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).

500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII

Editor: Matt Leone
Book Design: Rachel Dalton
Publication Year: 2018
Press: Read-Only Memory
Pages: 240

500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII is a book-length collection of interviews with the game developers and staff members who worked on the original release of Final Fantasy VII in 1997. These interviews originally appeared on the website Polygon and can be accessed (here). Despite an ingenious bookmarking system, the piece is extraordinarily long, which is one of the many reasons why the book publication project received an enthusiastic level of support on Kickstarter.

Another explanation for the project’s success has to do with the canonical status of Final Fantasy VII, as well as the curiosity of many longtime fans. The insights that 500 Years Later provides concerning the creative process behind the game are indeed interesting. To give an example, I learned that the city of Midgar was originally modeled on New York, not Tokyo. Barret was originally named “Joe,” and he was the first character the development team created. Cloud, who was supposed to be Barret’s sidekick, was the second.

I was especially intrigued by a short interview with Tetsuya Nomura, who says that he gave the protagonist the name Cloud, “as in overcast gray clouds, because he was a slightly depressed, moody character.” Nomura adds that he wanted to make Cloud “a more human, weak character with flaws,” and that he was never intended to be a symbol of heroism. When the creators of Final Fantasy VII talk about their ideas and process, you can almost hear the enthusiasm in their voice.

Unfortunately, the majority of 500 Years Later is corporate gossip. Many of the interviewed staff members hint at issues that they never fully explain. For example, why were there so many errors in the original English translation? Because the circumstances were bad. How were they “bad,” exactly? No one will say. In addition, there are a lot of contradictions, as well as people vaguely suggesting that perhaps someone is misremembering something.

There’s also a lot of discussion concerning why the Honolulu studio that produced the Spirits Within movie failed, but no one will come out and say what they mean. The closest anyone gets is Alexander Smith, who laments that there were significant tax breaks offered by the state of Hawai’i that Square wasn’t interested taking advantage of. Apparently, the studio could have saved millions of dollars by signing an agreement saying that they would employ local Hawai’ians, but they refused to do the paperwork even though they could have easily hired local people as property maintenance staff.

Many of the Japanese staff aren’t willing to step on anyone’s toes, while the members of the American and European staff have moved on during the past twenty years and don’t really remember the specifics of what they were doing in 1997. I wish 500 Years Later were more “tell us about these characters and the world you helped create” and less “tell us how you feel about your bosses and coworkers from twenty years ago.” The small flashes of insight on the creative development of Final Fantasy VII are lovely, but they’re few and far between.

In terms of formatting and layout, the book is very stylish, but there are a distressing number of pages in which magenta text is printed against a slightly lighter magenta background. If you don’t read these pages in direct sunlight, they’re almost illegible. The staff bios at the back of the book are printed in tiny pink font, and I didn’t even try to read them. Hot pink magenta isn’t a color I associate with Final Fantasy VII, so I’m not sure what’s going there.

Aside from this relatively minor issue, the book design, text layout, and illustrations of 500 Years Later are all phenomenal. The interviews are edited and structured in a way that makes them easy to read, as well as surprisingly entertaining. Despite my lack of interest in the oral history of Square Enix as a corporation, I genuinely enjoyed the interviews with its current and former staff, and the physical edition of 500 Years Later is a treasure. If you’re interested, you can order a copy of the book from the publisher’s website (here).

Final Fantasy V

Final Fantasy V
Author: Chris Kohler
Publisher: Boss Fight Books
Publication Year: 2017
Pages: 165

Final Fantasy V is a book about the experience of growing up in the 1990s and discovering Japan by way of video games. This story is familiar to many people who came of age along with the internet, and Chris Kohler, who was born in 1980 and currently works as an editor at Kotaku, is the perfect person to tell it.

The book opens with a history of the early Final Fantasy series narrated from the perspective of the author, an American who has to glean bits and pieces of knowledge from magazines like Nintendo Power. Kohler also had access to computer industry trade magazines with ads in the back, which is how he came to acquire a Japanese copy of Final Fantasy V. His account reads like a child detective story, and I especially enjoyed how he dramatizes the process of “unlocking” the Japan-specific cartridge by manually prying off a set of small plastic tabs.

Kohler later coauthored the first fanmade English-language Final Fantasy V FAQ guide. This expansive document was meant to help Final Fantasy fans make sense of the Japanese-language game, which was circulated online as a ROM file that could be played on any number of software programs that emulated the Super Nintendo gaming console. Kohler discusses how the content of the game was officially and unofficially translated and retranslated, as well as why it was worth translating. Kohler also goes into rich and fascinating detail about the online cultures that have formed around Final Fantasy V, as well as many other Japanese RPGs that were slow to receive an English-language release.

Final Fantasy V is about a specific video game, but it’s also about how the gaming subculture of the 1990s explored and embraced the potential for communication across linguistic and cultural barriers. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the Final Fantasy series or video games in general, this short book is a lovely memoir of the early internet era. Final Fantasy V stands alongside Leigh Alexander’s Breathing Machine as a representative example of the excellent narrative nonfiction created by the generation of people between Gen X and the Millennials who grew up along with the internet, with all the weirdness and thrill of discovery that entails.

Chris Kohler is also the author of Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life. Although it shows its age (in a dignified manner, of course) as a book that was written during an earlier period of gaming history, Power-Up is still an immensely fun read, and it contains a wealth of treasure for fans of the Final Fantasy series and people interested in how Japanese pop culture has been translated, localized, and interpreted by a global audience.

Three Directions

Three Directions

Title: Three Directions: teamLab, Tenmyouya Hisashi, Ikeda Manabu
Editor: Kirstin Pires
Publisher: Chazen Museum of Art and Japan Society Gallery
Publication Year: 2014
Pages: 83

Three Directions was published on the occasion of an exhibition of the work of Tenmyouya Hisashi and Ikeda Manabu at the Chazen Museum in Madison and the Garden of Unearthly Delights exhibition at the Japan Society Gallery in New York, which lasts until January 11, 2015.

The “three directions” of the book’s title refer to the artists’ interpretations of early modern and modern Japanese art, specifically the Nihonga “Japanese-style painting” of the Meiji period (1868-1912). In her short essay on the works of the artists featured in Three Directions, curator Laura J. Mueller provides insight into the influences they have received from medieval and Edo-period (1600-1868) Japanese paintings, prints, sculpture, and garden design. Mueller also explains how the themes of the older art, such as the theme of anxiety surrounding the relationship between humankind and the natural world, have been translated into the work of the contemporary artists. In the main body of the book, which is comprised of extended interviews, the artists discuss their own perceptions of their influences, which are far more temporally immediate.

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teamLab, whose work must be seen to be believed (check out the video above), is represented in Three Directions by its founder Inoko Toshiyuki, who talks about the power of participatory media in the twenty-first century. Although he references manga such as Dragon Ball and One Piece and the masume ga (mosaics) of the eighteenth-century painter Itō Jakuchū, his most interesting description of the philosophy behind teamLab’s video installation Life Survives by the Power of Life (Seimei wa seimei no chikara de ikite iru) is that Chinese characters function like summon spells from the Final Fantasy series of role-playing video games. Inoko’s emphasis on a range of interlocking influences is deliberate, as teamLab’s work is designed to illustrate the blurring of the boundaries that supposedly separate contemporary media as they collectively exist both as entertainment and as cognitive enhancements.

Tenmyouya Hisashi expresses a markedly different attitude concerning his relationship to contemporary and premodern artistic media. According to Tenmyouya, his “Neo Nihonga” reflect “the subculture of the ‘street samurai,'” which “represents a counter to the traditional values of wabi sabi, zen, and otaku,” aesthetics that are “far from the reality of contemporary Japan.” Instead, he sees himself as tapping into the energy that originally drove the artistic movements of the Sengoku period (1467-1600), an era of intermittent civil war. Tenmyouya envisions his work as being representative of an aesthetic he terms BASARA – the Sanskrit word for “diamond,” which seems to mean “rebellious” in the context of his art and ideology. As one of his primary influences, he cites the yakuza films of Kitano Takashi, especially the violence, chaos, and dynamism they portray.

Ikeda Manabu is less concerned with aesthetics than he is with process. Stating simply that the most dominant theme in his work is “the conflict and coexistence between man and nature,” Ikeda speaks of being influenced by news reports and the ephemera he encounters in his daily life. The rest is a matter of design, focus, and patience, with the result being that many of his ink paintings function almost like diaries.

Ikeda is currently in residence at the Chazen Museum – you can read his residency blog here – where he is putting together a large and richly detailed masterwork. Three Directions includes an eight-page section on Ikeda’s tools, methods, and progress, which are fascinating even from the perspective of a non-artist.

These interviews with the artists, combined with Laura Mueller’s short contextual essay and the many high-quality images on display, make Three Directions an incredible resource for anyone interested in contemporary Japanese art, aesthetics, and culture. A commonality between the artists is the 3.11 “triple disaster,” which each references and responds to either obliquely or quite directly, so the interviews in particular will be of interest to students and scholars curious about how recent events have impacted mainstream art in Japan. I can also imagine the catalog becoming a useful classroom text, as it’s full of discussion points and allusions to both Eastern and Western art history.

Unfortunately, the book is almost impossible to acquire without either physically visiting the Chazen Museum or Japan Society Gallery or writing to one of their curators, as it’s not available through the online shops of either institution or through other online retailers. If you’re on the East Coast and can make it out to the Japan Society, I highly recommend checking out both the Three Directions catalog and the exhibition itself, which is running until January 11, 2015.

Review copy provided the Japan Society Gallery.

Ikeda Manabu, Meltdown

Ikeda Manabu’s Meltdown, image courtesy of Spoon & Tamago.

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

The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest

Witches' Forest

Title: The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest
Japanese Title: デュアン・サーク ― 魔女の森
(Duan Sāku: Majo no mori)
Author: Fukazawa Mishio (深沢 美潮)
Illustrations: Otokita Takao (おときた たかお)
Translator: Catherine Barraclough
Publication Year: 2006 (America); 1996 (Japan)
Publisher: Tokyopop
Pages: 328

This book is kind of stupid. It’s a mess of tropes and clichés liberally borrowed from the early Zelda and Final Fantasy games written in a style aimed at the lowest common denominator. There is no depth to the story, the characters, or the writing. Witches’ Forest is a light novel, and it reads like a light novel: shallow, superficial, and disposable by design.

Nonetheless, I think Witches’ Forest is an interesting and important book, especially in translation. Before I explain why, allow me to give a brief plot summary.

Duan Surk is an orphan in a world plagued not only by vicious man-eating monsters but also by war. He was raised in a small town by his brother Gaeley, a hale young man who took on various odd jobs to order to be able to provide medicine and care for the sickly Duan. The young Duan makes up for his lack of physical strength with an inquisitive mind; and, by the time he is fourteen, Gaeley is confident enough in Duan’s ability to make it in the world that he himself decides to leave the town in order to become a soldier. Gaeley is everything to Duan, so the young Duan decides to become a fighter like his brother. Duan fails the physical portion of the initial test of the Adventurer’s Club guild, but the army will take anyone, so off to the army he goes. After spending a year as a cook’s assistant, Duan returns to camp after spending the day gathering ingredients only to find his entire battalion vanished into thin air, leaving only empty tents and smoldering fires behind. He straps on a sword and rushes into a nearby forest with a vague plan of rescue in mind, but the forest is enchanted, and Duan soon finds himself hungry, lost, and in dire peril.

This is where we find our hero at the beginning of Witches’ Forest, but Duan soon stumbles upon two traveling companions: Olba October, a battle-hardened veteran adventurer in his twenties, and Agnis R. Link, a sixteen-year-old sorcerer with a penchant for fire magic who may or may not be a princess in disguise. Both of these characters are trying to get to the mansion at the heart of the forest, wherein two witches are said to dwell. Olba wants treasure, and Agnis wants revenge. Before they can reach the witches, however, they must brave the dangers of the surrounding forest and the traps set up in and around the house itself.

The adventures of the trio are solidly structured upon a foundation of RPG tropes and gameplay mechanics. Agnis is the perky refugee, Olba is the jaded older guy, and Duan is just about every main player-protagonist to ever appear in a JRPG. The characters randomly encounter monsters drawn directly from D&D dungeon master guides, and they earn experience points when they defeat these monsters. Their Adventurer Cards keep track of their experience points, and, when they earn enough, they gain a level. They are equipped with a full arsenal of Zelda items, from the port-o-lant (which “uses low-cost solid fuel made of Zora oil”) to the coily coily rope (“the definitive version of the hooked rope”), and Agnis in particular has to worry about running out of MP (“magic points,” or magical energy). The trio is accompanied by a flying baby dragon/fire lizard that can talk and use low-level healing spells and is somehow fuzzy despite being reptilian. The only thing the party doesn’t have is a bag of holding, as they’re constantly lugging their adventure gear around with them and getting into petty arguments over who has to carry what.

One of the most engaging parts of Witches’ Forest is Agnis’s backstory, which involves a heartbroken yet politically ambitious stepmother who sinks to Cersei Lannister depths of dastardly scheming. Within this family drama, characters change and grow and are faced with problems that have no obvious solutions. For the most part, though, the novel focuses on the three main characters running around and hitting things with swords and spells. Each of these battles requires some minor element of strategy but is relatively brief. Sentences are short and declarative. Each paragraph contains about three to six sentences. There are no anime-style illustrations, but the text is interspersed with various material drawn from its fantasy world, such as copies of the characters’ Adventurer Cards, advertisements for magical items, and overworld and dungeon maps. At the end of the book is a three-page bestiary of monsters that appear in the story, which is illustrated in a style highly reminiscent of mid-1990s fantasy anime like Record of the Lodoss War or Magic Knight Rayearth.

Witches’ Forest feels extremely dated, which makes sense, as popular culture has moved on in the almost twenty years since the book first came out in 1996. What makes the novel interesting is that it captures the spirit of its age so well. Neon Genesis Evangelion aired during the fall season of 1995 and ended up drastically changing the playing field; but, before that, many popular anime for the young adult demographic were based on light novels such as Slayers and Irresponsible Captain Tylor, which are just as goofy as they are epic. The humor, the fighting, the yelling, the zany adventures, and the group of ridiculously disorganized young people resolving volatile political stalemates entirely by accident are all strongly reminiscent of the anime of the time. It goes without saying that all of this media is closely connected to the themes and stylistic conventions of video games before they made the leap to the 32-bit era. In this way, Witches’ Forest is like a time capsule from a bygone era.

Tokyopop’s release of this book in translation also calls to mind the cultural atmosphere in the United States of a little less than ten years ago. Excitement over Japanese entertainment media such as anime, manga, and video games was almost visibly swelling as new anime conventions popped up every year and bookstores devoted an ever-increasing amount of shelf space to manga. The spark of interest in young adult fiction kindled by the Harry Potter books had leaped into a blazing inferno with the sudden popularity of the Twilight series, and the teenage demographic was on fire in terms of marketing value. Tokyopop was licensing one manga series after another, Viz Media was using its profits as capital to test new markets, and even the mighty Hachette Publishing Group was launching a new imprint devoted to all things manga. Tokyopop had begun to translate light novels, and certain titles, such as Yoshida Sunao’s Trinity Blood series and Ono Fuyumi’s Twelve Kingdoms series, were proving popular with crossover audiences. 2006, the year that Witches’ Forest was published in translation, was the absolute peak of the anime and manga industry in the United States (at least in terms of sales numbers). The market was diversifying and had the support of major retail chains, complaints about internet piracy and entitled fans were few and far between, and it seemed as if anything was possible.

As I wrote at the beginning of this review, Witches’ Forest isn’t written for those seeking a multilayered story, beautiful language, or thematic and allusive depth. Instead, it’s meant to be a quick and enjoyable read, and it serves its purpose admirably. As such, it’s a perfect representative of the literary medium of light novels. The market for light novels in Japan is relatively large, so books like the Duan Surk series, which aren’t particularly brilliant or original, can still thrive and reach a large audience. In the United States, however, the publishing market is tough and the market for young adult novels in translation is infinitely tougher. The crazy manga boom of the last decade was thus necessary for something like Witches’ Forest to appear on bookstore shelves.

Witches’ Forest is therefore an interesting cultural artifact that serves as a window into both the Japan of the 1990s and the United States of the 2000s. Its value as a tangible index of pop lit history aside, the novel is a lot of fun to read, especially for fans of video games and anime. For an older readers, the experience of reading the book may evoke a certain sense of nostalgia, while a younger reader might be able to enjoy the “what was old is new again” thrill of encountering tropes and narrative patterns that now fall slightly outside of the mainstream.

There are four books in the Duan Surk series, and all of them are available in English translation from Tokyopop. Although used copies can be found through various distributors, the best way to get your hands on new copies of all of the books in the series is through the anime retailer The Right Stuf, which is a treasure trove of out-of-print light novels in translation.

Fandom Glossary

Fandom Glossary

fandom
The fan culture that surrounds a particular franchise, fictional work, or fictional character. There is a huge fandom for the Final Fantasy series of video games; and, within that larger fandom, there is a sizable fandom focusing specifically on Final Fantasy VII; and, within the FFVII fandom, there is a relatively large fandom for Sephiroth, the game’s main antagonist. Losing interest in participating in a particular fandom, or at least losing track of the fannish works and conversations surrounding that fandom, is referred to as “quitting the fandom.” Actors and musicians may also generate their own fandoms; but, in this specific context of the term “fandom,” casual mainstream fans who do not follow or participate in internet-based subcultures should not be considered as belonging to the fandom.

pairing
Two characters in love, or at least having sex with each other.

OTP
One True Pairing. A pairing that a fan is really, really into. This pairing may be canonical, but canonical approval is not necessary. A fan can have multiple OTPs within a single work or fandom.

OT3
One True Threesome. This term is often used in reference to the Pirates of the Caribbean and The Avengers movies.

stanning
The act of obsessively promoting one’s fannish interests, usually in the form of attempting to persuade other fans of the appeal or validity of an OTP. This term has recently lost most of its pejorative connotations and can now simply mean sharing and promoting the work of another fan.

canon
The relationships that actually occur between the characters of a particular work. In the case of the Harry Potter novels, Harry ending up with Ginny, Ron ending up with Hermione, and James ending up with Lily are all canon. In a broader sense, “canon” refers to what is actually stated or what actually takes place within the original work, as opposed to what happens in fan works or according to fan speculation. Thus, according to canon, a certain character may have brown eyes and be thirty-seven years old, which may have no bearing on how this character is portrayed or interpreted by fans.

headcanon
What absolutely and indisputably happens in a particular work – at least in your own head. The epic and tragic love affair between Sirius Black and Remus Lupin is a fairly common headcanon for the Harry Potter franchise. Another common headcanon concerning the Harry Potter series is that Draco Malfoy is not a mean, weak-willed, and spiteful bully as he is characterized by canon, but rather a tortured soul and sensitive young man who is trying to do the right thing but not given the right resources and opportunities.

fan canon
Something that a fandom accepts as canonical, even if it is not canonical or not implied in the actual work itself. Also referred to as “fanon.”

Word of God
A label applied to information that an author or creator has provided about a fictional work outside of the context of the work itself (in an interview or on a personal blog, for example). Many fans use the so-called Word of God to argue for the authenticity of a headcanon or fan canon, but other fans argue that the Word of God cannot be accepted as true canon.

shipping
This word comes from “relationship” and refers to creating or being really into a certain pairing. This pairing doesn’t have to be canon, but the two characters may actually end up together before the series is finished. That being said, fans can ship just about any pairing, no matter how canonically improbable. There are many puns and idioms involving the expression, such as “I ship it like FedEx” and “this ship sails itself.”

slash ship
A pairing involving two male characters, neither of whom has to have a clearly identified gay identity in the original work. A homosexual pairing can also be “shipped,” but “slash” is a more specific word. Attractive male characters are often referred to as being “slashable.” Fan fiction that slashes characters is called “slash fiction,” or “slashfic” for short.

femslash
A pairing involving two female characters.

twincest
A type of slash ship. This term is frequently used to describe homoerotic relationships between brothers or foster brothers in anime and manga, but it has also been applied to Sam and Dean, the two protagonists of the American television show Supernatural. “Twincest” can also apply to sisters or foster sisters, but this is far less common.

selfcest
Shipping a character with a younger, older, or alternate universe version of him/herself.

het
Short for “heterosexual,” as in a heterosexual pairing. This term is generally used to label the work of a writer who usually authors slash fiction or to label work featuring a heterosexual pairing involving a character whom the fandom generally considers to be homosexual, the idea being that a het pairing is a deviation from the fandom’s assumption of homosexual pairings as a default. The expression “het” often appears in fandoms for original works in which the majority of important characters are male such as that for the BBC series Sherlock.

BNF
Big Name Fan. A fan fiction writer, fan artist, or other producer of fannish works who is especially well known within a particular fandom.

SMOF
Secret Masters Of Fandom. The SMOF cabal of a particular fandom controls who becomes a BNF within the fandom and who is ostracized or ignored completely. Although the expression is often used ironically in reference to the strange social patterns that may occur within internet subcultures, such groups of fans have existed in reality, either as community or discussion board moderators, cliques of BNFs, or organizers of fan conventions. Although this is far from common, it is not unheard of for the original creator of the text or franchise to act as a SMOF.

RP
Role Play. This is when someone creates an account on a fannish social networking site such as Dreamwidth or Tumblr specifically for the purpose of posting entries as a fictional character. Most of these journals don’t make it past a user icon and a profile page, but there are many communities dedicated to hosting group RPs.

RPS
Real Person Shipping (or Ship). This is a ship between two nonfictional people, generally actors or musicians. Occasionally historical figures are shipped as well. A good example of RPS is shipping Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom instead of or in addition to the characters they portray in the Lord of the Rings films, Aragorn and Legolas.

tinhatting
This expression is used to describe the behavior of fans who stridently insist that their headcanon exists in canon or in real life. Although the term can apply to fannish arguments concerning fictional universes, it is most often used to comment on the perceived creepiness of fans who believe that two real-world human beings (generally actors or musicians) are dating and must keep their relationship secret from their fans and the media.

OC
Original Character. This is an oft-reviled genre of fan fiction in which the writer inserts an original character into the universe of a well-established series. More often than not, this “original character” is meant to act as a stand-in for the author him or herself. In the realm of fan art, an OC is generally the artist’s own character that exists in the artist’s own universe separate from any fandom. It is common for fan artists to label work featuring their OCs as such so that this work is not mistaken as fan art.

Mary Sue
This is what a female OC is called if she is too obviously a self-insert device used to realize the desires of her creator. There is significant debate within fandoms concerning what constitutes such a character and whether such characters can be objectively considered as examples of bad writing. Characters from professionally published fiction, such as the characters Lessa and Menolly from Anne McCaffrey’s novels set in the Pern universe, are occasionally labeled as Mary Sues as well. There are multiple variations on Mary Sue tropes, such as the Einstein Sue (who is naturally smarter than the canonical characters) and the MacGuffin Sue (who is a personification of an object for which the canonical characters have been searching). A male Mary Sue is referred to as a “Marty Stu,” “Gary Sue,” or “Gary Stu.” The gender of the Sue in question need not indicate the gender of the author.

wank
This is how Americanocentric fan cultures refer to abrasive and ignorant comments and criticism, as well as fannish misbehavior. The term has also come to metonymically refer to the internet drama resulting from such comments and misbehavior.

kerfluffle
A specific instance or outbreak of wank.

mouse
A pun on “anonymous.” A mouse is someone who anonymously reports one fannish community’s wank to another fannish community for the purpose of amusement and edification. The term can also be used to describe a BNF or moderator who acts anonymously within a community to diffuse or encourage wank. A common variation is “mousie.”

fail
This is what happens when fan wank on a particular topic reaches critical mass. Although fail is usually generated by a controversial topic that attracts wank, the fail may also spring from the wank itself. If there is one post or comment that started the wank, this post or comment is often referred to as having “broken the internet.”

racefail
Sometimes people on fannish social media networks get into extended discussions of race in science fiction and fantasy. Since the participants in these discussions often come from different positions of cultural context, and since race is a tricky subject in any context, such discussions have an uncommonly high potential to result in fail.

author fail
When the wank in question is generated by a creator, usually in the context of condemning fannish work, actions, or behavior. Diana Gabaldon’s comparison of fan fiction to rape in a (now-deleted) 2010 entry on her personal blog is a particularly notorious example of author fail.

retcon
A portmanteau of the expression “retroactive continuity,” which is when a writer or creator retroactively changes aspects of a character, story, or universe that had previously been accepted as canon. As fandom often holds a strong attachment to canon, and as many fandom discussions center around the nature and specific details of canon, such retconning of canon, either officially or through an isolated Word of God, tends to generate amounts of wank directly proportionate to the size of the fandom.

Cry MOAR
A popular response to attempted wank used to draw attention to the wankish nature of the offending comment. For example: “The only reason why your artwork is so popular is because you only draw fan art, and you should quit so that people will pay more attention to real artists.” Response: “I’m sorry you’re not popular on the internet, why don’t you cry some MOAR.”

TL;DR
Too Long; Didn’t Read. This is how people preface a response to a body of writing (such as fan fiction or a blog entry) that they didn’t finish (or never started) reading. It’s also used self-referentially as a substitute for “in conclusion” by someone who has written a long post. The expression also tends to be used ironically.

badfic
Exactly what it sounds like: fan fiction that is atrociously written.

sporking
A type of badfic critique, generally centering around the identification and mocking of Mary Sue characters.

bleeprin
A combination of bleach and aspirin used to cure the symptoms of having read badfic. The bleach gets rid of the terrible images, and the aspirin gets rid of the headache.

PWP
An acronym for “Plot? What plot?” that describes a fannish work in which two characters essentially walk into a room and start having sex or are otherwise depicted as engaging in sexual activity without any context. Another attribution of the acronym is “Porn Without Plot.” This label is generally applied by the author or artist him/herself.

TWT
An acronym for “Timeline? What Timeline?” occasionally applied to fan fiction in which a writer completely ignores the cause and effect relationship between the events in the original work, contracts or expands the original timeline, or positions certain fan-created events in a moment of the original timeline in which they could not have conceivably occurred. Like the expression PWP, this label is often self-applied.

AU
Alternate Universe. This label, which is commonly used as an adjective, is applied to fannish works in which pre-established characters are recast into a universe substantially different from the setting of the original work. An example might be placing the characters from the Twilight franchise into Hogwarts. Although fannish writers and artists are encouraged to label their AU work as such, many fans look down on AU fiction in particular and will even refer to certain canon-based works as AU, which is meant to be an insult indicating the author’s inability to accurately convey the basic worldview and personalities of the characters as they are depicted in the original work. Changing one or several major canonical details is not considered AU, nor is using a different narrative tone than that of the original work. Despite the continuing prejudice against this genre, many AU works have become quite popular within their fandoms.

OOC
Out Of Character. A pejorative expression intended as a critique of characters as they are portrayed in fan fiction, especially in the case of AU works. Fans may also refer to a certain pairing as OOC, especially if this pairing conflicts with their OTP.

weeaboo
Someone who is so into Japanese popular culture that s/he tries to act as if s/he is Japanese. Unlike the expression “otaku,” which tends to be a badge of honor among Western fans of Japanese popular culture, the term “weeaboo” is extremely pejorative, often conjuring up images of embarrassing instances of cultural appropriation, such as young Americans asking their friends to call them by their “true” Japanese names. Although it is debatable whether such people actually exist in the real world, fans who transpose characterizations, narrative tropes, and visual styles common to anime, manga, and video games onto fandoms that have nothing to do with Japan (such as those surrounding The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter) run the risk of being ridiculed as weeaboos.

beta reader
A friend, internet acquaintance, or randomly assigned stranger who offers suggestions on a partially or fully completed work of fan fiction before it is publicly posted. A good beta reader can turn water into wine, and many beta readers act more as collaborators than as copy editors.

Yuletide
An exchange of fan works that occurs annually in December. In these Yuletide exchanges, participating fans act as Secret Santas to fill the requests of other participating fans, but the rules can vary widely according to the fandom or online community. Larger Yuletide communities generally specify that only requests for smaller fandoms or less appreciated pairings will be accepted so that people with relatively obscure interests that are generally ignored can feel the fannish love and support of a large fandom community.

The Art of Video Games

The Art of Video Games

Title: The Art of Video Games from Pac-Man to Mass Effect
Authors: Chris Melissinos and Patrick O’Rourke
Year Published: 2012
Publisher: Welcome Books
Pages: 215

I am going to be critical of this book.

I actually really like The Art of Video Games; and, even though I wasn’t able to attend the exhibition, I think the curators who organized it are superheroes. There need to be more books and more exhibitions like this. Plenty of people have written about how fantastic the book is, and I especially enjoyed Becky Chambers’s review on The Mary Sue. Since she did such a great job of explaining what the book is and why it is great, I’m going to focus on the structure and organization of the book and why I think these elements are flawed.

In short, I don’t think the video games featured in this book should be collectively considered as canonical or representative of the entirety of the beauty and artistry of video games.

It is my personal opinion (and I am willing to be corrected if I am wrong) that there is a huge gap between the video-game-related knowledge of people who play video games and the video-game-related knowledge of people who don’t play video games. People who play video games will generally have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours engaging with video games, reading about video games, and discussing video games with other gamers in person and online. They will generally be fairly well informed about their areas of video game expertise and have strong opinions about the games they have played. Even gamers who don’t have the skill set to play certain games are assisted by online walkthroughs and “Let’s Play” videos on Youtube, and most gamers generally read or watch reviews of more games than they have actually played. This applies not only to “hardcore” gamers, but also to “casual” gamers who spend an hour or two every week fooling around with games on their tablets or smartphones. To gamers, people like Katie Couric and Lauren Simonetti, who make broad generalizations about video games without ever having played them, are being highly intellectually irresponsible – it’s like saying Shakespeare is all about killing and violence without having read more than the top paragraph of the Wikipedia page on Macbeth.

To non-gamers who want to know more about video games, a book like The Art of Video Games may seem like a great source of information and a reliable guide. Make no mistake, this beautifully published book, which features dozens of titles and developer interviews, is a great place to start, and the institutional weight of the Smithsonian lends an undeniable air of credibility to the endeavor. Nevertheless, this catalog is far from complete, and it reflects the biases of the exhibition’s curators.

What I would like to argue is that, although the selection of titles featured in The Art of Video Games is obviously not random, the video games featured in the book don’t collectively form any sort of artistic canon and should not be treated as such.

To begin with, the organization and selection criteria of the games considered for inclusion have resulted in several peculiar idiosyncrasies. The book is organized in two ways: first, by gaming generation and console; and second, by four arbitrarily demarcated genres of video games (target, adventure, action, and tactics). What this means is that video game consoles with relatively limited libraries (such as the Sega Dreamcast) are given equal representation with video game consoles with enormous libraries (such as the Sony PlayStation). Also, even though the four genres are so nebulous as to be almost completely meaningless, the curators did their best to ensure equal representation between genres. What this means is that successful and popular games will be excluded in order to include niche games that fit neatly into one of the four genres.

In order to get an idea of how this organization limits the games that appear in The Art of Video Games, consider the book’s section on the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. The Super Nintendo sold 49 million units, while the Sega Genesis sold 29 million units across its eight different releases. Although the two systems had comparable libraries in terms of number of available titles, the Super Nintendo had far more bestsellers in terms of millions of units worldwide than the Genesis. (I am not making these numbers up, by the way.) Still, in The Art of Video Games, both the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis are represented by four games each.

The single most iconic game of the Sega Genesis is Sonic the Hedgehog, which almost single-handedly rescued the Genesis from complete obscurity. Because there can only be one “action” game included, however, Sonic the Hedgehog is missing from the catalog, as it has been supplanted in the action category by Gunstar Heroes, which is just as excellent a game as Sonic (and Sonic II) but far less well known or influential. The strict genre categories thus limit effective representation of the strengths of the system and the unique characteristics of its game library.

Meanwhile, on the Super Nintendo side of the 16-bit section, the games featured are Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, Star Fox, and… SimCity? In their introduction to the section, the curators directly refer to all of the glorious role-playing games that sprang up like mushrooms in the console’s library, but the game they selected to represent the glory of the golden age of the RPG is a port of a simulation game that was released for personal computers. The organization schemata simply do not allow for the type of flexibility that would allow for both A Link to the Past and one of the role-playing games for which the system is so well known.

In 2011, the curators launched a website with 240 preselected games, which were divided into the aforementioned four genre categories. The website placed an open call to the online public to vote on which games would be included in the exhibit. According to Chris Melissinos, the chief curator of the exhibit, more than four million votes were tallied, and thus the eighty games featured in the exhibition and the catalog were selected.

Although this information may make it seem as if the games were selected by popular vote, what people were allowed to vote on was in fact severely limited by the curator’s decisions. According to the criteria established by the curators, voters had to choose only one game from each genre, and there was no option to switch a certain game between genres or to suggest a game that wasn’t listed on the form. Such voting mechanics effectively established a rigid quota system, which shut out evergreen gaming mainstays such as the Final Fantasy franchise.

Another major limitation of the selection of games in The Art of Video Games is that it does not include games from handheld consoles. There is thus no Pokémon, which is the second most profitable video game franchise in the world (after Mario). None of the amazing work that Nintendo did with the phenomenally successful Nintendo DS system (as exhibited in games such as Phantom Hourglass and Bowser’s Inside Story) is mentioned, nor are the bestselling social games popular on the PlayStation Portable, such as the many titles of the Monster Hunter franchise. Smartphone and tablet games such as the groundbreaking Angry Birds series are also notably absent.

Another obvious limitation on the exhibition is took place in early 2012, which is already more than a year ago. Thus, the catalog includes BioShock but not BioShock Infinite, and Flower but not Journey.

Furthermore, there are no sports games, no fighting games, no lifestyle or party games (like Wii Fit or Guitar Hero), and no MMORPGs. It’s almost as if these sorts of games don’t fall into the category of “art” that the curators are trying to promote. On the other side of the spectrum, the catalog also excludes the more experimental and artsy games released for direct download on platforms like the Xbox Live Arcade, such as Limbo and Fez and Braid. Steam and its vast library of indie games are also not mentioned.

Finally, fan favorite games that never officially made it to the United States, such as Mother 3 and Terranigma, are completely ignored. Shūkan Famitsū magazine (probably the most respected video game periodical in Japan) ran a survey in 2006 polling Japanese gamers on their favorite games; and, to no one’s surprise, the list is dominated by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. No Dragon Quest titles appear in The Art of Video Games, however; and Final Fantasy X, which is at the top of the Famitsū list and extremely well received worldwide, is absent as well. The “visual novel” games that are popular in Japan (and popular abroad when they are imported and localized, such as in the case of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors) are also ignored.

In fact, the entire project feels very centered on the United States. Of the fifteen creator interviews included in The Art of Video Games, none are with anyone working primarily in Japan or with a Japanese company. It’s almost as if Japanese people had nothing to do with video games at all. Of course the institution hosting the exhibition is the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but many (if not most) of the video games featured in the catalog are Japanese in origin, and Japanese industry professionals such as Kojima Hideo were invited to participate in the events surrounding the exhibition. The Art of Video Games therefore does a great job of demonstrating that Japanese video games are very popular with American gamers, but it doesn’t explain how or why this is.

As I wrote earlier, I admire and appreciate The Art of Video Games. It’s beautifully published, the gorgeous layout and page design make flipping through the book feel like an adventure, and the text is informative and concise.

Still, I hope I’ve given a convincing argument for why I think the collection of games featured in The Art of Video Games should not be considered canonical or representative of the relative merits of any single title included or not included. Moreover, the games represented are not necessarily the most innovative and influential video games to have ever been released. I believe that the inflexible organization and arbitrary genre-based selection criteria play an important role in what games made the cut for this exhibition and its catalog. As with any sort of “anthology” of this type, the selection of titles included has a great deal to do with the personal experiences and life histories of its compilers. I have to hand it to the curators: they did a fantastic job. My criticism of the book they’ve put together is not a result of any failure on their part, but rather indicative of the extraordinary development of video games as a medium of artistic expression.

Writing “Strong” Female Characters

Otoyomegatari

Yesterday afternoon, I received a brilliant comment on my post about “strong female characters” in the Final Fantasy series of video games. As the commenter says, “I would argue that strength for a female character is not necessarily limited to ‘becomes goddess, wields gunblade, kicks ass’ (no matter how gratifying), but may also include, ‘forms strong bonds with and serves as mentor / role model / leader for other female characters,’ without reference to the guys.” Since gender is an important component of any work of fiction, I feel that this is an excellent opportunity to clarify my own opinions about what makes a “strong” female character, with “strong” meaning “well developed” in a literary sense.

Here are some suggestions for writing a strong female character:

(1) Unless there is something seriously wrong with a female character, she should have interiority, which means that she should think things. If she’s not a point of view character, or if your third person narrator isn’t omniscient, or if you’d rather just show and not tell, then she should be shown taking actions that demonstrate independent thought.

(2) Is the character in question human within the context of the story? Does she dodge bullets that hit other people, and can she overcome obstacles that no one else can for no discernible reason? Does she always do the right thing; or, by her doing something, does that thing suddenly become the right thing? Does she exhibit mastery over skills with no prior training, qualification, or explanation? Flaws and challenges make characters interesting, and a character with no flaws who faces no challenges is not interesting.

(3) Pretend that emotions are a color palette. Female characters should exhibit emotions that fall outside of their primary color group.

(4) Different characters should hold different attitudes towards a female character. Not everyone needs to love or to hate her. In the same vein, not everyone needs to have an opinion about her or even be aware of her existence.

(5) If you have a choice between closing plot holes and making sure that a female character gets together with her love interest, close the plot holes.

(6) Sometimes people undergo severe changes in personality when they fall in love, have sex, get married, or have a child, but don’t take drastic personality change for granted when it happens to a female character. You don’t need to comment on it or have other characters comment on it if that’s not your style, but understand that it will be jarring and upsetting to the reader and should be treated accordingly.

(7) Is your character raped? Is it necessary that she’s raped? Is she constantly being threatened by rape? Are the male characters also raped? I do not subscribe to the school of thought that holds that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a human being, but it can have severe consequences for both the victim and the rapist and should not be treated lightly.

(8) If a female character is damaged in some way (physically, psychologically, or emotionally), is her damage treated with the proper respect (i.e., is it actually damaging), or is it just a fetish? Does the character exist on a level other than as a representation of her damage?

(9) If your story is a story in which food exists and people eat, female characters should eat food. If your story is a story in which people take showers and use the bathroom, female characters should take showers and use the bathroom.

(10) Just as some people don’t need an excuse to be good, not everyone needs an excuse to be evil; some people are just assholes. Still, if a character is evil just because she’s an older woman or more sexually mature than other female characters, that’s just as ridiculous as her being good just because she’s young and virginal. Remember that stereotypes are mocked because they’re stupid and boring. A character that exists solely for the purpose of overturning a stereotype is also stupid and boring.

(11) Unless it makes logical sense for it not to do so, your story should pass the Bechdel test. This means that female characters should have conversations with each other about things other than the male characters. If they have interior monologs, they should think about things other than the male characters. If there’s nothing else in your story for female characters to talk or think about, then your story probably sucks.

All of these suggestions also work for writing male characters!

In the above list, I deliberately avoided the term “empowerment,” just as I deliberately avoided the term “agency.” “Empowerment” is something that generally pertains to non-fictional people (for example, female readers can feel empowered by a character, or readers can interpret a character in ways that are empowering from a feminist perspective); and, in any case, empowerment is something that’s generally associated with emotional fortitude and some degree of ability to change the world. I want to avoid this latter connotation, because I don’t think a character needs to be powerful or exceptional in order to be well written and compelling.

Just for the record, it is absolutely not true that a writer has to be physically female (or identify as female) in order to write female characters who are interesting and engaging; that would just be silly.

Kushana

The character at the top is Amira Halgal from Mori Kaoru’s Otoyomegatari. The character at the bottom is Kushana from Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Purity and Power in Magic Knight Rayearth

This essay contains spoilers for the completed series.

Takeuchi Naoko’s shōjo manga Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, which began serialization in 1991 in Kōdansha’s shōjo magazine Nakayoshi, was a truly transformative work. Not only was it an incredible inspiration for other manga artists, but manga editors and anime studio executives also started aggressively mixing and matching the elements of Sailor Moon to create derivative works such as Wedding Peach and Kamikaze Kaitō Jeanne. Meanwhile, popular anime franchises like Tenchi Muyō! quickly developed magical girl spin-off series. Unfortunately, many of these new magical girl series merely regurgitated different aspects of Sailor Moon in an endlessly looping cycle of character tropes and plot devices. Thankfully, Magic Knight Rayearth, one of the very few magical girl series from the nineties to survive without ever going out of print in Japan, effectively broke the cycle of narrative consumption and reproduction, both for its creators and for its audience.

In order to capitalize on the success of Sailor Moon, the editorial staff of Nakayoshi hired the fledgling creative team CLAMP, whose debut series RG Veda was enjoying a successful run in a monthly Shinshokan publication called Wings, which also targeted a shōjo audience. Like Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth is a shōjo manga featuring many conventions of the mahō shōjo, or magical girl, genre. For example, its three heroines are equipped with fantastic weapons and garbed in middle school uniforms that undergo a series of transformations as the girls become more powerful. Also, like Sailor Moon and her friends, the heroines of Magic Knight Rayearth are able to attack their enemies and heal their injuries with flashy, elementally based magic spells.

Magic Knight Rayearth draws clear influences from other genres besides mahō shōjo, such as mecha action series for boys and video game style fantasy adventure. Over the course of their adventures in the fantasy world of Cephiro, the three protagonists of Magic Knight Rayearth must revive three giant robots called mashin, which will aid them in their final battle against the mashin of their enemies. The sword-and-sorcery elements of the title seem to be borrowed directly from adventure series such as Saint Seiya and Slayers, and the manner in which the weapons, armor, and magic of the three heroines “level up” through the accumulation of battle experience is a feature drawn from role-playing video games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Although Magic Knight Rayearth seems to have been shaped from a high concentration of elements drawn from genres targeted at boys, its ornate artistic style, narrative focus on the friendship between three adolescent girls, and guiding theme of romantic love place the work firmly in the realm of shōjo manga.

The character tropes represented by the three heroines of the series are also common to shōjo manga. Hikaru, the leader of the team of fourteen-year-old warriors, is extraordinarily innocent. She never hesitates to help her friends despite the danger to herself, and she trusts others implicitly. No matter what perilous circumstances the girls find themselves in, Hikaru’s hope, trust, and naivety are unflinchingly portrayed in a positive light. Umi, a long-haired beauty, is an ojōsan, or young lady, from a rich family. As such, she is used to getting her way and a bit more willing to question her circumstances and the motivations of others. Instead of being portrayed as experienced and savvy, however, Umi’s skepticism comes off as foolish and bratty; she endangers her two friends and must be gently put back into line by Hikaru’s emotional generosity. Fū is the meganekko, or “girl with glasses,” of the group. As such, she is demure in her interactions with other characters and speaks in an unusually formal and polite manner. Fū is enrolled in one of the most prestigious middle schools in Tokyo, and the other characters occasionally comment on how intelligent she is. Although Fū does indeed manage to solve a few of the riddles the three girls encounter in Cephiro, her common sense and deductive skills are no match for the pure heart and magical intuition of Hikaru. Like Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth valorizes girlish innocence, trust, and emotional openness. All obstacles may be overcome by the power of the friendship between a small group of teenage warriors, whose battle prowess derives not from training or innate skill but rather from the purity of their hearts.

Hikari, Umi, and Fū are summoned from Tokyo to the fantasy world of Cephiro by a fellow shōjo, Princess Emeraude. The opening page of the manga presents the reader with a single glowing flower suspended in space. At the heart of this flower is a young girl with long, flowing robes and hair. The following page reveals that she is crying. “Save us” (tasukete) are her first words; and, as she summons the Magic Knights, a beam of light emerges from a glowing jewel that ornaments the circlet she wears. In a two-page spread, this girl looks directly at the reader, still entreating someone to “save us.” This girl is Princess Emeraude, the “Pillar” (hashira) who supports the world of Cephiro. In Cephiro, one is able to magically transform the world according to the power of one’s will. Emeraude, who possesses the strongest will in Cephiro, maintains the peace and stability of the world through her prayers. Unfortunately, since she has become the captive of her high priest, an imposing man in black armor named Zagato, Emeraude is no longer able act as the pillar of Cephiro, and the world is crumbling. She thus summons the three Magic Knights to save her and, by extension, Cephiro.

Princess Emeraude is the quintessential shōjo. She is delicate, fragile, and beautiful, just like the flower in which she is imprisoned. She is gentle and kind, yet possesses a great strength of will. Her undulating robes and hair associate her with water, and it is suggested that she is imprisoned beneath the sea. Like water (which is often associated with femininity in anime and manga), Emeraude is outwardly weak and attempts to exert her will through nonviolent methods. Her wide eyes, which are often brimming with tears, reflect the open and unguarded state of her interior world, and she innocently trusts the Magic Knights while still attempting to see the goodness within the man who has supposedly imprisoned her. Princess Emeraude is similar in both appearance and disposition to Sailor Moon‘s Princess Serenity, who also embodies the shōjo ideal of gentle compassion.

In Beautiful Fighting Girl, Saitō Tamaki explains that “subcultural forms […] seduce and bewitch us with their uncompromising superficiality. They may not be able to portray ‘complex personalities,’ but they certainly do produce ‘fascinating types.’ The beautiful fighting girl, of course, is none other than one of those types.” Hiraku, Umi, and Fū are beautiful fighting girls (bishōjo), and Princess Emeraude is a classic damsel in distress. Yet another of the “fascinating types” common to anime and manga is the demonic older woman, the shadow cast by the unrelenting purity of the shōjo. As a psychoanalyst, Saitō identifies this character type as the phallic mother, an expression “used to describe a woman who behaves authoritatively. The phallic mother symbolizes a kind of omnipotence and perfection.” Words like “omnipotence” and “perfection” just as easily describe characters such as Hikaru (or Sailor Moon); but, in the realm of shōjo manga in particular, these qualities become extremely dangerous when applied to adult women. The concept of “phallic” is of course threatening (heavens forbid that a woman have the same sort of power and agency as a man), but so too is the concept of “mother.” In her discussion of shōjo horror manga, Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase notes a clear trend concerning the abjection of the mother, especially through the narrative eyes of daughters, who “have seen the struggle of their mothers and the tragedy that they endured in patriarchal domesticity.” For a teenage female audience, then, an adult woman is both a frightening and pathetic creature. Her mature adult body has already passed its prime, her anger and frustration can change nothing, and any power she wields is capricious and often misdirected. For such a woman, who has lost both her innocence and her emotional clarity, power is a dangerous thing that dooms her to the almost certain status of villainhood.

The three heroines of Magic Knight Rayearth must fight two such women in order to save Cephiro. The first of these women, Alcyone, is a twisted perversion of Princess Emeraude. Like Emeraude, Alcyone is associated with water. We first see her emerging from under a waterfall, and her long hair and cape cascade around her body as Emeraude’s do. Alcyone has a large, circular jewel ornamenting her forehead as Emeraude does; and, like Emeraude, she possesses and strong will and is skilled in the use of magic. Unlike Emeraude, however, Alcyone is evil and must be defeated by the Magic Knights. The primary difference between Alcyone and Emeraude is that, while Emeraude is portrayed as an innocent child, Alcyone radiates an adult sexuality, which is apparent in her revealing costume and condescendingly flirtatious dialog. Alcyone attacks the Magic Knights on the orders of Zagato; and, after she is finally vanquished, it is revealed that Alcyone is in love with him. This sexually and emotionally mature woman is characterized as evil, then, simply because she is in love with a man she cannot have. The long, jewel-tipped staff that Alcyone carries and the ornamentation on her armor mark the character as a phallic mother, or a powerful woman who is ultimately rendered pathetic because of her inability to successfully wield her power to attract the attention of the man she loves.

In the final pages of Magic Knight Rayearth, Hikau, Umi, and Fū must fight Emeraude herself, for Emeraude is also in love with Zagato. Because she has fallen in love, Emeraude’s purity of heart and strength of will are compromised, and she can no longer act as the Pillar of Cephiro. Since no one in Cephiro can kill her, and since she cannot kill herself, she has imprisoned herself and summoned the Magic Knights so that they may save Cephiro by destroying her and thereby releasing her from her responsibilities, for it is only with her death that a new Pillar can support Cephiro. By falling in love with a man, Emeraude has renounced her pure shōjo status. When the Magic Knights finally find her, the princess no longer appears as a child but has instead taken on the body of an adult woman. Emeraude’s adult body represents both her selfishness – her wish to devote herself just as much to her personal desires as to the welfare of the wider world – and her willingness to use her immense power in order to achieve her “selfish” goals. The two-page spread in which the reader first encounters Emeraude as an adult mirrors the pages in which Emeraude first appears as a child. Emeraude still floats in a watery space, and she completes her first phrase, “Please save us” with the target of her plea, “Magic Knights.” Instead of appearing metaphorically as a flower, however, Emeraude’s full body is displayed, and her white robes are accented with black armor. Emeraude has thus been transformed into a phallic mother like Alcyone, and the tears in her eyes represent her anger, an impure emotion that is entirely ineffectual against the combined powers of the Magic Knights, who are doomed to succeed in carrying out their mission.

The demonic older woman is thus defeated by the pure-hearted shōjo, an outcome that was never in doubt. Based on the gendered character tropes and story patterns of shōjo manga and the various genres for boys that CLAMP’s manga emulates, this is simply how things work. In Magic Knight Rayearth, however, a happy ending is not forthcoming. Hikaru, Umi, and Fū are shocked by what they have done, and the manga ends abruptly with their realization. On the third-to-last page, Princess Emeraude dissolves into light, and, in the final two pages, the three Magic Knight are suddenly back in Tokyo, crying in each other’s’ arms. The manga closes with Hikaru screaming, “It can’t end like this!” – and yet it does end like this. Youth and innocence has defeated maturity and adult understanding, as per the conventions of shōjo romance and mahō shōjo fantasy, but no one is happy. In fact, this outcome is traumatic not just for the Magic Knights but also for the reader. By upsetting the reader, CLAMP also upsets the narrative cycle in which character tropes and story patterns are endlessly recycled. In its antagonistic and confrontational dynamic between virginal shōjo and sexually mature women, Magic Knight Rayearth mimics the shōjo romance and mahō shōjo fantasy that has come before it. However, by representing this character dynamic as tragic, CLAMP critiques the misogynistic tendency in anime and manga to villainize older women who possess both sexual maturity and political power.

Just as female fans of Sailor Moon are able to find messages of feminist empowerment in the series instead of polymorphously perverse possibilities for sexual titillation, female creators like CLAMP are able to stage feminist critiques of real-world sexual economies of desire within their application of gendered narrative tropes. Therefore, when cultural theorists such as Saitō Tamaki discuss otaku immersing themselves in fantasies that have nothing to do with the real world, they acknowledge shōjo series like Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth but completely fail to take into account the female viewers, readers, and creators for whom fictional female characters are not entirely removed from reality. Within the communities of women who consume and produce popular narratives, however, the female gaze is alive and well. This female gaze not only allows female readers to see celebrations of empowered female homosociality in works that would otherwise be dismissed as misogynistic (such as Sailor Moon) but also serves as a critical tool for female creators like CLAMP, who seek to overturn clichéd tropes and narrative patterns both as a means of telling stories that will appeal to an audience of women and as a means of feminist critique.

For more about CLAMP, please check out the CLAMP Manga Moveable Feast hosted by Manga Bookshelf.