Out of all of Grasshopper Manufacture's more recent games, Lollipop Chainsaw is the one that I'm guessing is the most likely to be misunderstood. Suda 51 has been packing unexpected messages in otherwise "normal"-looking games since he wrote the shock suicide ending of Super Fire Pro Wrestling back in 1994. Since that time, most of his games have been overtly weird. It doesn't take a close examination to spot the surrealism in Killer7 and No More Heroes. Ironically, the fact that those games looked weird probably helped them to be more easily understood by the people who wanted to play them.
Suda's past two games, Shadows of the Damned and Lollipop Chainsaw, have appeared mainstream-friendly on the surface, but like Super Fire Pro Wrestling, they've got more to them than meets the eye. Sadly, I'm concerned that they disguise their ideas a little too well. Even our own Jim Sterling was quick to say that Lollipop Chainsaw was "the stupidest game he'd ever played," only to write a wonderful analysis of how smartly written the game was a week later. There is more to this game than people may initially think or detractors may want to admit.
If the game has one central theme, I'd guess it's the idea that there are no black or white truths. Black and white can and often do exist simultaneously in the exact same place in the exact same time, without contradicting each other, just like a "Lollipop Chainsaw."
[WARNING! TONS of Lollipop Chainsaw Spoilers ahead!]
Juliet vs. Sexual Objectification
One of the first things a lot of people thought when they saw Juliet Starling was "great, another vapid masturbatory fantasy, so this game is going to suck!" It's an understandable guess to make, but it's inaccurate. Sure, men and women are certain to masturbate to the idea of Juliet Starling, but the fact that some people think that automatically makes the game trash is a pretty terrible.
It's sad that so many people are still quick to judge a woman (even a fictional one like Juliet) by her appearance alone. As I've found from the comments on Dtoid's YouTube page, there are still plenty of people who are quick to demean a woman because she chooses to dress in a sexually provocative way, and on the flip side, there are plenty of people who aren't necessarily attracted to Juliet who are just as quick to "slut-shame" her under the same pretenses.
What's really strange to me is that Juliet isn't even that provocative! She doesn't moan, strip, or act horny at random times like Bayonetta did. She's in great shape, but she's not cartoonishly proportioned like the gang from Senran Kagura. She's more covered up than most female Street Fighter, Dead or Alive, OneChanbara, and SoulCalibur characters, or even real life celebrities. Compared to Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Snooki, and Katy Perry, Juliet is practically Martha Stewart.
So why is it that Juliet has struck such a chord of lust with horny misogynists and of disdain with those who are desperate to see less sexual objectification in gaming today? I think it's because Juliet represents something bigger than just sex. She is Britney Spears in the ...Baby One More Time video. In fact, Juliet even says, "Oops, I did it again," at one point in the game. She is every booth babe, every Lolita fantasy, every tacked-on ounce of unnecessary sex that hormone-crazed teens have been trained to fetishize and anyone who cares about women's issues has grown to loathe.
So why is that a good thing? There are a lot of reasons, but first among them is that Lollipop Chainsaw shows that this representation of modern femininity is more than just a doll to be trifled with. She is (quite literally) a grown-up Powerpuff Girl, a fully developed human being who seamlessly joins the love of the adorable and the disgusting into one cohesive whole. Juliet may be cute, but like she says, "she has a chainsaw" and enjoys using it.
We'll get more into that later. For now, lets get into where Juliet comes from, and how she ended up growing into the woman that she is.
Juliet vs. Her Family
Juliet sees the world through a fairly limited scope. She has the zombies, which are only good for exterminating; her helpless acquaintances, who are only worth anything if she manages to rescue them (and collect the "ego reward" that comes with that, paid out in zombie medals); and her family. Only her family are "real" human beings to Juliet. Her relationships with them show us who Juliet wants to be, who she respects, and who she dismisses.
She looks up to her mother (the woman who taught her to "wear her vagina with pride") and her father (a DILF who isn't afraid to show a little skin and kick some zombie ass) in equal measure. I get the feeling that these two didn't bring her up to think that little girls are made of "sugar, spice, and everything nice" while boys are made of "snakes, snails, and puppy dogs' tails." It seems more like she was taught that she's made of "sugary-snails and rainbows' entrails." That would explain why she's so comfortable in mixing the "feminine" pursuit of cheerleading with the "masculine" exercise of whipping a chainsaw through the air like only horror film anti-heroes have done before. To Juliet, those two things don't appear that different. They are both physical expressions of freedom, fun, and mastery of one's personal space. We can assume she learned that from her folks.
Cordelia is Juliet's other big role model. She's Juliet's big sister and is even more gender-rebellious and adept at controlling her personal space. Whereas Juliet is all pigtails, a skirt, and tank top, Cordelia rocks an androgynous faux hawk and is pretty much covered from head to toe in an outfit that would look badass on either sex. She's also packing a sniper rifle, which gives her a greater range to control (or in this case, destroy) the world around her than Juliet is capable of. It's Cordelia who grants Juliet the chainsaw upgrade that allows her to take out zombies from a distance. It's from her that she gains even greater control of her space and less reliance on the physical. The fact that this is someone who Juliet looks up to says a lot about her character.
Then we have Juliet's little sister, Rosalind. She works as Juliet's foil, filled with the same lighthearted, joyful enthusiasm and fascination with death and destruction that Juliet has, but unlike her big sister, she hasn't learned to harness it. That gets her in trouble a lot, and she's as close as the game comes to a "damsel in distress," although that's not saying a lot in a game as filled with powerful women as Lollipop Chainsaw. Overall, Rosalind is more like the Tasmanian Devil than Princess Peach. There is merit to living her life like that, as she's having fun and killing a lot of zombies, but without Juliet to clean up her messes, she'd probably end up dead, or worse, a hippy. Like most younger teens, she's prone to falling in with the wrong crowd (in this case, a zombie hippy and a zombie funk alien in a diaper). It's up to Juliet, who has a firmly established identity, to help bail her out of those situations.
Finally, we have the men in her life. Morikawa, her martial arts teacher, shares some of Rosalind's unhinged, youthful spirit, though there is more of a dichotomy there. He is both a lecherous pervert and a spiritual guru. His body is old but small like a child's, which makes his lecherous intentions less threatening. Juliet could easily overpower him physically if it came to that. Despite his relative harmlessness, he doesn't get away with being a creeper (which is another of Lollipop Chainsaw's themes). Morikawa's pervy ways are closely associated with his physical death, as he repeatedly bumps into into Juliet's bosom during his death throws. In the end, his spirituality grants him safe passage to heaven, though strangely enough, his little boy's body still has a role to play later in the game.
Which brings us to the relationship that is most central to Lollipop Chainsaw, that between Juliet and her boyfriend Nick.
Juliet vs. Nick
As I mentioned, Jim Sterling already wrote an amazing article on how Nick is objectified in Lollipop Chainsaw. I won't attempt to go over that ground again, since there is plenty more to say about this guy. He may be the most interesting male in gaming today. Like Jim said, Nick is treated like an object in the game, but he's also a subject. He's the epitome of the ideal boyfriend and a role model for males who want to some day have a girlfriend like Juliet.
He's also a decapitated head. Make no mistake, these two facts are not unrelated.
Nick starts off as a regular guy, which in Lollipop Chainsaw means that he may turn into a zombie at any moment. Sure enough, just a few seconds into his first appearance, he's bitten by a zombie and is about to be turned into a cannibalistic, undead maniac, ruled only by his primitive drives. That's the exact kind of guy Juliet does not want to date!
Juliet takes matters into her own hands and separates Nick's head from his body, keeping his mind safe from the "impurities" that existed in every aspect of him from the neck down. Perhaps surprisingly, Juliet is not particularly unhappy with this turn of events. She may even see it as an upgrade. With just a head, she gets all the pros and none of the cons of having a boyfriend. She can still talk to him, joke with him, trade compliments with him, keep him close, and (as is hinted in the beginning of Chapter 4) do the things that women and men's heads sometimes do together, all without the troubles that tend to come from a male's body getting in the way.
I've been treated like "just a head" by prior girlfriends, so it was very easy for me to relate to Nick. I can also say that it's not so bad being just a head. Sometimes you feel like just an accessory or like the relationship isn't entirely equal. The truth is, though, that no relationship is equal. What matters is that the love is equal, and that's what Nick and Juliet have, in spite of (or maybe because of) the fact that he's just a head. Still, it's not like Juliet is totally shallow. On those rare occasions that Nick gains a body for a brief period of time, she's quick to treat him like a star, even though he's obviously one of the most physically uncoordinated human beings "alive." That kind of blind love is something that I've experienced plenty of times, and it's nothing short of adorable to see it bloom between Nick and Juliet.
Love almost always leads to a melding of identities, and Nick and Juliet's love is no different. By the end of the game, Nick says that he wants to be like Juliet, no matter how dangerous it is. In order to do that, he has to take control of Killabilly, the ultimate representation of American lust and gluttony (again, more on that later) by joining his head with that monster's body. In order to destroy all the ugliness and instinct-ridden perversity that makes up a man's body, he has to full accept it by joining with it, then kill himself. He is every male that ever admitted to a woman that he is a privileged, disgusting asshole, and that he's willing to kill those parts of himself in order to become a better person.
His reward for his sacrifice is a second chance at life in a new body, the boy-like body of Morikawa-sensei to be exact. Due to some mystical weirdness, Nick and Morikawa become one, with Morikawa's soul somewhere in the cosmos, and Nick fully in control of his tiny frame. So in the end, Nick still escapes the curse of having a man's body. With the head of an adult but the nonthreatening body of a child, Nick can continue to be the kind of boyfriend who Juliet wants while gaining enough autonomy to have at least a limited amount of control over his physicality. For Nick and Juliet, that's about as good as it's going to get.
End of Part 1
That just the start of some of the stuff I got from Lollipop Chainsaw. It's really a new take on relationships for Grasshopper, one that I find endlessly fascinating. Whereas Suda's prior title, Shadows of the Damned, was the story of a man (Garcia Hotspur) overcoming his relationship issues (fear of his woman being taken away by a more "well-endowed" man, fear that her sexual power over him would give her too much control, fear of her dying, fear that his penis would run out of bullets, etc.), Lollipop Chainsaw's narrative is largely about Juliet's immediate mastery over her relationships and her general sense of mastery over the world around her. It's her capacity to coexist within the stereotypically masculine (chainsaw) and feminine (cheerleading) aspects of herself that allow her to gain that level mastery. That's something Garcia learns far too late in his adventure. Juliet has just about all those skills right from the start, and they only grow as the game goes on. That's just one of the many reasons why she's one of the few videogame characters I look up to.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. In Part 2 of this two-part analysis, we'll be taking a look at Juliet's more violent relationships. It's Juliet vs. The Zombies, Juliet vs. Juliet, and Juliet Vs. A Male's Gaze, coming up in a day or two (depending on how much writer's block I have between now and then).