Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
With February coming to an end it's about time to wrap up the month's "Is it good" theme. For this last post in the series, I'll be addressing Jet Set Radio Future, the follow-up to one of my all-time favorite games, Jet Set Radio. Jet Set Radio Future -- hereafter JSRF -- was a re-imagining of the original game and stands as a rare Sega game that was released only on a Microsoft platform (the original Xbox). As a re-imagining rather than a proper sequel, JSRF is a strange mix of borrowed ideas and minor changes from the original. It keeps the original game's distinctive hyper-colorful cel-shaded representation of Tokyo (though the stages have been completely redesigned), and Naganuma Hideki returns to head up a new soundtrack that's every bit as deliciously funky and cheekily nonsensical as the original's. It's in these two aspects that JSRF most succeeds--the game looks great even now, and the soundtrack is just as strong as the original's, to the point where it can be easy to forget whether a particular track comes from the original or from Future.
JSRF differentiates itself from the original in its gameplay and plot. The original game was built in the vein of the skating games that were popular at the time, and while Jet Set Radio isn't about competitions and the like (as is typical of sports games) its underlying mechanics hold a weight and technicality that solidify its position as a "skating game" -- albeit an unusual one. While Future's characters still move around on skates (as it wouldn't be a Jet Set Radio game otherwise), the "feel" of the game is drastically different. JSRF's mechanics are much snappier and more fluid than its predecessor's, making the game considerably easier to acclimate to and control and requiring less commitment on the part of the player. Characters generally accelerate and move faster, and it tends to be easier to move vertically -- something the game's level design utilizes to great effect. It feels similar to the different between, say, Dark Souls and Kingdom Hearts -- one has a weighty pseudo-realism that can be initially off-putting but is highly satisfying to master, while the other is much airier and offers flexibility to pull off a variety of superhuman maneuvers.
JSRF also made a significant structural departure from Jet Set Radio. The original game is built around isolated, timed missions in distinct locations, while JSRF's world is completely interconnected and its stages are not timed, taking much longer to clear. The combination of the structural and mechanical changes leads JSRF to feel more like a 3D collectathon platformer than a skating game. Where JSR encourages mastering the controls and learning the maps to plot the fastest and most efficient routes through each stage, JSRF encourages exploration of massive, soaring environments in search of graffiti tag locations. The games are more cousins than siblings, bound by aesthetic styles but not by gameplay, and while both are fun, I think the original tends to be a much "tighter" and more unique gameplay experience, in exchange for being considerably shorter.
I went into detail about how the original Jet Set Radio tells its story in the post I linked above, so you can check that if you want more of a breakdown on how the game works, but long story short it's about the value and power of self-expression, and it's told in bits and pieces as a radio drama. It's simple, but its message and thematic ideas are clear and are supported by every aspect of the game, and the presentation is full of charm. It operates almost like the video game equivalent of a short story -- it isn't a complex, sprawling narrative, but it makes its point in a concise, compelling, and polished manner.
JSRF, by contrast, isn't nearly as clean. It sort of adheres to the radio drama premise of the original, but it also breaks from it at times in ways that makes the intent somewhat confusing. The game ends up feeling far too literal. The original game thrived on its sense of existing in the abstract. The central characters, the GGs, are ideas of people rather than actual people, and their broad-strokes struggles as we hear them from the narrator, Professor K, are meant to be emblematic of purehearted youthful rebelliousness. Jet Set Radio paints the "feel" of a story more than it tells an actual concrete narrative, and in its added complexity JSRF loses much of that feel.
To put this in more concrete terms, JSRF's narrative isn't memorable in the slightest. It follows the same sorts of events and problems as the original game, but where Jet Set Radio's turf wars and kidnappings and corporate corruption linger clearly in my memory, I struggle to recall even the barest outlines of JSRF's plot. It feels purposeless, a shell of a story meant only to evoke the idea of the original game and to provide an excuse to skate around Tokyo reveling in the art of the city.
I am, of course, always happy to have an excuse to explore Tokyo, but that's beside the point.
Extra Sugar, Extra Salt
JSRF is a fun game. Period. It is, however, a weaker work than its predecessor, and that ultimately stems, I think, from a lack of purpose. Jet Set Radio was created to be an homage to urban youth culture at the turn of the millennium. Everything about the game threads the line between affectionate parody and celebration of youth, from its totally meaningless, incredibly catchy music, to its exaggerated, colorful art, to its ceaselessly optimistic story. It says, "Yes, all these things are absurd, but the world around us is bright, and the future is good, and you can make a difference if you try." There is, in short, a defined reason for the game, and that purpose drives every part of the game's design philosophy.
JSRF, then, is "Let's make Jet Set Radio again." It takes all of the ingredients that went into the original game and turns them up to eleven, adding more and more until the game is full to bursting. It reminds me of a certain line from "Birthday Cake," one of the more infamous songs in the game's soundtrack: "Extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil, MSG!" In cooking, you can't just throw in more of every ingredient and expect your recipe to turn out better--all that's going to do is throw off the balance of flavors. Every piece of a recipe is there for a purpose, to create a dish with just the right flavor, and no matter how much you may like sugar or salt, adding more than you need is only going to ruin your cake.
Much of JSRF feels it was added just to have more. I love running around Tokyo -- in both real life and in games -- but JSRF's stages tend to be a little larger than they need to be, and certain stage ideas are repeated a few too many times. Similarly, the story aims for complexity where simplicity would probably be more effective. In a game where every decision is carefully tied to the game's "why," this problem doesn't happen. When every area, every character, and every plot beat is purposeful, the overall experience is much stronger. JSRF rests on the ways in which Jet Set Radio's purpose inadvertently bleeds into Future's design rather than striving to find its own raison d'etre, and for that reason it is the weaker game.
So is it Good?
For all my complaining, I do really like Jet Set Radio Future. Part of this is that the original game is just so strong that even a relatively hollow imitation is still going to be exceptionally stylish and charming, and part of it is that, whatever else JSRF might be, it's a fun platformer with great music. So yes, I would say it's a good game, but it's not a great game. It's superficial in all the ways you would expect a follow-up to a game as unusual as Jet Set Radio to be. Radio is simultaneously deceptively complex and elegantly simple, and the game's simplicity is what shows most clearly on the surface, so a surface-level re-imagining is inevitably going to lack the original's sense of purpose.
I'm glad JSRF exists. It's a game I'm sure I'll find myself coming back to again and again over the years, and if Sega ever were to make a similarly superficial Jet Set Radio reboot I'm sure I'd play that and enjoy it as well. Not every game needs to be truly great in order to successful, and JSRF is probably one such game. Jet Set Radio is a brilliant homage to a time and a culture. Jet Set Radio Future is an homage to Jet Set Radio, and in that regard, at least, it works well enough.
Narita Ryougo is an incredibly smart author, though you might not realize it from a cursory glance at his work. Best known as the author of Baccano!, Durarara!!, and Fate/Strange Fake, Narita tends to write colorful ensemble pieces with a lot of flash and not a lot of depth. Durarara and Strange Fake have a bit more meat to them, but Baccano is essentially just a series of farces in novel form.
Unlike my subjects for the past two weeks, though, Baccano is pretty widely considered to be quite good as a whole--there's not much ambiguity there. The question, then, is not so much "Is it good?" as "Why is it good?" It seems somewhat counter-intuitive that a work like Kakegurui can have a strong, ambitious concept and yet still come across as unequivocally weaker than something that's overtly and intentionally fluff. I think the answer, though--simplistic as it may seem--is that Baccano is an exceptionally well-executed work, to the point where its style is its substance.
In the afterword to the third volume of the series, Narita discussed his structural approach to the novel and wrote that his driving concept behind the series was "to use this structure, which is one of a huge variety of [literary] techniques, to write a story that's as dumb as possible." Essentially, Narita's approach to Baccano is to apply high-level technique to a meaningless (but fun) narrative. Baccano is ultimately an exercise in form, stripping any attempt at significance in order to focus entirely on the execution of its plot. It reminds me, in a sense, of an étude, a type of short musical composition intended to emphasize, practice, or teach a particular musical skill rather than to convey meaning or emotion. The very best études--think of Chopin's, for example--are such magnificent demonstrations of skill and style that they transcend the intentionally shallow nature of the piece to become their own sort of masterwork.
Baccano reads so smoothly that it's easy to miss just how much technical precision has gone into its writing. The series, as I mentioned earlier, plays out much like a farce, with a large cast of characters interacting in passing, and with the absurdity of the resulting mix of coincidence and confusion generating the work's humor. Each novel is an ensemble piece, featuring several mostly-unrelated characters and switching frequently from perspective to perspective. This style of novel is crazy hard to write in a way that produces the intended effect. It requires careful diagramming of exactly what is happening and when, and what each character does and doesn't know. It necessitates maintaining multiple distinct and internally consistent narrative voices, as even in third-person each perspective's narrator reads a little differently. Perhaps most importantly, it requires each perspective shift and narrative moment to further the overall plot in a smooth and cohesive way despite coming at it from different angles and--sometimes--different times.
Baccano (as with Narita's novels in general) is a breezy read. There's next to no friction--it's super easy to follow everything that happens and to keep each of the characters straight. Everyone has a unique and distinctive voice, and their goals and personalities are crystal-clear. This makes it easy to enjoy the doors-slamming-shut-at-just-the-wrong-time absurdity that makes farces so fun, and it plays out just as smoothly and clearly as it would on a stage. Farces are, I think, much easier to write for the stage than they are in a novel context because in a theatrical setting everything is presented directly for the viewer at once. The timing is created by the actual flow of time (and by the actors, of course--comedy is hard to perform, but I'm specifically referring to writing, in this case), where in a novel the pacing and comedic timing need to be developed through the intentional use of words and visual spacing. This is not intuitive, and it's not an effect Narita could achieve if he didn't know exactly what he was trying to accomplish. Reading Baccano is like watching a talented dancer--it makes something incredibly difficult look like the easiest thing in the world.
The story that results from this is a joy to read. Volumes 2 and 3 of Baccano center on three separate criminal organizations coincidentally trying to rob the same train at the same time, which is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. The shifting perspectives are laced with dramatic irony that never fails to generate a laugh, and the way the plot unfolds and certain characters are revealed to be connected to other characters almost has the feel of detective fiction, except the "detective" is nothing more than the absurd chain of coincidences that drives the novel forward. Every character is exactly where they need to be at any given time to an extent that should seem completely unbelievable and yet somehow just works.
Reading Baccano, I can't help but admire the artistry that went into its creation. It isn't a novel that you come away from thinking deeply about any particular philosophical questions, but it is a novel that leaves you with a sort of breathless glee at the way every interlocking sub-narrative clicks together just right to resolve all of the seemingly-unrelated problems in the same climactic moment. There's no real substance, but there's a heck of a lot of style--so much so that the lack of depth seems pretty much irrelevant. There is no "why" for Baccano's plot beyond "because it's fun," and yet the sheer technical strength fills the gaps left by the lack of thematic purpose.
In the afterword I quoted earlier, Narita also wrote the following: "I'd like to write all sorts of other things in the future, from more long series to one-shot stories, and I want to get good enough to write dumb stories and stories that aren't dumb, stories with absolutely no substance and stories with quite a lot of substance, and stories with all sorts of different orientations."
I do believe that a stronger thematic foundation is generally going to lead to a stronger overall work, but Baccano is a demonstration that a purely technical exercise can take on artistic strength of its own. The series may be meaningless, but it's also brilliant, and it's a testament to Narita's authorial capability that he was able to write like this even relatively early in his career.
Continuing with the month's "Is it good" theme, this post is going to center on something I've been wanting to write about for a while: a recent anime called Kakegurui, based on an ongoing manga series of the same name. The show's title is usually translated as "Compulsive Gambler," though the actual Japanese title also carries a connotation of insanity--as in, it implies that gambling is a form of madness.
Kakegurui is a weird anime. The basic premise is fairly simple: the setting is a private high school for children of the uber-wealthy, and social standing within the school is determined entirely by the size of donations given to the school's student council. Additionally, gambling is strongly encouraged, and anyone who falls into debt due to gambling becomes a slave to whomever they are indebted to. While this premise is itself fairly unique, it's still the type of premise that seems fairly standard for a psychological drama anime--it's superficially reminiscent of Classroom of the Elite, for example.
Where Kakegurui diverges from comparable series is its presentation. Where something like Classroom of the Elite mostly consists of characters scheming and debating existentialism, Kakegurui constantly has a lot of different things happening at once. Moments without action or tension are rare, and that action is usually paired with various forms of sensory overload. Kakegurui's art is exceptionally detailed in ways that are more often unsettling than pretty, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the show's frequent close-ups of characters' eyes.
The level of detail in these images--from the lines in the iris to the way the light reflects off the eyeball--exemplifies the purposeful intensity that characterizes Kakegurui's animation. Most animated series try to draw characters such that they look just realistic enough to be believable while also maintaining the attractive cleanliness typical of the current "standard" anime art style. Kakegurui sometimes adheres to this standard style--usually in less tense moments--but when the characters break down and demonstrate their emotional ugliness, their art becomes suddenly much more detailed, pushing intentionally into the "uncanny valley" between realism and sub-realism. A character who is enraged, for example, will suddenly be drawn with every fold of the character's skin intensely pronounced, and with every drop of sweat or snot or saliva plainly visible.
The show also tends to pair these moments with elements of eroticism. Kakegurui is rife with innuendo, with exaggerated body shapes, with questionable camera angles, and so on. There is so much of this, in fact, that a friend of mine who also watched the show came to the conclusion afterwards that Kakegurui is just well-disguised ecchi--in other words, a show that's meant to be sexually appealing for its own sake, catering to a primarily male audience and without a purpose beyond eroticism.
This is where the "Is it good" theme turns up--I disagree with that assessment of the show, for a number of reasons. Before I can go into detail about why, though, we need to go back in time 90-or-so years.
Erotic, Grotesque Nonsense
In the buildup to World War II, an artistic movement called "Ero Guro Nonsense" emerged in Japan. It was essentially a countercultural movement, featuring gruesome, erotic, absurd content that was meant to challenge societal norms and attitudes. A full-scale analysis of the movement--the reasons it appeared and what it meant--is beyond the scope of this post, but the point is in the mid-1900s intentionally offensive works became a significant force in the Japanese literary world.
Perhaps the most popular author who wrote in this vein is Edogawa Ranpo--a pen name meant as a play on Edgar Allen Poe. Ranpo is known largely for his mystery fiction. He's the creator of Akechi Kogoro, sometimes referred to as "The Japanese Sherlock Holmes," and his works have a significant influence on much Japanese fiction even now. Many of Ranpo's works, though--and particularly some of his earlier short stories--center on the gore, insanity, and eroticism characteristic of the Ero Guro Nonsense movement. These sorts of works were meant to unsettle and provoke, directly or indirectly raising societal issues and often drawing visceral reactions from those who read them.
Modern Japanese horror owes a debt to this movement, of course, but today's horror serves somewhat of a different purpose even if it is superficially similar. Ranpo's works aren't "scary" so much as they are "disturbing." Similarly, sexuality in Ero Guro Nonsense isn't meant to be "arousing," but rather through its association with the often gruesome subject matter becomes "disgusting." One of Ranpo's more famous short stories, for example is "The Human Chair," about a man who wants to experience what a chair experiences and so has himself sewn into a chair, eventually becoming infatuated with one of the chair's frequent occupants. Another example is "The Centipede," a story about a quadriplegic soldier and his abusive wife. These are uncomfortable, thought-provoking works, but they aren't "fun" in the sense modern horror can be.
Kakegurui is, in the broadest sense, and homage to this literary tradition. Kakegurui's characters and premise are as absurd as those of "The Human Chair," and the show doesn't lack for gruesome moments. Some of these are as simple as the disgustingly detailed character art, but some are more aggressive--there's a character who enjoys ripping peoples' fingernails off, for example, which is every bit as repulsive as it sounds. This is, I think, the strongest case against Kakegurui being ecchi. While there are moments of eroticism, these play out largely as they do in Ero Guro Nonsense, paired with images or events that trigger feelings of disgust. Moments that are meant to be erotic or sensual are invariably drawn in the off-putting, hyper-detailed style, in many cases featuring glowing red eyes that give the characters an air similar to the sorts of inhuman beasts you might find in monster movies.
Rather than being meant to arouse, the show's sexuality accentuates its grotesque absurdity. There are, in fact, no clear romantic pairings in the show. The innuendo comes at moments of dramatic tension rather than moments of sexual tension and as such often reads as more symbolic than literal. The thrill of what are acknowledged to be self-destructive behaviors--gambling, self-harm, senseless betrayal, et cetera--is what sparks the show's erotic moments, and the resulting arousal leads the characters to continue engaging in those self-destructive behaviors.
Power and Control
If we accept that the gore and eroticism in Kakegurui is purposeful and not present only for its own sake, the logical next question is, of course, "Why?" Why dredge up an old literary movement that is meant primarily to offend?
Kakegurui is fundamentally about power and control. The show follows Jabami Yumeko (and her hapless milquetoast of an assistant, Suzui Ryota) as she gambles against progressively more powerful figures in the school's social structure, defeating them and emotionally breaking them in the process. All of Kakegurui's characters are awful people, including the ostensible protagonists, and near the end of the first season it is made clear that Yumeko is quite similar to the main antagonist--and not in a "one is the good version of the other" sort of way. The only difference between Yumeko and the antagonists is that Yumeko is more competent than most of them and she has less formal authority when the show begins (and is thus cast as an underdog of sorts).
As the show proceeds, Yumeko gradually builds up her authority within the school's social system, not by amassing wealth, but by destroying her opponents as thoroughly as she can. Most of her games end with her opponent suffering a mental breakdown of some sort (in a way that's almost reminiscent of the comically over-the-top acknowledgements of guilt at the ends of Ace Attorney trials). Yumeko's unusual methods are, in fact, what make her threatening to the antagonists. She is fabulously wealthy--to the point where she can wager hundreds of millions of yen without worrying about the potential losses--but she chooses not to buy her way to the top of the school's social structure. And, again, she doesn't do this to be heroic or to change society for the better or anything--she just likes gambling. She enjoys the self-destructive nature of the enormous bets she places, and she likes outwitting her opponents and dragging them down with her.
She's, uh, pretty far from being a heroic figure.
Yumeko's refusal to follow the rules of the community she's placed in becomes a form of power for her, to the point where she intentionally retains her position at the bottom of the formal social hierarchy--by refusing to pay her debts--specifically so that she can compel certain individuals to gamble with her.
Curiously, though, the thing Yumeko pursues (at least overtly) is not control, but rather the lack thereof. She insists that she loves the risk involved in gambling, not winning specifically, and in all but one of the wagers she is careful to leave a chance for an unlucky loss. She has no scruples about cheating in order to stack the odds in her favor, but she refuses to go so far as guaranteeing herself a win, as that would eliminate the risk and, for her, defeat the purpose of gambling. Yumeko, in other words, is powerful enough that she can afford to indulge herself in severe risks. There is no rational value to her in doing so, and her risk-taking almost always does more harm than good for the people around her, but she does it regardless.
There is an obvious paradox in Kakegurui being about power while centering on gambling. All of Kakegurui's characters (with the possible exceptions of Yumeko, Suzui, and the central antagonist) are obsessed with gaining and maintaining power, and they will do anything in the service of reaching that end. Gambling, however, is a voluntary relinquishing of control. Bad luck can result in big losses, and there's nothing you can do about that. Kakegurui reconciles this by using gambling itself as a metaphor for the search for power and control. In the same way that Kakegurui's characters cheat time and time again to make themselves more likely to win their games, they also cheat and lie to and betray each other in an attempt to "win" socially. There is always the chance for a bad draw to send things crashing down, but those with money and connections are able to literally and figuratively load the dice in their favor.
You could, then, interpret the show as implying that the ones who will ultimately come out on top are those who relish and actively seek the risk in gambling--and in life--rather than fearfully trying to mitigate it, but this, too, is an oversimplification. Even in Yumeko's case, gambling--and the power struggle it symbolizes--is not productive. Her acceptance of risk and loss does not make the downside any less problematic. Gambling is a self-destructive behavior, no matter what. Yumeko gets away with it not because she is okay with risk, but because she is so powerful to begin with that she doesn't care. Her combination of intelligence, connections, and money means that she can lose big and there are no long-term consequences for her. She has no disincentive to wager the lives of others in her pursuit of power and satisfaction, and she is, just by virtue of her social connections, effectively above the social norms that normally hold behavior in check. It is possible that Yumeko's very stability and self-assuredness are what make her enjoy risk. She knows that she can't lose, so she seeks the illusion that she might, even as it hurts the people around her.
The use of eroticism is meant, I think, to highlight how completely deranged Kakegurui's characters--and particularly Yumeko--are. The characters derive intense pleasure from putting themselves and others in potentially devastating danger, and Kakegurui chooses to demonstrate that by having significant risks produce apparent sexual pleasure. The juxtaposition of ecstasy with gruesome tragedy creates a visceral, emotional sense that the characters are both corrupt and deranged, which is more powerful than the simple intellectual awareness that the things that are happening in the show are wrong. This is another strike against Kakegurui being erotic for its own sake.
While Kakegurui is clearly about power, the question of why it's about power is somewhat more difficult to answer. I can venture a guess, though, and it has to do with the timing of the original manga. Kakegurui started publication in March 2014, when the global financial crisis was in more recent memory and public understanding of what, exactly, had happened was still settling. For context, The Big Short was released in 2015--questions about why and how the economic collapse had happened were still percolating. I think Kakegurui is an (exaggerated) criticism--bordering on satire--of the types of investment attitudes and behaviors that ultimately led to the subprime mortgage crisis that threw the world into what was quite possibly the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.
It's not uncommon (especially outside of business circles) for people to liken financial markets to casinos, envisioning wealthy investors placing bets on stocks and bonds and the like, hoping the prices will go up. This is a rather simplistic view of the way these work, of course, but it allows works like Kakegurui to use gambling as a stand-in for irresponsible investment. Remember that Kakegurui's characters are scions of extraordinarily wealthy families--children of CEOs and politicians and whatnot--and that they are encouraged to gamble and are rewarded with social prestige for winning and increasing their pools of wealth. Those with money and connections can invest in ways that make high returns more likely, but nothing is ever guaranteed and nobody fully understands how any of it works.
Where this analogy gets interesting though is in the case of characters who gamble with money that isn't theirs, as Yumeko does on occasion. This calls to mind the complex securites that emerged at the height of the housing bubble--mortgage backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, and the like--which became popular investment choices due to their perceived upside and safety. These were ultimately bad bets, of course, but, like in Yumeko's case, there were those who profited from gambling on them without taking on the risk of failure. The credit rating agencies are perhaps the most notorious example, taking payments in exchange for issuing good credit ratings that inflated the prices of bad securities.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that any of Kakegurui's characters represent particular actors in the financial crisis, but I do think you can make a strong argument for their attitudes and behaviors being a critical parallel to financial institutions in general. Kakegurui's characters use their power and money to make irrational, self-destructive bets, passing the risk onto others while capturing the upside for themselves. This echoes, at least in broad strokes, the sorts of criticisms financial institutions faced in the wake of the recession.
So is it Good?
To bring this back to the initial question--is Kakegurui a strong work, or is it well-disguised ecchi?--I would say that despite its weirdness and its desire to offend, Kakegurui is pretty excellent overall. If you're familiar with the studio behind the show, Mappa, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Studios can work on varying projects, of course, but Mappa's are pretty consistently progressive and/or pointed. I would find it rather hard to believe that the studio behind works such as Kids on the Slope, Yuri on Ice, Banana Fish, and In This Corner of the World would make a generic show built around sex appeal.
It is, though, fair to question whether Kakegurui's presentation is effective. If someone watching Kakegurui is so distracted by the sex and violence that they miss the commentary about how power and money corrupt people, perhaps that means the show pushed too far in its attempt to be upsetting. There's something to be said for trying to provoke an instictive, emotional response in conjunction with the thing you're trying to say is bad--and that idea ties back into Kakegurui's Ero Guro Nonsense influences--but it's definitely possible for structure or style to distract from meaning, and while such works can be fun to break down I do think you have a problem if your intended audience doesn't understand you.
Unless you're someone like Tom Stoppard or James Joyce, I guess, and you write things that are obnoxiously hard to understand by design, in which case, more power to you. Kakegurui isn't Stoppard.
Kakegurui is certainly not for everyone and it is, I think, harder to appreciate if you're not familiar with its literary background. I'm left thinking that it's a "good" show, but that I didn't necessarily "like" it--which, curiously, is how I usually end up feeling about Mappa's work. They have a tendency, I think, to push just a little too hard or a little too far in the service of whatever their message is, and that tends to be somewhat counterproductive, distracting from what would otherwise be a very strong theme.
I have to say, though, "Deal With The Devil" might be my favorite anime opening theme since Death Parade's "Flyers."
Kingdom Hearts III released last week to much fanfare and anticipation. As the conclusion to a story that began 17 years ago in 2002, many longtime fans of the series (myself included) were excited to play the game. It's not a particularly long game--and thankfully the past week wasn't particularly busy--so I was able to finish it this past Saturday with just under 30 hours logged. As I was playing, and after I finished, I was repeatedly asked the question, "Is it good?" Given how recognizable the series is (especially within the gaming community, but also outside of it to a degree due to the Disney ties), the interest in the game's quality isn't surprising, and I'm usually perfectly willing and able to offer a (hopefully informed) critique of a new game as I'm playing it.
This game, though, stumped me. My answer was always--and still is, in a sense--"I can't answer that yet; I need to think on it." The game is flawed in all the ways people expected it to be flawed. The combat is shallow, the ending feels rushed, the game feels a bit too short, there are some details missing, the plot is contrived, the dialogue is cheesy as heck, the voice acting is spotty, et cetera. And yet, for all of these flaws, it's a fun game. I can count on one hand the number of times I was frustrated or bored while playing it, and again and again the game found ways to surprise me and make me smile or laugh. By most conventional measures, Kingdom Hearts III is a mess, and yet I really loved it all the way through. So what gives?
This brings me to what I tentatively plan on being the theme of all four posts this month (unless something else captures my attention before February's out): how do we decide whether a work of art is good or bad? I've touched on this idea before in the context of Persona 4, but this month I plan to delve into it more directly, through works that, for one reason or another, are frustratingly difficult to evaluate.
Why Kingdom Hearts is Weird
For the uninitiated, Kingdom Hearts started as a crossover between Disney movies and the long-running JRPG series Final Fantasy. The first game's protagonist, a then-new character named Sora, traveled through various Disney worlds, helping out with the plots of different movies, and meeting Disney and Final Fantasy characters. It was a bizarre concept at the time that worked far better than it had any right to, due in large part to Nomura Tetsuya's strong directing work along with a creative narrative that melded the type of story common in JRPGs at the time--with complex interlocking character motives, betrayal, sci-fi and fantasy concepts, and so on--with an earnest message about the value of friendship that would feel at home in a typical Disney movie. The original game has some issues, of course, but the structure worked well, with the thematic ideas of the Disney stories playing into the overall message that was eventually resolved in the game's final story arc. Throw in Disney nostalgia and the silliness of watching the infamously edgy Cloud Strife banter with Disney's Hercules and you have a game with a lot of appeal.
None of that is what makes Kingdom Hearts weird, though. The weirdest thing about the series is actually its overall narrative structure--specifically, the fact that it represents one ongoing story spread across multiple games. Video games tend to be more like movies and plays in that they usually are self-contained narratives (as opposed to, for example, book series). Games can be very long, so developers usually have time to tell an entire story within the space of a single game, even if it would be long enough to fill multiple novels--just look at games like Final Fantasy VIII or Tales of The Abyss which are divided into clearly distinct parts, each with their own plot threads and sub-climaxes. In a series like Final Fantasy, each individual entry represents a complete, separate narrative, and while some series are set in the same world and may have older characters cameo occasionally (see Persona, Fate, or Metal Gear Solid), many place each entry in its own setting or universe, with little overlap beyond general concepts and themes.
Kingdom Hearts, by contrast, is structured more like a book series. Kingdom Hearts III (which is, somewhat confusingly, the eighth full game in the series, and that's not counting the browser or mobile games) is the conclusion of Sora's story, which began in the original Kingdom Hearts and continued in various forms throughout a number of sequels, a prequel, and an interquel. These games share characters and introduce or resolve plot threads that span across multiple games, which is, again, common in books but very rare in gaming. Over the past seventeen years, the series has introduced many more characters--several of whom look identical to others and some of whom are referred to by multiple names depending on context--and what started as a simple light-versus-dark narrative now has pretty much every sci-fi trope you can think of, from clones to time travel. The overall story has developed somewhat of a reputation for being convoluted and hard to follow, which is both true and not true--if you played each game as it released it mostly makes sense, but if you skipped any of them (including the handheld games that are sometimes derogatorily and, I would say, erroneously referred to as spin-offs) you've likely missed important concepts or characters that will be referenced later with no additional explanation.
My younger self loved the series' complex, interweaving narrative--Nomura's work is, I think, largely responsible for my interest in video games as a narrative tool--and while I freely acknowledge the series has somewhat outgrown itself, it still has some very strong character moments scattered throughout. The fourth game in the series, 358/2 Days, stands out to me as an unusual exploration of tragedy in a medium (gaming) and genre (action RPG) that seldom if ever shows the heroes losing in the end. I understand the tendency to mock the plot beats and symbols used--Days's characters wax melodramatic about ice cream, of all things--but the heart (pun intended) of the story is strong, and it's tough to come away from the series's stronger moments not admiring and/or pitying the characters. For all its awkwardness and weirdness, Kingdom Hearts does a great job of making you root for and empathize with its characters.
The point of the above digression is that Kingdom Hearts III was in a tough position narratively, forced to conclude a highly complex, long-running, poorly organized story that despite being deeply flawed had managed to engender an emotional response from many players. Resolving all the lingering plot threads in a way that was both believable and satisfying was a herculean task, and while Kingdom Hearts III is not a well-written game, it did its job about as well as it possibly could have while keeping with the spirit of the series. I have plenty of criticism to offer, of course, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers for those who have yet to finish I'll hold off for now.
In a similar vein, though, the game followed seven games of an iteratively developed battle system, with a fairly vocal section of the fanbase calling for a return to the style of Kingdom Hearts II--the third game in the series, and the favorite entry for many--while some players (including myself) preferred the less-polished-but-more-flexible newer style, introduced in the fifth game, Birth by Sleep, and reused with minor changes in the sixth and seventh. On the surface, the game returns to the style of Kingdom Hearts II, but it incorporates mechanics from other entries in the series and ends up feeling very much like its own thing. The game's battle system is relatively unlikely to win over fans of Kingdom Hearts II's or Birth by Sleep's mechanics, but its hybrid style seems to be mostly acceptable to both camps, which is somewhat of a miracle in and of itself.
If there's a theme here, it's that Kingdom Hearts III is weakened by its need to adhere to earlier entries in the series, but it also could not have been made without doing so. This is part of why the game is hard to evaluate. Imagine, for example, a matchup in the NCAA basketball tournament where one team is missing their three best players due to ill-timed injuries. If the team fights a close game and narrowly loses, do you praise the team for playing well despite its disadvantages, and is that worth anything when the team is eliminated regardless? Kingdom Hearts III had a lot of things working against it, and it still manages to be a fun game despite not being (in the critical sense) a "good" game. How do you reconcile that?
The Difference Between "Deep" and "Fun"
It's generally taken as a given that a book or a film can be strong without being fun, or fun without being a great work of art. Schindler's List, for example, is a brilliant film, but it's pretty far from what I would call "fun." If you make the same assertion about video games, though--that a game that isn't fun might still be good--the sentiment becomes much more controversial. There is a belief in some circles, perhaps due to the tabletop origins of gaming, that a game cannot be a strong work unless it is also fun to play. Even beyond my personal disagreement with that attitude, tethering artistic richness to simple fun can lead to confusion when approaching games that have a lot of one but little of the other.
Such as, for example, Kingdom Hearts III.
Kingdom Hearts III, for all its weaknesses, is an unapologetically fun game. I've seen it described as "joyful," and I think that word is a strong descriptor. The combat is shallow and the game is pathetically easy even on the harder difficulty, but there's always something happening on-screen. One moment Sora, Donald, and Goofy are spinning around on Disneyland's Mad Tea Party attempting to ram into a giant toy dinosaur and then the next Sora's with Buzz Lightyear and Woody riding the rocket from the end of Toy Story. There were many times when I had no idea what was going on and the game (almost) never punished me for it. Kingdom Hearts has somewhat of a reputation, particularly among those who play on lower difficulties, for being a game where you just mindlessly mash buttons to win, and while that hasn't really been true in the past, Kingdom Hearts III embraces that reputation and replaces any semblance of difficulty with pure eye candy. If you can manage to get through the sequence where Sora and company ride the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad around Mount Olympus without smiling, this probably just isn't the series for you.
The game's worlds--and particularly the Disney worlds--are filled with detail, from the scaled-up recreation of Andy's room in the Toy Story world to the folk dance that plays out in the central square of the town of Corona from Tangled. The most impressive world from a detail standpoint is Big Hero 6's San Fransokyo, which is filled with colorful signs and billboards lining its buildings and alleyways, all with gloriously detailed textures that manage to not break the immersion even when viewed from up close. I've commented to a few people that Kingdom Hearts III's gameplay feels like a weird hybrid of Bayonetta and Jet Set Radio Future, in that it's a flashy but simple beat-'em-up with some of the most satisfying free-running platforming I've seen in a long time. Nowhere is that feeling more pronounced than in San Fransokyo, which looks and feels exactly like a stage from JSRF.
The Disney worlds are fun from a story standpoint, too, even if only for the character interactions. Some of the worlds follow the stories of the movies, while some are side stories set after or between movies--the latter are generally weaker than the former, but they all have heart. This is not to say, however, that they are good. Frozen's world, in particular, serves as a strong example of this distinction. While the world follows the story of the movie, Sora, Donald, and Goofy are mostly uninvolved, meeting characters briefly in passing and running back and forth only to watch story beats from the background. This makes the plot of the world somewhat confusing--and I imagine it would be even more so if you hadn't seen the movie--and it struck me as weak writing, as if the developers had struggled to integrate Sora and company naturally into the movie's story. That said, the whole sequence had an almost certainly unintentional Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-are-Dead-esque humor to it, with Sora, Donald, and Goofy bantering confusedly about the events of a story in which they were largely uninvolved and knew little about. The world should not read this way. It's funny for exactly the wrong reasons, and it creates a section of the narrative that's confusing, weak, and mostly pointless. And yet, the fact remains that it is funny. It's a bad stretch of the game, but it's fun regardless.
So is it Good?
It would be very easy to make a long list of all the reasons Kingdom Hearts III is terrible. A critic who hasn't bought in to the series could write a scathing review and be entirely justified in doing so. And yet, the game is unquestionably fun to play. And it's not just kinda fun--it's incredibly fun, so fun that I averaged about six hours of play time per day until I finished it. You can't even write it off by saying something like, "What it does well it does very well and what it does poorly it does very poorly," because even the things the game does well are pretty terrible in a vacuum and even the things that should suck are usually fun or amusing. (I should offer a caveat here, though, that the game looks incredibly good and some of the music is quite strong as well--no need to hedge on those two counts).
So this leads to my response to the question I've been asked several times over the course of the past week. Is the game good? No, but I loved playing it.
Part of me wonders, as I look back on this game, if there's something I missed about it, some unifying strength that justifies all the flaws--if I'm subconsciously picking up on something that ties the game together and lets it be fun in spite of its weakness. Really, though, I don't think there is. I think Kingdom Hearts III is an oxymoron: a terrible game that's excellent nonetheless.
Essentially, Kingdom Hearts III is fluff. It's like a comedy you watch once, thoroughly enjoy, and then forget about. And yet, it's lovingly, painstakingly crafted fluff. It's the fluff you wish all other fluff would be. The more you analyze this game--the more you try to break it down and find out what makes it tick--the less satisfied I think you're going to be. It's intriguing to me that such truly incredible craftsmanship can be paired with such a weak foundation. It's a hollow wooden globe with a beautifully-painted exterior but without the durability or the satisfying weight its appearance leads you to expect.
You can make an argument, I think, that the game being detailed and fun is enough, that asking for depth beyond that is a sort of snobbery or entitlement. It's entirely fair, I think, to ask, "If you liked this, how can you say it's not good?"
My answer would be that video games as a medium are capable of so much more. If you look at games with similar levels of care and craftsmanship and love but that are built on top of cohesive narratives and strong thematic ideas, you find the absolute best works the medium has to offer. You get games like Persona 5 and Jet Set Radio--and The World Ends With You, which was made by the same people as Kingdom Hearts III! Those games have both fun and depth, and while you can have one without the other, the very best works are those that do both.
This, I think, is at the heart of the ambivalence towards Kingdom Hearts III. It has "fun" nailed, and in exchange it almost completely sacrifices "depth." The game feels hollow--not in the sense of a lack of honesty or belief, but in that there's nothing supporting the game's message and shiny veneer. It's a very pretty game that's constantly shouting at you to be positive and to be friends with literally everyone, even the bad guys. Maybe that's enough. I don't think it is.
And at the point the question you're asking yourself is not "Is this great?" but rather "Is this good enough?", you already have your answer.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition