Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
In the past ten years or so, Sega has (in the U.S., at least) become more-or-less synonymous with the Sonic the Hedgehog series. The recent resurgence in popularity of Yakuza aside, many of Sega's excellent older IPs have sadly been left to languish in obscurity. This is unfortunate, as many of Sega's older (and now more obscure) games are surprisingly original and strong offerings even in comparison to games released fifteen to twenty years later. The Dreamcast era in particular, lasting roughly from 1999 until 2003, saw several extraordinary works that were every bit as ahead of their time as the system on which they were released. The Dreamcast may have been an ill-fated system commercially--it was the last of Sega's consoles, and it sold relatively poorly--but it featured an extraordinary lineup of games and arguably represents Sega's pinnacle as a software developer. From the cult classic Shenmue (which, amazingly, is now getting a rerelease and a sequel), to the niche-but-well-received RPG Skies of Arcadia, to the bizarrely exhilarating musical-theatre-inspired Space Channel 5, the Dreamcast was home to several of the best games of its generation, representing a level of consistent quality and a willingness to take risks that Sega has not been able to replicate since. One game, in particular, is a borderline-necessary experience for anyone interested in games: Jet Set Radio.
Let's Look at the Funk
Jet Set Radio released for the Dreamcast in 2000, and the game was meant as a celebration and affectionate parody of the youth culture of the time. Its sense of style carries through every aspect of the game, from its music, to its art style, to its skating-and-graffiti gameplay. It is a game that has a strongly-defined concept and adheres to that concept throughout. There is no question as to what Jet Set Radio is about, and there are no excesses in its storytelling and mechanics. The game follows a group of skaters known as the GGs as they spread their graffiti throughout the already-colorful streets of Tokyo, first combating rival skate-gangs while running from overly-violent police, and then painting over propaganda from the corporate-government hybrid that is the amorphous Rokkaku group. For all its countercultural overtones, the game is tongue-in-cheek throughout, with melodramatic antagonists and characters that are more concepts and designs than true people. Jet Set Radio does not espouse the anti-establishment rebelliousness its heroes represent so much as paint that rebelliousness as an important facet of the vibrancy of Tokyo and New York at the turn of the millennium.
Celebration is truly the right word here. Jet Set Radio is an exceptionally bright and colorful game, and it captures the attitude of Tokyo better than any game except possibly Square Enix's The World Ends With You and Atlus's Persona 5. It's also not insignificant that even Jet Set Radio's antagonists can be recruited as playable characters and become members of the GGs--the rival gangs and the CEO of the Rokkaku eventually give in and join JSR's heroes in skating around and celebrating the energy of their city and the value of free expression. The game has very little text, limited to brief scenes between stages outlining broad plot developments, but even in a short game that consists mostly of gameplay, Jet Set Radio conveys strong themes and paints an overwhelmingly optimistic picture of its time.
Impressively, even in its brief duration, Jet Set Radio's plot is able to operate on two distinct (but entirely complete) levels. The literal is as I outlined above: the story of the GGs fighting against those who would suppress their voices. The story as a whole, though, is delivered largely through the voice of a radio host named Professor K. The playable levels operate on time limits, which fit two or three complete songs, after which the level ends and
Professor K explains what happened to the GGs during that time. In this way, the story can be taken as a true radio program, with the DJ telling story during breaks between songs. The game's title tells us as much: this is Jet Set Radio. None of what's happening, with its exaggeration and broad-strokes melodrama is real--it's all a story told on a funky-but-niche radio station.
In this way, too, Jet Set Radio is a celebration of the world that created it. While the GGs antics are not realistic, Professor K and his broadcast is something that very well could have existed at the end of the '90s. To add to this, about half of Jet Set Radio's music was actually not written for the game, but rather licensed from various indie artists and bands. In other words, some of the music that played during the stages was music that could, in fact, have been played on alternative radio stations at the time. The "frame" for JSR's story serves as a thread of realism linking the semi-fantasy of the game's main plot to the word that it was designed to celebrate. The game's simplicity is deceptive and creates a surprisingly complex short story that is both concealed enough to encourage deeper thought and clear enough to leave a strong impression on any player.
Extra Sugar, Extra Salt! Extra Oil, MSG!
Jet Set Radio is vibrant and larger-than-life in every aspect of its design, and nowhere is that more true than in its art style. The game is important from a historical standpoint if for no other reason than for being the origin of cel-shading, a graphical style that gives computer-generated 3D models the impression of being hand-drawn. JSR's cel-shaded art style gives it its distinctive pop, and the art style has since been copied and used in many games and animated shows and movies since. Were it not for Jet Set Radio, we wouldn't have the distinctive look that characterizes 2003's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and we wouldn't have the gorgeous art that fills the more recent The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Cel-shading has proven to be exceptionally flexible as well--although most cel-shaded games opt for JSR's bright and colorful approach, there are also games like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne that apply cel-shading to a muted color palatte to create an almost surrealist aesthetic. Cel-shading also tends to rely more on color than on shape for its aesthetic, which means many games from the early era of 3D that adopted Jet Set Radio's graphical style hold up much better than their cousins that reached for realism--just compare The Wind Waker to its predecessor, Majora's Mask, which was released a scant two-and-a-half years before. While Majora's Mask also has memorable characters and strong art direction, The Wind Waker almost looks right at home next to games released in 2018, while Majora's Mask looks... dated, to put it lightly.
Jet Set Radio's stylized, exaggerated, and cel-shaded Tokyo may not look much like the city its modeled after, but the feel of it is exactly right. A direct recreation of Tokyo's streets will fall out of date, but Jet Set Radio's encapsulation of the attitude and the energy of the city is recognizable even walking through the streets of the Tokyo almost twenty years later. Even smaller details, like the characters dancing if left standing in place for long enough, keep the feel of the city's energy and life going throughout the game as a whole.
So Now Let Us Listen to the Music and Identify the Beats
No discussion of Jet Set Radio would be complete without addressing its music. Most of the more memorable music was written by a composer named Naganuma Hideki, whose "calling card," if you will, is inserting samples of spoken word into funk-inspired music. The lyrics for the music in Jet Set Radio are largely meaningless, and intentionally so: remember that this is in part a loving parody of the pop culture of the time in which the game was developed. Naganuma's point, I believe, is that the lyrics for popular music at the time--and, arguably, in general--are not nearly as important as everything else that's conveyed by the music itself. You don't need to understand what's meant by someone saying you should "Float like a bulldozer trying to catch a butterfly" so long as the pace and the context of the music express the right feeling--in this case, of adventuring stylishly through the nighttime streets of a fascinating city. Similarly, "Like It Like This Like That" conveys an appreciation of positivity and makes pessimism seem silly, not through overtly meaningful lyrics, but by pairing seeming nonsense with intentional music and a specific context.
The way Naganuma's music functions is entirely keeping with JSR's method of storytelling and world-building--it conveys a feeling, a tone, an emotion, and while everything builds towards that tone, it does it in abstract, avant-garde ways. Therein lies the brilliance of Naganuma's work on JSR (and its semi-sequel, Jet Set Radio Future): the music uses meaninglessness to create meaning, creating something that is modeled off of something traditional while also parodying itself, and then surpassing that parody to become something avant-garde and unique. Like JSR as a whole, it operates on multiple levels, all while being unabashedly fun.
That said, some of the "nonsense" lyrics are a bit too pointed to be unintentional. The main theme of JSR, for example, is a song called "Let Mom Sleep." Mixed throughout the song's three minutes of funk are the phrases "Let's look at the funk" and "Would you stop playing with that radio of yours? I'm trying to get to sleep." These sections are followed by the (always complete) phrase "This is most disturbing." The latter phrase is a pun: the radio is disturbing to the person who is trying to sleep, but the person trying to stifle the playing of music is disturbing on a more existential level. As with everything in Jet Set Radio, this is not an accident: this is a game that is, at least on the surface, about standing up for free expression, so of course someone trying to stop the music would be disturbing. "Let's look at the funk" is also an interesting phrase. It's not, "Let's listen to the funk" or something similar--it specifically uses the word look, implying an examination rather than a passive acceptance. Even in its opening theme, Jet Set Radio is self-aware: the game is a look into the world that it represents, not a straight representation of that world itself. The game is somewhat more cerebral than it first appears, yet a player who chooses to simply enjoy the "funk" instead of "looking" at it more closely will not be left unsatisfied.
Oldies, but the Goodies
It's somewhat of a shame that Sega hasn't chosen to revisit its unique Dreamcast-era games (though the new Shenmue title is promising), but beyond that, what games like Jet Set Radio demonstrate is the value of experimentation. Truly new titles coming from established companies is somewhat of a rarity these days, and although Nintendo has begun to once more demonstrate a bit of willingness to experiment--creating games like Splatoon and Arms--it's rare to see developers of Sega's size committing to unusual and experimental games like Jet Set Radio. There's nothing inherently wrong with producing more games in established series, and existing franchises can absolutely produce masterful games, but there's something to be said for truly new works that are free to respond to and reflect the time in which they are created, unbound by the decades-long history many of the major gaming franchises hold. 15th and 20th and 25th anniversaries of major series feel like they happen more and more often, and while that reflects well on the importance and staying power of those series, it also demonstrates that we need new franchises to form that can themselves grow and represent the next twenty years.
Much of the truly new game design currently resides in the indie domain, and that's fine--there are plenty of great indie games out there--but larger companies should not be afraid to experiment. They are, if anything, better positioned than indie developers to produce new and interesting work, as indie developers are often compelled by technological or financial constraints to draw heavily on older styles of game design. If a Sega or a Square Enix or a Capcom were to devote its resources and talent to creating something truly new rather than something inspired by or tethered to its earlier work, we might again be treated to games like Jet Set Radio.
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition