Below the giant wave of Hunger Games mania that washed over the U.S. last month, an unhappy undercurrent of haters sat behind their computers grumbling that the story of the film directly mimics Battle Royale, another film based on a book that opened in Japan to wide acclaim in 2000.
They've said it in many ways using many mediums, but the general message is this: Stupid Americans, accepting and celebrating this watered-down version of a true cult classic.
Miami moviegoers can decide for themselves when O Cinema shows Battle Royale throughout the weekend. But be warned: If you want to see Battle Royale because you loved The Hunger Games so much, you're seeing it for the wrong reason. Aside from its dystopic, kids-killing-kids premise, the haters are, as usual, pointlessly hating: The films have very little in common.
The story of The Hunger Games takes place in a world only vaguely identifiable as our own; it's many years in the future, after a nation-altering rebellion and subsequent oppression of those rebels. (The Hunger Games, in which two kids from each district compete to the death in an arena controlled by the capital, is part of that oppression.)The country's method of government, its borders, even its name have all changed, and most of its residents live hand-to-mouth to survive. It's the problem of the 99 percent, taken to the extreme; it's also a commentary on how the U.S. uses its power in relation to the rest of the world.
The setting of Battle Royale, meanwhile, is present-day Japan, with a relatively minor twist: a law requiring the students of one class to fight to the death as a punishment for their lack of respect for their elders. The only politics involved in this story are social politics: the friction between two linked but increasingly dissimilar generations.
Using these two different themes, the stories veer in different directions. The Hunger Games is, in essence, the classic hero story: Main character Katniss comes from nothing but is propelled to succeed by virtue of her own courage and morality.
Battle Royale's story, on the other hand, is more complex. Its main character, Shuya Nanahara, is more your typical, middle-class, angsty kid (though not without reason -- his father kills himself in the film's opening minutes). The plot centers on his quest to protect his classmate Noriko, but only vaguely. Battle Royale has much more of an ensemble cast feel, in which we get to know dozens of other class members -- from mean girls to best friends to adolescent crushes -- as they each meet their deaths. Some kids are targeted because they were the nerds of the class; others for reasons of jealousy; others kill simply because they can.
The wide variety of killings, in so many circumstances and for so many underlying reasons, is part of the reason the film was prevented from coming to the U.S. for so long. Fountains of blood spew in almost every killing scene, and most of the deaths are so drawn-out it's comical -- characters are shot at point blank range, and keep fighting and struggling for long minutes afterward. By contrast, The Hunger Games is rated PG-13.
But that doesn't mean The Hunger Games is just a less extreme version of Battle Royale. The premise of the two films is similar, sure. But while The Hunger Games gives us another hero to cheer on the screen, the message behind Battle Royale's plot is more challenging -- and in some ways, more fun -- to try to decipher.
The Hunger Games is a version of a story we've seen before. Just not this one.
See Battle Royale at O Cinema Friday and Saturday at 11 p.m., and Sunday at 9 p.m. Tickets cost $10.50.
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