Attack on Titan Before the Fall

Title: Attack on Titan: Before the Fall
Japanese Title: 進撃の巨人 Before the fall (Shingeki no kyojin: Before the fall)
Creator: Isayama Hajime (諫山 創)
Author: Suzukaze Ryō (涼風 涼)
Illustrator: Thores Shibamoto (THORES 柴本)
Translator: Ko Ransom
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 199

The year 743. Mankind was facing extinction at the hands of the Titans that had suddenly appeared at the center stage of history. Where had they come from, and what was their purpose? Some said that they were natural disasters, while others insisted that they were divine retribution. Either way, mankind had been reduced to a simple, clueless prey whose total population had plummeted to 500,000.

I am heavily invested in the Attack on Titan franchise, and I enjoyed this book. If you are as invested as I am, then you will more than likely enjoy this book as much as I did. In fact, you’ve probably already read it.

If you have no idea what the Attack on Titan franchise is, this book is not a good introduction. Give the opening episode of the anime a shot! It’s worth your time, I promise.

This review is for people who have some experience with Attack on Titan and are wondering if the first volume of the Before the Fall light novel series is any good. I think it is! Despite being a bit shallow, it’s a fun read.

The story is set before Isayama Hajime’s original Attack on Titan manga, when the human race has only been living within a massive walled city-state for a few generations. The action of this novel occurs before the events of the Attack on Titan: Before the Fall manga, which adapts the events described in the second and third books in the Before the Fall light novel series.

The first novel in the trilogy is an account of the development of the Three Dimensional Maneuver Gear that allows human beings to fight the giant murderous creatures roaming outside the city walls. This equipment, along with the swords that accompany it, are the work of a young engineer named Angel Aaltonen, who is aided in his efforts by his bright assistant Corina Ilmari and his older colleague Xenophon Harkimo, who specializes in gunpowder and chemical flares. Jorge Piquer, the leader of the Survey Corps military unit specializing in missions outside the walls, is interested in this equipment, hoping that it will allow a human to finally bring down one of the Titans, which are considered immortal. Titans are not the only enemies Angel and Jorge will face, however, as there is considerable political pressure to seal the gate leading outside the wall and thus disband the Survey Corps.

Attack on Titan: Before the Fall is a light novel, and it reads like one. Paragraphs and sentences are short, and the writing is simple and straightforward. There’s also not a great deal of complexity in terms of characterization or character motivations. The reader is assumed to be familiar with the world in which the story is set, so the book doesn’t offer much world building, and nothing is learned that isn’t already covered in the first season of the anime series. As a result of this “lightness,” most of the plot developments in the novel seem too easy. For example, Angel’s inventions are made possible by the discovery of two materials in the lands enclosed by the walls: Iron Bamboo, which is strong and durable despite being light and flexible, and Iceburst Stone, which provides an endless supply of steam energy under certain conditions. Both of these materials are impossibly convenient, and Angel’s team experiences almost no hardship in learning to manipulate them.

What the book can offer the reader are finely crafted action sequences which work well without a visual element, which is no mean feat. Although someone who hasn’t seen the animated adaptation of Isayama’s manga may be confused regarding how large the Titans are relative to humans and what sort of movement the Maneuver Gear allows, a reader already familiar with the visual stylizations of Attack on Titan will be treated to several tense battles. The universe created by Isayama is like Westeros in that important characters can die horribly at any point in the story, so the suspense generated by these fight scenes is gripping.

Suzukaze Ryō’s vision of the world of Attack on Titan is interesting and entertaining, even if it discloses no major revelations. The light novel style of writing makes the book a quick read, and the action scenes are fast paced and attention grabbing.

If you’re not into the animu and mangos, feel free to give this novelization a pass; but, if you’re intrigued by walled cities, government conspiracies, and postapocalyptic struggles against an incomprehensible enemy, you should totally check out Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which is the perfect blend of Attack on Titan madness and highly accessible Stephen King-style storytelling.

His Dark Materials Trilogy

This weekend I am guest posting over at Lady Geek Girl and Friends, a multi-author blog devoted to geek culture with a refreshingly feminist perspective. I adore their articles on topics such as Beauty, Morality, and Magic and The Problem of God in His Dark Materials, so I contributed an essay on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in which I talk about how weird it is that Lyra Belacqua, the amazing female protagonist of the first novel in the series, gets sidelined in favor of a less amazing male protagonist in the next two novels. I argue that it doesn’t make sense to revoke narrative interiority from that character whose nascent sexuality is the key to one of the story’s major themes, namely, the transition from innocence to experience.

The essay is divided into two parts:

In Which the Protagonist is Suddenly Male

Why I Wish the Protagonist Were Female

A Brief History of Manga

Title: A Brief History of Manga
Author: Helen McCarthy
Publication Year: 2014
Publisher: ILEX
Pages: 96

In the December 2014 issue of Otaku USA, Erin Finnegan opens her review of A Brief History of Manga by writing, “If you’re a librarian, buy this book! If you’re a school librarian, buy two copies!”

For the most part, I agree with her assessment. Helen McCarthy is a wonderful writer, and this cute little book is beautiful published, meticulously researched…

…and very unfortunately sexist.

If you don’t want to read a short essay in which I call Helen McCarthy’s work sexist – which I understand is upsetting – then feel free to scroll on by; but, if you’re still with me, please understand that the reason I’ve written this essay is because the sexism of A Brief History of Manga reflects many mainstream discourses on manga, and I find it concerning that no one has adequately challenged it.

Essentially, the vast majority of manga titles discussed in A Brief History of Manga are written and drawn by men. I counted all of the manga named in the text, and this is what I got:

Created by men: 104 titles, or 82%
Created by women: 23 titles, or 18%

Perhaps it’s simply the case that the author discusses more titles by the same big-name male manga artists but showcases many smaller, lesser known female manga artists? Nope. I counted all of the manga artists (and writers) mentioned by name in the text, and this is what I got:

Male manga artists: 87, or 81%
Female manga artists: 20, or 19%

Well, okay, but this isn’t a discussion of cinema, in which idiotic auteur cults erase the artistic contributions of everyone who isn’t The Male Director. There are plenty of people involved in the creation of manga and its promotion overseas, and they are all well worth mentioning in even a brief history of the medium. I counted all of the people who aren’t manga artists and writers mentioned by name in the text, from Frederik L. Schodt to James Cameron, and this is what I got:

Men: 64, or 95.5%
Women: 3, or 4.5%

For the record, the three women mentioned are Kurimoto Kaoru, the author of the Guin Saga fantasy series, and Yosano Akiko and Morita Tama, whose essays appeared in an early twentieth century magazine called Shōjo sekai.

What you may be wondering at this point is whether women are included in fewer numbers in a history of manga because there are in fact fewer important women in the history of manga, but oh my goodness, that is totally not true! Women have always been involved with manga, either directly as artists, indirectly as editors and assistants, or as artistic influences, cross-media marketing specialists, or overseas translators, editors, and licensing managers. There are also plenty of female manga scholars and historians – like Helen McCarthy herself!

To give you a sense of what’s been omitted by the overwhelming focus on men, here are a few key players in manga history that A Brief History of Manga glosses over or omits entirely:

* The Shōwa Year 24 Group, which includes hugely influential artists such as Ikeda Riyoko (Rose of Versailles), Hagio Moto (The Heart of Thomas), and Takemiya Keiko (To Terra). Not only were these women popular and groundbreaking manga artists, but many of them were political activists as well. They lived close to one another, worked together, shared ideas and inspirations, and changed the face of shōjo manga forever. Their work covers genres ranging from gothic romance to historical fiction to speculative sci-fi, and many scholars consider their manga to be the prototype of niche genres such as yuri and shōnen-ai. Although McCarthy devotes a two-page spread to “Fighting Females and Girl Heroes,” she spends the majority of it talking about Tezuka Osamu and Ishinomori Shōtaro, which is a shame.

* Sailor Moon. Takeuchi Naoko did not invent the magical girl genre, of course, but her work shaped it in a major way. Not only did the Sailor Moon franchise attract adult males to the genre, giving us titles such as Pretty Cure and Madoka Magica, but it was also successfully used by overseas licensing companies like Tokyopop to attract young women to anime and manga, and many artists and animators in Japan and abroad consider Sailor Moon to be a major influence.

* CLAMP. It’s true, McCarthy devotes one of her two two-page spreads exclusively featuring the work of female artists to Card Captor Sakura (she’s got thirty two-page spreads exclusively featuring the work of male artists, by the way). What McCarthy never mentions, however, is what an incredible powerhouse of artistic creativity CLAMP truly is, authoring such seminal titles as X:1999 and Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles while being intensely involved with high-profile anime franchises such as Code Geass and Blood: The Last Vampire. Their manga Chobits is particularly important in the history of manga, as it helped to spark two major trends: seinen series meant to appeal to a female demographic, and moé series about adorable innocent girls being cared for by slightly older yet socially awkward men.

* Fullmetal Alchemist. Arakawa Hiromu’s shōnen series was a major big deal in every global territory lucky enough to have it licensed. The demographic crossover appeal was engineered carefully by Square-Enix’s Monthly Shōnen Gangan magazine, which championed titles that would prove to be equally popular with male and female readers. The magazine also went out of its way to promote video game titles to female readers, which was a pretty big deal in the early-to-mid 1990s and had a major impact on domestic and overseas fandom cultures.

* Fruits Basket. Takaya Natsuki’s 23-volume shōjo series was enormously popular in North America and paved the way for a slew of other shōjo titles in translation, from Nana to Ouran High School Host Club to Vampire Knight. Here in the United States, we also got a bunch of epic sci-fi and fantasy shōjo manga from the 1980s and 1990s, such as Tamura Yumi’s Basara and Shinohara Chie’s Red River. The enthusiastic reception of all this shōjo manga inspired Tokyopop to launch OEL shōjo series like M. Alice Legrow’s Bizenghast. Although Tokyopop eventually folded, Yen Press later went on to commission enormously popular shōjo manga versions of young adult novel series such as Twilight and The Parasol Protectorate.

* Yoshinaga Fumi. Not only is her work absolutely brilliant and worthy of mention on its own merits, but it also managed to create an audience for josei manga in Europe and North America, which is an impressive accomplishment. Although Yoshinaga isn’t currently writing yaoi as much as she used to, you might argue that discussions of semipornographic manga have no place in a book meant for a broad audience. If that’s the case, though, why does McCarthy devote so much attention to the work of Nagai Gō and the infamous Legend of the Overfiend?

I’m not trying to say that Helen McCarthy is stupid or lazy or evil, or anything silly like that, but rather that she has reproduced a male-dominated narrative that is extremely unbalanced. Women are a huge driving force in the manga world, and there’s no logical reason why they should be erased from its history.

The systematic paucity of representations of women in media is referred to by the term “symbolic annihilation,” which helps to convey the violence of eliminating women from our stories. In essence, by taking women out of the history of manga, McCarthy conveys the impression that manga is a medium for men and by men shaped primarily by the great men of the past and currently dominated by men. Not only is this not true, but it also sends a clear message both to young women (STAY OUT NOT FOR YOU) and to young men (WOMEN ARE WORTHLESS KEEP THEM OUT). Imagine what it’s like for a young woman (or even an older woman such as myself) to flip to the appropriate section of A Brief History of Manga, looking for the title that defined her life and her generation, only to find that obscure niche titles are more worthy of inclusion just because they were written by men.

So Kathryn, you might be thinking, if that’s so distressing to you, why don’t you go out and publish your own book about women in manga? I have three responses to this line of thinking.

First, that’s not the point. The point is for women to be included in mainstream history, not to be accorded a separate and secondary history. The history of women’s contributions to the world should be part of the core curriculum, not an elective.

Second, I shouldn’t have to. There have been plenty of books, articles, essays, and exhibition catalogs about women in manga written in English, French, German, and of course Japanese. I know from experience that many of these publications can be found in the library of the Kyoto International Manga Museum, where McCarthy did her research.

Third, I’m trying. It’s difficult to publish anything these days, and I haven’t yet found myself at the right place at the right time with the right connections. If you’re associated with a website, magazine, or press and want to publish my work, you know where to find me.

A Brief History of Manga is an amazing little book. It will teach you things you did not know, it will draw connections between people and events you had no idea were related, and the archival images the author has chosen to include are a world of information unto themselves. Still, the inherent sexism of the book’s dominant narrative is a major flaw that is impossible to overlook.

Again, I wrote this review not to cast blame or to point fingers – I will still read everything Helen McCarthy writes while stalking her on Twitter – but rather to illuminate what I see as a disturbing trend in the way that people from many countries and cultures write about manga. Women are just as important in the history of manga as men are. Previous histories have marginalized them, but future histories don’t have to. From now on, let’s include both women and men in the conversation, okay?

A Brief History of Manga Sample Pages

Yes It's Sexist

The term “sexism” refers to:

(a) the idea that each sex has a set of related characteristics that are common to all members of that sex, and

(b) the discrimination that inevitably results from this idea.

“Is it sexist?” can be a tricky question with multiple gray areas that are open to interpretation, but it’s not rocket science.

If it’s a work of fiction, are sexist statements such as “Like all women, she was a poor driver” made not by characters (who are allowed to have stupid opinions, just like real people) but by omniscient third-person narrators or obvious author stand-in devices? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s an anthology of fiction, are 80% to 100% of the writers represented male? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a work of nonfiction, does it rely on sexist statements such as “there are no lesbians in Japanese history” as evidence to support its arguments? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s an anthology of academic nonfiction, do none of the scholars acknowledge the existence or influence of real (as opposed to fictional) women within the scope of their studies? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s an encyclopedia or other reference work, are fewer than 20% of the entries about real (as opposed to fictional) women? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a biography of a man, does it attribute every negative thing that happened in that man’s life to a woman? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a biography of a woman, does the author undermine her personal agency and criticize her decisions as not being appropriate to her gender? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a series of interviews, does the interviewer ask a different set of questions based on the sex of the person being interviewed, such as asking women about their families while asking men about their careers? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a publisher, is more than 80% of the company’s output the work of male writers and artists? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

OH NO, SOMEONE CALLED MY WORK SEXIST. WHAT NOW?????

Again, this can get complicated, but you’re not trying to land a rover on Mars here. You have two options:

(1) Flip out and starting delivering tirades against all the nasty mean people who don’t know anything and are ruining your fun with their trite and ignorant libel. You may want to use the term “feminazi,” because someone pointing out that women are people is just like Hitler invading Poland. Obviously.

(2) Take a break and eat a sandwich or something. Once you’ve calmed down, recognize that your accuser may have a point. If you’re an author or a press, meditate on the statistics concerning how much money women spend on books, and take some time to think about how many choices people have in terms of where they get their reading material.

In conclusion, books are for smart people, but sexism is stupid. The end.

Death and the Flower

Title: Death and the Flower
Japanese Title: 死と生の幻想 (Sei to shi no gensō)
Author: Suzuki Kōji (鈴木 光司)
Translators: Maya Robinson and Camellia Nieh
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 1995 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 222

Death and the Flower is beautifully printed. Its paper is deliciously creamy, and its gorgeously designed book cover and dust jacket complement each other perfectly. Veritcal’s hardcover edition is one of those books that makes me happy that publishers still put time and effort into putting out physical books that you can hold in your hands and admire on your bookshelf.

But the stories themselves? They’re not really all that great.

In his Afterword, Suzuki writes:

I tried collecting six works with a common theme – a theme represented by the words “diapers and a race replica.” The softness and warmth of diapers, the speed and power of a racer’s motorbike – I wished to express a balance of the maternal and the paternal by placing symbols of femininity and masculinity side by side.

What this essentially means is that each story is about a father who undergoes various hardships for the direct or indirect benefit of his wife and/or daughter(s), who are nothing more than empty symbols vaguely characterized by emotional damage and blind need. In other words, men are capable of embodying “a balance of the maternal and the paternal,” and girls and women exist merely for the sake of helping men undergo character development in order to realize their full potential. These female characters don’t need to have names, or thoughts, or feelings, or any sort of identities save for their relation to the male heroes.

This in and of itself is not necessarily bad. However, if everything in piece of fiction is going to be diegetically subservient to the ego of the protagonist, then I would prefer for the protagonist to be interesting. Unfortunately, none of Suzuki’s characters really grabbed my attention or sympathy. Instead, just as the female characters of this collection are almost platonic embodiments of Object, each male character isn’t a great deal more than a Subject with a few shallow personality traits pathetically attached like a handful of cheap ornaments haphazardly stuck onto an otherwise bare Christmas tree.

The first story in the collection, “Disposable Diapers and a Race Replica,” can serve to illustrate my point.

The narrator, an obvious author stand-in character, quits his job to devote himself to his writing and the care of his infant daughter. To help his wife make ends meet, he moonlights as a private tutor. His current client is a delinquent high school student who has begun to skip out on tutoring sessions after the school system fails to reward him for his increased efforts, so the narrator tracks him down on his motorcycle and is driven off the road and nearly killed by the kid’s friends. The next day, the narrator shows up unexpectedly at the kid’s house and beats the crap out of him in order to figure out where the driver who almost killed him lives. He then proceeds to go to the other kid’s house and, finding him not at home, beats the crap out of the kid’s car. After he’s satisfied himself, the narrator encounters the driver and condescends to not beat the crap out of him because he, the narrator, is actually a good guy deep down inside. The only thing that saved him from dying when his bike crashed was the huge bag of diapers he had tethered to the back of the bike, you see, and this is some kind of message about how he needs to stop jumping headfirst into fights, even though he could totally win them if he did get into them, because of course he could – he’s just that kind of guy.

Since the narrator interacts with the other male characters by yelling and punching, his character development is guided by his interactions with the story’s two female characters, his student’s mother and his wife. The narrator tries to be kind to his student’s mother, even though privately he thinks she’s a weak and ineffectual parent. This must be because, being a woman, she isn’t clever enough to know that you need to threaten to beat the crap out of boys to make them respect you. As a mentor and role model, the narrator is thus defined by what he is not – female, and thus “stupid.” Meanwhile, the narrator’s wife is a delicate flower who must not be upset or disturbed under any circumstances, as she has some sort of nervous disorder. This disorder is typified by the anxiety she demonstrated when he effectively abandoned her during their engagement to go live on a tuna fishing boat for a year. Why was she so upset about this, and why is she concerned about his level of commitment to their relationship? It must be because of her nervous disorder, obviously. Women and their unreasonable hysteria, amirite? Anyway, as a father and caregiver, the narrator is again defined by what he is not – female, and thus “crazy.”

Character development through negative contrast does not make for good storytelling, especially when the primary conflicts of a story hinges on an internal crisis of its protagonist. In Death and the Flower, each such crisis is resolved by a realization of something along the lines of “I am a burly hairy dangerous manly alpha male, but I need to embrace my more ‘feminine’ side so that I can better protect the utterly helpless women in my life.” Maybe this is just me, but I don’t find that sort of resolution too terribly compelling. For a such a revelation to be truly interesting, there need to be more 1980s seinen manga style swords and/or psychic power attacks demonstrating how a small compromise in an otherwise unadulterated beefcake masculine identity can constitute a genuine sacrifice.

What Suzuki excels at in Death and the Flower are his descriptions of urban and natural landscapes. I was particularly impressed by the third story in the collection, “Key West,” in which a father leaves his young daughter in a rental car by the side of a highway in Florida to walk out to a small offshore island connected to the coast by a sandbar. On the island, the father encounters an abandoned settlement overgrown with jungle. Although his parenting skills leave much to be desired, the father’s accounts of the greenery and derelict buildings, the comparisons he makes to his home in Tokyo, and his detailed examination of the complicated feelings the island evokes in him are all magnificent. The simultaneously intense yet hazy quality of the fever dreams he experiences after being bitten by a sea snake is also expertly conveyed by the author. That being said, the father’s grief for his dead wife as expressed by his half-hearted desire to protect his daughter is largely undeveloped and feels out of place within the larger themes of the story, which mainly seem to involve the narrator’s fear of his own encroaching middle age.

To return to the collection’s Afterword, Suzuki writes:

“Only a peaceful and safe world is worth living in” – far too many people seem to think so.

Putting aside the tastelessness of such a statement, I think the author’s writing is indeed at its best when his characters have a worthy antagonist to battle. The major draw of Ring, for instance, is Sadako, the evil girl who spews her curses out into the world from inside a well. The longest story in Death and the Flower, “Beyond the Darkness,” is perhaps the strongest, as its father protagonist character is provided with a creepy stalker to serve as an acceptable outlet for his anger and tendency toward physical violence. As introspection-driven character pieces, however, the rest of the stories in the collection fall flat.

If you’re a Suzuki completionist, Death and the Flower is of interest for its prototypes of the author’s major themes and character archetypes. If you’re looking for good horror fiction or just some good short stories, though, it’s probably best to ignore the pretty cover and take a pass on this collection.

Part Three – On Final Fantasy

Sazh and Dajh from Final Fantasy  XIII

It was by playing Pokémon X/Y and seeing for myself how easily and naturally racial and ethnic diversity can be represented in video games that I began to grow concerned over how other Japanese games, such as those in the Final Fantasy series, marginalize diversity. Final Fantasy VI has one person of color, General Leo. Final Fantasy VII has one person of color, Barret Wallace. Final Fantasy VIII also has one person of color, Laguna’s comrade Kiros. Final Fantasy XIII, the most recent of the one-player console-based Final Fantasy games, has two people of color: Sazh and his son Dajh.

Unlike the Tales franchise, which is almost exclusively populated by light-skinned anime people, the inclusion of racial minorities in the increasingly photorealistic Final Fantasy series only serves to highlight the relative lack of diversity in the games. In such games, the race of minority characters seems to be either window dressing (a superficial visual element that does not affect the character or story in any way) or character dressing (that lends the character a minor personality trait, such as occasional outbursts of “sassy black attitude” ). Although it’s important that people from racial and ethnic minorities can be major named characters in blockbuster video games, I still can’t help but wonder why it’s so hard to have racial diversity in a game filled with tons of NPCs (non-player characters).

That being said, Final Fantasy IX started to lead the series down a parallel path in which diversity was represented less by the skin color of human beings and more by a plethora of fantasy races. Zidane, the main character of Final Fantasy IX, is a social outsider who is made even more of an outsider by his tail, and his love interest, Princess Garnet, has a horn, which was removed when she was a child to make her appear more like the dominant race of the kingdom into which she was adopted. Other characters in your party include Freya, an anthropomorphic mouse-like person whose race has suffered greatly at the hands of Princess Garnet’s kingdom, and the black mage Vivi, who race has been bred and enslaved by the game’s central antagonist. In this game, fantasy races thus serve as ciphers for social discrimination and political oppression.

Kimahri Ronso from Final Fantasy  X

The theme of discrimination returns in Final Fantasy X, in which two playable characters, Rikku and Kimahri, both face discrimination from the dominant racial and ethnic groups of sentient beings that populate the game’s world, including certain members of your own party, who gradually grow as characters over the course of the game as they begin to understand that such distinctions have been created and maintained for political reasons and meaningless on the level of the personal and the individual. The game’s main antagonist has been driven to purge the world of sentient life by having witnessed the suffering of his parents, who were both ostracized for marrying outside of their race/ethnicity. Final Fantasy X has strong references to real-world historical concerns, such as Japanese military and cultural imperialism during the first half of the twentieth century, so it is far from accidental that racial and ethnic tensions occupy a central position in the game’s story.

Fran and Balthier from Final Fantasy  XII

The Ivalice of Final Fantasy XII is a true diaspora occupied by a dazzling array of peoples and individuals who have been forced out of their homelands by war or who have left their homelands to seek profit and adventure in the wider world. Two of the game’s main characters are Balthier and Fran, a Hume and a Viera who work together as a team on completely equal footing with each other. Both have left prosperous yet culturally closed cities and positions of power to become opportunistic sky pirates, thus serving as representatives of the exciting potential of diversity in a truly open world.

This is not to say that the game fails to represent discrimination, however. Arcades, the capital city of the Arcadian Empire, is dominated by the Hume race, and many of its citizens display appalling attitudes towards other races, attitudes that are clearly presented in a negative light and meant to be disgusting to the player. For instance, this gentleman in the Arcadian airport, who compares members of the Seeq race to livestock, comes off as rather pig-headed himself.

Seeq-Hater from Final Fantasy XII

The Seeq themselves comment on the relative privilege enjoyed by members of the Hume race, as we can see in this example of a Seeq day laborer involved in an imperial public works project.

Itinerant Hand from Final Fantasy XII Dialog 1

Itinerant Hand from Final Fantasy XII Dialog 2

It’s difficult to say that Final Fantasy XII handles racial diversity in the best or most politically correct manner, but at least it manages to populate its world with several different races who mix freely in all but one of the game’s large urban areas. Moreover, there are dozens if not hundreds of individuals of each race with whom the player can interact, and these individuals demonstrate a wide range of personalities and abilities that seem to be determined more by occupation and social class than by innate predisposition.

What these examples show us is not that games in the Final Fantasy series eschew racial and ethnic issues and fail to represent diversity and discrimination, but rather that they tend to do so using fantasy races. In other words, real-world diversity and issues relating to the differences that can arise between nations and cultures are expressed not just through real-world races and ethnic groups, which are often loaded down with historical baggage, but also through fantasy races, which are capable of suggesting interpretations without forcing them.

Some Japanese video games, such as those from the Metal Gear, Tekken, and Yakuza series, portray real-world races, ethnicities, and nationalities. Video games developed in North America and Europe and set in versions of the contemporary or near-future world include characters associated with various racial, ethnic, and national groups as well. Because of the real-world history of conflicts between these groups, however, these portrayals can have unintended and unfortunate implications. For example, in the opening chapter of The Last of Us, which takes place in in a dystopian version of Boston, a white female support character who accompanies the white male protagonist shoots a black man in the face. Ouch. Moreover, when a game allows a character to be defined by his or her race or nationality, it treads over thin ice encrusting an enormous ocean of offensive stereotypes. It’s therefore difficult for video games – or any type of media – to make a statement about racial or ethnic issues without running the risk of representing members of specific races and ethnicities in a problematic manner. This is one of the reasons why fantasy races can be extremely useful when dealing with representations of diversity and discrimination.

Two influential progenitors of fantasy races often brought up in discussions of diversity in popular media are the Lord of the Rings novels (including The Hobbit and The Silmarillion) and the Star Trek franchise. Both sources handle diversity in complicated and interesting ways, but they are also somewhat limited in what they are able to achieve. What role playing games in particular can do really well is to allow the player to identify with characters from minority groups by encouraging the player to invest time and attention into the stories and personal growth of these characters. By effectively becoming a minority character, the player shares the character’s life experience not as a statistic or a stereotype but as an individual. In this regard, fantasy races can help ease the burden of empathy for players of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities.

Moreover, role playing games can accommodate vast numbers of NPCs (non-player characters) who exist not as enemies or service providers (such as inn keepers) but rather as characters with their own stories whose presence in the game serves to make its world more rich and immerse. Diversity in NPCs not only makes a game more interesting and imaginative but also allows its developers to hint at events occurring outside the realm of the heroes’ immediate attention. Sure, the player might be controlling a rebel group fighting an evil empire, but what does this empire actually mean to different groups of people, and how does it affect their everyday lives? This is especially true in online MMORPGs, where the players themselves can choose the fantasy race with which they’ll identify while completely ignoring any race-based stereotypes the game’s developers may have chosen to suggest or reinforce.

Final Fantasy XI Playable Races

In conclusion, Japanese role playing video games have the potential to offer international gamers a different perspective on race and ethnicity than the ones to which they have become accustomed. By incorporating fantasy races into the worlds and stories of their games, developers are able to represent both the potential and the challenges of diversity in a manner that is more universally accessible to gamers coming from a myriad of social and political backgrounds. As Japanese video games become more sophisticated and more complex, it’s only natural that they also come to better reflect the amazing diversity of their global audience.

* * * * *

If you’re interested in reading more about diversity in Japan and in popular media, I’d like to recommend three works that strongly influenced me.

The first is Lennard Davis’s The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era (2014), which is an interesting update on identity politics in contemporary America.

The second is Yoshio Sugimoto’s An Introduction to Japanese Society (2010). Yes, it’s an introductory textbook, but it offers a wealth of useful information and statistics, and the author’s style of writing is clear and concise.

The third is a three-part series of essays by Thomas Lamarre on speciesism in anime. The first part, “Translating Races into Animals in Wartime Animation,” can be found in Mechademia 3 (2008). The second part, “Tezuka Osamu and the Multispecies Ideal,” can be found in Mechademia 5 (2010). The third part, “Neoteny and the Politics of Life,” can be found in Mechademia 6 (2011).

* * * * *

I’d also like to link to six fantastic online essays and one wiki article about race, media, and fandom that helped me put my thoughts into perspective as I was writing.

Missing Polygons: Asians, Race, and Video Games

Reactions to the ANA Commercial, White-Face, and Racism in Japan

If Tolkien Were Black

Is Being Ambiguously Black a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

RaceFail ’09

Race Representation in Media and Online Fandom

Cosplaying While Black

Sahz and Vanille in Nautilus Cosplay

Part One – On Cultural Difference
Part Two – On Pokémon

Part Two – On Pokémon

Lenora from Pokémon BW

This essay is intended to be a short introduction to issues relating to race in Japanese video games. I’m going to talk about the two most recent Pokémon games in this segment before moving on to the Final Fantasy franchise in the next segment, but first I’d like to give a quick overview of racial and ethnic issues in real-world Japan.

Japan is often characterized as “a homogenous society,” an expression often taken to mean that the country is culturally homogenous, politically homogenous, linguistically homogenous, religiously homogenous, economically homogenous, and racially homogenous. Disproving any of these assumptions is so ridiculously easy that I won’t waste our time by doing so, so let it simply suffice to say that none of them are correct: There is a great deal of cultural, political, linguistic, religious, and economic diversity in Japan, and these diversities lead to the same sort of conflicts and opportunities resulting from similar diversities in the United States.

Racial diversity is a bit more complicated, so allow me to provide some statistics taken from the English-language Wikipedia entry on Demographics of Japan, which summarizes data gathered by the Japanese government in its 2010 population census. Japan currently has the tenth highest population in the world, with between 127,000,000 and 128,000,000 people, of whom roughly 500,000 live abroad. 2,039,000 people, or about 1.6% of Japan’s local resident population, are foreign nationals, most of whom are from China, Korea, and other countries in East and Southeast Asia (although 10% are from Brazil). There are also generally around 50,000 U.S. citizens living in Japan at any given time, as well as an additional 30,000 members of the U.S. military stationed in Japanese territories. The other 125,000,000 people in Japan, or 98% of the population, are of the dominant ethnicity, who are sometimes referred to as “Yamato people.”

In comparison, California had a little more than 37,000,000 people in 2010, 37.6% of whom self-identified as Hispanic and 14.9% of whom self-identified as Asian. Even taking into account its ethnic minorities, such as the Burakumin of western Japan, the Ainu of northern Japan, and the Ryūkyūan Islanders of Okinawa Prefecture, Japan does at first glance seem fairly racially homogenous, at least from a relative perspective.

This is not to say that there is no discrimination in Japan, as even members of the dominant ethnic group can face unnecessary hardships for having the wrong skin tone, hair texture, or dexterous hand (or blood type). Human beings are terrible creatures, and they will find ways to discriminate against one another regardless of what classifiers they’re given to work with. It may be appropriate to point out at this juncture that race is not real – at least not in the sense that it is something that can be scientifically quantified, either genetically, taxonomically, or phenotypically. Race is entirely socially constructed, and different societies construct racial divisions in different ways. Because we’re social animals, race feels very real to us, and the sociological behaviors governed by such perceptions are undeniable. Still, the constructions of race common in the United States, as well as the histories associated with these constructions, do not map perfectly onto Japanese society, just as they don’t map perfectly onto British or Brazilian or Bosnian society. It is therefore reasonable to expect that Japanese texts deal with issues relating to race in different ways that do American texts.

So how is race portrayed in Japanese video games?

I decided to approach the topic by looking at the two most recent generations of Pokémon games, Pokémon Black/White and Pokémon X/Y. Pokémon Black/White is set in the Unova Region, which based loosely on New York City and its adjoining suburbs, while Pokémon X/Y is set in the Kalos Region, which is based loosely on France.

Despite the incredible racial diversity of New York and New Jersey, there were only three named people of color (POC) in Pokémon Black/White: Lenora, Iris, and Marshal. Aside from those three characters, everyone else in the entire game is either Japanese or Caucasian, depending on how you interpret the default light-skinned anime person.

In contrast, in Pokémon X/Y, which enjoyed a simultaneous release across multiple global territories, Grant and possibly Olympia are the only named “black” characters, but just about anyone else, from the player-protagonist character to the NPCs in the towns and cities to the other trainers that ambush you in the wild, can be one of three races: default light-skinned anime person, definitely white, or a sort of pan-POC race.

Pokémon XY Trainer Select Screen

This configuration does three things. First, it sets up “white” (as coded by light blond hair, pale blue eyes, and slightly pinkish skin) as the only definite racial classification. Second, it literally sets up “default light-skinned anime person” as the default, which is interesting in that “default light-skinned anime person” is clearly not the same as “white.” In territories like America and Europe, people of Asian descent are perceived as POC; but, in this game made in Japan, the non-“white” classification is the default race: You look are a stick figure (in this case, the “default light-skinned anime person” player-protagonist character) and see a Japanese/”Asian” person. Third, whereas Grant is probably of African or Caribbean descent (as coded by his darker skin and afro-textured hair), the “pan-POC” race erases racial difference more than it emphasizes it. This “pan-POC” race could be interpreted as Latin American, or as Middle Eastern, or as Pacific Islander, or as mixed race – or however the player would like to interpret it, really.

Grant from Pokémon XY

I don’t want to make value judgments about the implications of this configuration, and I’m not going to veer off on a long tangent by problematizing my own interpretation of these races in light of different theories of resistant reading. However, I do want to say that the games make it completely natural for people of different races to be everywhere and in every profession without any sort of racial stereotyping – or any mention of race at all. Even areas that are meant to be almost stereotypically French, such as Aquacorde Town and Laverre City, have the same mixture of in-game races as the more cosmopolitan areas. The only people belonging to a race that is explicitly identified take the form of various NPC “tourist” trainers, who are given Japanese names and based on stereotypes of Japanese travelers, but perhaps, coming from the perspective of Japanese developers who traveled to France to do fieldwork, such caricatures are not malicious but light-heartedly self-referential. In any case, in the most basic terms of the representation of racial diversity, Pokémon X/Y is head and shoulders over its predecessors in the Pokémon franchise.

Rising Star Didier from Pokémon XY

The Pokémon games have always been set in a utopian version of the contemporary world in which humankind lives more or less in harmony with nature despite not having sacrificed any modern comforts. In such a world, young women and men can travel freely without having to worry about their safety, and roads and communities are structured to accommodate a society completely without cars, which allows people of all ages and from all walks of life to spend time outside wherever and whenever they desire. One of the player’s main goals in each game is to prevent a criminal or activist organization from disrupting this eco-paradise by monopolizing or otherwise exploiting natural resources. In other words, the status quo of the Pokémon games is a society in which people live together peacefully and happily in a close and respectful relationship with the natural world.

In such an environment, there is almost no discrimination on the basis on economic class, or religious affiliation, or on the basis of sex, gender, or sexual orientation. There are even a few transgender characters dotting the Pokémon landscape, and there are almost no gendered pronouns floating around to suggest that performance of gender does or doesn’t correspond to physical sex (no one refers to the “boy” player-protagonist character as “he” or “him,” or to the “girl” player-protagonist character as “she” or “her” in the English translations, for example). It would make sense, then, for race to be treated in the same manner, namely, as mere window dressing that says nothing about the personality or abilities of the character in question.

One might argue that it is irresponsible of the Pokémon developers to release Pokémon X/Y simultaneously across several global territories without attempting to address the real-world social and historical issues related to race, which is after all a major new addition to the franchise in the most recent generations of games. I would counter this argument by suggesting that the Pokémon games engage with the real world not by offering direct critique but rather by serving as a model of what an ideal world would look like and encouraging the player to defend this world from those who would despoil it. By making absolute and unquestioned racial equality a characterizing feature of this utopian society, Pokémon X/Y – and Pokémon Black/White to a lesser degree – encourage the player to become invested in parrying any challenges to this ideal. A player can thus spend well upwards of fifty hours enjoying the benefits of a society in which race is never a critical or problematic issue, and in which obvious truths like “racism is stupid and wrong” never need to be stated outright.

Pokémon XY Female Protagonist

The above art is by Pixiv user Rina.
(Thanks to Kaitou-Al for the link!)

Part One – On Cultural Difference
Part Three – On Final Fantasy