Monday, June 18, 2012

The American Battle Royale and the Japanese Hunger Games

Back in April, a few weeks after The Hunger Games was released, Jesse Hawthorne Ficks hosted the highly anticipated screening of Battle Royale as part of his Midnites for Maniacs series.  The Japanese themed triple-feature (officially subtitled "Growing Up Too Fast") included Lost in Translation and House.  I stayed for for Battle Royale and Lost in Translation, having seen House before.  The screenings were at the Castro.

Lost in Translation starring Bill Murray & Scarlett Johansson; directed by Sofia Coppola; English & Japanese with subtitles; (2003) - Official Website
Battle Royale starring Chiaki Kuriyama & Takeshi Kitano; directed by Kinji Fukasaku; Japanese with subtitles; (2000)

Never having seen a Sofia Coppola film (although I have heard much about Marie Antoinette), I was anxious to see her most celebrated film.  Lost in Translation won an Oscar in 2004 for Best Original Screenplay and was nominated for Best Picture; Coppola was nominated for Best Director and Murray for Best Actor.

Lost in Translation has the look and feel of a Jim Jarmusch film which is shorthand for saying the film has a minimalist and contemplative tone.  Two years after Lost in Translation, Murray would essentially duplicate his performance in Jarmusch's Broken Flowers.

Murray plays Bob Harris, an American movie star in Japan to film a Suntory Whiskey commercial.  Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, the wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) on assignment in Japan. Both are staying at a luxury Tokyo hotel.  When Charlotte's husband takes a short assignment outside Tokyo, Charlotte is left to herself for several days.  Bob & Charlotte quickly strike up a friendship.  Initially based on their shared nationality, Lost in Translation veers towards a May-December romance but never quite gets there.  Disoriented in a foreign culture, the two cling to each other emotionally but they have issues (large and small) which impede the romance.

Part romance/part comedy/part drama, Coppola does her best Jarmusch impersonation.  In fact, I think her screenplay is better than any Jarmusch film I've seen.  Bill Murray shines as the soft-spoken Harris.  Murray infuses his character with poignancy and coaxes relatively subtle humor from his fish-out-of water circumstances.


If I had only seen Lost in Translation that evening, I would have considered the night to be supremely satisfying.  However, Lost in Translation was only the first course.  "Growing Up Too Fast" is too encompassing to be of much thematic guide.  The character arc of Scarlett Johansson's Charlotte is about as far away from Chiaki Kuriyama's character in Battle Royale as can be.  Kuriyama, best known as Gogo from Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1, filmed Battle Royale three years earlier.

Ficks referred to Battle Royale as the Japanese Hunger Games but noted that author Suzanne Collins claimed she had not seen Battle Royale prior to writing The Hunger Games. There are similarities though. Battle Royale is set in a future where societal order has broken down.  Adolescents are out of control (it's a variation of the old JD exploitation films).  Each year, the worst behaved class is chosen for Battle Royale which is a televised fight-to-the-death match.  The students are pitted against each other and must kill to survive.  They have collars which will explode if there are more than one person alive on the small island where the competition takes place.  Each student is given a bag with unknown contents.  The contents may be weapons, surveillance equipment or a pot lid.  To spice things up, they throw in a a few ringers - winners from past Battles Royale.  Sounds vaguely familiar, doesn't it?

Battle Royale has a few wrinkles which set it apart from The Hunger Games. Since most of the contestants have gone to school together, they bring long-established alliances and rivalries to the battle. Battle Royale focuses on human nature and the breakdown of civilized behavior as one confronts a kill-or-be-killed situation. The Hunger Games seemed to focus on larger issues of totalitarianism and the subjugation of people. The simple analogy I would make is Battle Royale:Lord of the Flies :: The Hunger Games:1984.

Battle Royale is extremely graphic and would likely earn a R rating in the US.  More gleeful in depicting the carnage, Battle Royale seems to owe much to J-Horror black comedies.  It doesn't seem to inspire to more than what is shown on the screen; whereas The Hunger Games has higher aspirations.

As they might say in the UK, Battle Royale was a bloody good time.  The standout scenes was a sequence where five or six girls have holed up in a lighthouse.  They turn on each other but not before touching on every stereotypical feeling of teenage angst and frustration.


It was my intention to see The Hunger Games quickly after Battle Royale to make a comparison. Film festivals got in the way and The Hunger Games' continued box office success enabled my procrastination.  I didn't see The Hunger Games until nearly two months after seeing Battle Royale.

The Hunger Games starring Jennifer Lawrence & Josh Hutcherson; with Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland & Elizabeth Banks; directed by Gary Ross; (2012) - Official Website

I saw The Hunger Games at the Century Tanforan.  It was my first time in that theater.  The theater looks like any other Century venue with the familiar murals.  The Tanforan had some interesting old-time movie poster in the main corridor to set it apart slightly.  During the previews, they advertised a bunch of classic films screened digitally at Century Theaters including Citizen Kane.

Jennifer Lawrence looked nothing like her Winter's Bone character.  I wasn't quite sure how I felt about her taking the lead role in The Hunger Games.  I was very impressed with her performance in Winter's Bone.  Lawrence shows quite a bit of range from Ree Doll to Katniss Everdeen.  The Hunger Games is about as good as you can expect from a big budget Hollywood film.  I'm a little surprised when I hear about schools organizing trips to screenings of the film but have to admit that the film offers many teaching opportunities for young people.  I wonder how many kids (and parents) recognize the universal themes in the film and how many were fascinated by the gladiatorial aspects.

Not quite living up to the hype, I read the novel after seeing the film and as usual, preferred the novel.  Told solely from the perspective of Katniss, the novel offers an intimacy of Katniss which is diluted in the film (which presents a multi-perspective).  Katniss has a vulnerability and at the same time, a strength of character which is revealed through her inner thoughts.  This is lacking in the film which focuses more on the decadence of the Capitol and the barely concealed socio-economic commentary.

Did I prefer Battle Royale to The Hunger Games?  I can't answer that because the two films were different enough to appeal to different people or in my case, different moods.  Both were well made and entertaining films.  If forced to choose, I'd recommend seeing Battle Royale and reading The Hunger Games.  Then again, I hear there is a manga version of Battle Royale...

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