The NPR piece on the film versions of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale aired yesterday. It’s available online, as we speak, here. I’ll be posting a more full-on follow-up later, but wanted to post a few thoughts. It was a really fun 45-minute conversation with Neda Ulaby, and the timing of a short radio feature didn’t have room for some contexts we might see the film in. And, just as important, some contexts through which we might see the 1999 book that inspired it.
For starters, here is the trailer for the 2003 Japanese film, with the inspired casting of comedian/actor/director Beat Takeshi as the dazzling and sinister teacher. I’ll say straight out that I don’t think The Hunger Games is a ripoff of Battle Royale (BR), the film. It actually bears much more resemblance to the novel, which stresses consumer culture (the market value of retro-artifacts like Keds tennis shoes) and living in the malaise of a declining empire. BR is set in a fictional place, the Republic of Greater East Asia, whose name is strongly reminiscent of the pre-war Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. This riffing on Japan’s rise and fall as an empire could be likened to how US journalists and writers have used the Roman empire to understand the economic and military battles of contemporary America. Rome, of course, is the classical point of reference for The Hunger Games; it is set in Panem, after all, a hat-tip to the legendary practice of bread and circuses. But even then, I think The Hunger Games‘ similarities are much more rooted in the way that the plots, crossings, images and tropes of myth and genre fiction have become familiar as story-telling rules and structures to people watching movies (and reading comics, and genre fiction, and playing video games…) since Joseph Campbell met George Lucas in the Star Wars saga.
I want to note 3 things from the trailer:
BR is not about reality TV like The Hunger Games is. You’ll note that the trailer focuses on the teacher figure. It is about living in a military-electronic surveillance culture whose audience is highly restricted to certain high-ups of the military who work in concert with the teacher, played by Beat Takeshi. Given that Takeshi usually plays gangsters of a very violent bent, we know it does not bode well for his young charges to see him standing in front of the classroom. In BR, there is very little sense of mugging for the camera in the way that The Hunger Games‘ Katniss is hyper-aware of manipulating her image–say, how her actions might lead to gifts bestowed on her by viewers who want to reward her virtue. Nor are there visually lush setpiece stunner scenes like the ones that feature Katniss’ growing awareness of herself as a performer through fashion. These are especially showy and film-ready in a sequence of performance art creations crafted by the fashion designer Cinna. These amalgams of the “am-I-a-floral-or-a-woodsy?” kind of self-awareness come partly from the playbook of teen magazines. And partly from the performance interludes of contemporary reality TV.
BR‘s characters shun the radar. They are kept under constant surveillance by the dog-collar-like chokers around their necks that they can’t remove–unless they want to be blown to smithereens. There is no feedback loop of pop audience enthusiasm whose input or caprice might determine their future. That caprice is channeled through the whims of Takeshi as sinister and casually rage-filled teacher, the standin for state authority (and all its out-of-it sloppiness…he is wearing a grotty track suit and can barely manage to work a cell phone to maintain a wreck of a relationship with his own teenage daughter). Reality TV in The Hunger Games enables the toggling between home and island, a “‘meanwhile’…back in the District” way of keeping family and home just out of reach. This toggling is not central to the BR story.
the novel, and later film, BR is very aware of its literary roots. Some key works here are the island sci-fi fictions of Jules Verne and the totalitarian stories of George Orwell. My friend/former colleague Tom Lamarre reminded me that Jules Verne was massively popular in Japan, and that his adventure story Deux ans de vacances (Two Years of Vacation, 1888), set on an island in the South Pacific, has inspired a number of anime. Shimmering from the pirate crate of stories that have been distributed through the global translation market since the 1800s, there is also an entire genre called the Robinsonade, after Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel of life on a deserted island after a shipwreck. A wonderful site devoted to these Robinsonades at the University of Florida’s children’s lit collection defines them as follows:
In the archetypical Robinsonade, the protagonist is suddenly isolated from the comforts of civilization, usually shipwrecked or marooned on a secluded and uninhabited island. He must improvise the means of his survival from the limited resources at hand. The protagonist survives by his wits and the qualities of his cultural upbringing, which also enable him to prevail in conflicts with fellow castaways or over local peoples he may encounter. Some of the titles here may appear more tangentially related; for instance, collections of stories that include Robinsonades...Later works expanded on and explored this mythology. Though Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is set within tropical environs, several of the Robinsonades collected here tell the Crusoe story in settings as different as the Arctic, the American west, and other global locations.
Obviously the Crusoe/Friday racial hierarchy is a little difficult to support these days. But the Robinsonade’s questions about collaboration, doubt and belief in other human beings, use of technology and tinkering to engage with the island terrain and make it one’s own territory…these all remain in both Japanese and English-language story-telling repertoires. Another difference in how earlier genre conventions like the Robinsonade were interpreted is that all the examples that BR draws on–and we could also throw in Lord of the Flies, among others–are thoroughly modern and have multiple iterations in Japanese anime and pop culture. These roots are somewhat different than the agrarian and Gaia-tinged mythic structure that filters through The Hunger Games. The invented language for people and rituals found in The Hunger Games recalls goddesses and fertility (Cornucopia, the Reaping) as well as the hunting-and-gathering survival stories of early American captivity narratives, and the post-apocalyptic eco-landscapes of someone like Margaret Atwood. It is not the electronic screen- and cable-based imaginary whose interfaces feature so strongly in the form of both the novel and film versions of BR–with its embedded infomercials, legal proclamations, intertitles and chapter breakdowns like the different levels of a video game.
and finally, the Bonnie and Clyde nature of the love story in both BR and The Hunger Games is different. Both end with a possibly doomed violent and youthful couple on the lam. Both couples are part of serial structures, to be continued. Both have female characters that are as technically capable and proficient at the arts of war as the male characters. This parity is not celebrated as a great stride in feminism in either work. But the gender/sexual politics are complicated and play out differently in BR and The Hunger Games. Unlike the heroic sacrificing parents and elder siblings of The Hunger Games (think of Katniss and her sister, and Rue), there are very few adults in BR. The few who appear are all wildly inappropriate and corrupt as role models: one father commits suicide, one teacher in a cameo role is buddy-buddy with the students purely in the service of his own ego; and Takeshi, the lead teacher, not only chaperones this whole undertaking, but escapes its grueling awfulness through fantasies of walking on the beach eating popsicles with the “good girl” who survives the film. The subject of adult corruption deserves a blog post of its own, given the weird scrutiny on youth crime in late 1990s Japan. Long story short, BR‘s characters are truly launched into a great unknown when they end in the consumer neighborhood of Umeda, in Osaka; we’re left pretty sure the story is anti-war, and anti-empire, but not so sure it’s pro-peace. Whereas there is something very pastoral about The Hunger Games‘ longing to get it all over with, go back to the domestic scene, reunite, make your peace with things and memories, and sort things out from a usable past…which of course crescendoes to a revolution that might unhinge the whole domestic project. So, to be continued…