Editor’s Note: The following long form contains spoilers for B: The Beginning.
You’ve probably already seen the pictures: a slightly bewildered, blue-haired young man on local news. Skyrocketed into mainstream consciousness thanks in part to Drake, Battle Royale and her champion Ninja have officially hit the big time. You might find it hard to imagine a life without level three welding masks and floating buses; over the years we’ve shifted through a number of online shooters all based on the concepts presented in The Hunger Games (and before that, Battle Royale). A hundred or so people jump out of a plane, or a bus, or whatever—grab a bunch of weapons, run, fight, avoid the magic circle. You know how it works, everyone does. We even went full circle late last year, when PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds made a cameo on the Gamers! anime. Battle Royale has been percolating through our cultural consciousness for years, much as anime has slowly made its way to the forefront of online streaming.
After signalling for a while now that they were looking to step up their anime game, Netflix made good on its word and has been cranking out the good stuff all season. Impressively so, there’s even more on the way from their highly-publicized anime alliance. When you can find hits like Devilman Crybaby and Violet Evergarden offered alongside Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black, one can’t help but observe something interesting in the works. Until recently, “big streaming” (dedicated platforms like Funimation and Crunchyroll aside) has only made half-assed attempts at courting the anime demographic, but things appear to be changing. Even Amazon, which had formerly shuttered its Anime Strike streaming service, announced two new anime adaptations. It makes sense: young people are into anime, video games, and memes, and the people who look to make big money have finally taken notice and are starting to deliver the goods, like B: The Beginning.
A Netflix original developed by Production I.G (Psycho-Pass, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), B: The Beginning is a murder-mystery thriller that features two intertwining narratives. The police are trying to track down and thwart a secretive group of criminals responsible for inducing terror and perpetrating heists throughout Cremona. Returning to the life of criminal-profiler is Keith Flick, a genius-Sherlock type who helps unravel the grand scheme of “Market Maker”—the syndicate carrying out all the wild plots as various covers for other even more stupefying crimes. Under the guidance of Gilbert Ross, Minatsuki leads Market Maker on a supernatural crusade against Koku, in the hope of eliminating the competition and becoming the one true Black Wing King. The show inevitably ends with Koku vanquishing Minatsuki to save Lily, with Flick avenging his sister and finally putting an end to a mystery that had plagued his mind for years. It’s a little complex and convoluted, but aside from the pacing issues outlined by our hosts of The Goners podcast, the show is quite decent. And as the paths of Flick and Koku converge, and their narratives coalesce, an interesting pattern emerges: while the adults play God to survive, the children play Battle Royale.
Over the course of the season, Koku is forced into combat with members of Market Maker, killing them and acquiring their supernatural powers to further bolster his own. This is part of Minatsuki’s plan to lure Koku to a space in which he loses his advantage of regeneration in the hopes of killing the last remaining child-experiments, embodying all the power and becoming the one true Black Wing King. It’s not a bad strategy, and it’s one that’s especially reminiscent of Battle Royale: the best way to get a bunch of good loot really really fast is usually just to kill someone and take all of theirs. Koku, Minatsuki, and the other members of Market Maker are told that they are special; they play out a game that serves the ends of the psychotic and the neurotic, competing with each other in a zero sum game without even fully grasping it.
Then you have Gilbert Ross and Keith Flick, two men that are unable to separate themselves from the God complex—two adults that never stopped playing Battle Royale. Gilbert Ross murdered Flick’s sister, and proceeded for years to kill women that look like her. By manipulating the children of Market Maker into their own game of Battle Royale, Ross affords himself the chance to play out his God complex over and over again. His killing spree—the need to win—is all that suspends him. On the other hand, you have Keith Flick: determined to make the solve and finally win out. But in unraveling the mystery, Flick has to make a choice, and it’s one games like PUBG and Fortnite never force the player to make. Popular Battle Royale games feature a straightforward and unambiguous win condition: you win when all the others are dead. But when playing in teams, the game can end with two combatants still remaining. Flick and Ross represent the old guard playing out one long game, a game that has served as the animus for their very being and existence for years—two men with guns drawn in one final moment, the storm or the gas or whatever closing in fast—the urgency of the zero sum game that is Battle Royale. Flick is a detective at heart, whose job it is to make the solve and get the win, and he must choose between his morals and the game.
In the end Flick kills Ross, avenging his sister, solving the mystery, scoring the win, and putting an end to one very long game that has consumed both life and psyche. In a Joker-Batman climax, Ross forces Flick to go against his morals and kill him not because he wants to, but because he has to—because it’s in his nature. Because when the circle shrinks ever tighter, the winner is the one who pulls the trigger. Ross needs to keep killing and when he cannot, the game ends. Flick needs to keeping solving because if he does not, if he doesn’t feed that need, the game ends. Both men need the game because without it, without Market Maker and Battle Royale, they would be unable to exist. They need Koku and the other young champions to play, a game made easily accessible and given away for free on smart phones, so that they can continue to exist.
Somewhere out there Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon and de facto owner of Twitch, the world’s biggest stage for Battle Royale) is making millions every minute, while the rest of us watch Drake and Ninja play Fortnite. Of course, Fortnite is just a video game and B: The Beginning is just an anime. Like Ross, Jeff Bezos is just a man who happens to sustain himself by, amongst other revenue streams, staging Battle Royale—a game amusingly reminiscent of capitalism itself. Like Flick, Drake is just a man extending the run, grinding out the wins he needs to sustain his existence and relevancy. Like Koku, Ninja is just some guy with blue hair that’s really good at winning, the popular young champion of the world’s most dangerous game. The circle gets everyone in the end.