Death Games: A New Anime & Manga Genre?

“I once stayed up all night playing poker with tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died.” – Steven Wright

Over recent years a new kind of manga and anime has seen a raise in popularity. Indeed, it has become so prevalent and standardised that I believe that it could be argued to be a genre in its own right.

There are plenty of genres that have grown out of anime: mecha, magical girls, harem and yaoi are somewhat universally recognised. I tend to think that moe anthropomorphism is so popular and entrenched in Japanese culture you could claim that it is its own genre too. However, another seems to be emerging, one that I have dubbed Death Games.

My basic definition of a Death Game anime is this: “A series in which the central protagonist(s) is/are forced to take part in some sort of game or contest which involves having to kill the other competitors at the risk of being killed themselves. The story follows their efforts to win the game and thus at least escape with their life/lives and possibly to win something else too.”

For example, take the series Mirai Nikki / Future Diary. In this series the protagonist, Yuki Amano, is forced to take part in a game against several people in order to become a god. The rules are that he has to kill all the other people taking part in the game within 90 days otherwise the world ends. Like many of these Death Games there is some sort of sci-fi-ish element to it. In this case he and the other players have diaries that can predict the future in different ways. As the series goes on Yuki defeats and kills several people, usually against his will and with help.

Now it should be pointed out that the idea of people being killed as part of a game or sport is nothing new, and such games have existed. There were the gladiators in Roman times, and the Mesoamerican ballgame played by the Mayans and Aztecs in which the losers were sacrificed (although the early versions of the game had the winners sacrificed instead, before someone realised that killing the losers would make the teams play better). There are other similar early stories in Western culture, such as the story of Faust playing chess with the Devil in a battle over his soul, and more recently in tales such as Stephen King’s stories under his pseudonym Richard Bachman, like The Running Man and The Long Walk.

However, recently this idea has become much more common in anime. The issue is where do you start covering it? Should we start by looking at other recent series that fit into this genre, such as BTOOOM!, Sword Art Online, and Deadman Wonderland?

Should we start further back, and examine whether or not the mind games between Light Yagami and L in Death Note fit into the genre?

Should we go back further still, and look at the novel Battle Royale which set out many of the elements that are present in most Death Games after it?

The answer is neither of these; It turns out that in terms of manga you need to go back further still, as the idea of killing people as part of a game is one that has been around for a surprisingly long time. The earliest example I have spotted actually dates back to the most important manga of them all: Astro Boy.

TETSUWAN ATOM by Osamu Tezuka © 2002 by Tezuka Productions

In the latter chapters of Astro Boy (a section that was not animated, even in Japan) there is a story in which Astro travels back through time. Eventually he ends up in for what him is the past but for the readers at the time was the future – 1993. There a young girl takes Astro a tour of Tokyo and shows him something called a “Fun Zone”, a place where humans can have fun because modern living is too rational in this “futuristic” world.

One of the rooms in the Fun Zone is called the “Murder Game Room”. In it people can murder each other for fun and it is perfectly legal. Astro is horrified by the idea, but his guide defends the idea, saying that people need a way to relieve their frustration as there have not been wars for a long time (clearly Ozamu Tezuka failed to predict the Gulf War) so this allows them to kill their enemies and feel good. Also the guide says that you know the situation in advance and accept the risk that it might be you who is killed. Inside the room Astro sees people trying to kill each other in a Wild West setting and another in a WWII battlefield.

So, once again we can see the great vision that Osamu Tezuka had. OK, his predictions were wrong, but he did come up with the idea of a Death Game long before anyone else in the manga world. The first seeds were sown by the godfather of manga himself.

Bringing it more up to date, in 1999 the novel Battle Royale was published (although it had actually been written a few years before), and subsequently was adapted into several live-action movie and manga versions. In this work we see what arguably became many of the standard features for most Death Game series. For example:

  • The competitors have been isolated from the rest of the world so no-one else is harmed.
  • The central protagonist has no wish of getting involved but is forced into it anyway.
  • According to the rules of the game only one person can be left standing.
  • The winner is given an award, in the case of this story it is a government funded pension.
  • Each competitor has a unique attacking feature, in this case a different weapon or item. This allows the reader to identify individual characters easily.
  • The players are all being observed and monitored by the organiser of the game. In the book each player wears a collar that tracks their movement and also contains a bomb if the player disobeys the rules.

Of course a Death Game does not have to have all of the same elements, and different variations can be added into the mix, but these are usually the standard starting points.

A year later in 2000 we had what could be seen as the first original manga story that can be claimed to be a Death Game: Gantz. However, this already has one oddity in that the characters in the series are already dead to begin with and have since been resurrected. But there are similarities between the two stories such as isolation from the rest of the world, non-willing participation, awards – in this case points that tally up and can be used to buy your way out of the game or get improvements to help you play it better, and an observer, the Gantz sphere.

One area of debate is trying to figure out which series may or may not count as a Death Game. Let us examine Death Note. The central premise of the series is not a Death Game as I would define it. Light just kills people on the basis that they have just done something bad and there is no sense of competition. However, when L gets involved, you could argue that a more playful element has been added to the plot. The thing here though is that it is more of a mind game between the two opponents, with the end result being the death of whoever loses. If Light wins, he will kill L; if L wins, Light will be arrested, charged, and most likely executed (Japan has the death penalty). You can certainly claim that they are playing each other strategically, like a game of chess.

More recently we have come across a much larger selection of Death Games. The genre is becoming increasingly commonplace. Here is a quick list of some examples that could be described as Death Games:

  • Sword Art Online  A computer game in which if you are killed playing it, you are killed in real life. Also, if you try to escape the game forcefully by removing the equipment required to play it you will die. In this game it is not a matter of just one person left standing however. You just need one person to finish the game.
  • BTOOOM! The players find themselves having to play a violent video game for real. Players have to blow each other up to collect “chips” that are embedded in their hands. In terms of different weapons, each player has a randomly selected type of bomb to begin with. By blowing someone up, they get the defeated foes’ bombs too.
  • Deadman Wonderland  Set in a prison, all the inmates have to take part in various games to survive. Often players are killed in these games. There is also the “Carnival Corpse” event in which special players normally fight each other to the death (or a painful forfeit) using their own blood as a weapon. Each player’s blood does a different thing.
  • [C]  Not a traditional death game according to the standard definition, but could be said to fit the genre. In it players are given money in exchange for taking part in weekly battles (“deals”) in which they use their own future as collateral. Therefore if you lose all your collateral, you have no future, and thus something like suicide is likely. So you could say that you are throwing your life away.
  • Doubt  In this manga the characters playing a mobile phone game in which all the players are rabbits except one who is a wolf in disguise. The rabbits have to figure out who is the wolf before they all get eaten. In the manga, a bunch of friends playing the game are kidnapped and, like in BTOOOM!, are made to play this video game for real.
  • Danganronpa A series mainly famous in Britain because it was streamed by Funimation and it could not be watched by viewers in this country (why do the Yanks block us off so many of these shows?) Here a bunch of schoolchildren are made to kill each other, put themselves on trial, and figure out who the real killers are. While the anime might not be available over here yet, the original video game is coming out in Europe early next year on the PS Vita.

This is just a sample of some series that I think fit the genre. There might be more manga and anime that fit it. This genre is already spreading in the west with the novel series The Hunger Games arguably being a Death Game as well. Indeed, some people criticised it as being too similar too it.

But while the west has no doubt had its own influence in the genre, I would argue that it is in anime and manga where Death Games have flourished the most and continue to do so.

Do you think there are other Death Games out there? If so, let us know.

Ian Wolf

Ian works as an anime and manga critic for Anime UK News, and was also the manga critic for MyM Magazine. His debut book, CLAMPdown, about the manga collective CLAMP, is available now. Outside of anime, he is data specialist for the British Comedy Guide, is QI's most pedantic viewer, has written questions for both The Wall and Richard Osman's House of Games, and has been a contestant on Mastermind.

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