku Nasu, the anime adaptations of the Fate series take place within the context of the Holy Grail Wars. Seven teams of masters of the contemporary day and servants of legendary pasts compete against each other in a deathmatch in exchange for a wish. Adapted from a one-shot novel by Nisio Isin, Juni Taisen takes place within the bounds of the Zodiac War. Twelve warriors assume the names, mantles, and appearances of twelve Chinese Zodiac animals and compete against each other in a deathmatch in exchange for a wish.
The Fate series and Juni Taisen both retain, and at times revel, in violent spectacle. They include weird, crazy, and homicidally-deft participants. They also give their characters space and time – time to live and space to breathe like real people.
The Fate series has its lengthy moments of slice of life downtime in between its battle royale action, and a mandatory partner dynamic in its battle royale set-up in the form of a master-servant partnership. Both this slice of life downtime and master-servant partnership encourage the characters of Fate to interact with each other. Bouncing off each other in the extraordinary circumstances of the Holy Grail War and mundane day-to-day of Japanese adolescent life, the characters of Fate are fleshed out and receive precious development. Their personalities, backgrounds, and aspirations are exposed to the comments, inquiries, and criticisms of others. From this interactive fertility sprouts the characters that fans of Fate have come to adore.
Juni Taisen has its extended series of internal monologues and an episodic pattern of flashback sequences. With an efficiency that avoids the trap of over-exposition, both internal monologues and flashback sequences illustrate what the characters of Juni Taisen are like and how they made it as far as the Zodiac War. What they do or not do, say or not say, think or not think, believe or not believe isn’t static to their persons. It evolves, as does their characters, as those of one temperament, motivation, and life experience encounter another of distinct character set, goal, and upbringing. In episodes of less than half an hour, characters plummet into despair’s destructive throes, long for the company of others even whilst in self-denial, and demonstrate an optimistic resolve in the face of seemingly hopeless situation.
If you’re tired or wary of the stereotypical battle royale formula, the Fate series and Juni Taisen offer different execution styles of a somewhat neglected aspect of storytelling in the genre: character focuses. They aren’t just characters spotlights, but real attempts at focusing soul into these characters’ flesh. When battle royale shows like these two rise above the sole direction of using their characters as devices and fodder for violent spectacle, and care enough about them to make their circumstances and struggles something the audience can relate to and resonate with…
…it elevates and expands what the battle royale genre is capable of. It also makes the grief that viewers experience when their favorite characters die… that much harder to accept.
A social scientist and history buff who dabbles in creative writing and anime analysis every now and again. If you’d like to get in touch with him or are interested in reading more of his works, ZeroReq011 has a Twitter you can follow and runs a Blog called Therefore It Is.