Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
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.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition