Shinto and Environmentalism in The Legend of Zelda

Koroks from The Wind Waker

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

Here’s a short excerpt:

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

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

You can read the full article on FemHype.

Legends of Localization

Legends of Localization

Title: Legends of Localization, Book 1: The Legend of Zelda
Author: Clyde Mandelin
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Fangamer
Pages: 198

Clyde “Mato” Mandelin is a professional translator who is famous on the internet for two things: first, leading the team of fan translators who put together an English patch for Mother 3 (which was never given a commercial release outside of Japan), and second, his website Legends of Localization, on which he posts detailed essays about the changes made to video games as they are prepared for the North American market.

Legends of Localization, Book 1: The Legend of Zelda is an offshoot of this website and the first book in what seems slated to become an ongoing series. As its title suggests, it focuses on the original The Legend of Zelda game from 1986.

The book is divided into six main sections.

The first section, which lists the differences in the game music and sound effects between the Japanese and American versions of the game, is an odd place to start (seeing as how books don’t produce audio – yet!), but the descriptive comparisons are a good introduction to just how far (and deep into the game code) the process of localization can go.

The second chapter, which analyzes the text spoken by the old men and women (and lone Moblin) in the game, explains the linguistic justifications for the bad grammar of the English text. It also bravely attempts to puzzle out what the hints these characters offer the player are actually supposed to indicate.

The third section, which covers the game’s items, explores some interesting cultural differences, including why the “Bible” was called such and why it was changed to the “Book of Magic.”

The fourth section explains the origins of the names of common Zelda enemies, such as Moblins and Like Likes, which are based on Japanese wordplay.

The fifth section, which examines the game manual, is a blast of nostalgia for those of us who treasured the little booklets that came included with game cartridges. This section includes an amazing line-by-line comparison of the introductory story text in Japanese and the English translation (which was surprisingly well executed), as well as several cogent explanations for the mistranslations that litter the remainder of the text.

The final section, “Beyond the Game,” collects information on hardware, promotional materials, television commercials, strategy guides, and spin-off games, including the vastly different Japanese and American board games.

What I especially appreciate about Legends of Localization are its illustrations. In addition to a wealth of screenshots, the book contains high quality scans of various print media, as well as photographs of game consoles, cartridges, and other paraphernalia. All of the images are informatively and appropriately labeled, and many are accompanied by humorous captions. My favorite of these captions are the ones that propose outlandish theories, such as “Link is dead and everyone is directing him to the light.” Because of the book’s uncluttered layout, it’s fun to flip through the pages while letting the pictures and cute captions catch your attention.

Legends of Localization is brilliant, witty, and thoroughly entertaining. Mandelin is a hero of the international gaming community, and this paper-and-ink publication of his work is a treasure. Even if you couldn’t care less about the Zelda games, or video games in general, I still recommend Legends of Localization for its clever insights into both Japanese and American popular culture.

As the cave-dwelling shield merchant should have said (if his dialog had been translated properly), “This is a good value and definitely worth buying.” Don’t keep it a secret to everybody!

The publisher, Fangamer, has put out a number of other gaming books, including the Zelda-themed graphic novel Second Quest and a small guide to navigating The Legend of Zelda in Japanese. They’re good people, and everything they release is golden as the Triforce.

Linkle, the Female Gaze, and the Sailor Moon Paradox

Or, is Linkle’s character design sexist garbage?

My answer: NOT NECESSARILY.

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

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

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

HW Legends Linkle in Famitsu

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

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

So, is Linkle’s design sexualized?

OH MY GOODNESS YES.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linkle by Aatmaja Pandya

The above illustration is by Aatmaja Pandya on Tumblr.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past

Title: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Japanese Title: ゼルダの伝説 (Zeruda no densetsu)
Artist: Ishinomori Shōtaro (石ノ森 章太郎)
Translator: Dan Owsen
Publication Year: 2015 (America, new edition); 1993 (America and Japan, original edition)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 196

Full disclosure: I read this manga countless times as a kid, and the game it’s based on is one of the greatest loves of my life. This review is biased, because of course it is.

My own adoration aside, Viz Media’s new publication of manga giant Ishinomori Shintarō‘s adaptation of the 1991 Super Nintendo game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past has been selling extremely well since it was released a month ago.

A Link to the Past on the NYT Bestseller List

This success makes perfect sense. Not only is The Legend of Zelda a major video game franchise with its own culture cachet, but Viz has also managed to put out a handsome publication, and manga’s story is easy to follow and immediately accessible to readers not familiar with the games.

The teenage orphan Link lives peacefully in a quiet village in “the pristine land of Hyrule” when, one stormy night, his uncle is summoned to the castle. Link is awoken by a voice claiming to be the princess Zelda, who telepathically tells him that she is being held prisoner in her own dungeons. Link, fearing shenanigans, rushes to the castle in the rain only to see his uncle put to death by a powerful wizard named Agahnim (whose dark skin and Orientalist stylings are how you know he’s a bad guy, yikes). Link manages to infiltrate the castle and rescue Zelda, only to have her immediately kidnapped once more by the wizard, who intends to use her to break the seal on an even greater evil. Before she’s spirited off to wherever princesses are stashed away in such situations, Zelda manages to tell Link that it’s his destiny to save Hyrule and that he must locate the legendary Master Sword, which is the only blade capable of defeating the powerful force controlling Agahnim. Off he goes, and adventure ensues.

Video game adaptations into other media tend to be hit or miss, but Ishinomori, genius that he is, pulls off his manga rendering of A Link to the Past flawlessly. Although Link is never really alone in the game (as he is always accompanied by you, the player), his quest is a lonely one, as he bears the sole responsibility for delivering the land from a terrible fate. Ishinomori especially excels at portraying Link’s smallness in a vast world filled with hostile creatures. The action sequences – and there are a lot of them – are nicely choreographed, with a smooth flow facilitated by expert paneling. This flow is so dependable that, when it’s interrupted, the reader is instantly made aware that Link has encountered a true threat, as he does in his final battle with Ganon, the story’s ultimate villain.

A Link to the Past Link vs Ganon

The manga is also populated by friendly characters who aid Link along his journey. The most striking of these fellow wayfarers is a bird-like “mystery knight” named Roam (a classic Ishinomori archetype in both personality and visual characterization). The inhabitants of Ganon’s dark world, a mirror reflection of Hyrule that changes the shape of people based on the truest form of their hearts, are also given small roles that help raise the stakes of Link’s battle. For example, immediately after Link is exiled to the dark world by Agahnim, he encounters a talking tree who explains to him that there are many other people who, for whatever reason, followed Ganon into the dark world only to become trapped there, doomed to wander as beasts or serve an evil master until a hero can purify the land. Such accounts add layers of depth to the story that aren’t to be found in the original game, in which the player progresses from objective to objective simply to experience the next challenge.

Despite the assistance of friends he encounters, Link is still one boy caught up in a legend much larger than his own life, a theme Ishinomori emphasizes with splash panels depicting Link as a faceless dot at one corner of a daunting landscape. In the game on which the manga is based, the enemy the player must engage most frequently is the environment itself, and the artist’s translation of this element into menacing backgrounds and elaborate framing devices is beautiful to behold. Ishinomori’s interpretation of Ganon’s castle, the revelation of which is a climactic moment, is especially awe-inspiring.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are also some fun Easter eggs for Zelda fans scattered throughout the manga. I don’t want to spoil all of them; but, to give an example, Link flies to the Desert Ruins in a winged hang glider. As the villager who provides him with this contraption recounts, “They say these miracle wings belonged to a powerful bird that carried the knights of Hyrule into battle!” In retrospect, this statement seems to refer to the events alluded to in Skyward Sword. And yet, considering that this was written more than ten years ago, one can’t help but wonder how much of the lore explored in more recent games was already in place as the earliest titles were being developed. Or, conversely, was this manga perhaps a guiding influence for subsequent world building?

This manga was originally serialized in the American gaming magazine Nintendo Power from January to December 1992. The following year, it was published as a full-color collected volume by Nintendo of America and in a black-and-white tankōbon by Shōgakukan in Japan. As such, it’s an interesting slice of both manga and video game history. Manga was still relatively unknown in the United States in 1992, and Viz Media only started publishing its groundbreaking Animerica magazine the following year. Meanwhile, Gail Tilden (the marketing manager at Nintendo of America) and the editors of Nintendo Power, the first publication of its kind, were responding to the sudden appearance of a rabid gaming public in the wake of U.S. release of Super Mario Bros. 3 in 1991. (More information about the early years of the magazine can be found in Jon Irwin‘s excellent Super Mario Bros. 2.) It’s extremely interesting that Nintendo was already attempting a manga/game media mix marketing strategy through the burgeoning medium of English-language video game journalism. It’s also interesting that Viz seems to be using a similar strategy – using the popularity of a gaming franchise to promote manga – with this new release.

Even if you don’t usually care for video games or manga, Ishinomori Shōtaro is a force of nature and a credit to the human race. Since it’s difficult to find his work in English translation, Viz’s new edition of A Link to the Past is a fantastic opportunity to see a master artist and storyteller at the top of his game.

A Link to the Past Link's Battle Against Trinexx

Second Quest

Second Quest

Title: Second Quest
Artist: David Hellman
Author: Tevis Thompson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Fangamer
Pages: 120

Second Quest is a beautifully drawn comic that reimagines the Zelda mythos and explores just how bizarre it is that the Hylians consider themselves to be “the chosen people” who need to be “protected” from other races. What was Ganon really trying to do? Did Zelda really need to be rescued? Why is Link valorized for running around with a sword and smashing everything he encounters? What sort of cultural legacy does this create, and who suffers when outsiders are removed from historical narratives?

Of course, The Legend of Zelda is a keystone franchise of the global game industry, and licensing it is not cheap or easy, so all of the serial numbers have been filed off in David Hellman and Tevis Thompson’s interpretation. What this means is that Second Quest is accessible to non-gamers and people largely unfamiliar with the series, and it’s of special interest to readers interested in how Japanese stories have influenced people around the world to begin their own conversations.

Second Quest Page 13

Second Quest is about a young woman named Azalea who lives on an island that floats high above the clouds. The island is sparsely populated and immense, and vast ruins are buried just underneath its surface. Azalea is fascinated by this uncharted territory, especially since she has the mystical ability to perceive the past history of the objects she touches. The story begins when Azalea is struck by an especially forceful vision of a young woman fleeing from a unseen pursuer when she picks up a broken key deep underground.

Unfortunately, Azalea’s interactions with underground artifacts trigger an earthquake, an event that is especially frightening to people living on a floating island. The tremors lead to mass panic, and it is decreed that a cleansing ritual must be performed. This ritual involves the re-enactment of a great battle against the evil “pig thief” who, envious of the sky island people’s prosperity, had captured the human vessel of their goddess. Azalea, whom the island’s religious leader has designated as the newest member of an order of secluded women who silently pray for the prosperity of the island and its inhabitants, must play the role of the sacrificial princess in this ritual before she retires from the world to become a symbolic reminder of the past and future glory of people other than herself.

Second Quest Page 56

David Hellman’s line work is both intricate and forceful, but what I especially appreciated was the artist’s color palette. The majority of Second Quest is warm and dark, with the twilit purples of the first half giving way to the angry reds of the second half. These colors emphasize the enclosed and suffocating nature of the floating island and its society, and the sky, when we see it, is a frightening orange or black. When the sky suddenly turns blue during the enactment of the purification ritual, presumably to emphasize the characterization of the island’s people as being “on the side of light,” the effect is disquieting. The appearance of teal and green at the very end of the book is breathtakingly dramatic, as the major theme of the story – a quest for freedom from the past – explodes onto the page through a series of textless spreads.

Second Quest was promoted and published through a Kickstarter campaign, the seed for which was planted by an essay written by Tevis Thompson about how the Zelda series has been declining in quality since the early games. While the first Zelda games forced the player to explore a boundless world, the more recent games are nothing more than an extended linear obstacle course. Tevis writes:

Players are constantly reminded that they’re shackled to a mechanistic land. There is no illusion of freedom because the gears that keep the player and Hyrule in lockstep are eminently legible. You read the landscape all too easily; you know what it’s asking of you. One of the greatest offenders occurred early on with A Link to the Past: most bomb-able walls became visible. What had been a potential site of mystery in the original Legend of Zelda (every rockface) became just another job for your trusty keyring. Insert here. Go on about your business.

Personally, I don’t think the Zelda series is broken. Even in Skyward Sword, which can indeed be frustratingly linear, there is more than ample room for exploration. My own favorite thing to do in Skyward Sword is bug catching, an activity that encourages the player to explore the world of the game both thoroughly and nonviolently while closely observing the game’s lush scenery and the behavioral patterns of the creatures that move unobtrusively within it. There are any number of different ways to play the Zelda games; and, if the huge body of Zelda fanfic is any indication, there are any number of different ways to read the games as well.

Last summer, however, there was a small backlash of fannish frustration over Aonuma Eiji’s denial that the Link character in the upcoming WiiU Zelda game might be female, a possibility that had been met with surprising enthusiasm. Furthermore, Aonuma stated that the gender of the Link character is inconsequential; instead, the important thing is that the player is able to identify with the character. The implication of this statement, of course, is that it’s easier for gamers to identify with a male player-protagonist than with a female player-protagonist. Let us never forget that the normative identity is “male,” after all. Men are subjects, so it makes sense for the player to control a male character, while women are objects, so it makes sense for them to act as McGuffins that enable the plot.

It’s important to the critique implicit in Second Quest that its protagonist is female. This is not simple fanboy pandering but rather a conscientious effort on the part of the creators to tell the “legend of Zelda” from the perspective of someone who is forced into a role that doesn’t suit her. When the reader first encounters Azalea, she is actively exploring the secret and hidden places of her world. We later learn, however, that women are not allowed entry into the knight academy that trains the elite police force that seems to govern the floating island. She’s not allowed to question authority or to develop her talents, even despite her obvious leadership qualities and intelligence. Azalea thus allows us to see the story of so many video games, a story frustratingly repeated time and again, from the perspective of someone excluded from shaping this story in any way. Azalea sees things that we usually aren’t shown, and what she sees is troubling and thought-provoking.

Second Quest is absolutely brilliant. If you’re a gamer, get this book. If you’re a comics person, get this book. If you’re into the darker side of religion and folklore, get this book. If you’re into feminism, gender politics, and the deconstruction of gendered tropes, then by all means, get this book. Second Quest is a beautifully published and a true pleasure to read and share with friends. I’ve been waiting for this book to come out for a long time, and I’m thrilled that it turned out to be so fantastic and inspiring.

For more information, be sure to check out:
http://www.secondquestcomic.com/

Second Quest Page 24

Fantasy Races in Japanese Video Games

Part One – On Cultural Difference

Wind Waker Great Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenchōji Triforce

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

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

Part Two – On Pokémon
Part Three – On Final Fantasy

Hyrule Historia

Hyrule Historia

Title: The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia
Japanese Title: ハイラル・ヒストリア: ゼルダの伝説 大全
(Hairaru hisutoria: Zeruda no densetsu taizen)
Japanese Editors: Aonuma Eiji (青沼 英二), Shioya Masahiko (塩谷 雅彦)
English Editors: Mike Richardson, Patrick Thorpe, et al.
Translators: Michael Gombos, et al.
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Dark Horse
Pages: 280

Hyrule Historia is divided into four parts. The first part, titled “The Legend Begins: The World of Skyward Sword,” is a collection of artwork and design sketches from the 2011 Wii game Skyward Sword. The second part, “The History of Hyrule: A Chronology,” runs through the plot of every game in the Legend of Zelda series and demonstrates how they are all connected. The third part, “Creative Footprints: Documenting 25 Years of Artwork,” is a collection of art and design sketches from the entire series with a strong emphasis on Twilight Princess. The fourth part is a 34-page manga (of which ten pages are in gorgeous color) about the mythology of Skyward Sword by Akira Himekawa, a two-person team that has drawn the official manga adaptations of many games in the Legend of Zelda series.

The “History of Hyrule” section, which is about seventy pages long, gives the book its name. When the series timeline from this section was released and translated into English, there was a bit of a kerfluffle in certain circles of video game fandom that had gradually been building their own theories and didn’t appreciate the retroactive continuity implied by the official version. That being said, the timeline laid out by Hyrule Historia makes sense (inasmuch as anything involving time travel makes sense) and should be interesting to a fan of the series. The main bulk of the section, however, consists of condensed versions of the plot of each Legend of Zelda game. These plots are more or less what appears in the game manuals with very little extra or “never before revealed” information thrown in for flavor. Unfortunately, the basic “Link must collect items in order to earn the right to wield a special sword so that he can save Zelda after she is imprisoned by an evil entity” story begins to grow stale as it’s continually repeated across two dozen three-to-four-page increments.

The main draw of Hyrule Historia is its artwork. In the first part of the book, which is filled with artistic development materials for Skyward Sword, the reader can witness the incredible attention to detail and world building that went into the game. These images are accompanied by myriad creator notes, which are often surprisingly humorous. Thankfully, unlike the Japanese original, in which many of these notes were handwritten in tiny characters, the typeface used to convey the creator notes in translation is large enough to read easily.

Hyrule Historia Skyward Sword Townscapes

The artwork on display for the other games in the Legend of Zelda series in the “Creative Footprints” section is also quite interesting. There are all sorts of designs for the main characters, secondary characters, enemies, weapons, and items. There are also rough drafts of dungeon maps, enemy treasure drop charts, and other developmental materials, such as different drafts of promotional concept art. Some of this artwork shows exactly how enemy wings, tails, and teeth work, with suggestions for how different designs accommodate different movements. There are fewer written notes in this section than in the first section on Skyward Sword, but there is still enough text to draw the reader into the image details. I particularly enjoyed the architecture and island sketches from The Wind Waker, as well as the full designs of the stained glass patterns that appear in the game’s building interiors. I also enjoyed getting a sense of the evolution of the Link character in each Legend of Zelda game, as different designs show him as younger or older, or more or less serious, or wearing entirely different sets of clothing and equipment.

Hyrule Historia Spirit Tracks Link Designs

You can’t really see this in the scans I made, but the image quality in Hyrule Historia is impeccable; the book is something that you need to hold in your hands in order to fully appreciate. The emphasis of Hyrule Historia is obviously on Skyward Sword, but all of the Legend of Zelda games get multiple pages of attention. A great deal of the book’s text feels like it’s selling the series, especially in the “History of Hyrule” section, and it can sometimes be a chore to read. Still, artists and art appreciators will love the incredible array of sharp and colorful images, and the physical book itself is sturdy enough to handle all manner of wear and tear that may occur over the course of reference use. Dark Horse did an excellent job with this gorgeous book. If you’ve been on the fence about buying a copy, Hyrule Historia is absolutely worth your time and money.