I watched this gleefully, expecting trash. I wasn't disappointed. This show is the kind of bad that gets everyone wondering how this grim death-filled gorefest turned into an unintentional comedy. That said, I think the basic premise is workable and there are some good stretches. If you forget all the show's earlier missteps and concentrate on what's in front of you, it's possible to find strong emotional material.
Unfortunately the execution keeps bringing it down. The repeated failures of tone are hysterical, while the stupid bits are the most memorable scenes.
IN REAL LIFE: the King's Game is a real thing. Everyone draws lots to see who's going to be the King, after which the winner can give any order and it must be obeyed. It might be that you're not allowed to name names and so the people who'll obey any given order are randomly chosen too, but I don't know if that's just a variant or a normal part of the game.
IN THIS ANIME: you can't choose the King. You just keep receiving messages on your phone, which you must obey or die. This will continue until there's a single winner, or until everyone's dead. Example orders include: "A will have sex with B", "send a death order to two other people", "do nothing unnecessary" (with no indication of what's meant by 'unnecessary') or perhaps play a punishment game that involves breaking or cutting off your own fingers.
That's a workable premise, I think. I could believe in it! There are deathmatch anime that I struggle to get into because the deathmatch itself seems too silly or arbitrary. Juuni Taisen: Zodiac War made me wonder why anyone would bother participating. Magical Girl Raising Project never had to happen and was just SPOILER being evil for no good reason. Here, though, the King's staying offscreen and the focus is all on the victims and their situation. I can buy that. The death jogging in ep.11, for instance, can be good. I could believe in SPOILER's self-sacrifice, for instance. Teenagers are being forced to choose who lives and who dies, with the game's arbitrary, sometimes impenetrable rules just making their decisions more painful.
There's a 2011 live-action film version, incidentally, which I'm planning to watch.
Unfortunately the show's full of bad decisions, ineptly executed moments and bits so stupid that I can only think the staff had stopped caring.
1. A girl holds a casual-sounding conversation, works on her computer and shows no pain... while burning to death. I'm pretty sure you'd normally be distracted by that. You'd say "ouch". This lasts for 1 minute 40 seconds, while for luck all her clothes disappear except her (fireproof?) underwear.
2. We're actually watching two King's Games. They adapted two of the original novels at once. (Why?) We start by leading into the second game and then seeing the first one in flashback, but by that point we know who lived and who died in the first one. Both games involve a class of thirty high school students. This double-adaptation thus raises the total number of deaths from thirty to sixty and yet we're expected to care about all these disposable characters as they die, hammily, one by one. This could have been confusing even if the two games' scenes weren't being interleaved (which they are), sometimes with near-identical orders in both games. Game #1, ep.2: "Tazaki Daisuke and Nakajima Misaki will hook up." Game #2, ep.1: "Nagata Teruaki and Honda Natsuko will hook up."
3. The King has supernatural powers, is omniscient and can't be outsmarted. You can't disobey him and you can't fight back, because there's no one to fight. All you've got is text messages on your phone and he'll kill you if you turn it off, throw it away or don't read the messages. In short, our heroes have no options and are simply waiting for death, with the only variable being the order of whether you die now or later. They all want to be the last survivor, of course, but that's only a three per cent chance even if the King doesn't then just start another game. We're watching cattle on an abattoir conveyor belt, basically.
4. The (ridiculous) explanation of the King's Game comes from nowhere with no justification. We're also told that one of these teenagers has written an anti-virus program to exploit a hypothetical bug in an inaccessible, magical computer program.
5. Character decisions will often be too abrupt and/or unbelievable, e.g. SPOILER not breaking any fingers in ep.9. That felt out-of-character to me. It would have been perfectly possible to sell that beat, but the anime doesn't make enough effort. Similarly, in ep.2, a jealous boyfriend ordering another boy's death out of vindictiveness causes no reaction at all from the girlfriend. She doesn't even, say, dump him. Okay, yes, there will be guilt in the mix there, but the shows seems to have either forgotten about or decided not to bother with the possibility of the girl having an opinion on all this.
6. SPOILER's characterisation is problematic. The revelations at the end contradict earlier episodes (e.g. explicitly trying to get whatsisname killed), while the earlier volte-face into Total Evil Bitch had been so hammy and overdone that it just made the rest of the class look like idiots for not believing her instead of, say, murdering her. That said, though, she's having so much fun with it that she's arguably one of the show's saving graces. (That's assuming you're not expecting the show to be good and are instead trash-watching for laughs.)
7. I could be wrong, but someone seems to teleport in ep.7. More precisely they learn about A's death (in a completely different place), go insane, find out where B is (in a second completely different place), go all the way there and knock him unconscious. I got the impression that all this had happened a bit too suddenly.
8. The sensitive nice-guy protagonist who keeps selflessly trying to save everyone is unforgivable and deserves to die. Well, in my opinion. Watch ep.11 and tell me I'm wrong.
9. The ending is like a big middle finger to the audience. I'd be more supportive of that in a better show.
10. Where did the chainsaw come from? It's the top of a mountain!
That said, though, let's discuss what the show does well. In short, it's super-watchable. It has the good sense to completely abandon taste, although admittedly that's part of its failure with tone. The King seems way too interested in giving juvenile, sexual orders to high school students. If a boy commits suicide, we might get a close-up of him having wet himself too. If a girl has to be groped by a particular boy, she won't let death get in the way.
In short, it's sleazy as hell... and yet it's also not. There's almost no nudity, in a show that gives the impression of embracing excess.
Then there's the gore comedy. On most levels, this is clearly a failure. Serious, emotional scenes are liable to get ruined by, say, a ridiculous magical decapitation that suddenly turns the show into splatter comedy. The bathos is show-killing. Ep.11 was badly damaged, I think. However if you're watching it as a comedy from the beginning, the best of these gore gags are genius. The first dice challenge death is HYSTERICAL. Can't kill her dog BWAHAHAHAHAHA.
I enjoyed this show. I charged through it pretty fast and I certainly wasn't bored. I'm quite looking forward to the 2011 live-action film. Some of its scenes and emotional decisions are genuinely strong, if you can forget everything else. Exploring that village is quite good, for instance. However the show's just as likely to be garbage. Recommended to anyone who likes the sound of that.