By Andrew Osmond.
King’s Game is a horror anime. More specifically, it’s a teen-horror anime, in which school-age characters are terrorised by a mysterious killer, called “King.” This self-styled royal murderer doesn’t need a mask or a knife. He (or she or it) speaks through a medium hardwired into the minds of millennials, the mobile phone.
The phone trills; the kid who owns the phone has received as an instruction in text form (no silly disguised voices). Whatever the instruction is, however gross or embarrassing or appalling, the kid must obey the instruction by midnight. If not, he or she will die unpleasantly; perhaps by a sudden urge to hang oneself, or by getting an early coronary, or by explosive bleeding from every orifice. Eeew.
From a Western perspective, King’s Game is in line with recent horror cinema. Indeed, it’s been just weeks since the release of a death-by-mobile phone horror flick, Countdown, about a death-predicting app that proves completely accurate. In horror terms, you could slot King’s Game on the shelves between the Final Destination films – more yarns about an invisible, inexorable killer – and the Saw franchise, where luckless people must follow cruel instructions or pay worse forfeits.
In terms of trauma and gruesomeness… Well, it’s hard to compare an anime against a live-action film, but King’s Game is perhaps a few notches above Final Destination, which was a series with a “cartoon” sense of violent humour. King’s Game is tongue-in-cheek too, but it’s more darn vicious. There’s a scene where people must do nasty things to their hands, especially to their fingers, and then that’s before the messy stuff with the chainsaw…
King’s Game originated on the phone. In Japan, it was created as a series of cell phone novels; such novels are literally published in the form of text messages, and were massively popular in Japan in the 2000s. There’s a good New Yorker article on the format if you want to know more. King’s Game was adapted as a live-action J-horror film in 2011 (trailer); it also spun off a manga.
The anime reportedly combines material from the first two King’s Game “books.” The series opens with a class of 32 students receiving their first obey-or-die messages from King, and realising this guy is (deadly) real. However, one boy in the class is a transfer student, Nobuaki, who knows what’s happening very well; he’s played and survived the game once already. Much of the anime is actually a flashback to the earlier game, which involved Nobuaki in another class of students, which means a heck of a lot of characters across the double plotline till King whittles them down.
This structure has been criticised as unwieldly, though it feels more natural if you’ve seen or read a work that surely inspired King’s Game. Battle Royale was a 1999 Japanese novel memorably filmed in live-action by Kinji Fukasaku. Both versions also had a pivotal character who’d played the title death-game before. In Battle Royale, an unfortunate class of students is given a single directive; to survive, the winning student must kill everyone else.
In both Battle Royale and King’s Game, the kids must choose whether to “play the game” or else stand up to a seemingly omnipotent authority. Or else… Well, they can just die. As the critic Kim Newman wrote of Battle Royale, the story “insists that sometimes we would choose to die rather than kill.” The same ethos holds in King’s Game.
Koshun Takami, who wrote the Battle Royale novel, conceded he was “probably” influenced by an American novel, The Long Walk. That was the first novel ever written by Stephen King, though published under his pseudonym Richard Bachman, after the author had become a bestseller for other works. The Long Walk envisages a competition in which boys walk down an endless road. If they tire and stop, they’re shot dead, until only one boy remains. Judging by one of the most gruelling ordeals faced by King’s Game’s characters, the mysterious “King” knows that story too. Perhaps it also explains his (or hers or its) assumed name?