My exposure to anime ended several years ago, mainly because I own no anime myself, and the friends that did are still in Sweden, whereas I am here in the United States now. I still have fond memories of the Ruroni Kenshin episodes I watched (only made it to 14 or 15, I think), mainly because of the supporting cast and the outstanding Japanese voice-acting. My love for katanas was started by Kenshin, and the novel Musashi built on that. (That book is amazing!)
I think Japanese RPGs and games are so popular in the US is for two reasons. The first is that they capitalized on the Anime boom. If something is Japanese, it is exotic in a cool and fashionable way in the US right now. The second is that today’s average gamer is just below 30, has a decent paycheck and is of the generation that grew up when consoles and videogames just came to the US, and the Japanese don’t get enough credit for the fact that as far as RPGs go, they were first. It’s to a large extent nostalgia. The first Final Fantasy games, The Legend of Zelda game, and the greatest one of them all, Chrono Trigger… I played them, loved them, and remember them very fondly. So fondly in fact that I don’t remember that the things that bother me about today’s Japanese RPGs was there back then as well. I just didn’t see them, and if I did, I don’t remember them bothering me.
One of the most fascinating things to me about cultural differences is the ones that you have to look closer at to see the full extent of. The fundamental ways of thinking, the subconscious assumptions that the thoughts are based on are drastically different… so different that a person from one country may learn the language of the other, but still not be able to understand them.
For example, the English language has no equivalents to the suffixes the Japanese put after names, largely because social station is not nearly as important in the US as it is in Japan. In fact, the English language goes to great lengths to erase differences in social standing. The Japanese on the other hand, have to signal those differences in order to even be able to have a conversation. Because they are so very important, and because they have no English equivalents, the translators of Persona 3 had no choice but to leave them in the game as they translated the dialogue, leading to a mixture of Japanese and English all too familiar to viewers of Anime in the English-speaking world today.
When I was younger, it didn’t strike me as odd to play a game in which a 15-year old was the main Hero that saved the world. When you are 15 years old yourself that is an old age, filled with maturity and wisdom, and to save the world is something that every teenager dreams of. We want to be heroes. We know we could be, if we only had half a chance. And then I grew older, and realized how self-centered and immature teenagers are, and it irritates me that each and every one in these games is a kid. Why can’t adults save the worlds for once?
Maybe it is because youth symbolizes purity in most of Asia? Heroes should be pure, after all, and why stop at making them pure in thought and deed, when you can add multi-layered symbolism to the mix? The Japanese more than love symbolism; their written language consists of it and their way of thinking is based on it in ways that is difficult for Europeans to comprehend.
Or maybe it’s simply a matter of children in a Japanese culture growing up faster than in the US? Where the US thinks of and treats you as a child until you are 18, though your body and mind may be mature in every sense of the word, the Japanese expect responsibility and adult behavior from their children at a younger age, and consequently they receive it. That’s a vague theory of course, since I haven’t really studied contemporary Japanese culture that much. I prefer to stay with the nostalgia of the samurai novels.
It is also interesting that the typical American hero, the nameless vigilante that operates outside the law, is a negative thing in Japanese culture-they were the Ronin, the cast-off samuari that served no master, had no honor and no principles. They lived outside of society’s strict framework of defined roles and rules, and by doing so they automatically threatened that framework. One of many reasons the 360 isn’t doing so well in Japan, perhaps?
Speaking of that, have you ever noticed that the villains in Japanese RPGs surprisingly often are tall, blond, and have blue eyes? The evil that threatens the world is European in appearance… as a former history major, I find that fascinating.
I enjoy Persona 3 because the parts of Japanese culture that I liked in the animes and novels are there. The delicate balance between a collectivist culture and a strong individualism, between personal ambition, and the expectations to put the welfare of the group above the welfare of the individual. The insight that although something can matter a great deal to me personally, that doesn’t automatically mean that it actually is important, and death is a perfectly natural part of life, and not by far the worst thing that can happen to anyone.
And what perhaps is the biggest obstacle of all for an American audience: A story does not necessarily have to have a happy ending, to have a good ending.