Sound Worlds, Hyperrealism and Disorientation in The Hunger Games

Note: This is an assignment for my course “Action Film and the Soundtrack.”

The first Hunger Games film occupies an interesting place in the history of young adult film adaptations. It’s such an obvious choice for one, given its focus on teens battling to the death in a dystopian future America. Yet, from the start, it’s not directed at all like an action film. It feels like a period drama or documentary: It opens on an explanation of the titular Games’ founding, then dunks us into a news report with the host and gamemaster discussing its history. It has a distant, faded look to it over mysterious, minor-key music, giving the impression of the exotic and otherworldly. Then, it flashes to Katniss comforting her sister in District 12, with no explanation for the new viewer how the two images are related. This juxtaposition is important, however. It sets up clearly the two very different worlds in the movies’ Panem: the luxury of the Capitol and the abject, rural poverty of most of the Districts, which is also simulated in the Hunger Games arena.

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The disorientation is visual, too — here’s how we first see the Cornucopia through Katniss’s eyes.

This is reflected in the sound landscapes for the respective environments of the film. While the plot structure of The Hunger Games could be debated, the settings divide the film into roughly three sections: the District 12 portions, the ones in the Capitol where the Tributes are paraded before the ruling classes and train in luxury, and the actual battle in the arena that takes up the bulk of the film. After the film’s very memorable and unusual opening sequence, where lilting folk-like melodies and drone score sounds dominate, it was strange to me that once Katniss and Peeta arrived in the Capitol, there was hardly any memorable use of sound in the film. The exceptions were usually diegetic (sounds the characters are hearing in the film), like the triumphant fanfares for the characters as they appeared onstage for their interviews and showed off their costumes. This immediately changed when the film dunked the characters into the arena for the opening bloodbath.

This is built up to with Katniss’s entrance into the arena. The sterile white of their plane, and then in the room where Katniss meets with Cinna for the last time before entering her tube, are closer to the Capitol’s removed luxury than the wilds of District 12. We know the stakes are different now because of the role of the camera and, especially, the soundtrack. There are several key moments when the sound effects drop into a sort of “hyper-realism,” when their volume is amplified beyond how they would in real life in a way that feels much more immediate. In these scenes, this especially comes with the closing of doors: to the plane taking them to the arena, and to the tube finally dropping them in it. The latter involves a close-up of Katniss’s face, showing her panic as she’s separated from Cinna, and realizes how soon she will be in danger. It happens at the exact same moment as the thud. The Capitol scene has other close-ups of Katniss’s face, and moments when the sound zooms in and out, to emphasize her perspective, but the confluence is never that striking until the moment she’s about to drop into the arena.

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As the games begin, the sound effects zoom out for more emphasis on the drone-like musical score, similar to the sounds we heard as the film opened. It brings the viewer back to that world through sound, as well as visuals, with the interesting tricks it plays with perspective: jumping back and forth between different tributes, following Katniss’s eyes. The lack of emphasis on the actual sounds for an overarching soundtrack puts us in Katniss’s mind, overwhelmed by the larger proceedings rather than zeroing in on specific events or people. As people jump into action and Katniss realizes it’s time to run away, the music changes to percussion and strings in the style of minimalist phasing, emphasizing both the character’s movements and the whooshing, rapid change of perspectives. It also adds to the disorientation, with how phasing works by slowly moving the different instruments’ voices apart and together. It messes with the listener’s sense of time, and works in The Hunger Games to put them in Katniss’s mind. It combines urgentness (percussive timbres, repetitive rhythms) and helplessness (the uncontrollable time shifts of the phasing).

I had trouble capturing a good screenshot from this scene. I think this shot of Thresh running gives you an idea of why.

I had trouble capturing a good screenshot from this scene. I think this shot of Thresh running gives you an idea of why.

Disorientation is a strange tactic to use in blockbuster action films, designed to be crowd-pleasers. Yet The Hunger Games is hardly alone in this, with it also marking a key feature of post-apocalyptic films like Mad Max: Fury Road. A huge chunk of that film’s opening sequence uses sound and cinematography to put the viewer in Max’s mind, and visually depict his desperate life. It adds to the urgency of the situation in a way that’s more exciting, but also makes the viewer more uncomfortable. It immediately signaled to me when I first saw Fury Road in features that this experience would be like no other action film I had seen. Still, Fury Road later fits into genre conventions in a way The Hunger Games do not.

The Hunger Games uses those effects in a different way, one that doesn’t feel like “action film” directing. The emphasis is consistently on the main character’s psychology and the despondence of her situation, not on exciting fights. Mad Max does at least make action sequences viscerally thrilling, panning out in those moments to show us the scope of the battle, or focusing on characters wielding weapons and how they do it. The Hunger Games plays it all close to Katniss and other important characters’ heads, which makes the action viscerally upsetting and disgusting. This is through the sound’s focus on her perspective, whether she’s hallucinating from wasp stings or just looking for a way out of a tree. We feel her discomfort. Nowhere are we more immediately aware of it than the first scenes in the arena, dunked into this sound world in a way that feels disorienting coming from the restrained world of the Capitol. And yet, there’s some déjà vu (or déjà entendu), with the sonic callbacks to the opening scenes in District 12.

Part of why Katniss wins is that, unlike some of the other tributes (such as the Careers), her daily existence in impoverished, rural District 12 is not that different from life in the arena. (As they’re coached during training, survival skills help far more than weapons.) This is reflected in the sonic atmospheres of District 12/the Arena compared to the Capitol. Many dystopian worlds paint their false idylls as lacking music, the language of color and fun. (The most obvious YA example of this is The Giver–the book, not the film.) The Hunger Games is not among those: the people of the Capitol have culture and amusement aplenty. They even visually resemble the aristocracy of the late 19th-century Gilded Age. Still, there’s a huge difference between their sound for entertainment, and the sounds of survival, of existing out in nature and relying on its unpredictability. This is something The Hunger Games goes out of its way to explore, with its focus on Katniss’s perspective as she navigates these different worlds. We not only see but hear the stark divide between Panem’s different classes, sounding the cue for rebellion.

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Mixed Feelings About Sailor Moon Crystal

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I’ll start this off by talking about one of my favorite and least favorite corners of the Internet: Tumblr. Shortly before the first episode of Sailor Moon Crystal aired last month, a post began circulating on the social networking site warning people not to jump to negative conclusions about the series. It mentioned that new versions could only enrich a franchise, that if you dislike it the old versions will continue to exist, and that squabbling could only make the fandom less fun and welcoming for newbies. It read: “Crystal is not here to destroy your childhood.  It’s here to add to it.  Appreciate it for what it is: something new, that builds on all that came before it.  It will be different, and that’s okay.  Every version of Sailor Moon is different, and the franchise is better for it.”

Now, it’s easy to see posts like this as the typical fan-posturing and -gatekeeping from hyperdefensive people who are terrified by criticism of any sort. And I’m sure some people reblogged it in that spirit. But I’ve been in plenty of “fandoms” where people just automatically hated things that were different from the version they came to like, regardless of quality and without thinking very much about what bothered them about the changes. Fanboys and fangirls are notoriously afraid of change; TVTropes even has a page about this mentality, and I’ve seen it ruin fandom communities I was in from Harry Potter to Fullmetal Alchemist to Skins. And you’ve seen it, too, if you’ve ever mentioned enjoying a movie adaptation to a fan of the original book/comic/whatever, and were met by them blathering endlessly about every little thing that was different. As someone who likes having multiple versions of a story I love, and prefers good original adaptations to dull faithful ones, I thought the post was absolutely necessary – and so I re-blogged it.

Thus, I felt like it was important to set all that fanwank aside right out of the gate here. I’m not someone who came in determined to find Sailor Moon Crystal lacking. In fact, I really wanted to see this anime succeed. I am a dedicated Moonie in every version I’ve encountered it in (anime, manga, even the live-action), and I was really excited when I heard that we’d have a new series coming out. I was apprehensive about the ultra-manga-faithful character designs and Usagi’s tentacle-pasta hair, but I was still bouncing up and down with excitement, staying up until 6 am to watch the first episode of the new series. I wrote about it positively both on my article about the franchise for Bitch, and my Summer Anime blog post here. I saw some things that gave me pause, but I decided to remain optimistic, to give the series a few episodes to find its footing.

As of episode 3, though, it’s hard to maintain my optimism anymore.

This series already had some issues with visuals and direction. My friend Gabbo detailed many of its issues in her post here about Sailor Moon Crystal, while comparing it to the original anime. As she shows, the series already had many problems in the first two episodes, but “Act 3: Rei – Sailor Mars” brings a lot of them into even sharper focus.

Let’s start with some positives. I really love the backgrounds on this show. The first anime had a lot of great ones as well, but the watercolor ones here look like something out of a storybook:

Also, hi, Phobos and Deimos!

Also, hi, Phobos and Deimos! You look a lot more distinctive this time around.

But when one zooms into the individual characters, the positives dwindle. The character designs are flat, generic and, to be frank, pretty clunky. My first thought with this moment (when Usagi first meets Rei) was, “wow, they aren’t being remotely subtle about her girl-crush! Cool!” My second was (as Zac Bertschy pointed out on Twitter), “…what are those EYEBROWS?”

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Luna continues to look more like a horse in her body shape than a cat, but even characters who were doing fine in previous episodes, like Mamoru, apparently change their face shape with every scene, when it’s not falling into the generic big-eyed pointiness that this series favors for everyone:

Poor boy, you were so much cuter back in the day.

Poor boy, you were so much cuter back in the day.

Rei (Sailor Mars) fares the worst, though. Plenty have already detailed how her eyes are oddly spaced, but it’s possibly even more alarming how often she goes completely off-model – to the point where it sometimes seems like the series doesn’t have a consistent “model” for her. It’s one thing to have your characters look a little “meguca” when they’re in the background or in motion; it’s another in a still shot where they’re the focus, like in Rei’s slogan scene here:

Also, is that a Jojo pose?

Also, is that a Jojo pose?

And while the backgrounds can be impressive, the series simply lacks the impressive direction and attention to detail that characterized the original. It could be simply due to its lack of talent – the first Sailor Moon anime boasted such directors as Kunihiko Ikuhara and Junichi Sato, the masterminds behind Revolutionary Girl Utena and Princess Tutu respectively – but you don’t need a genius director to just not be lazy here. And these directorial and cinematographic choices are just that: lazy, hoping the viewers will be entranced by the modernized style and ignore how sloppily it’s applied. Observe the lighting choices here, where the leaf shadows are applied so broadly as to appear unrealistic:

Even Usagi knows!

Even Usagi knows!

Sailor Moon Crystal‘s story may be just as engaging as that of the original – if it keeps following the excellent manga – but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired, and could make or break this series that can already be experienced in so many other forms. Toei just doesn’t seem like they’re bringing the budget and/or talent necessary for this project, which is a shame for something as heavily-anticipated as this series was.

Overall, it’s interesting to compare Sailor Moon Crystal with another “manga-faithful” reboot of a classic anime series: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. I’ve never been particularly fond of FMA:B, though a lot of that lies with my finding the manga story far less compelling than the one in the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime – which takes a much sharper departure from its source material than the original Sailor Moon anime did. (FMA 03’s degree of departure is closer to what the Sailor Moon live-action series did with that first season arc’s plot, but that’s a story for another post.) With Sailor Moon, I had less reservations, since I like the first anime and the manga’s stories about equally at this point. I was excited to see the manga version of the story get an anime adaptation, with its much darker plot and greater protagonist-focus giving it the potential to pull in a different audience to one of my favorite anime franchises.

But I’m finding a lot of the same problems I did in FMA:B.

And in both FMA:B and SMC, the key to most issues is the manga-faithfulness. FMA:B struggled to adapt 109 manga chapters to 64 episodes, and that includes some truly sloppy pacing, especially in its beginning and end. But even then, it keeps so much manga material it could have easily left on the cutting room floor, that it fails to give the proper time to the essentials (as with the Ishval flashback episode). Worse, its visual adaptation is almost panel-by-panel, to a degree that shows serious ignorance for what works in animation vs. print comics. This is most evident in its comedic moments, where it repeats the same SD visual gags from the manga as literally as possible – but while they worked there, they’re just over-the-top and corny in anime. The first anime succeeded by rendering these same jokes with more subtlety.

But SMC’s issues here, at least as far as visuals, are far, far worse. FMA:B had a manga-inspired art style and character designs, but it did adapt them with an awareness for how things work differently in a three-dimensional plane. (It helped that Hiromu Arakawa’s more rounded, cartoonish character designs work better for this task, anyway.) SMC’s characters hew so close to its manga art style, though, that this goes right out the window. Gabbo puts it well in her aforementioned post:

Naoko Takeuchi is a great artist, and one her art’s most distinctive features is that she draws eyes to look like they exist on a flat plane. She doesn’t account for the curvature of the face, just changing the direction that the eyes are curved in order to indicate which way a character is facing, and it looks great in 2D. However, this choice doesn’t translate well into animation, where character models will often need to turn around or shake their heads or make other onscreen shifts in perspective. It just isn’t easy to transition one facial shot to another in a way that looks recognizably human.

 

The Senshi in the manga...

The Senshi in the manga…

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…and the new anime. Can you spot the similarities?

To SMC’s credit, it does seem willing to deviate from the manga plot as necessary to make the anime plot more engaging, unlike FMA:B. But it does this by hewing closer to what the first anime already did differently, as in Ami’s episode – which is basically the same exact story as her introduction in the first anime, with some technology updates (a haunted CD-ROM instead of a haunted floppy disk!) and taking into account Usagi’s different characterization here (kinder and more cooperative, instead of competitive and argumentative).  It isn’t much of an argument for SMC being able to stand alone, as its own work separate from the first anime and the manga.

Those differences, though, do at least make SMC a curio worth observing for those who are already invested in the other Sailor Moon canons, and anyone interested in the art of adaptation. I, for one, like that Rei’s episode shows more signs of the manga version of her characterization and relationship with Usagi, even though I prefer her anime incarnation. (Competitive, snarky Rei was my first fictional crush and basically my role model as a sassy little girl, okay?) Both the cooperation emphasized in the manga/Crystal story and the spiritedness/assertiveness emphasized in Usagi and Rei’s first-anime characterizations, are valid approaches to empowering and mentoring young girls through entertainment. I’m glad that the latest generation of little girls, who might be put-off by the ’90s flavor of the original anime, have a new version of the story that they can call their own.

But for anyone other than youngsters and diehards, this series still leaves a lot to be desired.