The End of the Line for the Shinra Corporation

One of the most iconic images of Final Fantasy VII is Cloud standing tall as he faces the dark tower of the Shinra corporate headquarters. Over the meandering course of its expansive story, Final Fantasy VII changes direction and shifts focus, but its story holds fast to the end goal of saving the world from a crisis created by Shinra. Even if there were no interstellar demons or mad scientists, the planet would never have survived were it not for a small group of activists who dared to challenge the most powerful corporation in the world.

Many players may have initially questioned the morals of Barret Wallace, the leader of the ragtag group of guerilla activists calling themselves Avalanche, but Barret’s anger and frustration prove to be justified when Shinra brings an entire section of the suspended concrete city of Midgar down on the slums, just as it had once ruined the towns of Corel and Nibelheim. The Shinra Electric Power Company authors its own demise with its destruction of the environment and the people whose lives depend on the land. It seems therefore natural, and perhaps even validating, when Shinra’s massive office tower becomes the target of an avenging meteor.

But why was the fantasy of saving the world from an evil corporation so powerful and pervasive in Japan, a wealthy country famous for its powerful economy?

This essay situates Final Fantasy VII within the political and cultural context of the 1990s, a decade of economic depression characterized by social malaise in Japan. I will begin by explaining the collusion between Japan’s public and private sectors before sketching an outline of how local groups protested and disrupted corporate destruction of the natural environment. I will then discuss how Avalanche reflects real-world grassroots environmental activism in Japan. I hope to demonstrate that, while Cloud and Aerith become heroes by saving the planet from a magical meteor, Barret and Tifa’s stand against the Shinra Corporation is just as brave and inspiring.

Japan’s postwar economic recovery was admired throughout the world, and the country boasted the second-largest global economy by the 1980s, when it was considered to be a serious threat to American economic hegemony. Japan’s swift economic recovery was facilitated by the coordination of the country’s “iron triangle” of elected officials, career bureaucrats, and large corporations known as keiretsu.

The expression keiretsu designates a “grouping of enterprises,” and it primarily refers to holding companies that oversee a diverse range of business interests. To give an example, the Mitsubishi keiretsu controls holdings ranging from Japan’s largest private bank to automobile manufacturing plants, as well as an electronics company that produces everything from industrial robots to home appliances. The economic activities of keiretsu like Mitsubishi were enabled by bureaucratic subsidies and adjustments to corporate law, which were in turn engineered by politicians, many of whom also served on the board of directors of various keiretsu. Through the coordination of activity between the public and private sectors, Japan’s economy was able to expand at a rate that amazed even the United States.

When Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997, however, Japan was deep into what has become known as “the Lost Decade,” a period of severe economic depression. Like the global financial crisis of 2008, Japan’s Lost Decade was partially the result of the implosion of a real-estate speculation bubble. Essentially, financial companies made investments without the necessary capital to back their speculation. When they defaulted on their loans and went bankrupt, the entire economy spiraled into a tailspin.

Salaried workers lost their jobs, and middle-class families lost their houses and apartments. People working for hourly wages at the bottom of the economic ladder, a demographic that included foreign nationals and the vast majority of the female workforce, fell into even greater financial precarity. Average middle-class company employees who had sacrificed their personal lives while working long hours could do nothing but watch as their savings evaporate and their investments become worthless.

The fall of the mighty keiretsu resulted in deep cultural tremors. Along with the widespread social unrest that unseated Japan’s long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party, there was an intellectual pushback against the economic philosophy now known as neoliberalism, which refers to a return to nineteenth-century “liberal” policies that hold that the market functions best when unregulated. Not only had the unregulated activities of the keiretsu ultimately resulted in economic collapse and social instability, but the incestuous relationship between the national government, local bureaucracies, and corporate interests was also responsible for unnecessary and absurd incidents of environmental destruction.

The radical activist group Avalanche is representative of growing public support for ecological movements in Japan during the 1990s as coverage of horrific cases of industrial pollution began to appear in the media. Japan ultimately took a leadership position in various protocols of the United Nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global climate change, but these top-down initiatives would never have been possible without the ongoing grassroots activism of local groups like Avalanche.

The 1960s saw the rise of Japanese environmental activism. Environmentalism was tied to other prominent activist movements of the decade, such as protests against American military conflicts in East Asia and demands to end institutional discrimination against women and ethnic minorities. In 1970, the Japanese Diet passed a number of laws regulating industrial pollution, thus ending the discharge of dangerous chemicals such as mercury and arsenic into rivers and ocean harbors.

Because of the Iron Triangle collusion driving Japan’s rapid economic growth, the bureaucratic systems in charge of enforcing environmental regulations worked with elected officials, many of whom had close ties to keiretsu with holdings in construction and real estate. The former environmental threat of pollution from mines and factories was therefore replaced by the threat of land development as municipally owned forests, riverbanks, and other uninhabited areas were sold to private business interests and cleared in order to build apartment complexes and shopping centers.

Essentially, the government facilitated the sale of public land to corporations, which destroyed natural environments for short-term economic gain. In Japan, the “economic bubble” years of the 1980s are notorious for absurd development projects in remote areas that included malls, museums, and amusement parks that have since closed and been abandoned. Contracting companies with ties to politicians and bureaucrats also received government funding to build unused bridges and tunnels in the countryside while needlessly coating mountainsides and shorelines with concrete reinforcement.

Widespread popular protest movements had become rare by the early 1980s. Nevertheless, local citizen’s groups once again banded together to take action against environmental destruction during the early 1990s. Along with raising public awareness, these groups pooled their resources to file lawsuits against corporations and buy land under consideration for development. A few high-profile cases, such as acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki’s ongoing efforts to conserve a forest in Saitama, have been celebrated by the international news media, but most of these activist groups were treated as nuisances, as their activities intentionally disrupted corporate development.

Barret Wallace is very much a representative of the “disruptive” guerilla activism that characterized Japan’s local environmental movements during the 1980s and 1990s. Barret saw his hometown of Corel exploited and abandoned, and he has firsthand experience of the emptiness of Shinra’s promises to create a better future. Barret initially supported Shinra’s plans to build a reactor on Mt. Corel, as the town’s mining economy had fallen into a gradual decline as a result of the spread of mako energy. At the slightest hint of trouble, however, Shinra burned Corel and converted it into a prison. Barret therefore understands from firsthand experience that it’s not possible to peacefully disagree with Shinra, as the corporation is essentially the government, legal system, and military.

Tifa, whose hometown of Nibelheim was destroyed by Shinra in order to protect its assets, also understands that Shinra cannot be resisted using conventional means. Unlike Barret, who is interested in combating a corrupt system, Tifa seems to be more concerned with nurturing personal relationships and protecting her community. Barret and Tifa’s goals are not in opposition, however. “Protecting the planet” is a lofty ambition, but environmental activism in Japan is grounded in the efforts of local communities attempting to deal with the effects of industrial pollution and overdevelopment in specific areas. Activist groups have often formed around small community meeting spaces like Tifa’s Seventh Heaven bar, especially as public spaces have become increasingly corporate owned.

In the Final Fantasy VII Remake, Avalanche is a large paramilitary organization with multiple branches; but, in the original release, Avalanche is exactly what Japanese environmental activist groups are like in real life – small, local, underfunded, and dependent on community support and grassroots communication networks. Midgar may have been partially based on New York City, but the spray-painted slogans and paper billets that appear both above and below the city’s plate reflect the real-life edginess of Japanese activism, where graffiti in public places is rare and extremely eye-catching. This style of grassroots outreach occurred online as well. It’s easy to imagine Jessie, the tech guru of Avalanche, making the sort of clunky but charmingly hand-assembled website associated with Japanese activist groups.

This DIY style of environmental activism isn’t about the countercultural aesthetic of “punk” or “street,” nor is it mystical or intellectual, like the scientists in Cosmo Canyon who sit around the fire and gaze at the stars while pondering the nature of the universe. Rather, the people involved in activist groups are often older, with jobs and families and strong ties to the community. Disenfranchised but politically active people like Barret and local business owners like Tifa understand from personal experience that you can’t fight Shinra with academic monographs or polite editorials. Direct action is necessary, even if it’s uncomfortable and disruptive.

When Cloud returns to himself after falling into the Lifestream, Barret and Tifa encourage him to continue their quest to protect the planet. Whether it’s standing up to the destructive excesses of a large corporation or preventing the fall of a magical meteor, the actions taken to ensure the survival of humanity are important and necessary, even if the cause may seem hopeless. As Barret says, “You gotta understand that there ain’t no gettin’ of this train we’re on, till we get to the end of the line.” Midgar, Corel, and Nibelheim may be fictional, but human suffering caused by environmental destruction is real. Final Fantasy VII therefore functions as a form of modern storytelling that enables the children of the 1990s to understand why conglomerates like the Shinra Corporation failed while serving as a model demonstrating just how heroic it is to protect the planet.

. . . . . . . . . .

Selected References

Journalist and translator Matt Alt possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese popular culture, and his book Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World (2020, Crown) discusses the Lost Decade and its influence on various aspects of media from the 1990s.

Simon Avenell’s Transnational Japan in the Global Environmental Movement (2018, University of Hawai’i Press) features an overview of postwar environmental activism and discusses its reemergence in the 1990s as local groups protested environmental degradation due to corporate development.

Alexander Brown’s Anti-Nuclear Protest in Post-Fukushima Tokyo (2018, Routledge) provides a solid background on contemporary environmental activism in Japan and demonstrates how the ethos of local citizen’s movements has carried over to the present day.

Rachael Hutchinson’s Japanese Culture Through Videogames (2019, Routledge) serves as an excellent model for how to discuss the “Japaneseness” of JRPGs and includes an insightful and meticulously researched chapter on Final Fantasy VII.

Matt Leone’s 500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII (2018, Read-Only Memory), which is based on a lengthy Polygon article of the same name, contains a fascinating account of Squaresoft before the studio became a giant, Shinra-esque corporate media conglomerate.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015, Princeton University Press) details a few case studies of local citizen’s groups around Kyoto banding together to purchase forests threatened with development.

. . . . . . . . . .

This essay is my contribution to Return to the Planet, a fanzine celebrating the original 1997 release of Final Fantasy VII. The zine is free to download and filled with stunning artwork, moving fiction, and insightful meta essays. You can check out the zine on its website (here) and preview the contributors’ work on Twitter (here).

Shinto and Environmentalism in The Legend of Zelda

Koroks from The Wind Waker

I recently published another essay on FemHype, one of my favorite gaming websites. This one is about how Shinto, as an influence on video game creators, is complicated, nuanced, and mixed with other elements of Japanese cultural history. I demonstrate that Shinto is somewhat nebulous as a creative influence, and I argue that grassroots movements and an international interest in the themes and tropes of high fantasy are equally influential in the development of Japanese games in the 1980s.

Here’s a short excerpt:

What are “the teachings of Shintoism,” exactly? And what do they have to do with Japanese video games? I’d like to demonstrate that Shinto—as a broad amalgamation of local folk religions in Japan—is not particularly well-defined as a cultural influence on video games. Moreover, Shinto is only one of the contributing factors in Japanese attitudes regarding the environment.

Although it would certainly be interesting and productive to identify the specifically Shinto elements in The Legend of Zelda series, I think it also makes sense to place the games within the context of ecological conservation movements in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, it’s worthwhile to consider the more universal elements of international fantasy storytelling that appealed to people in the nascent console gaming industry.

You can read the full article on FemHype.

Yoshi’s Woolly World & Mellow Mode

Yoshi's Woolly World Bowser Fight

I have fantastic news! An essay I wrote on accessibility and gaming has been published on FemHype, one of my favorite gaming websites. I argue that different people play games for different reasons and that the customization of difficulty settings both accommodates a diversity of players and broadens the potential of the game itself.

Here’s a short excerpt:

As video games continue to evolve into ever more gorgeous works of visually stunning storytelling, it’s only natural that they have begun to attract larger and more diverse audiences. These players will have different skill sets and expectations, and many of them may come to gaming with goals that have nothing to do with high scores or kill counts.

This is why I believe that built-in gameplay features such as the Mellow Mode in Yoshi’s Woolly World are important in making games accessible to people who fall outside of the narrow parameters that currently define many industry standards regarding who gamers are and what they want from the experience of gaming.

You can read the full article on FemHype.

Linkle, the Female Gaze, and the Sailor Moon Paradox

Or, is Linkle’s character design sexist garbage?

My answer: NOT NECESSARILY.

Linkle is a female version of Link, the green-clad hero of The Legend of Zelda video game franchise. The character Linkle was formulated for possible inclusion in the 2014 Wii U title Hyrule Warriors, an action game in the Dynasty Warriors vein developed by Koei Tecmo in collaboration with Nintendo. In the Nintendo Direct video message broadcast on November 12, it was announced that Linkle would be a playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends, a port of the game for the Nintendo 3DS.

The internet exploded, with some fans going wild with glee and other fans becoming consumed with righteous feminist anger.

Before anything, let’s look at the design itself.

HW Legends Linkle in Famitsu

The design element that stands out the most is the exposed flesh between Linkle’s boots and her black shorts. In anime-speak, this design element is known as zettai ryōiki, or “absolute territory.” I don’t want to get into the history and context of this expression here, but basically, the bit of naked skin between the top of a female character’s leggings and the bottom of her skirt is the area where all the moé feels are.

If you’re a queer lady or a straight dude, you’ll probably understand this already, but I want to make the sexualized appeal of this design element absolutely clear. The zettai ryōiki suggests the coveted thigh gap (the desire for which transcends culture) even if the character is wearing a skirt or tunic. The insides of a woman’s upper thighs are soft and smooth and heavenly; and, although this area of the body is generally hidden, the zettai ryōiki exposes it to the viewer, who can run their eyes (and imagined hands) up the curves of the character’s legs and into the promised land between them.

So, is Linkle’s design sexualized?

OH MY GOODNESS YES.

In addition, feminist critics have decried how Linkle seems subordinate to the male Link and merely tacked onto a spinoff of a spinoff game in order to reinforce the idea that the star of the really important games will always be male. These are the sort of comments that have been going around:

“Are we really this satisfied with crumbs, people? Is the bar that low?”
I Love Linkle. But Linkle Is Not Enough.
(by Maddy Meyers, via The Mary Sue)

“The message was clear: Shut the fuck up and be happy with what little you get.”
The Legend of F. Scott: A Response to the Response to the Response to Linkle
(by Carolyn Petit, via Tumblr)

Regardless, a number of female artists and Zelda fans have been celebrating Linkle’s inclusion as a playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends with enthusiastic joy. What’s going on here?

I’m going to argue that this is the female gaze at work.

The dreaded “male gaze” as classically formulated casts men as subjects. This means male characters have agency and interiority, and female characters are just there to serve the needs of the male characters and male viewers. In contrast, the female gaze treats female characters as subjects, even in media intentionally (or unintentionally) designed to cater to a male audience.

Part of the female gaze lies in objectifying male characters, which is not unproblematic but perfectly natural – and one might even say that it’s borderline radical in its resistance against mainstream configurations of gender. Many female-identified gamers have crushes on Link, who embodies an attractive “soft” masculinity and respects and cares for the women in his many lives. In addition, many gamers of all genders have not-so-secret crushes on the villainous Ganondorf, whose design in Ocarina of Time features its own zettai ryōiki.

That being said, the main function of the female gaze is to perceive female characters as self-defined subjects and not merely as sexualized objects of male desire. This brings me to something I call “the Sailor Moon paradox.”

When Sailor Moon first aired in the 1990s, feminist media critics hated it, saying that its appeal revolved entirely around the oversexualized bodies of teenage girls. This is not wrong, as Sailor Moon had and still has legions of older straight male fans who create and consume porn based on the characters.

Nevertheless, girls from elementary school to college loved both the anime and manga versions of Sailor Moon, which became a foundational geek girl text all over the world, from Japan to Indonesia to Russia to France to Brazil to the United States. Why?

The 1980s and early 1990s were a period of transition out of the conservative cultural backlash against sexual liberalism. “Good girls” didn’t show skin, and influential feminists encouraged women to deny their sexuality in the name of fighting the patriarchy. If you were female and didn’t want to be a social miscreant, you had two choices: be pretty but hide yourself from the male gaze, or put on a suit and become a de facto man yourself.

Sailor Moon rode the cusp of third wave feminism, which held that young women didn’t have to choose between being feminine and being respected; this is where the slogan “girl power” comes from. What Sailor Moon exemplified was the idea that you could present as girly and still be treated seriously. In other words, young women (and plenty of young gay men) read Sailor Moon with a subjectifying female gaze, seeing the Sailor Scouts as powerful role models of female agency and homosocial friendship even despite the fact that they all wore tiny little skirts into battle.

I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but I still feel comfortable making the generalization that, when girls and young women saw those skirts, they weren’t thinking about phallocentric economies of desire in which the exposed flesh of youthful females is privileged in the fantasies of straight men. Instead, they saw the freedom and vivacious energy represented by unapologetic girliness that refused to acknowledge that the male gaze was even a thing they needed to be worried about.

This paradox, in which a character can seem to cater to the male gaze and still be an empowering icon to non-male people, applies to Linkle as well.

Although the international gaming industry is ever so slowly becoming more inclusive, lady gamers have been wandering in a desert largely devoid of positive female representation for a long time. In order to keep ourselves spiritually hydrated, we apply our female gaze to everything we encounter, thus allowing ourselves to find pleasure even in video game titles and franchises with overt elements of misogyny.

But let’s be honest – female-friendly undertones are no match for female-friendly overtones.

Even though Linkle’s design inarguably contains traces of male-gaze moé bait, the fact remains that she is a playable character who isn’t sidelined but is being given the attention she deserves. We asked for a female version of Link, and we got her!

Sure, Linkle isn’t perfect, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that Nintendo is allowing the Zelda franchise to take baby steps, as in Tri Force Heroes, in which Link is allowed to dress and present his gender however he wants. Tsunderin of the feminist media blog Lady Geek Girl explains the progressive nature of this gameplay element as follows:

When crafting these outfits, Link changes into them immediately and one of the customers in the boutique comments on them. Every time, she has something nice to say about Link’s chosen outfit; she always mentions how cute he looks and that he’s very stylish. While this is a simple thing that can be taken as a throw-away, I do think it’s important. How often do people, especially kids, get to see in media someone being complimented for wearing something that may not be stereotypically for their gender? Without it being a joke?

In my own essay The Legends of Zelda, I argue that Zelda fans have been applying a female gaze to the franchise for years, and that the engagement of these fans is finally starting to be acknowledged by the gaming industry:

I could give endless examples of how media production companies in North America, Europe, and Japan have responded to fan demands for more female representation in video games, but I’d like to emphasize that the active and creative fans who thrive in social mediascapes do have voices that are heard not just by their peers but also by the senior producers whose positions they will one day inherit.

If you find Linkle’s character design to be kind of gross, I hear you, and I understand. I can get totally behind the frustration and anger surrounding Nintendo’s apparent refusal to be more overtly inclusive, but I still think it’s okay for feminist gamers to celebrate small victories.

I’d like to think Linkle is another step in the right direction. Her female subjectivity will hopefully inspire a female gaze in younger players who are just starting to acquire the tools that will help them undermine the dominant male gaze. More female representation is always welcome, especially in the world of video games.

Just as Sailor Moon once exploded into an important period of cultural transition, so too is Linkle, who is boldly carving out room for girliness in a high-profile gaming franchise on a ridiculously successful handheld console known for its popularity with girls and young women.

I have been waiting for a female Link my entire life, and now that she’s here I adore her.

Linkle by Aatmaja Pandya

The above illustration is by Aatmaja Pandya on Tumblr.

The Cultural Cross-Pollination of Shōjo Manga

Natasha Allegri Madoka PuppyCat

On January 18 of 2015, Ed Chavez, the Marketing Director at manga publisher Vertical, replied to a Twitter user’s question on ask.fm regarding whether manga is becoming a niche entertainment industry outside of Japan. Chavez’s response was a definite “maybe.” After stating that shōnen manga is selling just as well – if not better – than it always has, Chavez added the caveat that, “Unlike the 00’s, where a shojo boom introduced a whole new demographic to manga, there hasn’t been a culture shifting movement recently.” Johanna Draper Carlson, one of the most well-respected and prolific manga critics writing in English, responded to Chavez’s assessment on her blog Comics Worth Reading. She agreed with him, adding, “I find myself working harder to find series I want to follow. Many new releases seem to fall into pre-existing categories that have already demonstrated success: vampire romance, harem fantasy, adventure quests, and so on. It’s harder to find the kind of female-oriented story that [has always appealed] to me.” Meanwhile, the manga that stood at the top of the New York Times’s “Best Sellers” list for manga that week was the seventh volume of a series called Finder, a boys’ love story targeted at an over-18 female audience.

What we’re seeing here, from Chavez’s reference to a former boom in shōjo manga sales to evidence that even a title from a niche category for women can sell just as well as the latest volume of the shōnen juggernaut One Piece, is that girls and women in North America do care about manga, and that they are active participants in manga fandom cultures. What I’d like to do today is to provide a bit of background on how female readers were courted by manga publishers – specifically Tokyopop – and then to demonstrate how manga has influenced the women who grew up with it to reshape North American comics and animation with a shōjo flair.

I’d like to argue that, despite periods of relatively low sales in the United States, shōjo manga (and the animated adaptations of these manga) have had a strong cultural impact on recent generations of fans. During the past fifteen years, fan discussions and fannish artistic production have nourished diverse interests in Japanese cultural products, which are in turn beginning to exert a stronger influence on mainstream geek media. Using M. Alice LeGrow‘s graphic novel series Bizenghast and Natasha Allegri‘s animated webseries Bee and PuppyCat as case studies, I want to demonstrate how it is not only the visual styles and narrative tropes of shōjo manga that have increasingly begun to influence North American media, but the creative consumption patterns of shōjo fandom communities as well.

Tokyopop Smile Magazine July 2001

Before I talk about American interpretations of shōjo cultures, however, I’d like to skim through a bit of publishing history. In the mid-1990s, there was a Barnes-and-Noble-style big suburban box store called Media Play, which had an entire section devoted to manga and Japanese culture magazines. One of the most prominent of these magazines was fledgling publisher Tokyopop’s manga anthology MixxZine, which began serialization in 1997 and ran the manga version of Sailor Moon as well as the similarly themed fantasy shōjo series Magic Knight Rayearth and Card Captor Sakura. In 1999, the magazine changed its name to “Tokyopop” and began to target an older male audience by dropping its shōjo manga and focusing on shōnen and seinen titles. Tokyopop the magazine folded in 2000 but was survived by a publication called Smile, which was a bulky, 160-page monthly magazine that serialized only shōjo manga. In 2001, Media Play’s parent company was bought out by Best Buy. When Media Play stores were closed, Tokyopop lost a major venue for its magazines, and Smile folded in 2002.

Now that a large fanbase had been created, however, Tokyopop was able to launch a program it called “Global Manga,” which was kicked off by the 2002 “Rising Stars of Manga” talent competition. The winning entries were published in a volume of the same size and length of the publisher’s Japanese manga titles. There were eventually eight volumes of The Rising Stars of Manga, with the last appearing in the summer of 2008. During this time, certain winners were encouraged to submit proposals to Tokyopop, which published their work as OEL, or “original English language,” manga. By my count, about half of Tokyopop’s OEL manga were shōjo series. Examples include Peach Fuzz, Shutter Box, Fool’s Gold, and Sorcerers & Secretaries. Tokyopop promoted these titles with free “sampler” publications distributed by mail and at anime conventions, which were exploding in number and attendance in the United States and Canada during the 2000s. Although users of anime-related message boards and fannish social media sites debated the company’s use of the term “manga” to describe these graphic novels, Tokyopop was able to attract well-known American entertainment franchises to the medium, such as Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, World of Warcraft, and for the girls, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, featuring David Bowie’s Goblin King in all his spandex-clad glory.

Return to Labyrinth OEL Manga

One of the Tokyopop’s most popular OEL manga titles was M. Alice LeGrow’s eight-volume series Bizenghast, which, like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, is a shōjo story with shōnen elements. LeGrow’s story takes the adorable mascot creatures, monsters-of-the-week, cute costumes, adoring and beautiful young men, and powerful female villains of Japanese manga for girls and transplants them to the small Massachusetts community of Bizenghast, which becomes an Edgar Allan Poe-ified Gothic wonderland after dark. The art style combines the huge eyes and wide panels of fan-favorite shōjo manga like Fruits Basket and Fushigi Yûgi with steampunk Art Deco motifs and Edward Gorey-style line etchings. The artistic and narrative conventions of manga and the stylizations of Western fantasy are so delicately blended and intermixed that it’s impossible to tell whether Bizenghast is a manga with American influences or a graphic novel with Japanese influences.

Bizenghast Volume 1 Page 075

What I want to highlight is the way that the Tokyopop publications of each volume in the Bizenghast series included a section at the end for fan art and cosplay photos, thus encouraging and legitimizing reader participation in the way that shōjo magazines have done since the early twentieth century in Japan.

Bizenghast Fan Art Spread

Instead of eschewing or actively opposing fandom involvement, and specifically female fandom involvement, Tokyopop pursued it, allowing LeGrow to maintain her presence on the fannish artistic networking site deviantART, where she was able to interact with her fans. Due to the non-localized nature of the internet, LeGrow was able to build a fanbase that stretched around the globe, with Bizenghast being published in translation in Germany, Finland, Russia, and Hungary, as well as in several countries of the British Commonwealth, including Australia and New Zealand. In addition to assigning Bizenghast its own dedicated website, Tokyopop released a light novel adaptation, an art book, and even a coloring book based on the world of the manga. Although Tokyopop shut down its publishing operations in May 2011, it continued to offer certain titles through a print-on-demand service managed by the online anime retailer The Right Stuf. The initial line-up of these titles included the massively popular manga Hetalia Axis Powers and the eighth and concluding volume of Bizenghast. What I’d like to emphasize here is that, in its publication and promotion of Bizenghast as an OEL shōjo manga product, Tokyopop actively promoted the sort of interactive fan consumption utilized by Japanese shōjo manga publishers – and this encouragement paid off, quite literally.

Multiple market watchers have located the peak of United States manga sales in the mid-to-late 2000s. Even though Tokyopop ceased its manga magazines earlier in the decade, Viz Media stepped in with an English-language version of Shonen Jump, which was paired with a monthly sister magazine, Shojo Beat. Shojo Beat, which ran from June 2005 until July 2009, also styled itself as a lifestyle magazine, running articles about clothing, makeup, and real-life romantic concerns. Although Shojo Beat did not include OEL manga, manga publisher Yen Press’s publication Yen Plus did. From its launch in July 2008, the editors of Yen Plus solicited reader contributions, which resulted in both one-shot and continuing OEL manga appearing within the pages of the magazine.

In addition, Yen Press’s parent company Hachette began releasing manga adaptations of some of its biggest young adult properties, including Gossip Girl, Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate series, and, of course, Twilight. For our purposes, it’s interesting to note that these manga adaptations all had a strong shōjo feel, as did other franchise manga revisionings created by longstanding American comics publishers such as Marvel and Vertigo. What these publishers seemed to be jumping on was the idea that manga could reach an audience of young women (and young-at-heart women) who may have felt excluded from traditionally male-centered genres like action comics and science fiction. These female readers increasingly came equipped with access to online and in-person fandom networks, which could help ensure the longevity and profitability of any given franchise, as was famously the case with Star Trek and Harry Potter.

Twilight Manga

What we’re seeing, then, is the creation and growth of an audience for shōjo manga that began in the 1990s and has extended throughout the past two decades. So – has this changed anything? I’d like to argue that it has, and that we’re starting to see a definite shōjo influence on mainstream entertainment media in North America.

One of the most interesting incarnations of this trend is Cartoon Network’s animated television series Adventure Time, whose producers have actively scouted young talent from places like comic conventions and fannish art sharing websites such as Tumblr. A number of these artists are women from the generation that grew up reading and watching shōjo series such as Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena, and easily identifiable references to these titles occasionally pop up in the show. Rebecca Sugar, a storyboard artist for Adventure Time, ended up being given a green light by Cartoon Network to create a magical boy show, Steven Universe, that features all manner of references to anime, manga, and video game culture. Natasha Allegri, another storyboard writer and character designer for Adventure Time, launched a Kickstarter project backed by Adventure Time‘s Studio Frederator for a magical girl animated series called Bee and PuppyCat, which received an overwhelming amount of support from both Adventure Time fans and the enormous shōjo manga fanbase on Tumblr.

Lady and Peebles

What’s really cool about these three properties is that they all have separate monthly comic book incarnations published by Boom! Studios. There’s a lot to be said about these comic books, but what I want to emphasize here is that each monthly issue features shorts and variant covers by young and upcoming artists. The comic book version of Bee and PuppyCat is especially notable in that most of its contributing artists are female, and many of them include obvious stylistic and topical references to elements of Japanese popular culture such as Studio Ghibli character stylizations, magical girl henshin transformation sequences, and role-playing video games. Although Natasha Allegri has stated in multiple interviews (here’s one) that she’s a fan of manga such as Sailor Moon and Takahashi Rumiko’s supernatural romance InuYasha, and even though the influence of these titles is quite clear in her work, Bee and PuppyCat has not been promoted as a type of OEL anime but rather as just another cool new addition to the Studio Frederator lineup. In other words, the strong shōjo elements of the show and its comic book are presented as completely natural and naturalized to a North American audience.

I’m going to wrap things up by summarizing my main points. First, I think we can say that the iconography of shōjo manga and anime are entering American popular culture full force. Second, I believe that seeing better representation of diverse female characters in shōjo manga has encouraged more young women outside of Japan to seek careers in comics and animation. Third, although it’s difficult to make strong statements in the current market, I think it’s safe to say that the “reader participation” model employed by Japanese shōjo publishers has been fairly financially successful in the United States. Fourth and finally, I’m going to conclude that we will therefore see an even stronger embrace of shōjo-related narrative influences, art styles, and fandom cultures as the members of the Adventure Time and Bee and PuppyCat generation, who are currently in college, start coming out with their own work. It’s an exciting time to be a fan of shōjo manga, and I’m happy that young women and men are still as excited about shōjo-flavored comics and animation as I was when I first discovered Sailor Moon almost twenty years ago.

Bee and PuppyCat Comic Issue 06 Meredith McClaren

The above image is a scan of a page from Meredith McClaren‘s short comic in the sixth issue of the Bee and PuppyCat comic book series.

Innocence and Sexual Maturity in His Dark Materials

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

Is It Sexist?

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.

Fantasy Races in Japanese Video Games

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

Fantasy Races in Japanese Video Games

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

Fantasy Races in Japanese Video Games

Part One – On Cultural Difference

Wind Waker Great Wave

Before we begin, I’d like to specify what I mean by “Japanese” video games. Although the term seems obvious enough, there might be some confusion over whether games heavily influenced by Japanese styles or games released by North American or European branch offices of corporations with headquarters in Japan count as “Japanese” video games. Since a debate concerning what is and isn’t “Japanese” according to stylistic conventions could easily become mired in a bog of stereotypes and cultural essentialism, I’d like to clarify that I’m referring to video games produced and developed in Japan.

Between the most recent Wolverine movie, Keanu Reeves’s 47 Ronin, and Katy Perry’s performance as a geisha at the American Music Awards last November, I sometimes feel like I’ve been up to my elbows in arguments over cultural appropriation for the past year or so. Since the related topics of cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism are relevant to a discussion of Japanese culture in Japanese games, I think they’re worth touching upon here at the beginning of the essay. To explain why they’re relevant, let me quote from an essay posted on Tumblr about the portrayal of imperial colonialism in Final Fantasy XIV, which introduces itself with the following caveat:

I remain open on whether Japanese gamers are less likely to find these implications to be controversial/confusing and [Square Enix] is only by coincidence hitting a possible nerve with Western audiences. I don’t think this is a question Westerners like me should attempt to answer. Japanese attitudes towards both culture and religion are so different from Western attitudes that they can hardly be recognized as the same issues. It may be a moot point for [Square Enix]’s intended (i.e. Japanese) audience; the only thing that we can really examine is the impact hitting our own, aka English-speaking, neck of fandom.

In other words, do Japanese and Western audiences pick up on the same types of themes? Will they have the same emotional and intellectual responses to these themes? Will they come to the same hermeneutic conclusions regarding these themes? Furthermore, are we, as English-speaking Americans, unwittingly acting as cultural imperialists by assuming that our readings of Japanese games can or should be the same as those of Japanese gamers?

What I’d like to posit is that is that we should indeed consider ourselves as being on the same page as Japanese gamers. I don’t wish to downplay or marginalize the differences between Japanese and American culture(s), but I also don’t want to position Japan as some sort of mysterious, unknowable Other whose citizens operate on a completely different wavelength than we do here on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Issues such as cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism are most pertinent to situations in which there is a clearly dominant culture and a clearly disadvantaged culture coming into contact with one another; however, with the most profitable video game companies and franchises currently being of Japanese origin, I’m extremely hesitant to characterize Japan as subaltern, at least in the field of electronic media. I therefore don’t think we should consider Japanese gamers as too terribly different from ourselves. Our cultural and educational backgrounds may not be the same, but this may also be said even of gamers from the same country, region, or municipality; and, in any case, we are quite capable of understanding each other’s entertainment media, which is for the most past designed to be accessible to the broadest possible audience.

Still, because most Americans don’t have the same pedestrian awareness of and focused educational exposure to Japanese history and culture that most people raised in Japan have to our history and culture, our appreciation of the stories, themes, and art of Japanese games can be greatly augmented by insight into the culturally specific elements of these texts. For example, regarding the Legend of Zelda games, essayist and game reviewer Tevis Thompson has argued that the main protagonist of the franchise isn’t Link, but rather the land of Hyrule itself:

Building up a world with a past, a believable place with its own logic – that would be enough. Wind Waker’s post-apocalyptic drowned world was enough; Majora’s Mask’s temporal loops and grinning lunar horror were enough. Zelda is a perfect candidate for environmental storytelling. A Hyrule you can dwell in, despite its limitations (perhaps because of them), with gameplay that compels you further in – such a world will produce its own stories.

If the world within a video game can build its own stories, think of how much richer our experience of this world could be if we were able to better understand its allusions, which add layers of depth and meaning to gameplay.

Kenchōji Triforce

Miyamoto Shigeru’s famous comment concerning how he was inspired to create the landscapes of the Zelda games by his childhood experience of exploring the forested mountains of his hometown of Sonobe in northwest of Kyoto is perhaps apocryphal, but the various caves and temples (shinden in Japanese) of Hyrule are indeed reminiscent of Kyoto, which is surrounded by forests, rivers, lakes, and mountains dotted with enormous temples and tiny hidden shrines. The Skulltulas of the series are very clearly a reference to the jorōgumo (golden orb-weaver spiders) that suddenly drop down to the eye level of hikers in the Kyoto mountains, and the Triforce is the crest of the Hōjō, an important historical samurai clan that lent its symbol (known as mitsu uroko, or “three scales”) to the Zen temples its leaders patronized. Moreover, several story arcs of the series, such as the “Hyrule sinks” scenario of The Wind Waker and The Phantom Hourglass, could just have easily come out of Japanese popular media – such as the influential 1973 novel Japan Sinks – as from American disaster films like Waterworld. Although such marginalia may seem like nothing more than footnotes to a series of games heavily based on Arthurian fantasy tropes and imagery, an appreciation of such artistic elements might help our experience of exploring the games resonate with our experiences of exploring the world outside the games, as it has for Japanese players, who have compared Tokyo train stations to Zelda dungeons.

Although going on a scavenger hunt for parallels between video games and the real world is always amusing, the purpose of the above examples has been to demonstrate that, even in Japanese games designed with “Western” stylizations, Japanese cultural elements are present. In this essay, I want to explore some of the more notable of these elements, especially as they might be of interest to American gamers. Specifically, I will examine how Japanese cultural elements influence the portrayal of race in Japanese video games.

Part Two – On Pokémon
Part Three – On Final Fantasy