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The occasional manifestation of Japanese culture in Japanese games is always going to slip through the cracks, but, for the most part, this is all for the better. Games with settings firmly rooted in Japan tend to stay within the Japanese market (which is why I'm not holding my breath for a worldwide release of the King of Colosseum series). Yet little nuggets of culture still find their way across the ocean. In the 8-bit classic Alex Kidd in Miracle World, I always found it strange that all the boss fights were Rock-Paper-Scissors contests. It was only later that I discovered that Janken, an equivalent game, plays a big role throughout Japanese childhood and is used to settle virtually all schoolyard disputes. Similarly, Eternal Sonata features an odd scene late in the game where Polka receives a fortune from a dispenser and must tie the scrap of paper to a tree. This event makes perfect sense if you have ever been to a Shinto shrine, but might seem a little odd to anyone else. To the uninitiated, these cultural nuggets are usually greeted as just another peculiar aspect of a game's fantasy world, while the Japanophile can take pleasure in being "in" on the reference.
Racial ambiguity and fantasy settings have proved a winning formula for the Japanese games industry, but that may be about to change. Business has not been good in Japan recently and this has led videogame companies like Capcom to look more aggressively to the global market, farming out development to Western companies and tailoring some of their content to appeal directly to foreigners.
Enter Frank West! All-American wise-cracking photojournalist and star of Capcom's Dead Rising. Inspired by zombie flicks of the 1970s, Frank's undead ass-kicking in the Willamette shopping mall has a distinct American flavor. Designer Keiji Inafune developed Frank specifically to appeal to Western tastes and it's telling that the character names, locations, and voice acting remain unchanged in the Japanese version of the game. If I hadn't seen the Capcom logo pop up, I could have sworn that the game was an American production.
On top of the highly specific geographical and cultural setting, race in Dead Rising is also uncharacteristically distinct. While still "cartoons," the survivors are drawn in a photo-realistic style that makes Caucasian, Asian, Black and Latin ethnicity easily discernable. Sure, Capcom has featured ethnic characters in the past (eg. the ridiculous national stereotypes depicted in their fighting games) but here there seems a more sincere effort to place the game in a real, multi-ethnic American setting.
Faced with the challenge of a market downturn, you can't blame Capcom for trying something new. Despite poor sales in Japan, the game sold well in the West, and a sequel is on the way. Frank's successor, the equally all-American motocross champ Chuck Greene, will battle his way through that most iconic of American locales, a Las Vegas-style casino. The strategy is clearly considered a winner, but what does this mean for the future?
It is a shame that such pandering is necessary, and, in an ideal world, a good Japanese game should succeed regardless of its racial and cultural content. It's hard to imagine how a Final Fantasy game might be improved by characters conspicuously eating hamburgers and playing basketball, or using chopsticks and playing kendo, for that matter. Purged of ethnic baggage and infused with quirky charm, many of the best Japanese games offer escapism to lands of pure fantasy. It should be enough that we can project our own image on to these worlds, without requiring videogames and all other form of art made-to-order for our cultural and ethnic sensibilities.
A three-year resident of Japan, Fintan Monaghan currently works at a human rights NGO. His freelance work has been published on a wide variety of Japan-related subjects.