The novel "Battle Royale" is an incredibly well-done character-driven survival story. Of course I wanted to read the manga!
(A quick note: "Battle Royale" is one of those stories which is difficult to review without spoiling. Spoilers will be marked, though.)
Story: In the Republic of Greater East Asia, there is a reality TV show called "The Program." On it, students fight to the death. Nanahara Shuya is a popular, rock-and-roll-loving student. One day, instead of having a class trip, his classmates and he learn that they are the newest participants in the "BR Project:" They have to kill each other on an odd island until only one stands. Thus ensues a violent and gory exploration of the human mind.
There ARE some differences from the novel (and movie, I suppose [EDIT: Now that I have seen the movie, I can safely say that there are A LOT of differences]), but this is still the same kickass storyline. However, this is not a plot-driven story, so the story ends up taking a back seat to the character aspect. This is not a bad thing, though.
(Note: The translation is a little iffy. It sounds very Americanized.)
Art: Taguchi Masayuki draws some questionable character designs. The more likable or sympathetic characters look nice, while the slimy or weird characters look like deformed chibi bobbleheads. Kamon Yonemi (his name changed from the novel) looks like he was drawn by Arcimboldo.
This isn't THAT bad, really. But in can get a little jarring. For example, Mimura Shinji and Seto Yutaka are seen with each other often. Yutaka looks like a short bobblehead chibi with mountain-like hair and down-turned eyes. Shinji looks like an Abercrombie® model (and has an uncanny resemblance to Nobu from "Nana"). Put them in the same panel and the effect is almost laughable. On the bright side, no two characters look alike.
Backgrounds are pretty and detailed, but the effects are unintentionally hilarious--the characters seem to be having a contest to see who can look the most faaaaaabulous, what with the starry eyes, flower petals, twinkling night skies as backgrounds, and bucketfuls of tears. It's like "Battle Royale" is trying to pull an "OHSHC" and parody shoujo tropes... except that it's not a parody. It detracts from the gritty feel of the manga.
Guns look realistic, and gore is over-the-top and little is left to the imagination. There are some panty- and bra shots, so if you don't like ecchi, don't read. Nudity (there is a lot of it) is, well, idealized. Don't expect any censoring in that respect. There is quite a bit of sex, and it's almost bordering on hentai. Which brings me to my next point: How do young girls get breasts of these sizes?!
Characters: (SPOILERS IN THE ENTIRE SECTION!) Finally! Development, backstories and variation! However, it was better in the novel.
If you want a picture of all of them, it's going to have to be of the live-action movie. And that kind of defeats the purpose.
Nanahara Shuya: In the novel, he loves Bruce Springsteen. In the manga, he loves rock in general. The hero of the story, he doesn't want to kill and wants to save everyone, especially Noriko. He's a rather typical hero, but he's well-rounded, so it's okay.
Nakagawa Noriko: Physically weak but mentally strong, Noriko wants to kill even less than Shuya. She's kind and undergoes development, which makes her likable. I would love to have her as a friend.
Kawada Shogo: The older transfer student, he's the winner of a past game. He ends up saving Shuya and Noriko on numerous occasions, and he has a heart of gold. He has a nice backstory and his thinking is properly explained.
Kiriyama Kazuo: My love for him is bordering on obsessive, but I digress. The main villian of the series, he's a cold-hearted killer and has, by far, the highest body count of anyone else in his class. However, his backstory allows the viewer to build sympathy for him, and it is very well done. It's a little different from that of the manga, but is excellent nonetheless. I actually cried during his death scene. And yes, he probably should have won. <3
Mimura Shinji: My second-favorite character, genius hacker Shinji is a contender for winner through much of the game. He's pretty damn unlucky, but has an awesome showdown with Kazuo, both of whom can probably live through having a nuclear bomb dropped near them. I thought duct tape was useful. Since reading this, I have learned that duct tape can do ANYTHING. (Just read it to find out exactly how Shinji uses it.)
Seto Yutaka: In the novel, I viewed him as clumsy weakling, but he evolves into a douche in the manga. Useless cannot even begin to describe him.
Sugimura Hiroki: The loving martial artist of the story. He spends the game looking for his two girl friends. (Not girlfriends. Girl friends.) He's a very trusting person, but his supah mega powaz of DOOOOOOM kind of annoyed me. (In the novel, no energy could be emitted and used against your opponent.)
I couldn't help it.
In the manga, she is little more than a whore for most of the series (in the novel, it's better). She even goes as far as to rape a dying boy and strip for Kazuo and say he can rape her (he was going to kill her. Don't worry, he didn't care that she stripped. But, I will say, the end of their fight was moving). Only a few moments, such as drawing her as a ripped and beaten stuffed doll show that she is more than a pair of breasts.
Kamon Yonemi: He's sadistic and evil (and perverted), but he is the personification of the government, if you want to view this as an allegory (I think the original novel is, at least).
If I mention everyone else, I'm going to go insane. However, it's a varied cast, so you'd want to read it. (END SPOILERS HERE!)
Overall: Sure, it's entertaining as hell, but it's not the best manga EVAR. The original novel is better in most respects (and more entertaining), but this is fun. Not for children, certainly, but fun.
EXTRA EDIT: It's better than the movie.