Rachael Hutchinson on Japanese Culture Through Videogames

Rachael Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Delaware, where she teaches Japanese language, literature, film and videogames. She has published widely on representation and identity in Japanese narrative texts, from the novels of Nagai Kafu to the manga of Tezuka Osamu, the films of Kurosawa Akira to the videogames of Kojima Hideo. Her work on games appears in the journals Games and Culture, Japanese Studies, and NMEDIAC: Journal of New Media and Culture, as well as the books Gaming Representation: Race, Gender and Sexuality in Video Games, (ed. Malkowski and Russworm), Introduction to Japanese Pop Culture (ed. Freedman and Slade) and Transnational Contexts of Culture, Gender, Class, and Colonialism in Play (ed. Pulos and Lee). Her latest book, Japanese Culture through Videogames (Routledge 2019) was recently featured on the podcasts ‘Meiji at 150’ and ‘Japan Station.’

Sarah Chen CMC '20 interviewed Dr. Rachael Hutchinson on April 24, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Rachael Hutchinson.

Japanese videogame and videogame companies, such as Nintendo, Konami, Square Enix, and Sega, are very familiar to Western players given their global exportation. What type of games do these videogame companies produce?  

A lot of people think that studios tend to specialize more than they actually do. Out of the list of companies that you mentioned, Square Enix probably specializes the most, and that would be in Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs). Square Enix is actually a merger of two companies, Square and Enix and both of those companies began with role playing games, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, things like that. If you look at the others you’ve mentioned like Nintendo, they actually have a wide range of games they put out in the early days. If you look at Secret of Mana, that was an RPG, Mario was a platformer, Legend of Zelda is an adventure game, so Nintendo had a very broad range. If you look at Konami, that’s even broader. Konami was responsible for Frogger in the arcade that went onto the Commodore 64. They made Dance Dance Revolution so they’re responsible for a lot of rhythm games, but they also did Metal Gear Solid, which is a huge tactical espionage single player console game.

Sega is really well known for speed games like racing and Sonic the Hedgehog, and that’s how they got famous by saying “We’re faster than Nintendo.” There are a couple of studios that really do specialize in wargames. Koei is really famous for wargames; they make Kessen and other strategy games. 

Is the breakdown of Japanese videogame genres pretty similar to the American genres?

First-person shooters are not very popular in Japan. They don’t have the gun culture that you have in North America, so you see less guns and less of the first-person shooter genre and more of the adventure game. When it is a shooting or battling kind of game, it tends to be more fantasy oriented, so you get things like Monster Hunter, Splatoon, for instance.  It is about shooting paint at people and environments. It’s a bit more inventive. They don’t go in for the very realistic 3D wargame effects like Call of Duty.

In your book Japanese Videogames and Culture, you write about Japanese culture as playable object. How have videogames such as Pokémon or the Final Fantasy X expressed aspects of Japanese culture through design and atmosphere?

Pokémon is a fun one because a lot of Japanese creatures are based on yokai, Japanese monster culture. You can trace some of these yokai back to 12th century Japanese art. Legend of Zelda looks really western on the surface; you’ve got Link with the blue eyes and blonde hair and the cultureless appearance. However, in Twilight Princess there’s a sumo ring where you must learn sumo to progress in the main mission, it’s not a side mission at all. In the new Breath of the Wild, a big part of the game is cooking, and you can make all kinds of Japanese food in the cookpot like onigiri and Japanese curry. If you go to Kakariko Village, there’s the thatched houses and inside the houses there are traditional zabuton cushions. The costuming in the village, especially for the Sheikah warriors, looks like traditional Japanese armor and clothing.

In Final Fantasy X, the director said he wanted to explore more Japanese culture, so Yuna’s costume looks like a kimono. She has these really long sleeves, which is very indicative of youth and beauty because only young women typically wear sleeves like that.

The JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game) has developed into a uniquely Japanese experience. What makes a JRPG unique, and what typical tropes are found in JRPGs?

What makes a JRPG a JRPG? Emphasis on story. A lot of the stories from the golden age of the JRPG are very linear. You take a character from Point A to Point B, and you experience the story as the designers wrote it. Often, there will be dialogue trees, and you can make choices in the dialogue. But it doesn’t often lead to anywhere or any great change in the narrative. No matter what you do, the villain is going to end up doing what he’s planned on at the end of the game because that’s the story. As you go along through the 2000s, it starts changing and multiple ending options start popping up. Story and character development are very important. There’s a psychological trauma, often amnesia, that the character is going through, which really immerses the player in the game. If the character doesn’t know their background, it’s up to you to find out that background, and it’s also your way of becoming close to the character. Sometimes, you don’t understand why the character is doing what they’re doing, but then it starts to make sense once you discover the background and the backstory, sometimes along with the character as you piece together their fragmentary past.

JRPGs also often have turn-based battle. In the really traditional Square Enix games, you have a party of people, and each of those characters has a special skill or specialty. These characters all help you, the main character, get past the battle and move on in the story. The JRPG involves the player in the story and the gameplay at the same time because you absolutely need all those people to help you, you can’t do it on your own. In Final Fantasy X, you play as Tidus, and you don’t actually have to play as Tidus in the battle (most of the time, you have to play the main character in all the battles) but in Final Fantasy X you can give him a rest.

A lot of the heroes in the JRPG are young, very young. Usually, they are teenagers with an angsty psychological development going on. They are at a time in their lives where they need to strike out on their own and become independent. Typically a young man, the shounen, and they’ve usually got a spiky hair and sword going on. Square Enix is very good at this character, and they’ve been really consistent with using Tetsuya Nomura to do the character design so they look similar as well.

Another consistent trope is that they’ve lost their parents. This is common with young characters in literature around the world. In England, for instance, you have the stories of Charles Dickens, E. Nesbit, even Harry Potter is a famous orphan. You have to strike out on your own, find your own place in the world. This is a pretty big idea in the JRPG. At the time when JRPGs were established and became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, this is when there were the most rapid changes in Japanese society with the breakdown of the family and the rise of economic strife, divorce, juvenile delinquency, what have you. The idea of the young person going out, trying to find people to help them in the world and establish their place in society is important. It’s prevalent in TV, film, anime, and manga of the time too.

How is Japan’s history with nuclear power and nuclear weapons reflected in its videogames?

Japan, in general, has a very marked anxiety about nuclear power. A lot of that comes from the fact that Japan was bombed with atomic weapons in WWII.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki were residential areas where civilians were killed with atomic weapons. After the war, there was a big push from America, Atoms for Peace, to use nuclear power for peaceful ends by powering nuclear powerplants and producing electricity to power the nation. In the Japanese arts, there are a lot of movies and anime exploring this dual nature of nuclear power. On the one hand, it can be used for destruction and weapons, on the other hand, it can be used for cheap, clean energy.

Complicating all of this is the idea that humans can abuse this power. We have this amazing energy locked deep within the earth, but if it’s used the wrong way, it will cause unimaginable destruction. A lot of the Final Fantasy games detail this idea. You can actually trace the development of ideas of nuclear power through the Final Fantasy series. Even from the very first game, there’s a boss with nuclear power called War Machine. It’s unpredictable, you can’t tell how much damage it’ll do to your party. Later on in other games, you receive various types of crystals from deep within the ground. When you unlock those crystals, they’ll mutate. In Final Fantasy, there’s “materia” that you collect around the world, but it mutates into different forms. It’s an unstable, unpredictable substance made out of “mako,” an energy source. In Final Fantasy VII, the villains go through the world looking for mako in abandoned powerplants to create energy weapons. There’s also mako poisoning in the Final Fantasy world, where prolonged exposure results in genetic mutation, cognitive disruption, and even death. The Final Fantasy series is about nuclear power, but this is teased out through an allegory.

On the other hand, you get games that are really direct about nuclear power like Metal Gear Solid and the Kojima games because Solid Snake is trying to save the world from terrorists who want to use mobile nuclear weapons.

How does Metal Gear Solid interact with the nuclear dialogue and what makes this particular gaming series so famous?

The Psycho Mantis boss battle is the first time that a game designer used the console and game controller itself as part of the game play to mess with the player’s head. Kojima included an algorithm in the game’s coding, so that when you ran Metal Gear Solid in your PlayStation, the game could read what else was on your hard drive. It would seem like Psycho Mantis could read your mind, because he would comment on what other games you had played, or even how often you saved during them, calling Snake reckless or prudent depending on the save count. If you didn’t have many deaths, Psycho Mantis would praise Solid Snake as a warrior; if you had many deaths, then he would comment on Snake being a careless man and a poor warrior. This had never been done before. Another iconic moment is when Psycho Mantis he tells Snake to put down the controller and using his powers, he vibrates the player’s controller in the real world.

What does all this have to do with the nuclear discourse? Kojima blurs the lines between the player and Solid Snake by consistently breaking the fourth wall. In Metal Gear Solid, Solid Snake has to work really hard to put off these terrorists. A great deal of effort is required from the player. Metal Gear Solid is a really hard game because the boss battles are incredibly difficult and there’s a lot of sneaking around and strategizing. It’s a very different kind of gameplay. There’s this whole sequence in the game where you have to carry out a series of instructions near the end. You think that you’re disarming the mobile nuclear weapon, the Metal Gear Rex. You’ve put in all this effort, and if you don’t make it on time you know that there will be huge consequences. When you finally lock it in, a voice over the intercom comes on and thanks you for arming the weapon for them, and it’s the enemy, the villain. The game is brilliant because it manipulates the player into putting their labor into the game and at the end, you realize that you’ve gone against the mission of the game. This makes the player realize, on a visceral level, arming nuclear weapons is not what Solid Snake or you want to do. Kojima has put you in that position specifically so you can realize that for yourself. 

In a similar vein, what role does war play in Japanese videogames and how does this contrast with American videogames based on historical wars?

In the west, and in America in particular, there is a glamorization of modern 20th century warfare. Japan can’t do that. Japan lost World War II, Japan was responsible for horrible atrocities in Asia, and these were not positive experiences. In the end, it all came to nothing, the Japanese empire lost, they realized the emperor wasn’t divine which was a real blow psychologically. In modern Japanese warfare, there isn’t that winning narrative that you need for a successful videogame. There are certain wars in the West also that don’t do as well as videogames. There are hundreds of videogames about WWII because the allies had a winning, heroic narrative in WWII. But, if you look at WWI, there’s not that many games written about WWI because it doesn’t have that same narrative. It was essentially sending waves and waves of young soldiers into the German cannons. So, you don’t want to play as a soldier because it’s waiting in the trenches for weeks and weeks doing nothing or going over the top into certain death and you don’t want to play as an officer sending soldiers in to die. The Vietnam War is the same. There are very few videogames about the Vietnam War. There are tons of films, but they are all very tragic. It’s very cathartic to watch a tragic film, but as a videogame, what’s the pay off for the player?

As a player, I want a wonderful, heroic narrative and that’s what Call of Duty and all those modern warfare games do so well. In Japan, you don’t have that. There are a lot of war games, but the industry has different ways to get around the problem of historically losing the war. War games are set in a fantasy universe or alternative history. One of the first great wargames out of Japan was 1942, and you play as an American pilot fighting against the great Japanese imperial navy. That was followed up with 1943: Battle of Midway, and these are arcade games made by Capcom with a very large distribution overseas. But not many games took the same tactic of winning as the other side.

Some games are set in the Pacific, which gets away from the land battle. Kantai Collection is an online card-collecting game where battleships are anthropomorphized as women, but it’s not realistic in any way. The anime of Kantai Collection raises the grand battleship Yamato, which is an actual battleship that was one of the most powerful battleships ever made by the Japanese. The grand battleship Yamato allows the Japanese victory in the Pacific. At no point in the anime is it made explicit that they’re fighting against the Americans, but the image of Japanese victory in the Pacific is clear.

The Japanese gaming industry has been very creative and inventive at being able to play war without all the horrible, historical reality of 20th century war. There are also a lot of games set in the past. Nobunaga’s Ambition is one of the largest strategy war games ever made, and it’s about the warring era between the daimyo, the great feudal lords. Everyone is wearing traditional Japanese armor, and there are a multitude of daimyo characters or lords, leading ranks on ranks of samurai. It displays the idealized vision of war in Call of Duty, but in Japan it is set in a medieval war, set in the past so the player can be proud of the victory.

Sarah Chen CMC '20Student Journalist

Basile Morin / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

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