Monday, March 30, 2015

A Little Mystery: Beating Persona 3

Warning: This post is just spoilerific for Persona 3 and Persona 4.

I finally finished Persona 3 over the weekend, and I can't say that I particularly cared.

Now, Persona 3 has its good points. The combat is engaging, most of the Social Links are well written and satisfying, there's good music, great art design, and all of the other check boxes you expect from an Atlus game. And yet, the core story left me completely cold.

This was a surprise, particularly given how much I loved Persona 4. So much of the games are identical (re: Atlus check boxes). Even the endings of Persona 3 and Persona 4 are almost beat-by-beat identical. A fight with an unkillable representation of the inevitability of death, protagonist undergoes ego-death, protagonist is brought back to life by bonds with others, protagonist uses the ultimate deus ex no jutsu to defeat said unkillable representation of the inevitability of death.

And yet, and yet, and yet, they feel so different. The Special Investigation Unit works so much harder than SEES to investigate the mysterious occurrences in their town. Persona 4 never stopped telling me to question everything, to develop and discard theories, to find the truth behind the fog.

Persona 3's plot twists were just things that happened: a mentor who betrays, a secret past brought to light, a generic Lovecraftian horror drawing ever closer. My expectations were never subverted because SEES never really tries to figure out what's happening. The plot twists and we follow, barreling down the corridor of fate.

And that's what the difference between the two really is. Persona 4 is a mystery leading to an answer. Persona 3 is a series of plot twists leading to...well, I suppose to a final plot twist.

A mystery is solvable. A plot twist is merely guessable. A mystery gives you little pieces of information that hint towards a hidden truth you are drawn further and further into. A plot twist smacks you in the back of the head while you're not paying attention.

Persona 3 isn't a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, not any more than Persona 4 is a perfect game. Certainly, the final death of the protagonist in P3 is a much bolder choice than P4's "Everything is Awesome" conclusion. Blue Hair McHeadphones comes off as much less sociopathic than Silver Hair VonSistercomplex. Example, further example, etc.

But at the end of the day, I prefer a decent mystery to even a good plot twist. In that regard, Persona 4 is the clear winner for me.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

[DC006] Azuma vs. Lukacs: Affective Elements in Trendy Dramas

Previous: [DC005] Azuma vs. Allison: Polymorphous Perversity

            Gabriella Lukács' Scripted Affects, Branded Selves is a study on Japanese live-action “trendy dramas” from the 1990s which emphasize media personalities and product placement over narrative content. In looking at the logic of consumption that underlies these dramas and the public personas of the actors and actresses that star in them, we see a remarkable similarity to otaku consumption in Azuma's Database Model.

            The similarity is most striking when we look at the role of actors and actresses in trendy dramas, or rather, the role of tarento.  As “amateur professionals,” tarento are recruited and cast less for their acting ability and more on the intangible commodity of their public image. 

            This tarento system emerged in the late 1980s-1990s, when the focus of Japanese dramas moved away from stories and characters and towards tarento’s star power (83). A tarento’s stage personality follows them across TV shows, movies, commercials, and public appearances much like how the moe elements of fictional characters follow them across anime, manga, and video games. 

            When discussing trendy dramas, fans “slip between calling the drama's fictive characters by their real names,” between “fictitious and real personas they do not readily separate from one another” (77). In a sense, the character is the tarento and the tarento is the character. The enjoyment of consumers comes not from originality or a connection with larger social narratives, but from emotional affect and Database-level consumption.

            Lukács gives the example of Makiko Esumi's role in the unsuccessful drama Single Lives.  Many fans criticized the serious, story-driven Single Lives, not because of the story, characters, or production, but simply because the felt that Makiko Esumi's character was not suited to her tarento image. Fans commented that she is best suited to “laughter,” rather than serious roles (76). This image of laughter and light-heartedness makes up what we might call Esumi’s “affective elements.”

            Consumers do not value Esumi simply because of her acting ability, but also for her association with certain affective elements. When Esumi’s character in Single Lives acted outside of these affective elements, it robbed consumers of their source of enjoyment.

            Consumers of trendy dramas are not interested in Grand Narratives (real or fictional) or in creative, original stories. They are interested in a form of moe, in affective bonds formed with the public personas of tarento instead of those of animated characters. They are not interested in the narrative of the story or how ties into greater social concerns, but in how the characters make them “feel.”   

            Lukács could just as easily have been describing Visual Novels when she says trendy dramas “seldom offer unequivocal ideological messages other than encouraging individuals to live self-centered and self-fulfilling lives” (41). The value consumers of both Visual Novels and Trendy Dramas seek are two-fold: the emotional resonance of the story and direct enjoyment of affective elements on the Database level. In both cases, we see the breakdown of signification, the breakdown of Grand Narratives from which smaller narratives draw meaning.  

            This is significant because, as mentioned, Azuma's goal was to come to a better understanding of Japanese culture as a whole by looking at the otaku subculture. This overlap in consumption patterns between those who self-identify as otaku and those who do not indicates that the Database Consumption model could be sed to analyze media and media consumers outside of the otaku demographic. While the term “moe element” might not be appropriate to use outside of the otaku subculture, “affective element” works surprisingly well.

Next: [DC007] Database Consumption Summary

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

[DC005] Azuma Vs. Allison: Polymorphous Perversity

Previous: [004] Azuma vs. Okada: Defining Otaku 
            Turning now to a western scholar, Anne Allison's Millenial Monsters does not focus on the otaku industry in particular but rather on “Japanese toys and the global imagination” in general. While her work focuses more on child consumers than otaku, the familiar theme of the breakdown of Grand Narratives emerges once again.
            Allison begins her work by looking at Japanese toys in the era of reconstruction (1945-1960). While Japan had a flourishing toy industry before World War II, wartime necessity ended production. With the end of the war, Japanese toy makers resumed production, with the toys being approved for export to the United States in 1947 (38). Allison gives the example of the Kosuga jeep, modeled after U.S. military vehicles and constructed from recycled ration cans as a notable example from this era.
            In addition to toys, Allison also presents some examples of important media franchises from this era such as Godzilla and Tetsuwan Atomu. Godzilla in particular is discussed by Azuma and Okada as important to First Generation otaku, although Allison focuses more on its overall social impact. She describes the movie monster as being “scarred yet empowered by a particular historical event-a nuclear blast that disturbs his home but also rewires him as an atomic cyborg...Out of the scars of war, Japan was to rebuild itself by becoming embedded, like Gojira, with new technologies that would forever alter national identity, state policies, and subjectivity” (46). The film spoke to the social Grand Narrative concerns of First Generation otaku in a way that few other media properties could rival.
            After discussing the era of reconstruction, Millennial Monsters jumps forward to the millennial era. While Allison does occasionally reference media properties or toys from the 1960-1980s period, for the most part she skips over Azuma's Era of Fiction in favor of the 1990s-early 2000s.  
            But the picture she paints of millennial Japan is strikingly similar to Azuma's Era of Animalization. Japanese society is “fragmented” and “detached”; the social mantra of “one family, one TV” has become “one person, one TV” (70). Alienation extends even to how people commute. Using the train system “becomes an experience of liminality when travelers are betwixt and between destinations,” as travelers move from physical location to physical location while also moving from social identity to social identity” (71).
            The key words for Allison are atomism and mobility,  “the effect, in part, of global capitalism with its flows of images, finance, ideas, people, and goods across geographic borders and of New Age technologies that enable high-speed travel, global communication, and virtual reality (leading to the compression, as well as fictionalization, of time and space)” (72). This atomism and mobility leads to a state which Allison describes as “polymorphous perversity,” a “continual change and stretching of desire across ever new zones/bodies/products” (277). 
            Just as travelers move between physical locations and social identities on the train, so consumers move across brands, products, and consumer identities by the action of consumption. This continual breaking down and reassembly of identity bears a distinct similarity to the breaking down and reassembly of Database elements. Consumers break down and reassemble their own identities in the same manner that moe characters are broken down and reassembled into new narratives. 
            Consumption is a form of identity-making, in which the consumer assembles an identity not from a core sense of self based in a Grand Social Narrative, but in the continual change of new products, new affective alliances, and new selves. “Whether a Kitty-chan key chain, Doraemon cell phone strap, or Pikachu backpack, these commodity spirits are 'shadow families': constant and reliable companions that are soothing in post-industrial times of nomadicism, orphanism, and stress...'Parents die, but characters remain forever'” (91).
            It is easy to overlook this part of Database Consumption in favor of more sensational items such as cat ears and maid cafes, but the essential fact remains that it is not just narrative goods that are subject to databasification. It is consumers themselves. Postmodern consumers do not crave Grand Narratives for the simple reason that Grand Narratives are no longer part of their lives. 
           Unlike the transitional Hybrid consumers, the memory of Grand Narratives is no longer comforting because post-modern consumers have never experienced Grand Narratives as a part of their lives. Living in a world of polymorphous perversity, of constant change and reassignment of identity, post-modern consumers are simply applying the logic of their day-to-day lives to fictional characters.
            And it is interesting to note that these patterns emerge even when we look outside of the otaku subculture. It confirms something of Azuma’s thesis; the Database model is not just how otaku perform cultural consumption, but rather the new norm. It is now normal to find meaning in emotional connections with virtual entities. These emotional networks become networks of meaning that can transmit information and redefine one’s own personal identity.

Next: [DC006] Azuma vs. Lukács: Affective Elements in Trendy Dramas