‘Mortal Kombat’: Gory, unadulterated Americana at its finest

Graphic by Catherine Ward

The “Mortal Kombat” games are, first and foremost, incredibly violent. Their trademark “Fatalities” are gory waterworks of blood spewing out of every body part imaginable. Thanks to modern animation technology, watching these “Fatalities” in “Mortal Kombat X” for the first time left me closing my eyes, unable to shake the images of flesh-ripping, spine-twisting, face-eating finishing moves on lifelike bodies.

Yet as I continued watching the moves and interactions of characters in fighting matches and the game’s Story Mode, which attempts to unite its many fighters in a plot, I realized that “Mortal Kombat” wasn’t just a game of violence;  it could very well be one of the most American pieces of media I have come across.

In comparison to Japan, the U.S.’ equivalent video game capital of the world, the West is more well-known for being big fans of graphic, close-up violence within its games. A look at censorship laws in Japan show that although gore is allowed in games, a moderate amount of bodily viscera must be obscured, usually achieved by evasive angles, lighter colors and less graphic deaths.

As such, it’s not surprising that the “Mortal Kombat” series has not seen a Japanese release for 20 years. “Mortal Kombat 11,” the newest iteration in the series out this coming April, will not be released in Japan due to its “extreme gore and violence,” according to video game rating board CERO.

The series’ leniency toward violence is not the only aspect that reveals a distinctly American point of view. Like the U.S., “Mortal Kombat” is a melting pot — it features fighters from around the world, and many other fighters come from different dimensions of the universe. However, while Earth’s warriors boast gratuitous strength, they also indulge in some stereotypes.

Most American characters in “Mortal Kombat” represent a common American fascination. Johnny Cage is an action movie actor straight from Hollywood, whose role in the game is a sarcastic, fickle American man with little regard for rules and regulations. Standing in stark contrast is Sonya Blade, a straight-laced U.S. military general, and her commander Jackson Briggs, a black man of tremendous strength and ferocity when his otherwise level-headed demeanor is pushed to its limits. Nightwolf is a strongly spiritual Apache fighter with tomahawks and a brown leather outfit.

In each character’s personality, fighting style and appearance, the developers of “Mortal Kombat’’ imbue cultural archetypes unique to American culture. Blade and Briggs showcase the American military’s prowess with machine guns and grenades in their “Fatalities” and fighting moves, while Briggs and Nightwolf represent stereotypical tropes in American media regarding minorities.

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The stereotypical American perspective continues in “Mortal Kombat” through its treatment of its non-American fighters. In the main story of the franchise, the warriors chosen to represent Earth in the Mortal Kombat tournament are mostly either American or East Asian probably because nearly every fierce fighter from American action movies are from such ethnicities. East Asian fighters include Liu Kang, who is heavily inspired by Bruce Lee, along with Scorpion and Sub-Zero, ninja-like fighters from Japan and China. Like Briggs and Nightwolf, they represent stereotypes born from an American interest in their respective cultures.

“Mortal Kombat” continues its stubborn affinity for inaccurate depictions of other cultures in subtler ways as well. In the story mode of “Mortal Kombat X,” Scorpion pronounces the name of his clan “Shirai Ryu” as “Shirai Ra-yoo” instead of the correct Japanese pronunciation, “Shirai Ryoo.” Kenshi, a Japanese swordsman, beckons a door to open when he states “Anata ga hirakimasu,” which sounds like a Google-translated phrase to more experienced Japanese speakers.

More ridiculously, Raiden, the Earth’s god of thunder, who has a name made of Japanese kanji and a straw hat you’d see on a Chinese farmer, has his name pronounced as “Rayden” instead of its correct pronunciation “Rye-den.” He also looks like an old white man.

These pronunciations could offend Japanese-speakers; why won’t developers and voice actors put in the effort to ensure they’re accurate? Game developers have the technology and resources to make such touch-ups.

Although developers have never mentioned why they don’t make these changes, I can guess why. As a staple of American culture for nearly 30 years, “Mortal Kombat” symbolizes not only nostalgia for players, but also an unabashedly American perspective.

In the end, the game is defined by its violence, botched pronunciations and outdated stereotypes, which are relics of 90s Hollywood action and horror films. Despite the rise of political correctness in the last few years, “Mortal Kombat” remains popular and unfazed by its stereotypical screw-ups because it absorbs the mistakes other cultures perceive as distinctly American, and seems pretty damn proud about it.

Nadya Siringo Ringo SC ’21 is from Indonesia. She is relentless in her pursuit for Epic Gamer Moments.

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