A solid swing
There is, if it’s the sort of thing you fancy, no shortage of anime about high-school students killing each other off. Where once the niche was so narrow you could accuse any such project of copying Battle Royale, now you can find a new example every handful of seasons. King’s Game the Animation was the representative for the last part of 2017, and it went hard with the drama, gore, and consequences.
But with so many projects like this surfacing, the trick becomes differentiating oneself from the rest. Why is this particular mass murder happening? Is there a mystery to solve, or are we just here to watch what happens when people are pushed to their limits? In animated form, King’s Game takes solid swings at several of those questions, but only a handful seem to land.
In its original form, King’s Game was a series of mobile-phone novels—appropriate, as mobile phones are the harbinger of doom in the series. The series is a deadly take on the very real King’s Game, a party game involving ridiculous (but harmless) dares. But this King takes no prisoners. A game begins when a student receives a message from the King, at which point the student and their entire class are entered into the game. The King issues an order, which must be completed within 24 hours on pain of death. No one can drop out midway, and the game continues until one player survives.
Our protagonist, Nobuaki, is already on his second King’s Game—but this time, he’s determined to stop the King and save as many people as possible. Winning over his new class when they discover he’s brought the game with him is difficult, especially with the presence of Natsuko: a girl who initially seems sweet, but who turns brutal and cruel once the Game is underway. She’s here to win, no matter what she has to do to whom. She’s a far cry from Nobuaki’s companion in his previous school, the gentle and encouraging Chiemi.
The two sets of students exist in counterpoint to each other throughout the series thanks to the show’s structure. The anime is based on the first and second installments of the series; but rather than the story unfolding chronologically, we primarily follow Nobuaki’s second game, with the first game dotted through in flashback. It’s an interesting approach to the adaptation, and it takes some of the burden off the scripts to cover two books’ worth of action. It’s one of the cleverer things the show does.
But all of these things are secondary to the centerpiece of King’s Game: the game itself. Most challenges are violent or sexual in nature. Others are open-ended enough that they could end benignly, provided none of the players is feeling especially bloodthirsty. But, should a challenge go unfulfilled or a rule broken, the offending player dies gruesomely on the spot.
If you’re here for body horror—well, take your pick. The invisibly executed kills are pretty horrific, to the point that the original TV airing blurred out a lot of detail. As for why a person’s head could twist itself off instantaneously, there is an answer given that ties back into who (or what) the King even is. The answer is conceptually interesting but a bit of a stretch. Then again, this is a show where people’s heads pop off based on random dice rolls.
In the end, King’s Game is a show you really will only get a lot out of if you’re there for the kills. There’s a story, and it’s a bit interesting. There are some fascinating character moments and motives, but they’re addressed well after you’ll likely have mentally checked out on said characters. It also falls into that age-old pattern of “All humans would succumb to violent tendencies in the right circumstances, except this one guy and this one girl.” It’s not too long before the big question of the series goes from if the characters will break to how they’ll break. Which is why King’s Game is far better watched as splatter horror than anything else. There, it succeeds.
King’s Game the Animation closes the story arc of the first two books and ties up with an epilogue that both hints at further seasons and weakens the impact of the show’s ending. But, since then, there hasn’t been any sort of move to continue the series. As it stands, the show is a gruesome curiosity that will entertain horror fans and perhaps raise interest in the books—but it struggles under the weight of its own edginess.