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 few days ago, I had a half-hour to fill and decided to revisit Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed, a 2012 kart racer in the vein of Mario Kart, but with characters from Sega's various intellectual properties--Sonic the Hedgehog, Space Channel 5, Jet Set Radio and so on. Much as I like the more recent Mario Kart games, Transformed stands as my favorite kart racer, largely due to its superb course design. The ostensible key selling point for Transformed's tracks is that most of them change with each lap. Instead of driving around the same course three times, the game has you drive on essentially two or three distinct tracks over the course of each race (though some courses change less per lap than others do). When you factor in the solid system mechanics and the generally good base-level track design, the shifting courses put Transformed head-and-shoulders above most other kart racers.
It was while replaying a few of my favorite tracks, though, that I noticed something more foundational about the game's course design: the reason why the courses change with each lap.
The concept of race tracks that change--transform, if you will--with each lap is a strong gimmick with obvious ties to the game's title and concept. This makes it easy to overlook the actual purpose behind these transformations. Each course in Transformed is telling a story. The Mario Kart games have plenty of fun locations with neat concepts and art, but the tracks are, generally speaking, stagnant. They're locations to drive through, with no temporal or narrative component. Transformed, by contrast, sets up each of its courses as a sort of visual short story. The courses are generally based on Sega's various games, but even if you haven't played the games--many of them are old and now fairly obscure titles--the story of the course presents itself quite clearly.
The most obvious example is the "Rogue's Landing" course. This course is modeled after a town from the RPG Skies of Arcadia, one of a number of one-off Sega games from the Dreamcast era that were received very well but never developed into full franchises. The first lap of the course is fairly simple, a drive around a floating island town. With the second lap, however, massive flying pirate ships approach from the distance and start firing on the town, breaking the course in places and forcing players to take alternate routes. By the third lap, the entire island is breaking apart, and the racers fly between airships and chunks of rock, trying to avoid obstacles on the way to the goal. This narrative isn't complex--it's surface level and readily apparent--but when you consider that this is a single 5-minute race in a kart racer, the fact that there's any storytelling at all is highly unusual and quite impressive. This base-line story creates a heightened sense of stakes beyond "I want to win the race," and it also makes the environment much more interesting to look at. The course becomes not just a loop of roadway, but rather a setpiece for a sort of short film the player experiences while driving.
It reminds me in some ways of the dark rides at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, which take various movie storylines and compress them into 5-minute rides. The experience and the concept are similar--the rides take you through elaborate setpieces filled with animatronics, telling a story primarily using time, space, and motion rather than words. Transformed's courses are like a history of Sega presented as a series of thrilling dark rides. The racing itself is almost secondary to the visual narrative that surrounds the tracks, especially on stages like "Rogue's Landing."
My favorite courses are not the ones with the most interesting pathways and the most fun racing, but rather the ones with the most entertaining narratives. The House of the Dead course, "Graveyard Gig," is a race through a haunted house during a zombie wedding. It's a massive set piece with a plethora of different rooms, each filled with horror-game-esque monsters dancing, reveling, and generally enjoying themselves. It culminates in a drive through the mansion's chapel, passing by the bride and groom right as they exchange vows. Tonally, it might as well be Disney's "Haunted Mansion" ride in race form. My second-favorite course, "Burning Depths," is similarly silly, casting the racers as space firefighters tasked with rescuing people from a burning aquarium. This contrast of seemingly incompatible concepts is overlaid with a spy-movie-style navigator voice and a groovy background track that's an updated version of one of the main themes from the obscure 1998 Sega Saturn game Burning Rangers. The first lap of the course is quite long, but the second and third laps get progressively shorter as more and more of the futuristic aquarium catches fire and other paths are blocked off. Both "Graveyard Gig" and "Burning Depths" have a wonderful sense of whimsy throughout their loose narrative structures utilizing not only space but also time in their course designs.
What's most striking to me about all this, though, is that, again, this is a racing game. This is a genre that is, generally, almost exclusively gameplay-focused, and even examples of racing games with storylines--Diddy Kong Racing, for example--tell them through brief scenes between races. Transformed took the conventionally static sets that make up typical race tracks and used them as a medium to tell stories--meaningless ones, perhaps, but stories nonetheless. The game's course design is only strengthened by this. Even setting aside the fact that the courses change from lap to lap, the conceptual strength afforded by basing each course around a narrative and having the players progress forward in time as they race makes the game a joy to play, in a way that more standard kart racers (like Mario Kart) will struggle to achieve so long as they continue to design their courses statically.
It is pivotally important, I think, that games look for opportunities to tell stories, especially in genres that don't normally lend themselves toward this. Even if you look at other genres that focus heavily on competitive multiplayer styles of gameplay, which does not lend itself in obvious ways to narrative storytelling--fighting games, shooters, et cetera--the most successful ones, especially in recent years, have been the ones that build storytelling into the overall experience whenever possible. Arc System Works is a consistently successful developer of fighting games, and while some of that success is certainly due to their technical expertise, a lot of it is, I believe, a result of the way they work to make sure their characters' personalities and stories are told with each fight, in fitting musical themes, in pre- and post-battle dialogue, and in animations and attack styles that represent story threads. Similarly, with Epic Games's Fortnite has been successful for a complex array of reasons, it also stands out as a game that incorporates consistent storytelling into a genre of game that generally avoids ongoing narratives. In Fortnite's case, this comes through gradual changes to the game's world, which are intriguing enough that I occasionally find myself reading about them despite not playing the game.
Video games have extraordinary flexibility, and there are, of course, genres of games that are particularly well-suited to storytelling. Most of my favorite games are RPGs and visual novels for this reason--the genres lend themselves to sort of thought-provoking, storytelling-focused design philosophy I tend to espouse. That said, I believe that having a narrative basis--no matter how simple--makes a game or a level stronger. It can turn something static and forgettable to something dynamic and incredibly memorable. Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed is a top-notch example of this idea, and I expect it will be the metric against which I judge other racing games for a long time to come.
Characters in most RPGs tend to fall into fairly standard gameplay roles. You have tanks, who take damage and protect the party. You have physical fighters, who usually lack flexibility but are good at hitting things hard. You have mages, who use powerful magic that's usually balanced by strict resource-management systems. You have healers and other support characters, who keep the party alive and help it hit harder. Each of these categories has smaller and smaller sub-categories--you could, for example, divide physical fighters up into ranged and melee, and then you could further divide your ranged fighters up into bow-users and firearm users, and so on--but in most games characters tend to fall neatly into one of these roles (although some games will divide up the healing and support roles across every character, giving each character a bit of supportive utility in order to eliminate the necessity of running a dedicated healer).
Every now and again, though, you run into something called a mixed mage--sometimes referred to by other names, like "hybrid magic user" or some such--which is a character who is built around using both physical and magical attacks. Mixed mages are a style of character I've developed a fascination with in recent years, partially because (unlike more traditional character styles) they tend to be drastically different in each individual incarnation. Unfortunately, they're often also rather weak. It's difficult to make a "good" mixed mage, so I thought I'd delve into why the character type often falls flat, as well as ways to make it work well.
A Jack-of-all-Trades in a World of Specialists
Turn-based RPGs tend to reward specialization. In most turn-based RPGs--and especially in those with significant customization options--the best characters are usually not those who do multiple jobs, but rather those who do one job really well. This depends heavily on the game, of course, but in many games the turn economy--the way you utilize time in battle, essentially--doesn't leave characters with much time to be doing things aside from their primary intended roles, especially if you're looking for optimal play. You want your physical attacker to be attacking, your spellcaster to be casting, your supporter to be supporting, and so on.
This means it's fine for a character to be amazing at one thing and terrible at everything else, as that character should really only be doing one thing regardless. Your other party members take care of the other tasks, and if each party member is doing the one thing they're amazing at, your party as a whole works well. A character who is pretty good at two things--attacking and using magic in this case--weakens the party as a whole because the character is likely only doing one or the other, at which point you'd be better off slotting in a dedicated attacker or a dedicated mage, depending on how you're using the mixed mage.
This assumes, of course, that the generalist is weaker than the specialist at the specialist's focus area. It's possible that you have a mixed mage who's better at both physical attacks and magic than the specialist, but this creates a separate problem in that your specialists no longer have any purpose, and it also leaves the mixed mage as "someone who can function as an attacker or a spellcaster" rather than "someone who fills both roles at once." So long as you can only take one type of action at a time, you're still better off using the mixed mage as if they were a specialist, especially when equipment options and whatnot usually prioritize one stat type over the other. This simultaneously leaves the game feeling unbalanced and defeats the whole purpose of having a character with mixed skills.
Why Not Both?
This may seem like an insoluble problem. If specialization is almost always better, how do you differentiate a generalist in a meaningful way? The most successful mixed mages, though, tend to solve this with a little bit of creative thinking. The simplest and most elegant solution I've seen is to make it so that attacks scale off of both magical and physical stats at the same time. This has two notable outcomes: first, it means a balanced stat spread can result in powerful strikes on par with specialists, and second, it eliminates the need for a mixed mage to choose between physical strikes and magic, as both are used concurrently.
A particularly interesting example of this is Bravely Default's Spell Fencer class. The class applies spell effects to physical attacks, increasing the damage of those physical attacks when used. A Spell Fencer casts a spell on his or her weapon of choice and then attacks normally, benefiting from both physical and magical attributes simultaneously. Bravely Default's customization functionality lets you use this ability on other classes as well, allowing you to effectively turn any physical-oriented class into a mixed mage (and in a more productive way that just giving them access to traditional spells they're unlikely to have any use for). It's possible to create unit builds in this way that are comparably powerful to magical or physical specialists while also retaining the unique flavor of the physical/magical hybrid.
Tales of Xillia also provides an interesting answer to this dilemma. The Tales games are action RPGs rather than turn-based RPGs--which is to say they play out in real time rather than in turns--but they feature traditional-RPG-esque parties and character builds regardless, with strong delineations between physical attackers and casters. Physical attackers tend to favor faster, weaker attacks that activate immediately, while casters use spells that do a lot of damage but have long charge times. These styles seem mostly incompatible, but one of Xillia's playable characters, Milla Maxwell, is both at once. Milla has access to both reasonably strong physical attacks and standard slow-activating spells, but that in itself is not what makes her interesting. She has a unique mechanic called "spell shifting" that lets her use her spells without charging them first. When she casts a spell in this way, it is considerably weaker than normal and executes immediately, functioning similarly to a standard physical attack. This allows her to intermix physical attacks and spells, seamlessly leveraging both of her stat pools in a way that's very fun to play.
Mixed mages also tend to fare well in games that reward having access to wide ranges of tools at once. The Megami Tensei franchise, for example, tends to heavily reward targeting enemy weaknesses--using fire on an ice-themed enemy, for example. While the exact form of these rewards varies by game, it's usually significant enough that you're well-advised to bring allies who can cover a wide range of potential weaknesses. A party member who, for example, has exceptionally powerful lightning attacks may be less valuable (especially in the early- to mid-game) than one who has a mid-strength lightning attack along with two other elements and a decent physical skill. These games have flexible enough customization that "character roles" aren't usually as hard-and-fast as in other series, but the games' tendency to reward flexibility and punish specialization makes specialists less appealing unless you're preparing for specific fights instead of building general-purpose teams.
These aren't the only strong examples of mixed mages, of course, but they showcase different ways in which the character type can be made to work in satisfying ways, both by combining use physical strikes and magic--in the first two examples--and by disincentivizing specialization and ensuring there are advantages to generalization--in the latter example. Properly-executed mixed mages tend to be a lot of fun to use, as their breadth of options leads to interesting tactical decision-making (on top of just being cool), so it's always exciting to me when developers play with the concept. Even if it doesn't always work, the ones that do tend to be the highlights of their games.
At their most basic level, most video games are built around the relatively simple sequence of issuing a task and then giving a reward for completing that task. These rewards vary by game, and they can be anything from experience points or fancy magic items (in the case of RPGs) to things like concept art or side stories (in, for example, visual novels). Rewarding players for completing tasks is so deeply ingrained in gaming that most gaming platforms support some type of meta-rewards in the form of achievements or trophies players can earn by completing certain tasks in a variety of games. The Nintendo Switch is actually the only modern console to not support a universal achievement system, which makes the system feel strangely dated, at least in that regard.
In some ways, though, this represents a philosophy embodied by one of the Switch's launch titles: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Breath of the Wild is an unusual game in a lot of ways, and it represents a significant departure from the style of the earlier Zelda games, but one of its most striking (and controversial) design choices is the way in which it intentionally avoids the sorts of extrinsic motivators around which most games are built. Breath of the Wild encourages exploration and the completion of tasks for the experience of doing so rather than for specific rewards, and where notable rewards are present they're usually either diminished by overall system mechanics or attenuated such that they feel almost separate from the tasks themselves.
This is, I think, the biggest reason behind the game's controversial weapon durability system. Breath of the Wild has a wide variety of unusual and interesting swords, spears, bows, and so on, but these weapons are all exceptionally flimsy, and after a few minutes of use they tend to break. They also break imediately when thrown. As a result, this tempers the excitement of finding a snazzy new weapon or tool in a chest or being given one as a reward for a quest--the reward itself is temporary, and you already probably have plenty of other perfectly usable items. This keeps players from trying to complete quests specifically for these rewards, as the rewards themselves are not satisfying and are not meant to be.
The game does have some longer-term progression, though, mostly in the form of extra heart containers and stamina wheels (which let you survive more hits and do strenuous things, like running or climbing, for longer periods of time before resting). In previous Zelda games, these sorts of things would usually be scattered across the world, and exploring or solving puzzles would yield pieces of heart containers as rewards. On a strictly pragmatic level, Breath of the Wild operates mostly the same way--completing puzzles gives items which can be redeemed for heart containers or stamina gauge extensions. Needing to go actually redeem these items, though, separates the "reward" from the "task," which creates a fair bit of psychological distance between exploration/puzzle solving and getting rewards. The buildup of hearts and stamina feels like something that happens naturally as you play the game rather than the explicit goal of the completion of the game's tasks.
The end result of these sorts of decisions is that there is very little extrinsic motivation for players to do the things the game asks of them--and there is additionally very little direction or necessity in the game. It's actually possible for a skilled player to go straight from the tutorial to the final boss without completing any of the game's other quests. Viewed from the standard video game perspective of "I'm doing this task to get this reward," most of Breath of the Wild is completely pointless.
This frees the player to be driven by intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations. The meaninglessness of Breath of the Wild's rewards means players are able to pursue whichever quests or puzzles sound most interesting, wandering aimlessly around the map looking for anything that seems fun. Exploration and discovery becomes its own reward, and any given undertaking is done for the experience of having done it--nothing is lost from skipping something that seems uninteresting. Breath of the Wild is best categorized as a hybrid between an open-world RPG and a puzzle game, but in this respect it feels almost like a sandbox game in the vein of Minecraft. Tasks are self-directed and intrinsically motivated, and it ultimately doesn't matter what the player does or doesn't do.
I have a few qualms with Breath of the Wild's sandboxy nature--mostly with regards to the way it devalues the game's ending and can leave players without the satisfaction of a resolute conclusion--but there's no doubt that the game provides players with an unprecedented degree of freedom to do what sounds fun and ignore the rest. Even in other open-world games, a variety of reward systems tend to somewhat undermine the freedom promised by the genre by making players feel obligated to complete the various tasks they come across. Breath of the Wild's intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation is very powerful and is, I think, a large part of the reason why many gamers reacted so strongly to the game in the early period of its release.
Games with strict task/reward systems--especially mobile games or MMORPGs--can end up feeling somewhat like work. In playing the game, you are assigned tasks to complete and rewarded based on your performance or penalized for failure. At the point you are completing these tasks--playing sections of the game--just for the extrinsic rewards, it can be easy to feel unpleasantly like you're working rather than playing. Breath of the Wild's reward systems ensure that the game remains aggressively in the domain of play. The game never makes you do something you don't want to do, and there's little reason to do so regardless. It sparks a similar feeling to playing with blocks or other such toys as a child--an exercise in structured imagination and creativity, within a loose framework and with a variety of potential goals but with no strict requirements.
This fits with Nintendo's self-concept as a toy company rather than a video game company. Breath of the Wild is more toy than game, and while it has both strengths and weaknesses, it executes on this concept without compromise.
If you've watched any gameplay videos from Breath of the Wild, you've probably seen people doing some ridiculous things with the game's physics, like building catapults out of boulders or sledding down bridges. While some of this is due to the game's fairly flexible mechanics, Breath of the Wild's focus on intrinsic motivation deserves some credit here. It's easier to think creatively when motivated intrinsically rather than extrinsically. If the game were centered on the completion of specific tasks and the rewards for completing those tasks, the absurd creativity evidenced by many of the game's players would likely be far less common, as more players would be focused on completing the game rather than actually experiencing everything possible within it.
This structure and design philosophy is not one I would want to see built into most games, but it makes Breath of the Wild highly intriguing and a joy to play.
Back after a week off--last Monday fell on Christmas eve--with a relatively brief New Year's Eve blog post about an interesting concept I ran into this week. I've been listening to the soundtrack for Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth, and although the music is by Kitajoh Atsushi instead of the main Persona series composer (Meguro Shoji), there are a lot of super fun tracks throughout. The short version of the opening theme (and the nifty opening animation) is linked below, to give a hint of the flavor of the game's soundtrack.
In a Famitsu interview with the game's producer, Kanada Daisuke, it was mentioned that the central thematic words used in writing the game's music were "retro," "pop," and "kitsch." The track linked above isn't really "retro," "pop," or "kitsch"--and the name, "Road Less Taken," is in reference to the Robert Frost poem "The Road Not Taken," which plays into the game's central thematic concept of fighting social pressures and being willing to be different--but much of the rest of the soundtrack embodies those words quite well.
I thought it odd that, in a game that's trying to be taken seriously as art and in a series that has a reputation for drawing from psychology, philosophy, and classic lit, the music would be intentionally "kitsch." Dictionary.com defines kitsch as "something of tawdry design, appearance, or content created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste," which is pretty much the direct opposite of Atlus's general game design philosophy. It is, at least, certainly not something one would normally aspire to. So I had to wonder, why kitsch?
The question I think you have to ask is whether an artistic work can achieve strength by being intentionally bad in a purposeful way. In this case, can music "created to appeal to . . . undiscriminating taste" be itself tasteful given the context of the overall work? The answer, I think, is a resounding "yes," as unintuitive as it seems. PQ2's narrative centers on, in short, fixing bad movies. Each of the game's dungeons is a play on a given popular movie (such as Superman or Jurassic Park), but with a highly unsatisfying plot and clearly misguided thematic ideas. PQ2's characters progress through the movies and change their endings and messages as they go, which serves to gradually adjust the thinking of one particular character.
With this context, it makes sense for the music to be kitsch--especially the pieces that are not just part of PQ2's score but also (and more importantly) part of the scores for the fictional movies within the game. The music being "wrong" is a cue that the films themselves are wrong, and they provide another avenue for the player to understand that the messages presented in these plays-within-a-play are misguided.
PQ2's approach to the play-within-a-play trope is highly unusual in a way that is simultaneously blatant and subtle. Usually when the trope is employed, the play-within-a-play features a message or theme that applies to the external narrative--the play is sort of a microcosm of the larger story. For examples of this, look at Hamlet, where Hamlet tries to use a play that mirrors his situation to guilt his uncle into confessing to the murder of the king, or A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the play-within-a-play that comprises at the play's fifth act is presented as a comedy (much like the play as a whole) but then ends in tragedy, emphasizing that the melodrama and stubbornness Midsummer's characters exhibit can have severe real-world consequences. PQ2 reverses this idea, as its plays-within-the-play present the opposite of PQ2's message. The movies urge submission to authority, discourage speaking out against injustice, and vilify diversity. In light of this, it's critically important that PQ2 make it explicitly clear that these "themes" are wrong, so that the game serves as a rejection of those ideas rather than a platform for misguided thinking.
...Which brings us back to the "kitsch" music. The flawed movies with their bad messages are accompanied by music that is itself surface-level and somewhat hollow, even if it may be fun or appealing to listen to. These tracks are significantly less memorable than the ones associated with the game's heroes--specifically the opening theme linked above and the battle themes, which have names like "Invitation to Freedom" and "Remember, We Got Your Back." These pieces are considerably more active, layered, and musically interesting than most of the rest of the soundtrack, and their lyrics and titles serve as a constant reminded of what the game is truly about (in much the same way as the battle themes of the main Persona games, do--Persona 4's "Reach Out to the Truth" would almost be a little too on the nose if it weren't a background track you aren't likely to process on a particularly conscious level).
The takeaway from all this is that in complex artistic media like film, theatre, and game design, context is super important. There are multiple art forms that go into each of the above--music, visual art, storytelling, et cetera--but the whole is more than the sum of its parts. A piece of music that might be "wrong" or "weak" or "bad" as a standalone piece may in fact serve an important and effective narrative role in the larger context of the work. Conversely, an intrinsically beautiful image might not be a good fit for the tone of a particular work.
This speaks to the importance of taking a holistic view in any sort of complex artistic project (or any project in general), especially when multiple people are involved. It's easy to get wrapped up in what's "right" in the context of whatever specific piece you're working on and lose sight of the overall goals of the team. From a game design standpoint, I think it's pretty important for everyone involved in a game to have a baseline understanding of what the game is trying to accomplish mechanically, narratively, and artistically, so that everyone involved can further those goals through their contributions to the game. Otherwise you can end up with games with strong constituent parts that don't mesh well together. Game design is ultimately a group effort. You need to have everyone on-board.
I happened to watch the heist movies Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve, And Ocean's Thirteen last night, and they're every bit as fun as ever. While watching them, though, I couldn't help thinking of Persona 5's take on heists. Each of Persona 5's eight main dungeon-crawling sequences is modeled after a type of heist (and one is even a casino heist that seems to be in some respects an homage to the Ocean's films). This would be plenty enjoyable in its own right, but Persona 5's heists go a step beyond a standard heist movie setup in that each one is constructed around thematically symbolic ideas that feed into the overall narrative.
Persona 5 is ostensibly based on French Picaresque fiction, and more specifically gentlemen thieves like Arsène Lupin. While the game's primary influences are French, it draws from other literary traditions as well, with allusions to everything from Robin Hood to his Japanese analogue Goemon. Heist films like Ocean's Eleven are almost certainly influenced by this literary tradition as well, even if indirectly. The main plot of Ocean's Thirteen in particular--stealing from a corrupt rich man and giving the proceeds to the poor--is completely traditional gentleman thief fare, and the rogueish-but-honorable Daniel Ocean fits the Robin Hood role to a T.
In light of this, I thought it'd be fun to go through each of Persona 5's heists one-by-one and break down their symbolism. Each of the game's heist targets takes the form of a "Palace," which is a real-world location distorted by the perception of an individual in a position of power. The heists take place literally within the minds of corrupt individuals, and stealing the source of the indivudal's distorted view makes the corrupt individual realize that they're wrong and reforms them (at which point they usually make a public confession). In this sense, the heist locations symbolize the thoughts and perceptions of the target, which is the first layer of symbolism.
Beyond that, each of the heists represents one of the seven deadly sins, with the addition of Vanity, which was historically counted among the deadly sins but have since been lumped in with Pride. This structure, additionally, bears some similarity to Dante's Inferno. Each of the "Palaces" is essentially a circle of hell, where people are tormented by the sin represented. Counting the outer area Mementos (which roughly corresponds to the first circle in the Inferno), there are nine of these circles, and most of the heists end with a boss fight named after one of the princes of hell. Additionally, while the sins represented by Dante's circles of hell aren't quite the same as the seven deadly sins, the ones that do match up are in roughly the same order as Persona 5's heists, and Persona 5's protagonist is guided through the heists by a character named Morgana, who fills a roughly similar role to Dante's Virgil.
With that background in place, on to the individual dungeons.
King, Queen, and Slave
The first heist is an infiltration and robbery of an old, European-style castle, complete with a dungeon escape, secret passages hidden behind paintings, jumping across rooftops, and swinging axes guarding treasure. The owner of the castle is an Olympic-medalist-turned-gym-teacher who uses his position of authority to physically abuse and sexually harass his students, and the castle is a corruption of the school at which he teaches. He sees the school as his castle, himself as the king, and his students as his slaves.
This whole story arc feels even more relevant two years later, now that the Me Too movement has spread as it has. Persona 5 predates the Me Too movement by about a year, and yet the castle's owner's use of authority to pressure female students into giving him presumed sexual favors could easily be a fictionalized representation of the kinds of stories that have emerged in the past year. The deadly sin represented by this heist is Lust, though not so much carnal lust (although that component is addressed) so much as lust for power. Everything about the castle (which, again, is actually a school) is designed to glorify its owner and to encourage submission to his authority.
The best example of this, I think, is the castle's chapel. About two-thirds of the way through the dungeon, the phantom thieves encounter a massive chapel dedicated to the castle's owner, a place where students would come to literally worship him. The "chapel" is a corruption of the school's gym. The castle's owner views the gym as a place where students should respect and pay homage to him, as he is a remarkable athlete and a highly effective coach. In his view, his past accomplishments give him the authority to do as he pleases, and he rules tyrannically over his students in order to make himself feel powerful and important.
The second arc of the game is a museum heist, with security lasers, pressure sensors, and an entire room that's an homage to M.C. Escher. The owner of the palace is a painter named Madarame, and the museum is a corruption of his own studio. The "catch," if you will, is that the exhibits in the museum are not works of art, but rather Madarame's many pupils. The painter takes on many students, raises them in excessively harsh conditions, and then falsely claims their work as his own and basks in his reputation as a brilliant and flexible painter.
The dungeon represents Vanity. Almost everything about Madarame's projected image is false, and he goes to extreme lengths to preserve that image, to the point of ruining the lives of others. When his students get tired of being taken advantage of, Madarame abandons them to the streets, and many of them turn up homeless around the streets of Tokyo during this story arc. During the heist, Madarame himself wears exceptionally gaudy women's clothing, representing his ownership of a more comfortable house under a woman's name while falsely claiming to live an ascetic life with his students in his barren studio.
The third dungeon is a bank heist, culminating with the infiltration of a massive, futuristic vault. The bank replaces the entirety of Tokyo's downtown Shibuya area--the bank's owner, a gangster named Kaneshiro, sees Shibuya as his bank, and its people as walking ATMs. In the outer sections of the bank, there are a number of ATM-people waiting to give Kaneshiro their money, and those that run out simply fall over and die, unwanted.
This heist represents Gluttony, or over-consumption to the point of hurting others. Kaneshiro's gluttonous intake of cash from the people of Shibuya ruins people even though Kaneshiro himself has no need for the excess cash. Kaneshiro has fly-like features (playing on his association with Beelzebub), and in his boss fight he pilots a giant mechanical piggy bank, tying the bank concept to the gluttony of pigs.
The Days When Mother Was Here
The fourth dungeon is a grave robbery, set in a pyramid. Unlike the first three dungeons, the owner of this palace is not evil but rather depressed. The palace's owner, Futaba, is what's called a hikikomori, or someone who never leaves home. The hikikomori phenomenon is a serious issue in Japan right now--in recent years there's been a pretty severe uptake in people developing agoraphobia and refusing to leave their homes or their rooms. In Futaba's case, the sealed-off state began when her single mother committed suicide two years before the events of Persona 5. Futaba now lives with Soujirou, the owner of a coffee shop and a good friend of Futaba's mother's--Futaba's biological father is never mentioned. Futaba believes her mother's suicide was provoked by the pressure associated with working and raising a child alone, and Futaba feels deeply responsible for her mother's death, to the point where she has recurring nightmares in which her mother's ghost appears and blames her for being too demanding as a child.
As a result of this stress, Futaba seems to be borderline suicidal, and so her home becomes a pyramid--a grave. Outside the pyramid is a very small portion of a town--a representation of what little Futaba can see from her window--and beyond that is an empty desert. As Futaba knows nothing beyond her own home, the world as she perceives it does not exist beyond her own small sphere of influence. The pyramid doubles as a grave for Futaba herself (implying her home will be her grave) and for her deceased mother, and the heist represents Wrath--specifically, the wrath Futaba imagines her mother bearing her. The climactic sequence of the dungeon centers on the thieves helping Futaba face down her perception of her mother in order to move on.
This is also the first heist where the treasure itself--the source of the owner's distorted views--is especially important to understanding the heist. In this fourth arc, the treasure is Futaba herself. The source of Futaba's distorted worldview is her own thinking and her assumptions, not any outside event or force. Futaba's mistaken assumptions about her mother's death (which are corrected in plot-relevant ways later on) led her to seal herself off, and the thing the thieves have to remove from Futaba's mental tomb--is Futaba. This opens the way for her later character development, in which she gradually becomes more comfortable with leaving home.
The fifth arc is a sci-fi space station heist, sorta like Rogue One. This is, I think, the least thematically obvious of the heists, which is probably part of why it tends to be relatively unpopular. With the first four dungeons, it's fairly clear how the setting of the heist connects to problem that's being solved, but it isn't readily apparent how a space station relates to the owner of this palace, a greedy CEO who treats his workers poorly.
To break into this one, it's helpful to work backwards, starting with the "treasure" the thieves need to steal. The source of the CEO's corruption is a toy spaceship his family couldn't afford when he was young. His desire to be able to afford things for himself and his family led him to prioritize wealth above all else, which makes the theme of this heist Greed. The fact that the CEO views his company as a space station relates to that toy spaceship he couldn't afford when he was younger. His company is, to him, a representation of that goal that he worked for, which was unattainable when he was young but now is under his control.
There also may be an element of him viewing his company as a "toy" or a "model" and thus dehumanizing his employees, but I'm not completely sure that tracks.
The Whims of Fate
The sixth dungeon (which is my favorite by miles) is a casino heist. The whole thing is built around a central goal of needing a large number of casino credits to move to the high-rollers' rooms where the casino's owner, a prosecutor chasing down the thieves, is waiting. The heist involves rigging a number of the games in the casino in favor of the thieves while gradually moving forward, and the climactic sequence is super Ocean's Eleven. I'd love to go into more detail, but if you've played the game you probably know what I'm talking about and if you haven't I'd rather not spoil it--the twist is just that clever, and it's one of the central plot points for the overall game.
The casino is the prosecutor's distorted view of a courthouse, implying she views trials as games of chance to be won or lost rather than an avenue to find the truth. Much like Futaba, the prosecutor is not a bad person despite being the enemy of the thieves, and the distorted view represents cynicism and frustration on the part of the prosecutor rather than any innate evil or corruption. The heist symbolizes Envy, though it's not especially obvious why, and this heist has more to do with the game's overall plot than with the prosecutor's perceptions of the world, so her envy is not explored much.
The seventh heist is a cruise ship floating through a flooded version of Tokyo. The cruise ship is a distorted version of Tokyo's Diet Building--Japan's parliamentary center--and the palace's owner is a populist politician with authoritarian impluses who's running for prime minister of Japan. As with the first heist, this feels somewhat prescient in hindsight given the wave of populist sentiment that swept many of the world's nations (including the US) in 2016 and on.
The dungeon is a representation of Pride, symbolizing the politician's belief that all those who choose to ally themselves with him will be successful, while those who do not will fall behind as the world floods. The ark-in-a-flood image implies the politician is comparing himself to the biblical Noah, as if he has a God-given directive to rule and to guide the people onward. This is, of course, horribly arrogant of him, especially considering his willingness to take power by any means necessary.
Freedom and Peace of Mind
The final heist is a prison break, from a prison buried deep underground where individual will is kept in chains by the will of society, This Rousseau-esque idea is foundational to Persona 5, and it informs the whole game, but nowhere is it as blatant as in the Prison of Sloth.
It's significant, I think, that the final (and by implication most severe) of the deadly sins in the context of Persona 5 is not Pride, but rather Sloth. The overall message of the game, which culminates with this final sequence on Christmas Eve, is that while corrupt individuals abusing their power and hurting people is bad, watching this happen and not doing anything about it is even worse. Persona 5 uses its dungeon design and its eight heists in order to argue that Sloth is the worst of the deadly sins, and that it is pivotally important to stand up to injustices in order to right them. In the game's climax, the Phantom Thieves of Hearts steal the Holy Grail, which is the "treasure," or the source of distorted thinking, for humanity as a whole.
The grail's mysterious and miraculous powers (in its various interpretations throughout the years--Persona 5 does not assign explicit abilities to the grail) serve as a sort of license to be slothful. In the context of Persona 5, the grail embodies the idea that problems can be magically solved by an outside force, without any personal effort or intervention. The goal of this final heist is to reform all of humanity, to change peoples' thinking and make people stand up and speak out against corruption and evil whenever they see it. This is, of course, a herculean and drastic effort, and even after the thieves win we aren't really given examples of this happening, but the idea itself is the important part.
It isn't directly stated anywhere in the game, but the ordering and themeing of Persona 5's eight heists, in conjunction with the thematic ideas and concepts that show up throughout the game's plot, indicate that the primary message of the game is, "Stand up for what's right, even when societal pressures make it difficult to do so." The way the game approaches this idea through the usually fun-but-flat story trope that is heist narratives is quite impressive, and it makes Persona 5 as accessible and enjoyable as it is thematically rich.
I've written before about Hanasaku Iroha, a personal favorite anime series featuring a diverse cast and a uniquely compelling setting. When pressed to provide a translation for the show's title, I've given, "The ABCs of Blossoming," which roughly captures what I had thought was the primary play on words within the name. "Hanasaku," meaning "to blossom," has a triple meaning within the context of Hanasaku Iroha. Given the show's rural Japanese setting and traditional imagery, flowers are a noticeable and ever-present visual symbol throughout, so a title reference to blooming flowers is entirely sensible. Secondly, the protagonist's name, Ohana, literally means "beginning flower," which is similar in meaning to "blossom," making the title an indirect reference her character growth and developing worldview, which serves as the center of the show. Thirdly, "The ABCs of Blossoming" can be interpreted metaphorically as a reference to learning and growing as a person more generally, and the show features a wide variety of people of all different personalities and ages "blossoming" in their own individual ways.
This week, however, I discovered a fourth, and perhaps more fundamental, layer of meaning.
In order to explain this additional layer of meaning, I need to take a moment to go through how you get from "Iroha" to "ABCs." The Iroha is an old Japanese poem best known for including each character in the Japanese syllabary exactly once. For those unfamiliar with Japanese, while Japanese borrows ideographic characters (called kanji) representing entire words or concepts from Chinese, it also has a set of symbols that represent specific base sounds, similar in function to the English alphabet. These two writing systems can be used mostly interchangeably, and in contemporary Japanese some things are usually written in the word-symbol characters while others are written with the alphabet-esque characters, with the general goal of making things as smooth and easy to read as possible. The Iroha uses each of the alphabet-equivalent sounds once and only once--it's sort of like the Japanese equivalent of "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" except no letter-equivalents are repeated (where the fox sentence does have a few). These types of phrases are called pangrams and are often used for displaying fonts and other such situations where you want to see every letter at least once in a comprehensible context.
The Iroha, however, is about a thousand years old, and perhaps as a result of its age it is treated as the traditional ordering of the Japanese syllabary. "I-ro-ha-ni-ho-he-to"--the first line of the Iroha--has similar connotations to reciting "A-B-C-D-E-F-G" in English. The word "Iroha" used idiomatically has a similar meaning to saying "ABCs of..." in English, referring to the very beginnings or fundamentals of studying something. This is how I generally interpreted "Iroha" in the title of Hanasaku Iroha.
However, the Iroha is technically also a poem, even if the actual meaning of the poem is not addressed so often as the literal ordering of its letters. I was talking with a friend about the Iroha the other day, and it occurred to me that I wasn't familiar with the actual meaning of the poem, so I decided to look it up.
The poem, roughly translated, is as follows:
The colors blossom, scatter, and fall.
In this world of ours, who lasts forever?
Today let us cross over the remote mountains of life's illusions,
And dream no more shallow dreams nor succumb to drunkenness.
(Iroha poem /伊呂波歌. (1993). Encyclopedia of Japan, Encyclopedia of Japan.)
A few observations spring from this brief bit of research. For one, the "Ha" in "Iroha" actually functions within the context of the poem as the topic-marking particle "Wa," which is sometimes translated in a fairly literal but highly stilted manner as "As for." "Iroha" essentially means "As for the colors..." and is then followed by what the colors are doing. This means if you look at "Hanasaku Iroha" and treat "Iroha" not as a noun unto itself (the name of a poem) but rather as the phrase that begins the poem of the same name, the literal meaning of "Hanasaku Iroha" changes to "The Blossoming Colors." It is, in other words, essentially a modern Japanese analogue to the archaic wording of the first phrase of the Iroha. The title is a nested reference to the Iroha, invoking its literal meaning and also using it metaphorically within the same sentence. Neat, right?
So since the title invokes the actual meaning of the Iroha rather than just the metaphorical term that is "Iroha," it's appropriate to look at the meaning of the poem to see how it relates to the show. Without going too deep into possible readings of the poem, it's fairly obvious that this is about Buddhist ideas, particularly the concept of transience and the importance of seeing the world for what it actually is (rather than allowing our thinking to be distorted by worldly attachments and the like).
The transience point is key. Transience as a concept is one of the most fundamentally Japanese literary concepts out there--anyone who's studied Japanese lit at all has probably brushed with the related concept of Mono no Aware--and it pops up so often in Japanese lit that I could dedicated multiple full blog posts to the idea. It's so foundational that it shows up in everything, even works of relative fluff. The basic idea is that it's important to be aware that nothing lasts forever--everything is transient. Mono no Aware in particular is the idea of seeing something beautiful and becoming saddened by the knowledge that that beauty will eventually fade. A title that literally means "The Blossoming Colors" seems (especially to an American eye) to be strictly positive, optimistic, and youthful, but the connection to the Iroha invokes the concept of transience and thus tints the vibrant image with the reality that the blossoms will not last long, and it adds a slightly hidden undertone of melancholy.
When I wrote about Hanasaku Iroha a while ago I spent some time discussing the brilliance of the show's ending, when the beloved family inn closes down and all the characters move away to continue their lives elsewhere. Watching Hanasaku Iroha for the first time, this ending surprised me somewhat, as the anime is fundamentally positive, forward-looking, and optimistic throughout, but with a fuller understanding of the title, the ending is not only fitting but also necessary. Among the traditional Japanese sensibilities buried within Hanasaku Iroha is a fundamental awareness of transience and of the sadness of beauty, so it is almost inevitable that the most beautiful thing within the show--the traditional inn that brings all of the characters together--must fade when the show comes to a close. It isn't meant to be pessimistic so much as factual. An awareness of the short-lived nature of things makes the appreciation of those things richer and more emotional, and the ability to ultimately release attachments to that beauty and to move on to whatever's next speaks to the Buddhist ideas that underpin the Iroha.
Traditional Japanese poetry is an exceptionally complex field, partially because many poems can only be fully understood in the context of the wide array of associations of particular words and the layered references to early poems that characterize much of Japanese poetry. Hanasaku Iroha's title draws, even if only slightly, from this poetic tradition. Its layers of meaning interweave contemporary interpretations of words with a network of poetic symbolism a millennium old. In just six characters--花咲くいろは--the title conveys a layered view of its literal subject matter, its overarching tone, its foundational undertones, and the literary tradition that informs the work.
It's nothing short of brilliant.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition