Thursday, May 9, 2013

Battle Royale VS The Hunger Games

Battle Royale: Amazon InstantGoogle PlayNetflix
The Hunger Games: Amazon Instant, Google PlayNetflix

With Netflix having somewhat recently added The Hunger Games, I decided to finally give it a chance so that I could compare it with Battle Royale (a similar Japanese film from 2000).

Originally I had planned to talk about how The Hunger Games ripped off Battle Royale without giving it any credit, but after giving it some thought I realized that (even if the author won't admit it) it may borrow some ideas from Battle Royale, but it can be said that Battle Royale borrowed ideas from stories like Lord of The Flies, and The Running Man. Also, having recently given the film Oblivion a pass despite obviously borrowing from many other science fiction stories, I felt it wouldn't be fair to write off The Hunger Games in this way.

So I want to take a look at the films and compare them. Another interesting discussion would be to compare the books, but because this blog is more devoted to film, I'm just looking at the films as stand alone stories. 

The Setup
Both films feature a future in which desperate times have created a dystopian society, the likes of which we are thankfully never likely to see. In Battle Royale the nation of Japan has collapsed, there are staggering numbers of people out of work. Students have boycotted school and juvenile crime rates have soared. The youth have no respect for adults so even those in school misbehave and we see a teacher (only named Kitano, played by none other than the famous Takeshi Kitano) get attacked by a student with a knife, yet no one disciplines the student. The adults have come to fear the youth. As a result of such crimes, and the growing fear of adults, the government has decided to strike back with a new law called the Battle Royale Act, in which a class will be chosen by random selection to be taken away and forced to fight to the death until only one survives.

I'm not quite sure how this is meant to reform the youth, but if it doesn't create a nation of messed up killers it might give them an appreciation for life most people will never have. The bottom line is the adults have taken steps to ensure that they have the power, and the youth involved will know to fear them.

In The Hunger Games, many years ago there had been an uprising. A treaty had ended the fighting, but basically they were able to quell the uprising while forcing this treaty upon the losing districts. As a penance for the uprising, through random selection, one male and one female from each district are chosen to participate in the hunger games during which they will be put into an arena where they will fight to the death until only one remains.

Obviously these stories share some similarities...

Sadly what we don't really get from either film is a proper sense of setting the scene. In Battle Royale we have an opening text that tells us why the Battle Royale Act exists, but we don't see much evidence of it (aside from the one scene in which a teacher is attacked). In other words it looks like what could be  modern day Japan, and the students seem pretty friendly, and are enjoying a nice bus ride on some sort of field trip with their teacher, who is an adult, and they all seem to be having a good time together.

In The Hunger Games, again, a bit of text explains the existence of the games, and during the reaping we see a video meant to remind the potential contestants of their crimes (it seems to channel the intro video of a Fallout game). We also see the poor conditions of Katniss' district (which is supposedly the poorest of the districts), but otherwise the majority of the first half of the film is setting up the game, preparing the contestants, and explaining sponsorship.

Compare The Hunger Games' "War Terrible War" video to that of Fallout 3's "War, War Never Changes" intro video.

Both films have the same sense of dread for adults. It's the adults that force the youth to participate in a fight to the death scenario against their will. Even in The Hunger Games (which is more about a show than the fight itself) we really only see adults watching and cheering on this spectacle. Perhaps the books do a better job of giving us background as to what has lead to these extreme circumstances, but the films give us some text and then move on.

The Characters
Before getting to the main characters, I wanted to mention that, while there isn't a central "bad guy" in The Hunger Games, Battle Royale's central bad guy (aside from adults in general) is Kitano. Takeshi Kitano is famous for playing gangsters. I've seen a good number of his Yakuza films, and here he has the same tough exterior, the same straight faced indifference to violence and death. His trademark eye tick is present and always seems to suggest something sinister going on in his mind.  Kitano plays an excellent bad guy, an imposing figure who can strike fear into the audience. It isn't just the system and the other students who cause fear in Battle Royale, but in The Hunger Games there isn't really a lead bad guy.

Now, as for the main characters... The Hunger Games is driven by the main character Katniss. She is a skilled hunter, and looks out for her younger sister far better than their mother can. There is an obvious back story between the kids and the mother that we can tell exists in the film, but we know that it is likely explained in the books and we don't have time to delve deeper in that side story in the film.

The other contestant from Katniss' district is Peeta, we learn a bit about him and how he knows Katniss throughout the film, but for the most part they seem to be acquaintances. There is a romance building between Katniss and Peeta throughout the film, but we can never truly tell if it is a superficial one meant to play to the crowd or if it is actually genuine.

On a sidenote, Katniss is known as the "Girl on Fire" which is something that sounds better in writing that it looks on film, just saying...

In Battle Royale, it seems like more of an ensemble cast, but the main character is Shuya, a boy whose mother has left, and his father committed suicide. We learn about him throughout the film, and there is a budding romance (that does feel genuine) between Shuya and Noriko as they try to survive side by side. There is also a third friendly character in Kawada who has survived the game before and was forced to participate again. Kawada teams up with Shuya and Noriko out of a shared interested in surviving and getting off the island rather than participating in the bloodbath.

The Hunger Games involve two people who may or may not know each other from different districts, but it is incredibly unlikely that they know anyone from the other districts. They go through a period where they receive training and attempt to gain sponsors. During the game they track them with a chip inserted into their arms, and watch them with cameras placed throughout the arena.

Battle Royale, on the other hand, is teens. They are all from the same class, and everyone knows each other, which makes it far more personal. They are all the same age, and no one is trained to kill, they have to figure things out as they go in order to survive. There are all these moments where one student runs into another and they pause while trying to decide whether or not the other person will attack. More often than not this leads one character attacking out of preemptive self defense. We realize that if they had kept cool heads and talked it out most of these students need not have killed each other, but that is part of the mind game at play, not only for the characters in the film, but the viewer.

In The Hunger Games, however, you know the older stronger ones will survive the longest. They are most likely to run to the middle and grab weapons and fight off the younger weaker ones. In Battle Royale they are each given a backpack with basic survival gear and a random weapon so everyone has a chance to survive. They are tracked by a necklace placed around each student's neck that cannot be removed. It has a tracking device in it, a microphone so they can hear them, and can explode if they try to take it off, or if they are in the wrong area of the island at the wrong time, or if the time limit has been reached and more than one is alive.

While The Hunger Games concentrates almost solely on Katniss (and occasionally Peeta, although through Katniss' eyes) Battle Royale does a much better job of experiencing the events from multiple perspectives. This allows Battle Royale to create tense scenes similar to that of a Tarantino film in which characters come to an impasse and it's only a matter of time until bullets begin flying and blood starts flowing. But that's the main purpose of Battle Royale.

The Main Points
The Hunger Games seems to be a commentary about society's current fascination with reality TV programming, where the lowest class of people become contestants that are much like actors/celebrities that fans cheer for but don't care about on any personal level (considering that they are likely to die at any moment). It suggests it's possible that humanity could regress to the days of the gladiators, in which man cheered for the death of other men. The film hits this point (as heavy as it may be) and is content to leave it at that.

Battle Royale, however, works on many different levels. It isn't random people where the characters don't know each other. This is classmates, friends, people who have grown up together. This prompts the question, how well do you know each other, do you trust each other? The result is that, of the two, Battle Royale is the film that makes you think.

There is shock value in Battle Royale because the kids don't know what's coming. Some refuse to fight, some take pleasure in it. Even those who are friends begin to turn on each other. They discover the fragility of friendship when fear and distrust of one another begins to come out. Everything changes when a person's life is on the line. Battle Royale understands this and makes a point of it. It wants to ask you what you would do, and makes you think about who your true friends are. One of the best moments in the film is when Kawada (who survived till the end of a previous Battle Royale, was forced to kill his girlfriend, who turned on him, to survive) comes to the realization that his girlfriend thanked him before she died, because he had been a true friend to her. He also found true friendship in Shuya and Noriko, all three of them would not have turned on each other. The Battle Royale is the ultimate test of friendship.

It asks you the tough questions. There is surviving to go on living, and living with yourself when you survive this scenario. We don't feel that in The Hunger Games it would be very difficult, however, in Battle Royale we get the sense that most wouldn't be able to live with themselves and thus they refuse to participate (two even commit suicide to avoid it).

Which is Better?
The Hunger Games is honestly a fine film, but just an okay film. It's somewhat entertaining, and certainly appeals to a certain audience, but that's it. There isn't really much in terms of shock value, and it failed to hit me on any level. The fact that I am not as taken with reality TV in the way most are, doesn't help its case considering so much of the film is setting up this reality show.

Battle Royale is disturbing for all the right reasons. It leaves a lasting impression on you. While The Hunger Games spends much of the time setting up the show and turning it into a spectacle. As a result, it leaves only a relatively short amount of time to show the game itself, and seems to try to avoid showing much of the blood and violence. And if the deaths weren't flying by fast enough (almost unnoticed I might add) they are able to design and insert digital dog-like creatures that enter the arena and kill contestants to speed up the game. While that adds to the theme of a punishing establishment, it removes the dynamic between the young adults. One way or another most of the deaths in The Hunger Games happen off camera and/or in quick flashes at the beginning of the game.

Battle Royale is all about the survival scenario and what goes on with all the participants and their relationship to one another, because, again, these are all people that know each other. We witness most if not all the deaths. The Hunger Games is a futuristic world that is easy to distance ourselves from, while Battle Royale is meant to be more like our real world, making it all the more disturbing.

Of course it comes down to personal taste, just like any other film/book, but personally The Hunger Games did nothing for me. When you have a story about a bunch of young people forced to kill each other, it's strange that The Hunger Games seems to avoid making that the subject, while Battle Royale realizes that it should be the focus.

You can watch both on Netflix, but if you are going to watch Battle Royale make sure you are watching the first one, and not the second one. I've only seen the beginning of the second one (which is also on Netflix), but the acting from the main bad guy in the second was so over the top I couldn't stand watching any more of it.  

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