Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Foreign v. Hollywood: Battle Royale & The Hunger Games

Now that I think on it, the title might be a little misleading. I am not comparing the films based upon their silver screen origins but their content.

Given the many parallels with Suzanne CollinsHunger Games Trilogy, Catching Fire currently playing in cinemas across the US, and my own familiarity with the the novels and films, I thought it pertinent to talk a bit about Kinji Fukasaku's film adaptation of Koushun Takami's original Battle Royale. The story was also turned into two manga series, but since I haven't actually read them myself I cannot really comment. Same goes for the sequel film, BRII: Requiem, which I have yet to watch (you might think that I would have in preparation for this post, but nope). Anyway, Rachelle recommended the book to me a few semesters ago and I viewed the film shortly thereafter. Both the written and cinematic versions are excellent, but should they really be compared to The Hunger Games? Read on for my theory...

Not rated in the US, among other countries. T'is violent, though.
The general idea behind BR wasn't new when the novel was first published. A batch of "There can be only one" arena-style movies came out in the seventies, including Rollerball, Death Race 2000, Logan's Run, and Deathsport. The '80s gave us Highlander and The Running Man, and even after BR came out in the '90s, films like House of 9 and The Tournament continued to crop up in cinemas. Why is it, then, that BR is most often compared to The Hunger Games? I hypothesize that it is in part due to the HG series doing rather well in the eyes of audiences and across the Internet, but also because it simply has more in common with BR than just the idea of a fight-to-the-death match.

Motifs between the two stories are very similar: using children as contestants, the fact that there is a one-girl/one-boy selection for entering the 'game', the events are televised, winners receive government-funded pensions, and the tracking collars in BR serve the same purpose as the surveillance technology located throughout the arena in HG. In both stories, the deaths of contestants are announced to the survivors, and even the distribution of weapons is comparable given that the Cornucopia in HG is a lot like the Okishima Island school in BR. There is also the important detail that some participants actually enjoy the battle, like the antagonistic Career Tributes, insane Mitsuko, and unfeeling Kazuo. The romance-y bits between the main protagonists in the first HG film and in BR can also be set side by side, though the chemistry between Shuya and Noriko is clearly more genuine given that Katniss only tries to gain sympathy from the audience when she snogs baker-boy. (Not that I begrudge that particular plot point: Katniss was trying to do whatever it took to make it out alive for the sake of her younger sister, Primrose). Most importantly, both fights are generally used to keep society in line through authoritarian power and fear tactics. Similar alternate timeline/futuristic post-war settings go unsaid. The final comparison I will make here is that of President Snow and Kinpatsu or Kitano in the BR novel and film, respectively. Since this is officially a film blog, I speak of Kitano when I say that he is a more redeemable antagonist than Snow (watch the movies to find out why!), but both are downright villainous creatures who subject children to abominable acts of violence.

Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material.
Concerning differences...the HG series uses a reaping/lottery as opposed to the flat-out abduction in BR; the battle is said to be used for 'research purposes', but the game is an act of punishment for previous war crimes against the Capitol of Panem; BR sees fit to use 'forbidden zones' and exploding collars to enforce the rule that if no contestant is killed within 24 hours, all collars blow up and there is no 'winner'. This means that BR is far more unforgiving than HG in that there is no real way to win. Collins creates a bit of a deus ex machina by letting both Katniss and Peta live after their show involving poisonous nightlock berries, though of course she needed them the live for the two sequels and uprising against the Capitol. BR is also a shit ton more violent. The killing is present in both, but HG is more discreet—Cato's death by wolf mutts is about as gory as things get—as that is not really the focus of Collins' story.

On a completely separate note, books written by Eastern authors with issues concerning Japan's warlike history tend to include Western pop culture references [Murakami much?]. Takami used American music in his novel to create a sense of individualism in the face of the Republic of Greater East Asia and a regimented government. Japanese writings also tend to have more static, difficult to distinguish characters which Takami has described in his own work as being "all the same". Perhaps that makes their deaths easier to swallow despite the fact that we as readers actually experience each contestant's murder through their own eyes as opposed to just Katniss' POV. Collins obviously lends the HG series a lot more character development, and that is a rather pivotal difference between the two works.

Image taken from Taste of Cinema, which is actually kind of a tawdry news site...
but the image was cool.

How do you think the novels/films compare? Do you prefer one story over the other? Is the controversy justified? Were there too many spoilers in this post? Let me know in the comments below. :P

Monday, December 9, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

No criteria for this post. Free for all!

The class watched the 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild by Benh Zeitlin this past Saturday. The plot focuses on a young girl named Hushpuppy (played by a very young Quvenzhané Wallis) and how her life in the Louisiana bayou is upset by Hurricane Katrina, her father's declining health, and an absentee mother. Since we were not actually assigned anything with this film, I just wanted to go over some of the Greek mythology embedded in the story...'cause I love history, and mythology is one of my specialties. I would delve into Biblical references as well, but the semester's technically over and I'm not too enthusiastic when it comes to Ye Olde Good Book. Anyway, I thought that the film's connections to magical realism and the idea of Universalism would be interesting things to discuss.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment,
some disturbing images, language, and brief sensuality.

Let's start with the storm itself. In mythos, Charybdis and Scylla are sea monsters, acting kind of as the personification of two whirlpools. I realize that a hurricane is an atmospheric storm whilst a whirlpool is a vortex in a body of water, but that's just semantics. Both are devastating and tend to involve a lot of flooding (grant it, hurricanes are much larger). Anyway, Charybdis and Scylla rested opposite one another in the narrow channel known as the Strait of Messina. Both 'creatures' acted together so that, if a vessel were to sail away from one, it was sure to be taken by the other. The origins of each whirlpool alter depending on the myth, but in every story they are dangerous. Charybdis was featured in Homer's The Odyssey, the story of Jason and the Argonauts, and Aristotle's Meteorologica. Scylla makes her own appearance in Ovid's Metamorphoses as well as Keats' Endymion. The two are so prevalent in Greek history that the phrase "to choose between Scylla and Charybdis" means being forced to choose between two extreme dangers (like a rock and a hard place, capiche?). In Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy does not choose to go head to head with Hurricane Katrina...quite unlike the sailors in the old epics who had to risk drowning in order to continue on their journey. It is noteworthy that Hushpuppy only survives the onslaught of the storm because of Wink's fishing boat, though. The Bathtub disappears beneath the waters and soon everything starts to die because of the sea's salt.

Hushpuppy, adrift.

We move swiftly along  to the Elysium Fields. To the Ancient Greeks, this was a concept of the afterlife maintained in certain philosophical and religious sects. Keep in mind that the main mode of thought was that the underground realm of Hades was the end game. The Fields were one of the more heavenly sections of Erebus, granting entrance initially only to those related to the gods but later to the gods' favourites, such as the righteous or the heroic. After death, these mortals would enjoy a continued life surrounded by indulgences (much like Valhalla in Norse mythology). There were also the Asphodel Meadows for normal folk and Tartarus for the wicked. In the film, Hushpuppy and her young friends leave the Bathtub and are granted passage by the captain of the 'Grumpy' to the floating brothel named 'Elysian' Fields—derived from the Greek, this is simply another name for the same afterlife. In literature, Charon is the ferryman: one could draw a connection between the fast-food wrappers "reminding [Grumpy's captain] where [he's] been" to the coin (an obolus or possibly a danake) paid to Charon for passage across the rivers Styx & Acheron. In a different light, Hushpuppy and the other children are parallels of Odysseus and his crew travelling to one of the many fabled islands mentioned in The Odyssey.

The children are greeted by maternal figures and offered sanctuary, as if resting within the eye of the storm. There is some conjecture as to whether the brothel is real or just a figment of Hushpuppy's imagination, possibly brought on by the natural desire for her own mother. Either way, it was a welcome form of relief after the initial hit to/uprooting from/eventual dismal return to the Bathtub. Know that the Greek 'Elysium Fields' was an evolving theory. It was not around at all during Homer's time, meaning that people did not much like the idea of being confined to just Hades and decided to change the surrounding myth to something a little...cushier. The idea that one could earn a happier afterlife lends some realism to the film, too. In a story about a devastating natural disaster, hope is a much-needed, reinforced belief.

The 'brothel' at the end of the world (The Isles of the Blessed in Elysium).

The most obvious bit of myth that appear in the film are the aurochs. Introduced by Hushpuppy's teacher as fearsome beasts that devoured humankind right up until the ice age, these creatures actually did exist...although they did not exactly have a taste for human blood. Aurochs died out in the 17th century, which makes me think that the teacher combined their tale with that of the prehistoric mammoths. They are a domesticated ancestor of modern-day cattle, making them a bit less fierce than Hushpuppy might imagine, though their horns were massive.

I bring up these guys because of the Minotaur, directly translated as 'Bull of Minos'. The Minotaur, whose actual name was Asterius (meaning 'Of the Stars'—see the constellation Taurus in astrology), was a gift to Minos from Poseidon to mark the King's divine right to rule. The God of the Sea sent up a bull from the depths of the ocean (*cough* the aurochs in the glaciers), but he wanted Minos to immediately sacrifice the bull as thanks. Minos decided not to, of course, so Poseidon punished the king's wife, Pasiphaë, by having her fall in love with the bull. Bestiality occurred, and soon after she gave birth to their son: Asterius. The half-bull/half-man was mental as a box of badgers because of his mixed lineage, so Minos had the inventor Daedalus design a labyrinth in which to hide/imprison the beast. Eventually, he is killed by Theseus with the help of Minos' daughter, Ariadne.

The aurochs in the film, while portrayed by costumed pigs, more closely resemble Asterius' father, the bull. However, there are not a lot of direct connections between that fable and Beasts of the Southern Wild apart from the importance and symbolism of the bull in Greek society. Bulls often represent rage and stubbornness as well as typical manliness/macho behaviour. Notice the similarity between those demeanours and Hushpuppy & Wink's personality traits? When Wink 'sees' his daughter stare down the auroch, he knows that she has become King of the Bathtub which signifies that he can safely move on and know that she will be safe.

Pig disguised (and re-sized) as an auroch. D'aaaw.

Most of what I used in this post concerning specific Greek myths came from National Geographic's Essential Visual History of World Mythology and Parragon's Encyclopedia of World Mythology, among other texts. These are good guides if you are just getting started with global mythology and symbolism, so I recommend them for interested amateurs (comme moi).

A classic hero's journey if ever I've seen one.

For further information: