In July of 2013, Japanese theatres saw the debut of a compilation of short films as part of a project in which “Japan” was highlighted being its general theme. Titled Short Peace, four different directors were tasked with exploring different periods from Japan’s history. The result? Four animated shorts – which makes sense, given the importance and valorization of animation in Japanese culture – each with its own visual and artistic style, and themes distinctively associated with Japanese folklore and mythology. Three of them are set in the past: one portrays a meeting between a traveler and Yo�kai (supernatural entities), another one presents us with a love story, and the third pits a spirit animal against an Oni – a demon. The fourth story explores the possibility of a future dominated by technology. Of course it does.
Something seems to be missing though…the era we’re living in right now, maybe? This is where the 5th element of this project – a videogame called Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day – enters the fray and my intention here becomes clear: to give you my perspective on the way this part of the Short Peace project portrays and comments on the current Japanese society. To that end, I need to introduce you to an individual called Goichi Suda. Possibly better known as Suda 51 (in Japanese, Go = 5; Ichi = 1), he is my answer to the question “who is your favorite videogame director?” and it was because of his association with the project that I not only became interested, but also decide to try it.
But first, some context; because as those who know me can attest to or even by previous posts, I’m someone who needs his context. I like it very much. Well, when those in charge noticed that there was really something missing – modern Japan was not represented – they decided that the last chapter of this compilation would take the form of a videogame, and approached Suda 51 and his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, to write the narrative.
I’d very much like to provide you with an extensive commentary on this gentleman’s writing and directing abilities but I’ll keep this short, as in the future his works will have their own section all for themselves. The most common of comments and takes on his work that you can find usually tout them as “wacky”, “strange” or even that they “don’t make much sense. But those curious enough, with a more attentive and critical eye will notice all the symbolism, meaning and coherence with which Suda 51 writes and organizes the experiences he designs. Because on the outside, what’s most obvious and noticeable are the vibrant and compelling visual styles, as well as the funny and “bizarre” concepts; but these hide such meticulousness and richness that just call for interpretation. And that is something I truly admire. Alas, and as much as the game box would like to make you think otherwise, he just proposed the scenario and the original concepts for the game, he didn’t direct it. Yohei Kataoka and the team at Cripy’s Inc. got to take care of that.
But since today’s focus is on the portrayal of contemporary Japanese culture and how this work comments on it, I highlight the one in charge of that aspect, so let’s move on. The game begins by introducing us to Ranko Tsukigime, the young lady with a pink eyepatch who is a schoolgirl by day and an assassin by night, and lives in a garage /shipment container complex which her father owns. Talking about her father, she tells us that he killed her mother so she’s out for revenge. It also includes superheroes, dragons and robots, but although I’d very much like to go deep into all the absurdity that we’re presented with I won’t, because it’s more fun if you experience it for yourselves.
Just from this, some of you may be like “What?”, and others may be thinking “Of course, it had to be Japanese”. Along the line we meet other characters, that are as quickly introduced and have they’re secret identities exposed as they die and are not discussed again. As with the gameplay sections, the story parts have explosive visuals and sounds and go at a thousand miles per hour, changing artistic styles and adding/taking elements from the narrative as if they were nothing, with me finishing it in under hour and a half (which actually fits with the rest of them being short films).
Those (few) of you who had the chance to play it, or at least see some screenshots, knows of the staggering ridiculousness that is shown to us. The first time I played through I thought to myself “what the hell did I just watch?” but then I wanted more, to know more to understand it better. And that’s when it came to me: “what if that’s the point? This would be a fantastic analogy of the way people tend to view Japan”. A myriad of colors and sounds, with concepts and ideologies many don’t understand, or at least consider as being a totally distinct reality and ignore it. But always with an appearance whose specificities are quickly associated with the culture in question.
A narrative full of “Japanese clichés” seemingly assembled in a random fashion, practically a lack of a guiding principle for the story, the inconsistent use of a different kind of animation at every turn…these not only serve to demonstrate various sides of this eastern culture but also to do it as a commentary to the way everyone tends to view it. As such, my previous choice of expressions wasn’t random; given my interest in this culture and the works that come from it, it’s inevitable for me to see such considerations with considerable regularity. Unfortunately, what this shows is lack of openness and patience to understand what one is experiencing, what may be different.
There’s just one more aspect of this game that is related to this game’s localization and left me really intrigued. According to the producers, the intention always was to bring short Peace overseas – which, following the interpretation of the concept I’ve been proposing, makes a lot of sense for the project’s goals, in relation to sharing and exposing customs and typical Japanese narratives. Despite that, and for lack of a better expression, what we got was some atrocious localization, particularlyin terms of presentation.
Completely out of sync subtitles, text over and outside the boxes…a ridiculous mess, amateurish at best. “Amateurish”…this left me thinking, and I began thinking about this issue. Let’s see: Japanese animation (Anime) and its style of comic books (Manga) are some of the most well-known Japanese exports on this side of the world. Although there were previous contacts, the first boom happened around the 70s and 80s with increasing imports of Anime series. Many didn’t get to us, however, but by bringing some of them the interest grew and that gave counterfeiting a place to grow. Most of the time it was arranged by fans and the results felt, well, amateurish. And that’s what it made me remember.
Could it be that, faced with such a limited budget, instead of having something that’s just “nice”, the team went all-out and did something that calls back to the Golden days of Anime’s history in the west? If that’s so it was a fantastic idea because it fits like glove in the narrative of the way the west looks at modern day Japan.
In conclusion, I strongly recommend the 4 short-movies, both for their beauty and technical quality but also for the way it exposes a living culture, one pretty distinct from those we’re typically acquainted with. And if you’re willing to be open and have the necessary detachment to dive through the sounds, the colors and the unsettling, experience Ranko Tsukigime’s longest day. Laugh at the absurd and appreciate how it ingeniously comments the views on the Japan of our days.
Have you experienced any part of the Short Peace project? What's your take on it? Please tell me your thoughts, your complaints, how you go shopping for pillows and whatever else you feel like. I post weekly on my blog (https://themaninthegarage.wordpress.com/category/turbine-philosophy/) as well as other guys who are on it as well, so come check it out.