Battle Royale: Culture, Writing, & Representation

TW: Brief mentions of suicide

A few posts back, I wrote about my difficulties in finding something to read with my current state of mind. That problem persists, sort of. New books are still gathering dust on the shelves. But I have found refuge in some of my old favorites. (I reread Richard Adams’ Watership Down at least once a year, and that’s a soothing one for anyone out there also trying to stay away from darker material.) Except, for some reason, in my foray into lighter fare, I have somehow stumbled back into Koushun Takami’s infamous Battle Royale.

Spoiler alert: The book is full of blood, murder, suicide, oppression, and tears.

I think, a few sleep-addled nights ago, I decided that this book would somehow be uplifting. What a reflection of the war of chemicals in my brain! Life is a battle; now, fight! This is not a train of thought I recommend for the general public, but — so far — it’s actually going surprisingly well.

I love this cover because of the gun design between the two students. But what a weird quote from Stephen King.

For those not in the know, Battle Royale is the first and only novel written by Takami, a Japanese author, in the late ‘90s. The book was both wildly popular and deeply controversial in both Japan and then America following its English translation and the book’s subsequent film. (Note: The movie only skims the surface of the book, but I know it’s most people’s intro to the pop culture context.) I read this in high school and it blew my mind. This is maybe my second reread since then and it is still an emotional minefield.

Since Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Game trilogy there have been a lot of references to Battle Royale as some people claim Collins ripped off Takami, citing myriad similarities between the books (or the films). Battle Royale follows 42 high school students participating in one of fifty yearly Programs designed by the government, supposedly for military experiments. The students are taken to a remote location, armed with menial supplies and grab-bag weapons, and told to kill each other until only one survivor remains.

To add fuel to the fear, each student is fitted with a collar that not only tracks their location but can be triggered to explode if they are caught in a forbidden zone (six new zones on the grid of the map they are given), if they try to remove the collar, or if they otherwise piss off the Program staff. If no one dies within 24 hours, everyone’s collars explode.

By now you should be wondering: “But, Cheri, this is the darkest shit ever. Why are you doing this to yourself? You just bared your soul to us and said you couldn’t handle the darkness anymore. You wanted prancing Austenesque fare with which to gallop off into the sun. Why the lies?”

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This is true, dear readers. I have been giving it a lot of thought and this fluke may be due to one of two things: 1) All these characters are struggling in different ways because they want to live. That’s a brilliant model for my brain to latch onto. Granted, some of the characters are of the more murderous mindset of wanting to live, but the main characters fight with idealism, morality, trying to understand their government, corruption, complacency, and what it means to be alive. The loftier philosophies all boil down to this one very primal emotion, which my brain apparently is open to processing.

It’s either that or, 2) I’ve also been thinking about this potential blog post concerning Takami’s writing and its connection to Chebk’s post on Cultural Views and my post on Culture + Writing.

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6 Tips for Continuing your Novel

One of the main problems I’ve been running into when writing my novel is staying motivated enough to write it. Here are a few things that I do to keep me interested.

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1. Re-read the beginning: When I get stuck far enough into the novel, there is a good chance that I’ve forgotten the minute details that I had written in to the beginning. Re-reading it from the beginning is a great way for me to remember some things that I had intended to address and maybe hadn’t gotten to and things that I need to remember to keep in (forgotten swords anywhere? or bags?). Also, there tend to be small hints that I write in for the future that I forget about; things that I foreshadowed then completely forgot about or even unintentional foreshadowing that I catch after re-reading. With the new insight you gain from writing forward and knowing what is coming next, sometimes you can see what will happen next if you had been stuck previously.

This doesn’t work for some authors who, when they read the beginning, get stuck so be cautious of what kind of writer you are.

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“Every Single Word Spoken” & Hollywood’s Whitewashing

I recently had a discussion with a friend (and our Easter Orgasm Cookie recipe contributor), Hoshi, about the whitewashing of the summer movies of 2015: Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, Pixels, Ant Man, Magic Mike XXL. My girlfriend even joked about the sole POC-voiced character in Inside Out representing the emotion Disgust among an otherwise whitewashed cast representing emotions within whitewashed characters.

For a while, it was easy for us to stop at some point and wonder if we were all nitpicking too hard. After all, there were attempts at some cast diversity. Pitch Perfect 2 had a few PoC characters, but then they also had all those racist jokes. Jurassic World brought back BD Wong! …but he was there for like five minutes and also a villain. And I’ve touched on the whitewashing in MMFR. Strides in the right direction are technically radical changes in Hollywood’s eyes. There is still hope.

The conversation dwindled, the righteous indignation puttered out into vague unease, on the backburner until the next Hollywood hit and impending discussion. And then Hoshi sent me a link to a blog by Dylan Marron entitled Every Single Word Spoken.

Marron is a Venezuelan-American actor, writer, and director, who splices together scenes featuring dialogue spoken by People of Color in mainstream Hollywood movies. For example, from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring:


These videos — 17 so far on Marron’s YouTube channel — illuminate the practice and habit of using white-prominent casts to tell supposedly universal stories (romantic comedies to action adventures to fantasy fare). By offering these succinct looks at the PoC actors and their dialogue only, it becomes very clear that PoC characters are offered very limited roles in mainstream films. Most are side characters, such as best friends or Fake Diversity inserts in larger groups of friends, or background characters with titles like “Airport Man,” “Man on Plane,” “Man On Screen,” or “Hostess” (all the PoC with dialogue in Friends with Benefits).

These hours-long movies generally get boiled down to fractions of a minute (about 43 seconds for Spike Jonze’s critically-acclaimed Her; only one in these characters gets a proper name) to, at most, just over a minute and a half (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).

As an actor, Marron has faced casting exclusions due to his race or sexuality. In an interview with the Washington Post, he says, “It feels like no matter how much I’ve done, no matter how much work I have under my belt, no matter how much I have to speak for, the talent just doesn’t matter.” Marron has been using the project to explore this reaction, to show how much mainstream films exclude PoC systematically, perhaps not so much out of malice but out of sheer habit. Says Marron, “I’m not saying that any of these films are racist. I’m not saying that any of these filmmakers are racist. I’m saying that the system that they’re contributing [to] has some deeply racist practices.

Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan.Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha.
Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan.
Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha.

Marron is not the first person to call out Hollywood on their whitewashed casts. For some reason, despite public outcry, Rooney Mara remained cast as Native American “princess” Tiger Lily in the upcoming Pan — including much of her tribespeople if the trailer is anything to go by — just as Johnny Depp went through with playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger remake. Cameron Crowe recently issued an “apology” for casing Emma Stone as a part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian, half-white Allison Ng in Aloha, stating “As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng was written to be a super-proud ¼ Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one.”

I think that’s a pretty succinct version of Hollywood’s acceptance of PoC: “You’re welcome in movies, as long as you do not look like a person of color. Or better yet, if you’re not one at all.” As Marron’s ESWS project showcases, PoC are used to populate a background world (what I referred to as Fake Diversity in a previous post). When PoC characters are brought to the foreground, culture becomes a costume (Natalie Wood as Maria in West Side Story to Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia — or, more egregiously, cultural background is erased entirely (Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy, Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in Argo, Analeign Tipton as half-Ethiopian Nora in Warm Bodies).

This erasure of PoC, outside of spaces delegated specifically for PoC actors and directors (historical biopics, Tyler Perry movies, and not much else), is a far cry from realistic storytelling. It is outright silencing. Accordingly, the most telling of Marron’s ESWS videos, are the ones that highlight whitewashing to the post of exclusion, namely Into the Woods and the Biblical retelling of Noah:

Ari Handel, one of the screenwriters for Noah, addressed the lack of PoC by saying, “What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth and, as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people.”

The race of the individuals doesn’t matter, supposedly, but the default is still entirely white. But for every five steps back, there is always a continuing struggle forward. For Marron, it is a new role as popular podcast, Welcome to Night Vale’s scientist, Carlos, after the original voice, Jeffrey Cranor stepped down, saying, “It sucks that there’s a white, straight male (me) playing a gay man of color (Carlos).”

Marron’s response: “I was so touched […] because I was that young Latino queer kid who would look up at movie screens […] and never see a reflection of myself, and, God, it sucks because what you are subconsciously told is that there is not a place for you. It’s like you can try and do what you want, but people who look like you and people who talk like you don’t get to do this stuff.”

Well, now at least one of us gets to do that, for real. Congrats, Dylan Marron. We’re rooting for you!

Polynesian Cultural Center

Culture is something I keep coming back to on this blog because it is something that hits close to home for most of us living on the islands. What we often forget is that entire cultures and civilizations have been wiped out for us to get here. Before the ancient Hawaiians came to the islands of Hawaii there lived an indigenous race of people that were used as workers then killed off to make room for the new culture. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menehune) When the western world realized the existence of the islands and their native people, missionaries were sent to replace local practices and beliefs with new ones. Soon Hawaiians were not allowed to practice their ancient arts like the hula or speak their language in their own land. (http://www.culturalsurvival.org/ourpublications/csq/article/the-struggle-for-hawaiian-sovereignty-introduction)

And with this knowledge, it is so interesting to learn at and about a place like the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) located on Oahu, Hawaii where Latter Day Saints preserve the culture of Polynesia and help students from the local college and beyond. (http://www.polynesia.com/)

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Established in 1963, PCC was “…created to share with the world the cultures, diversity and spirit of the nations of Polynesia.” A non-profit, Mormon organization which seeks to preserve native cultures and allow students and faculty to show off their knowledge as well as supporting those who would like to share their native knowledge with others. Seems to contradict what we know of those who spread the western word.

Regardless, I went to PCC through a family member and was able to explore a few of the island exhibits that they offer. We started in Fiji then moved on to New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga, and Samoa. Unfortunately we were unable to make it to all the exhibits, but they also have exhibits for Hawaii, Rapa Nui, and the Marquesas.

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The Write Stuff

Becoming a writer is something I never thought I could do because it was somehow always out of reach; unachievable. Why? Because my friends were writers creating works of arts with words and I scribbled ideas down on paper, telling stories as I would to my friends (not the right way to write).

Anyway, a few months ago, in my naivete, I submitted one of my works into a writer’s workshop at a sci-fi/fantasy convention. The days leading up to the meeting were full of second thoughts and trepidations, but, boy, did I learn a lot.

Most of what the professionals told us were general tips, but to someone new to writing, it was like a whole new world opening up. To hear authors talking about their trade was very informative and exciting because that is their lifestyle, it is what they do for a living. They talk about this piece that they’re working on, and also the next one, and the next.

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One question that came up frequently was about their daily writing processes. There were many different answers. One author would write two thousand words a day, everyday. Another felt lucky to get through one chapter in a day. But the main point was that all of them had to write everyday. They don’t wait for inspiration to strike and for every word to be perfect; that’s what editing is for.

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#Pearl Harbor, Racism, & Media Accountability

This past weekend, as most of you know, the Women’s World Cup Finals saw USA’s team going up against Japan. The game was brutal from the start — four goals for Team USA in the first sixteen minutes or so — and both sides rallied back and forth, making for a tense match beginning to end. I went on Twitter to joke that it was hard for me to pick a side to root for as a Japanese-American. (I ended up rooting for Japan. As Lori mentioned in her previous post on growing up Japanese-Okinawan in Hawaii, nationalistic pride dies hard. Also I’m a sucker for the underdog in any match and four points behind from the start, well, ouch.)

Cue 24 hours later, and I’m back on Twitter, staring into the abyss because one of the top trends is #PearlHarbor. I click it, already making connections as to where this is going. And — sigh, yes — people went there. They really went there.

The original tweet along with its spawn.
The original tweet along with its spawn.

By now a lot of outlets have covered the story. Someone on Twitter made the facetious claim that Team USA’s win over Japan — in a soccer tournament, let’s not forget — was righteous “revenge” for the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II. Most articles claim the original tweet belonged to a parody patriotic account because…well, Internet. Then enough people ran with the hashtag and the “joke,” until the tag was flooded with enough people arguing and repeating the claim to get the whole thing trending. Again: Internet.

However, while a lot of outlets have reported on the trending (BBC, NBC, and The Mirror to name a few), I have yet to see any actually discuss the outright xenophobia intended behind the original jibe, aside from quoting the Tweets they pulled which mention this fact in 140 characters or less. Even more egregious seems to be the history lessons these various outlets are passing up for the sake of driving home the simple point of, “This is why we can’t have nice things,” which seems to be the only thing anyone is saying on the topic.

Is that really the end of the discussion?!

Lately that seems to be how most mainstream news sources and other media outlets have chosen to handle anything remotely related to racism. The nation may be making some remarkably liberal strides, (thank you, Supreme Court, for tackling marriage equality and the start of reaffirming the right to abortion), but everything in regards to the racial profiling, police brutality, and other race issues still seem roundabout. There is a collective shying away from accusations of racism. We debate it. We bring in the experts and the other talking heads. We pick and choose quotes from the left- and right-wing blogs out there. But the actual journalists and mainstream anchors? Mum’s the word.

Why is it so hard to put it out there? Mainly because it involves both the acknowledgement of white privilege and a long history of colonialism, slavery, segregation, and racism. The nation spent a good several weeks debating the ethics of the Confederate flag as though the history of white Southerners somehow eclipsed the history of black slaves in importance. The coverage of everything from the murder of Trayvon Martin to the Ferguson riots was and is coded in racially biased language: the victims are referred to as “thugs,” mug shots are used instead of regular photos, and every 24-hour news station seems to find it very important to debate whether this was about race at all.

Yes. Yes, this is about race.

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On Growing Up Okinawan-Japanese

Months into our blog later, Cheri and I talked it over and have belatedly decided to finally explain our blog name to our viewers. OkPotato stands for Okinawan Potato which is that purple potato that we have posted everywhere. Cheri and I are both half Okinawan and half Japanese and live in Hawaii where culture plays a big part in everyone’s life; it’s how we know who we are and how other people perceive us so it is a point of pride for us to claim that we have two very rich heritages to draw from.

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In Hawaii, we are very close to our cultural roots. We are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants who were brought to Hawaii to harvest the many sugar plantations on the islands. Within the plantation, often those of the same country were grouped together in housing and in work groups, but eventually the workers found a way to co-exist (or just exist) in the mixing pot that is our isolated islands.

I grew up immersed in the cultures of Okinawa and Japan (often perceived as being the same place, but I was raised with the definitive knowledge that these places are not the same; more on this later). The foods I ate were mainly Japanese because of my mother. Every year, there were village picnics for those who came from Okinawa where such gatherings are very important. We celebrated important birthdays according to the Japanese and Okinawan traditions. We also had spiritual celebrations, though no one believes in them explicitly, it’s more of a cultural event that was adhered to out of respect for our elders. Even the rules that we learned were influenced by traditional values and what our parents had thought.

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