Tuesday, April 28, 2015

[BoRT Apr. 2015] Masao Inaba and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Localization

April is the cruelest month, so for this month's Blogs of the Round Table, I decided to ruthlessly mock what may well be history's worst Palette Swap for your amusement. So grab your popcorn and your schadenfreude spectacles, it’s time to look at one of the worst video game localizations of all time: Revelations: Persona!

As we'll see, having a gimp on the front cover
is the least of this game's issues

Every translation requires a little bit of localization. Maybe the game you’re translating has a play on words that just won’t work in the target language. Maybe there's a reference to a 1980's sitcom character that even the original audience would find obscure. There’s a limit to what a translator can do to preserve the original text. You have to know your audience and make some tough decisions about what they can and can’t handle.
Revelations: Persona (née Megami Ibunroku Perusona) was released in 1996, a time when North American localization teams worked under the assumption that Shinto was a form of Satanism and that non-European names could summon the Old Gods. It was a more innocent time, when Tokyo could be swapped out for New York and rice balls could be exchanged for cheeseburgers.

You see, Mr. Kaiba, it's the added dairy that makes it truly American.

Most of the choices made by the localization team of Revelations: Persona were fairly standard ones for the time. The term “Megami” was dropped from the title, since the Megami Tensei series was mostly unknown outside Japan at the time. The game’s location was changed from a Japanese city to an American city, characters’ names were Anglicized, item prices were changed from yen to dollars, etc.

So far, so reasonable. These were by no means good changes, but they were understandable. The Megami Tensei series was untested in the North American market, so it made sense to try and make it accessible.

Then there was what they did to Masao Inaba, the party's lovable goofball.
This Guy

Here’s the thing about Japanese media, particularly Japanese video games from the mid 90’s: they are not ethnically diverse. American games get made fun of for their token ethnic characters, but if Captain Planet had been an anime, it would have been about five Japanese kids who team up to reduce whale populations to sustainable levels. In Japan, ethnic diversity means having a Japanese character who isn’t from Tokyo.

The original Persona had, by my count, exactly one non-Japanese character who was not also a demon (and come to think of it, most of the demons are Japanese too): a minor scientist NPC named Tesla. I guess this is impressive in that it predates the internet’s Teslamania by a good few decades, but Jesus Christ, Japan, could you be less diverse? Incidentally, using the term “Jesus Christ” qualifies this article for an affirmative action grant from the Japanese government for including a person of Jewish descent.

You may have heard the term “reverse racism” before, but Revelations: Persona may be the first recorded incidence of quantum racism. It began as a Japanese game with a single non-Japanese character. This game was then scrubbed of all mentions of Japanese language and culture by a localization team. This was already kind of racist, but we’re not even close to done yet.

Since Tesla is white and all indicators of the other characters’ Japanese-ness were removed, Revelations: Persona’s team had the uncomfortable realization that all of their characters were now Caucasian. Somehow, it had ended up even less ethnically diverse than the Japanese original. Oh no! What would Captain Planet say?

The localization team of Revelations: Persona thought it would be nice if the game was more diverse, which was fine. Then, using a chain of logic so unintentionally racist it gave the Power Rangers localization team phantom erections, they decided the best way to fix this was to rename the wise-cracking, break-dancing Masao Inaba “Mark” and make him black.

Did I mention that "Mark" is into graffiti?

It was such a powerful collision of good intentions and horrible stereotypes, scientists were able to observe the Higgs boson in the resulting explosion.

Also, that he dances crazy?

The unspeakable power of this quantum racism field revived dead Confederate soldiers long enough for them to re-lose Gettysburg. Apartheid ended in 1994, but it would have lasted another 10 years if the Universe hadn’t been compensating for the racist particles emitting from copies of Revelations: Persona. I’m not saying “Mark” was an offensive caricature, but he’s the official mascot of the KKK’s video game magazine.

To be clear, I don’t think that anyone on Revelations: Persona’s localization team was being actually, intentionally racist. I’m from the South, and if there’s one thing I’ve never heard a hardcore racist say, it’s “You know what this Japanese video game needs? More black people!”

Which is odd, because if any of the hardcore racists I know had been asked to add a black character to Persona, this is more or less exactly what they would have done. Wait – no, they would probably make Tesla black under the assumption that Persona was part of a sting operation set up by government Death Panels to identify and sterilize racists. They're not that dumb, Obama! And yet somehow, this would still be less stupid and racist.

What I’m saying is, it’s insane that erasing all of the characters’ original ethnicities was the least troubling thing about this localization. That’s like finding out that the worst thing about the Trail of Tears was the weather.

There are many ways of dealing with the lack of representation in games, but I think we all can agree that this is the worst one. Picking a character who shares some superficial qualities with black stereotypes and then making them black is racist in ways scientists don't fully understand.

I guess someone sat Atlus USA’s localization team down and explained all of this to them, because the North American PSP re-release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona restored the game to its original Japanese location and ethnicity.

It was a move that was as expected as it was obvious, but I like to think that there’s a universe out there where Atlus USA decided to double-down and relocate the game to 18th century Ethiopia. It would be an insane decision, and yet still less insane than having a character in blackface dance crazy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

[DC009] Azuma vs. Kaiyodo: Technology, Capital, and Toys

Previous: [DC008] A History of Kaiyodo

                In weighing the validity of Azuma's Era divisions against Kaiyodo's history, a number of apparent conflicts arise. 

                For example, Azuma's Era of Fiction, in which Grand Narratives supposedly lost weight, begins in 1970, a time at which Miyawaki Osamu was still very much concerned with social issues of art, education, and social responsibility. His conflicts with art critics over "art plastic" as a legitimate form of art shows a concern with overarching social narratives of aesthetic value. Miyawaki Osamu was not satisfied until "art plastic" was accepted as legitimate by those he saw as social authorities; in this case, prominent Osaka businessmen and art connoisseurs. 

                We could also look at the year 1995, the beginning of the Era of Animalization in Japan. Kaiyodo showed no sign of moving toward Database Consumption, which Azuma claims is the main characteristic of this period, until the 2006 release of the Revoltech series.

                How can we account for these discrepancies between Azuma's timeline and Kaiyodo's history? Should we move the beginning of the Era of Fiction forward to 1980 and the rise of garage kits, or the beginning of the Era of Animalization forward to 2006?

                I think there are two main ways to explain the discrepancies between Azuma's periodization and Kaiyodo's history. First, Azuma does not base his periodization around the toy industry, but rather around major historical events and the release of influential anime. For example, the Era of Fiction begins in the 1970s due to the 1970 Red Army Incident, the 1974 broadcast of Space Battleship Yamato and the 1979 broadcast of Gundam. The Era of Animalization begins in 1995 for Japan due to the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attacks and the broadcast of the final episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion.

                But these social changes and developments in the anime industry had surprisingly little impact on the hobby industry. No matter the level of technical detail Gundams had, no matter how detailed the fictional history of its alternate timeline, Miyawaki Shūichi laments the poor level of detail in Japanese toys up to the advent of garage kits. While the low price of printing allowed dōjinshi artists to reinterpret the fictional histories of Gundam or Captain Tsubasa according to their own interests, the high cost of casting metal forms prevented modelers from doing the same.

                So no matter what social changes or changes in consumer preference took place, the hobby industry lagged behind the anime industry due to technical and financial limitations. As a counterexample, the Bikkuriman chocolates, released in 1977, were able to successfully attract the attention of Second Generation otaku due to the much lower relative cost of producing chocolate and collectable cards.

                Second, if we look at the birth dates of Azuma's Generations of otaku in comparison to the personal histories of Miyawaki Osamu and Shūichi, we get a much closer fit. Miyawaki Osamu was born in 1928, well within the period of Modernity. It should not be surprising that he continued to have an interest in social Grand Narratives well after 1970. While the Red Army Incident in Tokyo was naturally a national news item and Space Battleship Yamato was nationally broadcast, it should not be altogether surprising that an Osaka-based small businessman with a young child to care for did not consider them major life events.

                1970s anime, however, did have a major impact on Miyawaki Shūichi, a First-Generation otaku born in 1957. Azuma gives 1960 as the average year of birth of First-Generation otaku, and indeed Miyawaki Shūichi describes himself as being up to four years older than his fellow modelers (Miyawaki Shūichi 90). His concerns over the lack of detail in officially produced merchandise is very much in line with an Era of Fiction otaku.

                Now, Azuma does not cover this in Otaku since it was published in 2001, but I think it is important to remember that there is now a fourth generation of otaku, born around 1995, who have only ever known the Database Consumption model. These Fourth-Generation otaku would have been around ten years old when the first Revoltech was released and well into their teens in 2010 when Revoltech Woody was released.

                The toy industry once again lagged around ten years behind social changes and the anime industry, just as garage kits came a full ten years after the Red Army Incident. Garage Kits and Revoltechs were not agents of change, but rather emerged in response to social change through technological innovation. While the toy industry is not an indicator of recent social change, it may perhaps be an indicator of more long-term social changes. Even in 1970, the future of Kaiyodo did not lie with Miyawaki Osamu's "art plastic," artistic vehicles of real-world cultural heritage, but with Miyawaki Shūichi's obsession with the fictional technical details of Ultraman and Godzilla.

                For a more detailed look at how Database Consumption applies to the Revoltech line in particular, let’s take a look at Sci-Fi Revoltech Series No. 010 Woody.

Next: [DC010] Pixar's Woody: Normativity in Toy Story

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bebe and Me: Marking the Foreign in Persona 3

                “Blond hair, blue eyes, long nose, white skin.” I could be describing a lot of things here, from the rare Albino Sasquatch to Hitler’s dream date (I would say blind date, but, you know). As it turns out, I’m actually going to be describing two things: Persona 3’s Bebe (Short for "Andre Roland Jean Gerard, somehow) and Japan’s platonic ideal of the foreigner.
                I played Persona 3 in Japanese because I didn’t spend a decade studying the damn language just to play my video games in translation. Call it my personal form of snobbery ("Thou hast conquered, O pale Kojevian), my dirty little hipsterism. One of the guilty pleasures of the bilingual.
               Anyway, I remember seeing Bebe appear on the screen for the first time. His words scrolled out into the text box, a mix of kanji and katakana.
Www...What language is this?
                Japanese textbooks usually describe katakana as being used for foreign words (コンピュータ for “computer”), but it is also used for foreign speakers - Europeans, robots, demons, and others who may have trouble with the language. It may seem a meaningless distinction if you don’t read Japanese, but there is a world of difference between 「私の名前はand「私ノ名前ハ.
                I suppose this usage was originally intended to represent non-native accents, but it also serves a highlighting function. This person is not one of us, this person is different. It marks Bebe off as foreign, perhaps even more so than his physical features. After all, even Sailor Moon has blond hair and blue eyes.
                Bebe doesn’t just speak in katakana, he also uses obsolete, overly formal language. Archaic words from the middle ages, as inappropriate to modern Japanese as “thee” and “camelopard” are to modern English. The overall effect of  Bebe’s speech resembles nothing so much as a robot samurai, with his degozarus, sesshas, and all of that damn katakana.
                And oh, the kimonos. Bebe is a “good” foreigner, obsessed with the clean, refined parts of Japanese culture. Japan sparkled in his eyes, even though I was the only student willing to attend his club meetings. He was determined to live and die in Japan, despite only having one friend in the entire country. 
In this scene, Bebe reveals that he has Japanese Stockholm Syndrome
(Tokyo Syndrome?)
                I hated everything Bebe stood for. The assumption that foreigners are incapable of “really” learning Japanese. The assumed image of the blond-haired, blue-eyed, light-skinned foreigner that I failed to live up to. The way that Bebe fawned over kimonos and red bean pastries while clutching a paper fan. 

                Now obviously, I wouldn’t have played this damn game in Japanese if I wasn’t a bit of a Japanophile myself. But I’m not a Bebe. I speak rapid-fire Japanese in a dirty Osaka accent. I’ll take a beer garden over a tea ceremony any day. My Japan isn’t kimonos and samurai, it’s cosplay and a dark, loud club filled with screaming otaku.

                In the big picture of racism and xenophobia and so on, the stereotypes Bebe represents aren’t that bad. Hell, most of them are downright complimentary (the “long nose” is more often an object of envy than mockery). The discrimination and stereotyping I was subjected to in Japan was less severe than what I experienced in the American South, and I was born there. But the Bebes of Japanese media still make me uncomfortable because they are the arbitrary standard I am held against.

                But for some reason, I really liked Bebe. I only understood maybe half of the things he said (I speak Japanese, not Robot Samurai-ese), but I liked him. He was sincere and motivated, and in need of a friend who believed in him. And if I wasn’t going to put up with his fumbling efforts to learn the language, who would?

                The Persona games (well, at least 3&4) tell us to make bonds with other people, to add them to a list of selves we can slip on and off like masks. Bebe is a mask that I’m quite familiar with. The good foreigner, smiling and reassuring a worried boss that I like Japan, that I can use chopsticks, that they sell sushi in my hometown.

                I wonder - does Bebe think that he is the main character? Does he think Persona 3 is a coming-of-age drama about a young boy who goes to a mysterious, faraway land? Has he cast the leader of SEES in some minor role in the movie of his life?

                But no, Bebe and me are the minor characters, the spunky ethnic sidekicks in someone else’s story. A Japanese drama where we are but masks for others.

                I guess it’s kabuki?
Shine on, you crazy weeaboo

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

[DC008] A History of Kaiyodo

Previous: [DC007] Database Consumption Summary
Kaiyodo's founder, Miyawaki Osamu

                In order to understand how Azuma's theory applies (or fails to apply) to Kaiyodo, it is important to review the company's history, which can be roughly grouped into three phases.

                The first phase, lasting from 1964 to 1980, was characterized by the sale of plastic model kits known as puramokei and slot racing cars. The second phase, lasting from 1980 to 2006, was characterized by the manufacture and sale of garage kit models and small toys packaged with food items. The third phase, beginning in 2006 and continuing to the present, saw the release of the Revoltech toy line, designed by Kaiyodo and manufactured in China.

                 These three phases, of course, do not line up exactly with Azuma's three Eras discussed in the last section. Indeed, Kaiyodo was not directly involved with the otaku industry until 1980, almost twenty years after the company was founded. Prior to 1980, Kaiyodo's corporate philosophy was very steeped in the Grand Narrative concerns of art, education, and the transmission of cultural heritage, concerns very far afield from the society-rejecting 1980s otaku.

                In his memoir, Tsukurumono wayozora ni kirameku hoshi no sū hodo mugen ni aru (Things to Make Are as Infinite as the Stars in the Night Sky) company founder Miyawaki Osamu describes initially feeling a great antipathy to the "long-haired and noisy" otaku garage kit enthusiasts who frequented Kaiyodo. However, once we take into account the broader social changes described by Azuma, the lives of Miyawaki Osamu and Shūichi, and technological changes in the hobby industry, Azuma's periodization takes on a more relevant shape

                In April of 1964, Miyawaki Osamu opened a small hobby shop named "Kaiyodo" in Moriguchi, Osaka. According to Miyawaki Osamu's memoir, he knew he wanted to start a business, but was conflicted between opening a hobby shop and an udon restaurant. Unable to decide, he balanced a wooden sword on its point and decided that if it fell to the right, he would open an udon restaurant and if it fell to the left, he would open a hobby shop. As you might guess, the wooden sword fell to the left and Kaiyodo was born.

                Kaiyodo was a small shop, starting out at approximately six yards square. But business was brisk, and the sudden popularity of American slot cars in the winter of 1964 allowed Kaiyodo to expand to thirty-two square yards within their first year of operation. This expansion allowed Kaiyodo to construct a slot-car racing course in the store. Although the slot car boom subsided soon after the expansion, Kaiyodo was already well on its way to success.

                Aside from slot cars, Kaiyodo mainly sold plastic model kits. These kits were mostly of famous ships, airplanes, and so on, and were a hit with both children and adult enthusiasts. But Miyawaki Osamu was not content to simply sell toys. From the very beginning, he had a passion for social issues and was determined that his voice be heard. In 1965, he self-published the first of many Kaiyodo magazines, Umi no awa, attempting to explain his vision of plastic models as a tool for social change

                Miyawaki Osamu saw plastic models as a means of developing children's imaginations and personalities. In contrast to the "education mamas" who saw grueling study as the means of securing happiness, Miyawaki Osamu saw play as contributing to a child's mental, physical, and social well-being. These would be common themes in Miyawaki Osamu's future publications, such as 1966's Kaiyo or 1985's ARTPLA.
Artpla magazine on display
                Miyawaki Osamu did not contain his social visions to essays and magazines. After the end of the slot racing boom, Miyawaki Osamu dismantled the slot-car racing course and once again expanded the store to allow construction of a "model pool." This model pool was branded as a place for city children to escape from the summer heat. Miyawaki Osamu brought in live eels so that children could experience nature and learn how to catch them. Of course, it also encouraged children to buy model ships and submarines since they now had a place to play with them. By concerning himself with the well-being of his customers, Miyawaki Osamu was able to build a business strategy which adapted to his customers' needs.

                Once summer ended, the area was converted to a play area for model tanks. Kaiyodo opened a "Plastic Model Classroom" which taught children how to construct and display models (such as model tanks) of their own. Miyawaki Osamu then rented out the local Community Center and hosted what he described as "Japan's First Model Kit Show." Students of the Plastic Model Classroom and other model enthusiasts put up their constructions for display and judging as works of art.

                Convinced of the artistic value of model kits, Miyawaki Osamu began selling pre-constructed and pre-decorated model kits to Osaka-area businesses. This "Art Plastic" became a pet project of Miyawaki Osamu's, as he felt that these miniature versions of historical vehicles helped transmit cultural information to people who might never be able to see the real thing. In 1972, Kaiyodo collaborated with model company Imai Kagaku in designing a Roman Trireme model kit.

                Despite this foray into production, Kaiyodo would not be directly responsible for an original toy again until the 1980 garage kit boom. Technical limitations and the high cost of production presented two great barriers. Even in the production of Art Plastic pieces, Miyawaki Osamu had to create new tools such as the "Spray Ace" and "Plier Ace" to get the effects he desired (88). Plastic Models required the creation of metal forms, which cost several million yen to produce. Such an upfront investment was simply beyond the means of a small hobby shop such as Kaiyodo.

                All of this changed with the introduction of Vacuum Form and Resin Kit models, the two technical innovations which led to the 1980 garage kit boom. While the technical details of the Vacuum Form and Resin Mold processes are not relevant to the current discussion, their low cost and high level of detail were nothing short of revolutionary for hobby enthusiasts of the era. Hijiri Saki of the magazine Uchusen claimed that the term "garage kit" had been coined in imitation of American "garage bands," who created music suited to their own tastes in the comfort of their own homes. Similarly, hobby enthusiasts were now able to create models of their own choosing.

                Miyawaki Shūichi, son of Miyawaki Osamu, took the garage kit boom to heart. He specifically complained about the inadequate level of detail in officially licensed merchandise for Ultraman and Godzilla, noting that despite the fact that the Ultraman TV show used miniatures, the toys lacked all but the vaguest similarity to the miniatures. They were models of Ultraman "in shape only." With the Vacuum Form and Resin Mold processes, however, Miyawaki Shūichi and his fellow enthusiasts were able to spend all of their spare time creating models which lived up to their exacting technical standards.
 Kaiyodo garage kit of Tenchi Muyo's Ryoko from 1993 (from a private collector)
                Although garage kit models were a boon to Kaiyodo, by 1997 the cost of producing metal molds had fallen enough that Kaiyodo was able to start producing toys using this process. Inspired by the success of Todd McFarlane's bloody and highly detailed Spawn toys, Kaiyodo produced a series of Fist of the North Star figures that were well received (133).

                Around this same time, Kaiyodo was approached by candy maker Furuta to produce a series of toys to be included with chocolate eggs, for which they also used the metal mold process (149). Although Kaiyodo's chocolate egg toys were models of real animals, they outsold similar products with licensed characters (chocolate eggs with Hello Kitty and Pokémon prizes). While technological innovations reduced the cost of producing toys, Kaiyodo's technical proficiency and exacting attention to detail proved to be a formidable factor in driving sales.

                  While market research showed that children far preferred licensed characters to Kaiyodo's non-licensed animal figures, Kaiyodo's chocolate egg prizes continued to out-sell those produced by larger companies such as Bandai and Kinder Surprise well into the early 2000s (150-152). Kaiyodo and Furuta parted ways in 2002, but producing the chocolate egg prizes gave Kaiyodo invaluable experience in working with Chinese manufacturers to create metal form figures (183). Kaiyodo was now able to pursue a variety of other products, from figures based on classic anime such as Laputa to mini-figures of Sony's robot dog Aibo.

                This experience proved invaluable in 2006, when Kaiyodo released its first Revoltech figure, No.001 Shin Getter 1, from the New Getter Robo anime series. This was quickly followed by other giant robot figures from anime series such as Patlabor and Neon Genesis Evangelion. As the number and variety of Revoltech figures increased, it was broken down into sub-categories such as Fraulein Revoltech (young female characters), Sci-Fi Revoltech, Yamaguchi Revoltech (sculpted by famed modeler Yamaguchi Katsuhisa), and the Pixar Figure Collection.
The original Revoltech figure
                The Revoltech series has remained popular, and Kaiyodo consistently showed strong profits even in the midst of the 2008 global recession (Teikoku Databank 1).  2010’s Sci-Fi Revoltech Series No. 010 Woody proved particularly popular in both Japanese and international markets.

                With the release of the Revoltech line, Kaiyodo has reached its hereto highest levels of popularity and commercial success. The line has drawn imitators such as Good Smile Company's figma and Nendoroid series, but Revoltech figures remain ahead of the curve in terms of detail and quality. By combining customizability with detailed craftsmanship, Revoltech figures combine older otaku's desire for accurate reproduction with younger otaku's desire for "polymorphous perversity." I will discuss the Revoltech line in more detail in Part Three, but first let's look at how Kaiyodo stacks up against Azuma's theories.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

[DC007] Database Consumption Summary

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

                Azuma's Database Consumption Model and his periodization of the 1945-early 2000s period both complements and sheds light on these other theories of post-modern consumption. While his model is built to explore the otaku subculture, its thesis is that “the essence of our era (postmodernity) is extremely well disclosed in the structure of otaku culture” (6). 

                In other words, it should not surprise us that there is overlap between the Database Consumption Model and theories that look beyond the scope of the otaku subculture. Ultimately, Database Consumption is a theory of postmodernity, not simply of otaku.

                Looked at in this light, Azuma's periodization and Database Consumption Theory becomes a powerful tool for looking at the development of postmodern consumption patterns. It is not, however, a theory without its weaknesses.

                Azuma says that there is now no true difference between stories and coffee mugs, but he does not look at any coffee mugs. This is troublesome since otaku consumption is not limited to narrative goods; many anime are produced at a loss, with profits coming only from toys, t-shirts, and other licensed products. 

                It’s one thing to say that there is no difference between Evangelion the series and Evangelion the coffee mug. It’s another thing entirely to demonstrate it.

                Azuma’s reluctance to jump into the proverbial coffee mug is understandable, given the staggering array of secondary goods currently in the market in both their officially licensed, pirated, and fan-created forms – cutlery, clothing, backpacks, portable fans, pins, paper crafts, card games, video games, cell phone accessories, stationary, cosplay accessories, stuffed animals, dakimakura, food, theme restaurants, clocks, and furniture to name a few examples. A full study of secondary goods is beyond the scope of any study. 

                Since this is the case, we’re going to look at the history and development of Kaiyodo, one of the otaku industry's premier toy companies. I’ve chosen Kaiyodo for a few reasons:

                1). Kaiyodo was founded in 1964, well before the otaku boom of the late 70’s-80’s. This will        allow us to see how the industry has evolved since its inception.

                2). Kaiyodo was instrumental in popularizing garage kit culture in the 1980s. They have not just followed trends in otaku goods, they have helped define them.

                3). Since Kaiyodo produces toys almost exclusively, we won’t get bogged down on defining and                 examining a thousand different product types.

                With this in mind, let’s look at the history of Kaiyodo and how it stacks up against Azuma’s historical periodization.