The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 198 | On Kick-Ass 2 and real-world violence, Jun Sadogawa’s Muteki Kanban Musume, film fight choreography, and more

Leaving Proof 198 | On Kick-Ass 2 and real-world violence, Jun Sadogawa’s Muteki Kanban Musume, film fight choreography, and more
Published on Friday, August 23, 2013 by
This week on Leaving Proof: We talk about Kick-Ass 2 and whether or not there’s a causal link between violence in fiction and real-world violence, we remember the late Jun Sadogawa’s Muteki Kanban Musume, share our thoughts on trends in film fight choreography, and more.

kick_ass_2_posterBy now, you’ve probably read or heard the news of Kick-Ass 2 performing significantly below expectations at the box-office during its opening weekend, although it is still expected to make a tidy profit given its relatively low budget. You’ve also probably also read or heard film and movie fans speculate about the effect Jim Carrey’s decision to not promote the film—because of how his stance on film violence has been changed by the Sandy Hook shootings—might have had on box-office returns. Yes, Carrey isn’t the high-wattage attraction he used to be in his movie star prime, but he was the film’s highest profile (or at least highest paid) actor, and despite the largely negative critical reception to most of his recent output, he is still a reliable international box-office draw. It’s hard to believe, but according to Box-Office Mojo, the thoroughly mediocre Mr. Popper’s Penguins earned over $180 million worldwide, easily triple its budget, and that’s before we start figuring in money earned from DVD/Blu-Ray/VOD sales and licensing for television. Surely, his comments about Kick-Ass 2 and his attempts to distance himself from it on moral/ethical grounds carry some not-insignificant influence?

Kick-Ass-2-Comic-Book-Cover-2Perhaps, but I think more than any negative publicity Carrey’s withdrawal of support for the film might have engendered, unfortunate release timing was probably more instrumental in Kick-Ass 2‘s poor opening. As Kick-Ass comics writer Mark Millar cheekily remarked in the wake of Carrey’s statements, having one of the action film’s leads proclaim that it is “too violent” can be a good thing publicity-wise, like saying that a porn film has “too much nudity.” But in a summer that has already seen several high-profile “event” movies and more comics-based movies than I can remember being released within a couple of months of each other, I think audiences (and their wallets) might be suffering a bit from cinema fatigue. Oh, and some quite scathing early reviews probably didn’t help, either.

I do respect Carrey’s decision to withdraw his support of the film after the unfathomable events of Sandy Hook, although as some fans and pundits have suggested, Carrey’s protestations might have had more heft in the public discussion space had he perhaps donated part of his paycheck from the film to a relevant charitable cause.

What I do find potentially more problematic with the whole affair is that Carrey’s announcement might reinforce the misguided but popular notion that violence in fiction is directly tied to acts of real-world violence, a proposition that is observationally tenuous at best. Many of the studies conducted from the 1950s through the 1980s showing a purported causal link between portrayals of violence in media and behaviors like real-world aggression lack scientific rigor and/or are misrepresented to support predetermined moralistic prescriptions. Most notably and most germane to the discussion of comics and comics-related entertainment, Dr. Frederick Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent—used during the 1954 US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings as evidence demonstrating that reading crime and horror comics contributed to criminal and pathological behavior in the youth—was recently revealed to have employed deliberately falsified data intended to support what were then Wertham’s personal views.

But as the influential cognitive scientist Steven Pinker noted in a two year-old piece for the Wall Street Journal (“Violence Vanquished”), society is actually consuming more violent entertainment now than ever before even as we currently live with the lowest risk of becoming the victims of violence, historically speaking, for a number of reasons tied to the development of media technology and modern economic and political institutions (the quick explanation: the same technologies and economic/social/political developments that have allowed for the proliferation of violent entertainment also allow for the spread of ideas and media that lead to rising levels of empathy). The argument can probably even be advanced that the ultimate message of violent entertainment might be one that discourages inappropriate violent behavior in the real world. Writing for Psychology Today (“Does Fictional Violence Lead to Real Violence?”), Washington & Jefferson College adjunct professor Jonathan Gottschall stated that:

Virtually without exception, when the villain of a story kills, his violence is condemned. When the hero kills, he does so righteously. Fiction preaches that violence is only acceptable under defined circumstances—to protect the good and the weak from the bad and the strong. Some games, like Grand Theft Auto, seem to glorify and reward bad behavior (although in a semi-satirical spirit), but those games are the notorious exceptions that prove the general rule. What Stephen King says of horror stories in his book Danse Macabre, broadly applies to all forms of imaginary violence: ‘The horror story, beneath its fangs and fright wig, is really as conservative as an Illinois Republican in a three-piece pinstriped suit… Its main purpose is to reaffirm the virtues of the norm by showing us what awful things happen to people who venture into taboo lands. Within the framework of most horror tales we find a moral code so strong it would make a Puritan smile.’

Of course, it’s one thing to find extreme violence in fictional entertainment morally repugnant and entirely another thing to suggest that watching or reading about violence in fiction makes mentally stable people more prone to committing violent acts, and to be fair, Carrey’s public statements about Kick-Ass 2 stop well short of conflating the two ideas. But as we’ve seen time and again in the comics, video games, music, and film industries, so many of the supposed guardians of society’s morality refuse to make that rational distinction, even with compelling, reliable evidence already staring them in the face, and pronouncements like Carrey’s could very well be twisted to support a censorship-based agenda.

On Ramen Fighter Miki

noodlefightermiki01As we noted in last week’s News Round-up, 34 year-old Japanese comics creator Mutsumi Kawahito, best known to readers and audiences by his pen name Jun Sadogawa, was recently found dead in an apparent case of suicide in his hometown of Tone in Ibaraki Prefecture. It’s a tragic thing to happen of course, made more personally poignant for me because of how much Ramen Fighter Miki—the anime adaptation of arguably his most popular manga work, Muteki Kanban Musume (“The Invincible Poster Girl,” published in North America by ADV Manga as Noodle Fighter Miki)—has made me laugh over the years. Ramen Fighter Miki features the slapstick violence of classic Looney Tunes while parodying the overused tropes and the best and worst elements of shōnen manga, it’s the kind of action-comedy that’s right up my alley. Sure, the technical quality of the animation isn’t the best (offhand, I’d actually describe it as slightly below par compared to many of its peers) and the jokes are fairly repetitive and one-note, but I find the characters oddly endearing.

I’ve no idea what kind of person Kawahito was in life, and I don’t think I ever really sought out his work beyond watching Ramen Fighter Miki and reading summaries of his manga serials online (apart from Muteki Kanban Musume, the only other major work of his that’s made it out to the West is Punisher—no relation to the Marvel Comics character—which has been translated into French by publisher Glénat), but it seems like a theme of upliftment from low self-esteem informed much of his work, making the circumstances of his demise that much more doleful in my mind, as it now seems like he was addressing his own mental health issues via the humor in his comics and that he had finally lost the battle against clinical depression. That theme is most plain in one of the recurring characters in Ramen Fighter Miki, Tomoka Kayahara, introduced in the show’s fourth episode as a disconsolate schoolteacher driven to depression and suicidal thoughts because of her inability to establish rapport with her students, who always seem to be scared of her no matter her honest and sincere attempts to reach out to them.

Ramen Fighter Miki being the comedy that it is, Kayahara’s problems with relating to people is revealed to be due to the fact that she looks like Sadako Yamamura (the vengeful ghost in the 1998 horror movie Ring) and the solution is quite simple, really: Her face and demeanor undergo an almost supernatural transformation whenever she eats ramen (her favorite food), going from looking like an onryō to a beautiful young woman, so all she has to do is keep eating ramen and she’s good.

It’s that contrast and combination of earnest emotion and light-minded humor (although there is something genuinely subversive about the fact that protagonist Miki Onimura acts like a bully a lot of the time, and all her foes only grew up to become “villains” because of how she treated them in childhood) that makes Ramen Fighter Miki work for me, and it’s sad that this particular comedic voice is now prematurely and forever silenced. R.I.P., Jun Sadogawa.

On current trends in film fight choreography

An emerging trend in film fight choreography these days is the incorporation of moves, stances, and techniques from the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA). To me at least, what signaled MMA-based fight choreography’s entry into mainstream film (as opposed to fight choreography for films about MMA) was the 2007 Donnie Yen starrer Flash Point. Besides being an actor of some renown, Yen is one of the most prominent fight choreographers in Hollywood and Hong Kong, and his signature fight design style had, up until that (flash?) point, was still strongly influenced by traditional Chinese martial arts-based fight choreography featuring the familiar repertoire of rapid-fire stand-up striking techniques that we’ve been seeing since the earliest days of martial arts cinema legends like Bruce Lee and Sammo Hung. Flash Point, however, had Yen showing off his familiarity and fascination with MMA techniques drawn from Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, wrestling, and dirty boxing:

As with any trend in filmmaking (or any commercial art endeavor, for that matter) however, MMA-inspired techniques can be overused or used inappropriately, interfering with internal logic to the detriment of the overall quality of the fight design. In their attempt to say that “hey, we’re keeping up with the UFC’s popularity,” certain extended fight scenes in recent action films like The A-Team, Haywire, The Expendables, and Fast & Furious 6 look more like thinly-disguised sport MMA bouts, complete with implied rules, instead of stylized representations of actual anything-goes hand-to-hand combat. The fights do look “realistic,” but only in the sense that the fighters look like they’re really being coached on set by someone who is familiar with MMA.

In a previous article, I reasoned that the martial art of eskrima (more popularly known in North America as kali) has become such a popular base for Hollywood fight choreography because its techniques don’t look like audiences’ stereotyped notions of martial arts. The best eskrima-based fight choreographers and fight-stunt coordinators like Jeff Imada (Blade, The Book of Eli, Iron Man 2) and Damon Caro (Fight Club, 300, Watchmen) concentrate on the principles of the system, stressing a simulated improvisation instead of the use of specific, hyper-stylized, “signature moves.” This explains how eskrima can be used as the basis for the fight design in films as disparate and as varied in subject matter and setting as 300, The Bourne Supremacy, The Green Hornet, and Hanna. In films that aren’t meant to showcase wuxia-style martial arts set pieces, martial arts-based fight choreography is supposed to be an “invisible art”—the best choreographed fights in non-martial arts themed action films are the ones that don’t look like they’ve been designed with a specific fighting style in mind despite the precision, athleticism, and visual storytelling on display. Looking at Damon Caro’s fight design/choreography work in the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, for instance, the Spartans’ imagined “fighting style” fits in seamlessly with the setting of Ancient Greece, despite the fact that Caro actually modeled it after Southeast Asian fighting systems* like eskrima, silat, and krabi  krabong:

I do imagine that fight choreographers will become more judicious in their use of sport MMA-inspired techniques in fight design as time goes on though, and as they become more familiar with the visual vocabulary of MMA, the use of the sport’s techniques in film fight choreography will become a regular asset instead of an occasional distraction.

* Caro meant no disrespect to Greek culture in doing this, by the way, it’s just that the absolute paucity of reliable historical descriptions of the fighting system employed by the Spartans meant he had to formulate a fictional Spartan fighting style drawn from other fighting systems that use weapons similar in shape and size to the ancient Greeks’ xiphos, dory, kopis,and aspis,

On Joe Sparkes’ Heavyweight

The cliché is that a picture is worth a thousand words so two-and-a-half minutes of full-motion video with sound is probably worth at least a million. Several weeks ago, I tried to expound on the elements that make the best combat sports narratives so compelling. I don’t know if my arguments convinced anybody, but below is a wordless animated short film by UK-based animator Joe Sparkes that perfectly reflects my feelings on the draw of combat sports for the true fan and earnest spectator:

Here’s what Sparkes had to say about the inspiration for his short film in a message posted on SI.com:

My guess is that boxing is such a popular subject for filmmakers because people can’t imagine what it’s like to be a boxer. The blows they take, the training for months on end, actually having the balls to get in the ring. I watched a lot of fights for research, especially some of Tyson’s early bouts when his opponents were visibly afraid of him. It must be hard for any fighter who has lost to get up in the morning feeling physically and mentally beaten and then start all over again. Boxing represents sacrifice, and I think that’s why audiences find it so captivating.

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