How do you solve a problem like Japan?
During the Allied occupation of Japan after the Second World War, General Douglas MacArthur set about censoring and criminalising any form of Japanese nationalistic pride. This censorship was mainly prevalent in film, theatre and music, meaning anything that could be presented to a crowd would no longer feature symbols of Japanese dominance or heritage. A major target for MacArthur was the greatest symbol of Japanese strength and determination – Mt. Fuji. Proud, ageless, elegant and hugely comforting for the besieged Japanese populace, Mt. Fuji was edited from existence by MacArthur as he felt it unified the Japanese and could become a symbol for rebellion and uprising. One particularly frustrated Japanese filmmaker told the General, in no uncertain terms, that they should have levelled the snow-capped behemoth, as opposed to wasting their bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as it would have saved a fortune in censorship costs.
Whether MacArthur was right or wrong to dampen the already beleaguered Japanese spirit is a matter of opinion. What he did achieve, however, was a more open and available Japan, and without this, the videogame industry would have been a far more barren place. It’s hard to even imagine an industry without Japan. Throughout the 1990s Japan was the industry leader with both hardware and software production. Back when Nintendo and Sega vied for the attentions of the flocking masses, Western gamers were treated to the mystifying delights of the East. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes terrible but always culturally interesting, the Japanese games market was a melting pot of bizarre characters, nonsensical narrative and engaging gameplay. It was an exciting time to be a gamer. It’s hard to put your finger on what makes a game feel particularly ‘Japanese’, as the signature games that herald from the Land Of The Rising Sun are never overt in their cultural presentation. This maybe a hangover from the occupation or perhaps just the Japanese tendency to not shout about their heritage. Be it MacArthur’s legacy or not, the Japanese industry was full to the brim of Italian plumbers, blue hedgehogs and a whole menagerie of adorably deformed monsters. Only the occasional ninja would punctuate the culturally obscure group of mascots and oddballs.
It is not on the surface that we find the defining component of a truly Japanese title. Cultural identity is not always as brazen as Call of Duty would lead you to believe. How many games have Britain made that could be called typically British? Definition is in the eye of the beholder, and Japanese games mean different things to different people. When I first started playing games, Japanese titles always had a huge sense of fun about them. They still do. Slicing though waves of thugs in Streets of Rage 2 was never a particularly harrowing affair and the chirpy banter always outweighed the serious themes present in the early Final Fantasy games. It was a simpler time for young gamers. Sonic was cool and shooting people was without consequence. Oh how times have changed.
Japan has been slow and hesitant to adapt. Gaming has reached its teenage years. Full of acne-ridden angst and fantasies of conflict and imagined maturity. Sonic the Hedgehog is now something we discuss in pubs and places of work, as a fond but distant memory. Now when we play games we strap on our headsets and attempt to silently eviscerate our enemies from across the globe in glorious 3D. It’s like the entrails and bloodied limbs are blasting out the screen! Is it so hard to understand why Japan has difficulty keeping up? Take a look at the major titles in Japan at the moment. Anime infused school melodrama, portable monster hunting adventures and digital dating simulators. How many of them are going to feature on Something for the Weekend?
A good example of Japan’s insular nature is the Valkyria Chronicles franchise. The original title was a progressive and involving take on the Japanese tactical role playing game. It features a clichéd but involving plot an anime art style but universal themes and notions on war and racism. It was a profoundly Japanese game and was almost universally praised due to its exquisite gameplay and graphical finesse. Despite confident sales and critical acclaim, the development team chose to move the sequel away from the water-coloured battlefields and sweeping cultural context of the original and set it in a typical Japanese high school. My confidence waned instantly. As almost to spite the dedicated Western audience, Sega pulled the series back to the motherland and targeted the manga-obsessed otaku, infatuated with sexualised cartoons and possessed by an unquenchable thirst for sugar-coated, fatuous rubbish. Unfortunate? I almost spat in disgust!
With this example in mind, is it any wonder the Western audience has decided to turn its collective back on Japan? The advance in graphics and more universal content of many triple A titles has expanded videogame audiences. When viewed with virginal eyes, the Japanese game market can seem like an unsettling and strange environment. Highly sexualised, pathologically insane characters inhabiting unfamiliar genres that brim with borderline paedophilic imagery, and cultural tropes that run far too deep to be fully understood. There is no easy way to break in new blood to the Japanese way of thinking. You just have to slap them with it and hope for the best. Small pockets of loyal Westerners still find solace in the intricacies of hardcore fighting games. The level of fanaticism that surrounds titles such as Arcana Heart or the BlazBlue franchise has become equally baffling for many, due mainly to their context and presentation. Even so, the fact that many avid Western gamers seem willing to sink hours of their lives into something so obscure remains a mystery.
Personally, I have grown up and become used to the alien quirks present in Japanese under-culture. I am part of a different group of players, the over-saturated gamer. I am so sick of cheap, mass-produced, abysmally presented Japanese fluff! The thought of another classroom melodrama brings me to tears of furious and bewildered anger! My frustration is all the more torrential as I play culturally savvy, but acutely aware titles that have come out of Japan in recent years. Okami, God Hand and No More Heroes, to name but a few, are all astounding games that highlight the creativity and expertise I remember from my childhood. The talent is there; it just struggles to wade though the mire of bilge and detritus produced for the home market.
Is the Japanese market damned to shrink into obscurity, catering only for the shut-ins and perverts, who litter forums with pleas for a better selection of underwear with which to adorn their digital brides in? Are the Japanese renown for giving up when the going gets tough? No, they are resolute and adaptive – just look at their motor industry. Vanquish came like a bolt from the blue, and will be measured over time as a defining moment in the history of Japanese games. Screaming along the battlefield, engaging Russian robots in a ballistic promenade of destruction and metallic combat, Vanquish is a decidedly Western experience. Synonymous with ludicrous narrative and frenetic action, Platinum Games created something so resolutely American, yet so fundamentally Platinum, that it was hard to see where the lines blurred. Vanquish is an exquisite example of the fundamentals of Japanese gameplay and design colliding head on with Western tropes and ideals. Unfortunately, not every design house in Japan has the creativity and talent that Platinum Games harbours. For every Vanquish and Deadly Premonition, there is a Quantum Theory languishing in the background. As Japanese developers desperately clamour to understand and quantify the Western frame of mind all sorts of oddities are bound to arise.
In a moment of almost pre-cognitive inspiration, Thunderbolt’s own Josh Kramer explored Japan’s decline in the videogame industry all the way back in 2003. Check out his article here.
I fail to understand the majority of Japanese popular culture, but heaven help the poor souls who have to quantify and attempt to satisfy the West’s thirst for violence, explosions and war! We are infatuated with killing our enemies, and dominating our foes. From a distance, it looks as if our whole industry is soaked in digital blood and surrounded by pixelated bullet casings. It’s as questionable as it is indefensible, and it’s as unfeasible as it is marketable. The very concept of a Western gaming identity must present a huge challenge to Japanese developers. But by God, if there’s a market to exploit, the East will exploit it. There’s a whole zoo of awkward Final Fantasy VII spin-offs and plastic Pokemon merchandise that can attest to that. Japan is crying out for a renaissance in the gaming industry, and it will come, but when it does what do we as Western purveyors stand to lose? Remember that this is a land that nurtured our love of games in the first place. Do we stand to be faced with mindless copycat franchise, furrowing their brows in a desperate attempt to surmise and reproduce the top selling titles from the West? Sonic the Space Marine anyone?
I think I may have been premature with this argument. The Japanese games industry is in recovery mode at the moment, and development houses are trying to stake a claim in flourishing game markets. Sadly, the question of finance rears its ugly head, and whilst programmers and artists will be desperate to produce new and exciting franchises and concepts, the accountants in the back will be working tirelessly to ensure the Yen balances out. This may leave production houses in a catch 22 situation, with commentators’ whinging about the quality of Japanese games on the one hand, but then complaining when they attempt to assimilate Western content. Ultimately, it all boils down to the quality of the title in question. Vanquish was an expertly crafted gem which understood and could appease the West, whilst upholding the Japanese penchant for over the top lunacy. Quantum Theory was poorly designed plagiarism.
More than anything, it would be a crying shame for Japan to lose its cultural identity in a medium where it has flourished for some time now. Japan has to open its borders to new ideas and new genres, but in doing so, I hope it veers away from lifeless mimicry, and instead attempts an assimilation of concepts. I love Japanese games. I still play God Hand today with an enormous smile on my face and a question mark above my head, and I am consistently surprised by the beauty and detail of old 16-bit era platform games. This is not a call to arms, but a call for moderation. During the French revolution, the rioters ransacked the homes of the aristocracy, but stood guard over the Louvre. I’m asking the same of the Japanese games industry. During its inevitable change of direction, the preservation of core fundamentals and values is imperative so that it may retain its cultural identity. The last thing we need is another Call of Duty rip off, even if it does have a cast of sexually naïve schoolgirls who wear short skirts and squeal at the site of tentacles. The ball is in your court Japan, and I’m very excited to see what comes back.