Anime, Games and the New Japan

Despite the sales of Call of Duty and other
American franchises, we all know that the best video games come from Japan.

If you’re a gamer,
you are either nodding in approval of this statement or shaking your fist at
my effigy in rage, provided you have stalked me sufficiently to actually have an effigy of me (in which case, Monsour Counseling
is located in the Tranquada building). Either way you look at it, that statement is polarizing, and although I
am committed to playing an unbiased selection of video games from both eastern
and western shores, I tend to believe what I have just said. If you will hear me out, I will even explain my
reasoning. Just bear in mind that, while
my perspective is supported by investigation and inference, there are few hard
statistics that I know of to back me up, so… take what you want and leave the

The reason for the
impressive quality gap between American and Japanese video games has everything
to do with the interrelation of Japanese games and Manga/Anime culture. Take some examples of the best games to come
from each side of the world in the last ten years, and you will see what I am
talking about. Compare blockbuster
western titles like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto 4 and Skyrim to similarly
themed eastern titles like Metroid Prime, Kingdom Hearts and pre-2000 Final
Fantasy. The control schemes of each game
are similar, but you would hardly even think of any of them in the same
category—they are fundamentally different in their tone, narrative delivery (or
lack thereof), and visual style. In short, they draw from completely separate
cultural contexts. Why? What does Japanese culture have that Western
culture (and especially American culture) does not?

There is no simple
answer to that question. After all, the
American and Japanese societies evolved separately from each other until
Matthew C. Perry “opened” Japan to the Western world in 1852, and they would not
truly grow close until the Allied occupation of Japan at the end of World War
II. So there is, in fact, a lot that
separates the two cultures. One of the
largest distinctions between the two societies in recent years, however, is the
existence of and culture surrounding manga and anime. Sure, the U.S. has its share of cartoons and
comic strips, but neither the Sunday funnies nor the vast parasitic network of
Disney and Disney-knock-off animation studios have consistently produced works
with the same thematic depths and artistic dynamism as the shounen (young
men’s) manga and anime greats, and for darn good reason too: our society did not
go through roughly 700 years of fierce ritual warfare over less land than is
currently held by the state of California. Walter Elias Disney may have been many things, but revolutionary he was
not, and that is where American and Japanese comics and animation fork like the
path in a Robert Frost poem.

The road
less traveled for Japanese artists essentially amounted to one of social
commentary through the unusual medium of action heroes. In clear defiance of their elders’ highly
militaristic, feudally-rooted mindset, the manga artists (mangakas) of the 1950s
and ’60s produced highly influential works emphasizing the value of friendship
over political alliance and of defense and truth to ideals over conquest and
greed. Given manga’s, and later anime’s, intense popularity with the 18-to-25-year-old Japanese demographic, the seeds of a
generational rift were sown and are manifesting themselves more and more in
all areas of Japanese society.

Why am I telling
you all of this? Perhaps you’ve already
guessed the connection: Japanese video games draw heavily from this culturally
revolutionary mindset of idealism and defensive use of violence—a perspective
that simply does not exist in an America where the youth is much less
dissatisfied with their elders and still very much in love with its
image of the conquering military hero. I am not really making a debatable political statement there, either…
look at how many American games make you
the owner of many, many guns, whose sole purpose is to give you control over an
environment populated by dehumanized, savage enemies, whether those enemies be
aliens, zombies or other humans. In any
given American game offering, the gun is simply used as a tool of conquest, a
means to an end, a device with which you achieve dominance over increasingly
elaborate environments which may or may not actually need dominance.

contrast, to me, the game that represents the gun (sword, power-up mushroom) as
a narrative tool used as an extension of the person wielding it and
representative of both the power and the hardships they bear on their journey
toward an ideal which they may or may not be able to realistically achieve is
simply the more interesting product from a storytelling perspective, and
therefore more entertaining on a conceptual level, if not also on the level of
execution. Which is the more compelling
premise: “Clear a world of alien scum using an array of increasingly large
weapons,” or “Fight a series of increasingly more difficult aliens as you grow
and learn of the tragic fate of a once-lush planet which you might just be able
to restore to its former glory by acquiring an array of increasingly large
weapons?” That is Doom vs. Metroid
for you in a nutshell, and to me, the answer is obvious.  

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