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Artikel mit dem Stichwort ‘SNK’

Tradition and Progress – Games Turning Electronics

Mittwoch, 20. Oktober, 2010

The first video games were created in the West, the first game consoles to receive brand recognition were Western – even though Atari borrowed its name from a term out of the Japanese strategy game Go and the then market leader kind of already sounded Japanese even before the Japanese really conquered the market. But game arcades soon were dominated by Taito’s Space Invaders, Namco’s Pac-Man, Konami’s Gradius and Nintendo’s Donkey Kong. Conversions of these games made a name for themselves also on the American home game consoles. And starting with the Nintendo Entertainment System for the longest time the Japanese were the only ones to successfully launch consoles anymore. It’s save to say that the Japanese game makers had a firm grip on the video game market since the early beginnings.

Nintendo Hanafuda cards

It’s Nintendo who give this successful but young video game culture a much longer tradition. Nintendo’s origin leads all the way back to the late 19th century when they started their toy making business during the Meiji era, following the Meiji restauration in 1968, the first event to mark the end of isolation and a run to modernize and Westernize the country. In a way this age was the prequel to the much more radical changes advanced during the American occupation after WWII, modernizing the country in a Western image much more completely than before. What had been pragmatical adoptions of certain Western ways, as to not fall behind their Western competitors who made their markets (and colonies) right before Japan’s doorsteps in East Asia, had to become much less compromised after WWII.

Last Blade 2 Opening A

For better or worse, Japan is what it is now largely because of its relationship with America. The black ships of American captain Perry forced the shogunate to open the country’s harbors to the Western ships on their way to East Asia. The shogunate giving in to this forced opening of the country provided their political opponents with the sign of weakness they needed to launch their campaign to end the shogunate’s reign. This lead to the bakumatsu, the apocalypse of the old Japan under the shogun’s rule and to the Meiji restauration, the tennō being restored as the first man in the state. Actually the xenophobic propaganda that spurned the fight against the shogunate which was denounced to be friends with the barbarians after Perry’s visit was soon forgotten after the shogunate was actually defeated. Instead the architects of the Meiji restauration opened up the country even further, did away with a lot of old structures replacing them with modern ones modeled after Western examples, banned privileges of the samurai elite and made bushidō, the samurai’s code of conduct the ethical foundation of every citizen, most of whom this code had never applied to before.

Asian morals and Western technology, this became the slogan for early modern Japan. This includes the worship of the tennō as a divine deity, one of the things the Americans abolished after WWII since they feared its potential to mobilize the Japanese people for warfare. Basically they tried to also establish the Western value systems which hadn’t been incorporated into modern Japan before, banning certain Japanese ones like bushidō and ada uchi revenge stories. Of course you cannot easily change a whole country’s culture and the Japanese losing their religion by the tennō announcing on radio that he in fact is a human being and not a god must have had a long lasting impact on the country. The now pacifist Japan is proving itself in international economic competition and the regained confidence allows Japan to find its identity torn between Asian roots and American influence.

Video games, like cars or other technology the Japanese are known for their quality in the world, is one such field which allows the Japanese to reevaluate their cultural identity and it is one where the clash of tradition and progress is particularly pronounced. Japanese mythology and folklore, theatrical and narrative tradition, these provide the base for Japanese games as much as Western movies and technology. It makes sense that a lot of the cultural struggle and the feelings toward the changes in the country’s social and political order are expressed in Japanese game plots. Which are also closely linked to comics, another Western genre to gain mass appeal in Japan merging with the country’s own manga tradition.

Rurōni Kenshin

Rurōni Kenshin (Kenshin the Wanderer) by WATSUKI Nobuhiro is one example of a manga that uses the bakumatsu and the following Meiji era as a setting to address issues that arise from Westernization. Taking the process back to its beginnings Rurōni Kenshin tells the story of HIMURA Kenshin, formerly known as Battōsai, the hitokiri helping to bring about the end of the shogunate. Hitokiri means one who cuts people (with a sword), an executioner of sorts. The verb kiru (cut), which is often uttered as a threat, sounds almost like the English word kill. Which is also what it really means in this case. This word having the same pronounciation and meaning in both Japanese and English fuses the cultures represented by their respective languages by means of a violent concept. Which incidentally also characterizes the events leading to this fusion of cultures.

HIMURA is a weaker version of Battōsai born from feelings of guilt. Battōsai assassinated key figures of the old government like an executioner, sanctioned by a higher cause. He still thinks that this was necessary but the fact remains this new better world was built on bloodshed. So he restricts the power of his sword techniques by using a reversed blade hitting his enemies with the blunt side of the sword. He now only fights to help the helpless and vowed to never kill again, which reflects the newfound pacifistic identity of the Japanese.

Last Blade 2

Many popular works dealing with the bakumatsu favor the other side fighting for the shogunate. Expecially the shinsen-gumi, the elite samurai of the shogunate, often become the heroes of these stories. Obviously there’s some desire to go back to the old Japan before it had been changed by Western ways. The trauma of the atom bomb which is rightly perceived to be the final result of the Japanese attempt to keep up with their Western competitors which made them become maybe even worse than the ones they perceived as a threat can cause a wish to go back to this old age of innocence, when Japan was isolated but peaceful under shogunate reign. But WATSUKI embraces the new Japan in his take on this popular setting, defends the Meiji restaurators even though they started a traumatic and violent process of modernization. The manga portrays many viewpoints on the new Japan in fantastic battle scenes, literally reflecting the clash in opinion in likewise action choreographies. The effect of these many showdowns is cathartic and helps the characters to come to terms with their own little histories.

Omura in Last Samurai

At the end of each chapter WATSUKI also comments on his models for the characters in his comic. He jokingly notes that his editors keep telling him not to do this as they don’t want to tell the readers this kind of inside information, which might take away the magic of the story. But these columns are in fact very insightful. Of course WATSUKI bases some of his characters on historic sources, for example he acknowledges ŌKUBŌ, one of the oligarchic rulers of Meiji Japan who fell victim to an assassination by people disappointed with the new age, to have been a very competent politician. ŌKUBŌ’s role in Rurōni Kenshin is to become the target of revenge of the shogunate loyals, who pay the hitokiri back in kind by assassinating one of his leaders. ŌKUBŌ is also the model for an antipathetic politician named Omura in the Hollywood movie Last Samurai acting as an enemy of the noble samurai class, which exactly mirrors the sentiments of many Japanese bakumatsu themed stories to which Rurōni Kenshin serves as a counter example.

Two commented hanafuda matches.

But WATSUKI also models his characters after other manga protagonists and after video game characters. He especially draws upon characters from the Samurai Spirits (known as Samurai Shodown overseas) series by SNK. Who must have felt flattered and blatantly returned the favor by ripping off the character designs of Rurōni Kenshin in their own Last Blade series. The story and characters aren’t exactly the same as in the manga but they take up similar issues and also deal with the impact of history on the individual. But SNK don’t just take the trauma of identity loss back to its point of origin, they also take the medium video games itself back to its roots. In a special mode of the Dreamcast version of Last Blade 2 instead of fighting your opponents with weapons you can battle them by having matches of Hanafuda, the card game video game power house Nintendo made following the events Last Blade portrays.

SNK made their very own set of hanafuda cards for Last Blade 2.

Before their ventures into electronic games the flagship franchises of Nintendo always had been card games drawing on the lyrical traditions of Japan, like the poetry reading Hyakunin isshu (A hundred poets‘  poems) game or the more widely known Hanafuda games with suites based on the Japanese months and the plants, animals and other attractions one might see at any one time of the year. They have preserved Japanese traditions in the wake of this process of modernization but they also embraced change and turned it into a profit. Nintendo and video games have shaped national identity and represent Japan to the world. They have created their very own pop culture shared by East and West and Nintendo achieved this by being innovators, mixing and balancing old versus new.