Yoshiki Tonogai has returned to torture teens once more in this judicial follow-up to Doubt. Previously, Tonogai’s victims were united by their interest in a mobile phone game called Rabbit Doubt. Their love of the game inevitably doomed them to participate in a real life version, created by a young girl who harbored an intense grudge against society. In JUDGE, the conflict plays out in a similar manner, but the nature of the game has changed. Doubt’s sequel is considerably more sinister, as its victims have been selected for crimes they’ve committed, each reflecting one of the seven deadly sins. Even with new tricks up its sleeve, the premise of JUDGE and the conflicts between its characters are so similar to Doubt that it won’t make much of a splash for returning readers. Furthermore, because both stories are so formulaic and similar in tone, the same issues I had with Doubt have bubbled to the surface in JUDGE.
The leading man in this psychological nightmare is Hiro. The third wheel in a love triangle involving his brother and a childhood crush, Hiro’s jealousy leads him to alter the timing of his brother’s scheduled rendezvous with the woman he loves. In a cruel twist of fate, Hiro’s brother is killed in a traffic accident that wouldn’t have happened if Hiro hadn’t interfered. The scene shifts to Hiro as he wakes up in a dark, labyrinthine courtroom and finds that a rabbit mask has been placed over his head. Exploring his surroundings, he meets other people wearing animal masks and huddled around a corpse. Before proper introductions can be made, the victims are introduced to the game of Judge. At the top of every hour, the nine players must select one person to be punished (i.e., murdered) for their crimes until four people are left. To encourage participation, if one of the victims abstains from voting, the entire group will be killed—and if there’s a tie, the pair must fight to the death.
JUDGE is very much Hiro’s story, as the reader experiences the game through his eyes. Rather than participating in this deadly recreation of Survivor, he is more inclined to find a way to cheat the system until help can arrive. The problem is that Hiro isn’t very good at winning people to his cause, especially against a faction that has quickly formed between the most cunning and dangerous members of the group. The danger faced by Hiro and his new friends is greater than anything in Rabbit Doubt, for there are far more variables to play against in this new game. For example, in the third volume, a perceived alliance with the splinter group turns to sorrow as the trio manipulates the vote by rearranging the profiles on each player’s voting board. With people dying all around him, Hiro doesn’t know who to trust, especially when the Executioner—the mastermind of the game—is hidden among them.
JUDGE is clearly built on the foundations of Doubt. The seven deadly sins angle plays out much better in this scenario than Doubt’s bizarre twist, which casts the game’s mastermind as a TV personality with hypnotic powers—though I admit that I am tempering my expectations. I would level the same complaints against JUDGE as I did for Doubt. While Hiro’s constant musing and circular interpretations may be appropriate for his situation, it doesn’t take long for them to grow tedious and overly dramatic. Once again, Tonogai slows the pace to a near crawl in an attempt to establish a creepy, mysterious atmosphere. Constant shots of darkened hallways and locked chambers stall the momentum of the story and threaten to overwhelm it altogether. It should be noted, however, that these problems could be the result of binge reading. If I had to wait a substantial period of time before reading the next volume, it’s likely that I would not have minded these frequent callbacks to particular imagery.
Death is a driving force in JUDGE, and being surrounded by it puts the characters in an increasingly desperate situation. Hiro wants to play the hero—undoubtedly as a means to repent for his own sin—but after two murders, he is forced to be pragmatic and play the game. Judging one another is a difficult prospect for the characters in spite of their dubious pasts. The characters’ back stories, revealed over the course of the story, identify why each of them have been trapped in the dungeon. Be it the “crime” of homosexuality or a spurned son who wishes to destroy his father’s financial empire, these stories are designed to secure the motives for characters’ actions and generate sympathy for them.
Unfortunately, the philosophy behind the game doesn’t quite mesh with its actual proceedings. The group’s unseen tormentor orders the victims to judge each other based on their past crimes; at no point, however, do the characters discuss who has committed the worst sin. For instance, the game’s second victim seems to die for his behavior against the group, not for the fact that he brutally murdered his mother. The story’s primary conceit is barely there, and instead, the game seems to encourage the survival of the fittest. In one scene, Hiro’s allies debate whether they should vote to kill the men first because the remaining woman would be easier to “overpower” should physical violence break out. JUDGE would be a better read if it actually adhered to its original concept.
Readers who enjoyed Tonogai’s Doubt will be interested in this sequel and its new game of psychological torture. However, JUDGE has the same look and feel of Tonogai’s previous work, and as such, there’s nothing too fascinating here. On the other hand, one doesn’t need to have read Doubt to understand and follow JUDGE. Its characters are far more mysterious and their interpersonal drama drives the story forward. As familiar as the work may seem when compared to its predecessor, I am still intrigued to see how the story resolves.
Just please, no more homicidal hypnotists.
JUDGE, vols. 1-4
by Yoshiki Tonogai
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9780316252669
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9780316240321
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9780316240338
Vol. 4 ISBN: 9780316240345
Yen Press, 2013-2014
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)