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You’ve (probably) already turned Japanese


9:00 PM on 05.20.2013
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[In light of recent criticisms, Dtoid community blogger Voltech took it upon himself to defend Japan's games and culture, and argues that they aren't so different from the West's. Want to see your own words appear on the front page? Go write something! --Mr Andy Dixon]

I really think so.

I've been mulling over this topic for a while now, but held off on saying anything about it. I always figured "Eh, there's no need. This should be common sense; no need for another Voltech treatise." But in light of certain events -- my brother's comments well among them, but the recent brouhaha (or "boob-haha", if you prefer) over Dragon's Crown, I feel like maybe saying something might put me at ease.

To be fair, this is only tangentially related to Dragon's Crown and the scandalous Sorceress design, and you'll probably see why in a minute. The thrust of that debate is not an argument that I want to get into right now (mostly because all the good points have been made already), but I'll just go ahead and say this about those who disapprove of the design and think it's just the work of some mouth-breathing pervert across the pond with no grasp on reality: Christina Hendricks, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Scarlett Johansson, Kat Dennings, Dolly Parton, Jessica Simpson, Pamela Anderson, and models times something very near infinity. What, too dissimilar? All right, then let's go with Jessica Rabbit, April O'Neal, Cheetara, Lola Bunny, Red, Daphne Blake (and Velma Dinkley, arguably), and Jessica Rabbit. Yeah, I listed her twice. You'd expect no less, would you?

Want to go to another medium? Want to expand the list? Want to talk about comics? We can do this all day. Really want to give it a shot? No? All right, then. Let's move on to the important stuff.

Have you ever seen that show Monk? I have. I've only seen a few episodes, but what I have seen, I've immensely enjoyed. It only makes me wished I watched the series more dutifully in the past instead of cartoons, cartoons, and the occasional wasp that would get into the house because I hate bugs and demand constant vigilance to defend myself. In any case, if I'm not doing something else and my TV's reception permits it, I'll gladly watch an episode if it's on. It's a good show.

But I remember watching an episode a while back, and having an epiphany: Monk is eerily reminiscent of the Ace Attorney games. It's not a one-to-one comparison, obviously, but after seeing a couple of episodes I can draw a few parallels. The audience gets to see the criminal perform the crime (not always, and not always to the full extent), and it becomes a matter of proving his/her guilt. A quirky cast of characters has to sort out the evidence, and gather clues that explain seemingly-impossible crimes. It even feels like Monk channels the spirit of Phoenix Wright when he confronts the culprit, presenting evidence and leading to them becoming stuttering messes that make even the titular character look bold. Amidst the humor and madness and improbably-obtuse cover-ups, there's some genuine humanity and drama to be had.

So it got me thinking: just how dissimilar are stories from one country to the next? There are some obvious differences, yes, with aesthetics and tropes that don't always transfer well. But even so, I think -- or at least hope -- that when it comes to Eastern and Western sensibilities, there's a common ground.

If you'll let me be a little bold, let me ask a question: if there was a Harry Potter anime -- one that followed the original story's guidelines closely -- would that change anything?

Aesthetically? Yes, there would inevitably be some changes. There would have to be some changes to suit the formatting, and make it properly ready for airwaves. I'd expect a couple of creative liberties taken here or there. But story-wise? No, I don't think it would make too big a difference. Being re-imagined by Japanese artists and writers wouldn't automatically make Harry Potter any worse. If anything, I'd be damn excited to see how another set of creators could handle the canon... or if you'll let me be even bolder, see what would happen if they had a framework but had free reign to go off on some creative tangents. The same goes for a genuine -- and high-quality, of course -- Star Wars anime. In the same sense that there's been a couple of animated series that have taken Star Wars and configured them for their own purposes (in terms of form and function), I'd say that offer a dramatic and potentially satisfying reinterpretation. Again, it'd have to be a GOOD reinterpretation, but I'm down for it. There's more than one way to draw a Whomping Willow.

So I hope you'll forgive my impertinence -- and me being late to the party -- when I say that I don't understand why there's all this hate on Japanese games and products. I know that this is an old topic, but this Dragon's Crown stuff makes me more than a little antsy. Seriously, what is going on here? Is this really an argument we need to have?

No, we don't need to argue about it. But I think it is something worth discussing.

Let's be real here. I know that I've said "anime" quite a bit in this post already, but it's not that hard to link that with JRPGs. Ignoring the fact that the "J" kind of stands for something important in the equation, JRPGs are both a heavily-aesthetic and heavily-hammered franchise, especially in the last few years. If I remember right, there are promos in GameInformer that can't go a few paragraphs without taking a shot at JRPGs -- this, in articles that are supposed to be overwhelmingly positive and inspire interest. Sometimes that flak is deserved, given that some JRPGs are just trying to be playable anime... and failing regardless of what they try to be. Indeed, this so-called "Lightning Saga" that Squeenix is putting forward takes all the worst bits of anime and shoves them into an incoherent package. And I'll not be forgetting Ar Tonelico Qoga anytime soon -- for obvious reasons. Remarkably, it's NOT just because stripping schoolgirls in lovingly-rendered 3D cinematics is THE defining gameplay mechanic (though that certainly figures in); it's because there's stuff like this that just goes way too far over the line:

I'm sorry you had to see that. I don't like using it, but damned if it's not the ultimate point-maker.

There are some really bad JRPGs out there -- that much is obvious. And there will be bad ones in the future. But if nothing else, we can agree that they at least try to tell a story. Plenty of them tell bad stories, but when they're good, they're really good. Quality aside, they can go through some of the same beats as any story we've heard before, past or present. The Hero's Journey isn't a concept that's only available in the West, after all; the tropes that surround it, and the permutations that result from the efforts of a talented bunch of creators, are universal. There may be injections of certain Japanese-centric ideas (or if you prefer, clichés), but we should start by judging the framework, not the paint job.

It's just baffling that JRPGs -- Japanese games in general -- get so much flak. Pardon my insolence, but I was under the impression that we gamers liked vibrant worlds, unique and memorable characters, and the occasional over-the-top showdown on the moon. When did it become cool to hate on Japanese games, exactly? Have they fallen off the throne in the gaming climate? Barring a few exceptions, probably. Is that hate deserved? Barring a few exceptions, not a chance.

I say this based on four tenets. The first is the one that I mentioned before: as long as Japanese games continue to follow basic design principles (story-wise, game-wise, or otherwise), and offer high quality products, there is absolutely no reason why they should take on so much flak. Especially if they deliver on a gameplay front; we like good games. Everyone likes good games. If a good game comes our way, can we at least try to accept it with open arms? Can we lay off the rash judgments based on knee-jerk reactions? I think we can.

The second tenet is that it's not just a matter of accepting creative dissention, but a matter ofneeding it. Western games have their own set of stereotypes -- brown and gray worlds, grizzled ciphers as leads, etc. -- and while I wouldn't dare advocate substituting them for more stereotypes, I'd say that balancing out the two extremes makes for a more enjoyable (and colorful) gaming climate. It's a matter of counterbalances, and learning to embrace the ideas engraved deep within games of any given origin. That's not to say Street Fighter or Monster Hunter overflow with depth, but even beyond the surface-level enjoyment to be had there are points of thought underneath all the Flash Kicks and harvesting of dragon tears.

The third tenet is that it's important to show respect. Cultural respect is due, yes, in the sense that you don't have to slam Japanese works just because you don't care for certain traits (and you should definitely avoid sweeping generalizations about products across different genres from different creators across different mediums... but if you're reading this, you probably know that already). And there's artistic respect to be kept in mind as well; art takes effort and vision, and while it's fine to point out the issues with lesser works, hammering the good stuff makes you look foolish. But the respect that I have in mind is a historical one. I've been touched by games from the East and West, getting both entertainment and enlightenment from both. So have others -- probably more than I ever could. A good game begets good followers; good followers beget good games; it's a cycle that's definitely worth repeating, but can only be done so with an open mind.

But it's the fourth tenet that may be most important. I said earlier that it wasn't just Dragon's Crownthat inspired this post; no, it was partly -- well, MOSTLY -- because of a conversation I had with my brother on the way back from GameStop one day. See, we've had little chats every now and then about making our own webcomic. He's the artist between the two of us, and I'm the writer; it seems like a match made in heaven. The problem is that he's unusually adamant about pitching a certain story to me -- the same story every time he says "let's make a webcomic or something" with only minor tweaks. Cybernetic implants. A not-too-distant future. A ninja, no matter how anachronistic it might be. A grim and gritty aesthetic -- which, if you're familiar with my work and opinions, is by far the ONE thing that I hate most in fiction as of late. I know a gritty story can be done well, but let's be real here: they're not the be-all and end-all.

But I listened to him pitch his story, noting and explaining to him that we'd done this dance before. Still, I let him talk. And I let him go on to explain that his surly main character was someone who could see ghosts all his life, and one day after an encounter with a monster, he ends up getting recruited by an organization with ghost-fighting powers to take on whatever nasty beasts come their way. My immediate response -- besides nitpicking and probing, because I can be remarkably passive-aggressive towards the guy who once shot a Nerf gun dart covered in ants at my face -- was that, as always, his framework was generic and unappealing. I told him he'd have to do more if he wanted to impress me (and potential fans), flesh out his story, and actually make me want to work alongside him. But the one comment that I couldn't help but make, over and over, was a simple one.

"Oh, so it's like Bleach."

I think that really pissed him off. He's a noted hater of Bleach (and a fan of Naruto, so take that as you will), and it didn't exactly set his heart aflutter when I told him that a good 85% of his premise was just a gritty take on Bleach... up to and including some of the skill sets. I might have hit a nerve or two in my attempts to get him to think critically about his work (and bust his balls), because somewhere along the line the impromptu defense of his premise turned into attacks on anime in general -- with "anime" in particular being said with the same amount of scorn as the worst racial slur you can imagine. Come to think of it, his tone in general was something along the lines of...

And my internal response (as is often the case) was, "Really, bro? Really?"

I'm not an artist. That much I'll readily admit. But even if I'm not, I would have figured that maybe artists were a little more accommodating toward each other. Surely they can appreciate the work and divergences of others, right? Surely there's no need for small-minded mud-slinging just because of stylistic choices -- or at the very least, an artist can explain calmly and rationally WHY there are problems with a stylistic choice. There's no need to get their easels in a bunch, right?

Oh, right.

All right. This has already been discussed before -- and better -- but let's see if I can say something meaningful. See, there's this word called "conveyance" (wow, two Egoraptor references) where information is being offered to you via -- in the case of games -- audiovisual data. You're using your senses to process and absorb the information, and reactions result from that. But even if your senses are taking in that information, it's your brain that ultimately controls the end result. There are things that might make you nod and go "yeah, that's all right", or things that make you crinkle your nose and want to punt a Shih Tzu. Art should inspire a reaction -- preferably a good one, but just getting anything out of an audience demands some respect and says something about the skill on display.

Say what you will about Japanese aesthetics, but almost by their very nature they're designed to inspire a reaction. They're often specifically designed to be over-the-top, or inspire awe and wonder, or bring out some latent (or even carnal) impulse within you. That's not always a good thing, and the purpose or desired reaction of said art can be... problematic at times, but if a skilled creator gives it a shot, there's always going to be a purpose behind it. There's a clear intent to convey information, but he or she may choose to do so in the most stylistically grandiose way possible.

Exaggerated clothes. Exaggerated hair. Exaggerated color schemes. Exaggerated movements. Exaggerated gear, and weaponry, and armor. Exaggerated voices, and tics, and mannerisms. Exaggerated abilities, and strategies, and victories. Those are things to appreciate alongside a framework, because it has the potential to say as much as the gameplay, or the story, or anything related to the product. Almost immediately you have an intimate understanding of who these characters are, what their world entails, and what they can do -- and there's joy to be had from either having those expectations met (and exaggerated to a fever pitch), or by having those expectations broken by virtue of developments in the gameplay or the story. Even beyond that, my favorite color is green, so whenever I see a character wearing green I'm immediately drawn in. Striking visual design, and the particulars around them, is something important to us all no matter the preference.

The proof is all around us, after all. Show of hands: who here is hyped as hell for Fuse?

What I'm getting at here is that good Japanese products -- or any product, really -- can affect a person on a certain level almost at a glance. It's the audiovisual stuff that gets you to stop and give the product a closer look. You see the cover for Persona 4 and you think, "Whoa! Damn! Would you look at that! Man, if this is what's on the front cover, then the back must be AMAZING!" It's putting its best foot forward -- and when you dive into the game in earnest, you're rewarded even further. The style, the aesthetic, the purpose, the earnest zeal -- all that and more comes to the forefront when you've got a fantastic product in your hands. Doubly so when you look past the design choices and get in deep with the story, the ideas, and of course the gameplay. (Side note bound to cause controversy: I like how when it comes time to decide who's a good female character in games, fucking nobody thinks of bringing up any of the girls fromPersona 3, 4 and the Devil Survivor games. Even the fanservice-laden characters are better than most. Just sayin'. Food for thought. IMHO.)

Then again, you could say the same for products more common in the West. How many years have comics been around? Seventy? Eighty? However long, there's something to be had from variances in, and exploration of, style. You have to do something to set yourself apart from the crowd somehow, and the best way to do that is to offer a gripping yet purposeful style. It's a way to push a work into the limelight, and in a lot of instances I bet it's a way to honor a beloved superhero. Beyond that, I'd guess that it's a way for an artist to become a hero in his own right -- to wow with his or her unique style, draw readers into the story and world, and take steps toward becoming a legend.

Are we clear on that? Can we understand each other a little bit? Can we not hate on entire sub-genres just because it uses established conventions like sweat drops and spiky hair? Or God forbid, improbably buxom women? I'm not saying that there are issues with using certain conventions -- because we all know that there are -- but a little tolerance and observation might prove a tad more useful than blindly slamming someone's artistic choices. That's certainly the case if there really is a purpose behind it, and ESPECIALLY if that slamming is done against someone's culture and artistic schema.

Look. Let's be real here. There's no denying that Eastern products have their faults. The same goes for Western products. They've both got their strengths and weaknesses. But no matter your preference, I think we can all stand to at least appreciate the fact that they exist, and that they potentially bring something new to the table. That's great. That's awesome. That variety is something to be appreciated, and celebrated. And indeed, variety is a part of any product, regardless of its origin -- as is our ability to enjoy and be excited by a product. As consumers of games -- of fiction, and stories in general -- we're always on the lookout for something that'll bring us the pleasure we seek. That's a constant we all share, regardless of origin or preference. In that sense, the line between "Oh, this is Japanese" and "This is something good" is one that doesn't need to exist -- and one that DOESN'T exist, given that the particulars and concepts aren't that dissimilar from our own.

I'll tell you what, though: if you ask me, the one who can (or will) crack the code on making the next big thing is going to be the one who pulls from the best of both worlds. We've already seen it before; mix Eastern and Western sensibilities in an RPG, and you get Xenoblade Chronicles. Mix Eastern aesthetics, zeal, and heart with Western practicality, familiarity, and reason, and you getKatawa Shoujo. Hell, you could argue Zelda's been bridging the gap between mindsets for years, and that's... well, it's seen modest success at best, now that I think about it. I wonder if anyone's even heard of it.

We're not going to get anywhere by pointing fingers at others and crying foul, because in a way we're pointing fingers at ourselves. We'll get somewhere by raising our own standards -- by examining and blaming ourselves for problems as needed, figuring out how to proceed from there, and being accepting of -- and willing to learn from -- the efforts of others. We don't necessarily have to agree on all points, but no one had better act like there's not even a chance for a common ground when it comes to topics that should be common sense. Believe it or not, there IS a common ground.

There are a lot of battles that need fighting when it comes to video games nowadays. Let's not make any more than we need to, all right? Accept others, accept yourself, and work towards betterment.

And who knows? If you do, maybe you'll be able to go even further beyond.

You know, I always wondered where his eyebrows went whenever he transformed. And by extension, how did they grow back instantly when he went back to normal? I guess the world will never know.






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