Friday, September 9, 2011

Videogames as culture: Okami

Whether videogames are art or not can become a great discussion if you want to make your point clear to either side, so I will not go into that. What videogames CAN be is a window to another culture. The most notable example I can give you might just be Okami, a cell-shaded RPG from the creators of Viewtiful Joe.

The original cover, also available on the WII
The premise of Okami is that you are a Japanese god sent to (around somewhere) feudal Japan in the form of a white wolf to save the people from some imminent danger. On this journey you have a celestial (read: magical) brush which can manipulate the world. As another weapon you have a mirror on your back that can double as a shield and is incidentally on fire.

Because I don't have that much money and the game is relatively rare (more than, say Call of Duty), I haven't really gotten around playing it until a couple of months ago. Imagine my surprise at the first moments of the intro when a brush comes into the screen to draw the story and the narrator starts this beautiful story in sim-speak.

Baffled as anyone would be, this is the tone the game gives to the whole religious premise. The sim-speak is just the tip of the iceberg. The game starts of with a tree-goddess reviving the white wolf, so the goddess of the sun, Amaterasu, can manifest its body. Most of the dialogue is taken up by a bug-sized, wandering guide who mostly comments on the warmth of the tree goddess's bosom, again all voice acting is in sim-speak. This is not how one would expect a magic journey to begin.

On her journey Amaterasu doesn't get much recognition either. Most people can't see her godly form, so she is mostly referred to as 'pooch', 'doggy' or 'furball'. She doesn't seem to mind, as any dog would. She falls asleep whenever humans have an exposition that takes too long or whenever the player doesn't use the controls for a couple of seconds. For the head goddess in Shinto religion she has quite a laid back attitude.

Dear diary, today I made a tree bloom.
Love, Ammy.
Amaterasu meets other gods on her journey, but they aren't role models either. There are 3 monkey gods that are very clumsy in presenting themselves. There is a warthog god that grands you a bomb-summoning power, but he gets blown up himself in the process. There is a leviathan that rests in a bottle with a cork and when it tries to get out to salute Amaterasu, the cork seems stuck and he just stays in the bottle whilst talking.The most peculiar of gods was Kabegami, who's name literally translates to "Wall god". The protagonist is technically a cross-dresser since Amaterasu is a woman, but the wolf ogles at every busty female and raises his leg when peeing. In case you were wondering: Yes, Amaterasu has a battle move where she pees on enemies. Yet, she is still greeted with "Amaterasu, origin of all that is good and mother to us all".

As I already noted in the paragraphs above, the game is absolutely blasphemous... if it was made in the west. In the west we see gods as something supernatural and fearful. Anything remotely sexy, especially sexist, is shunned by (strict and/or orthodox) Christianity and cross dressing is just 'not-done'. However, the situation is different in Japan, but to understand this I will put some things in perspective for you.

The great wave of Kanagawa, by Hokusai. I might post
about this masterpiece one day.
First of all one must understand the environment of Japan. To the contrary of places like Europe, Australia and the middle east, the surroundings in Japan don't try to kill you. The most dangerous animals you will find are foxes and maybe a blowfish. You won't be killed by lightning, because that stays mostly in the mountains, where you won't go, because they are holy. All volcano's are dead, but the ground is volcanic, so it is very nutritious to plants and you can grow anything. Food is so abundant in nature that archaeologists found small mountains of shellfish shells that were just refuge of prehistoric Japanese eating fish. You might die of old age, but that won't happen soon. Japan is one of the countries where most people grow very old and are still healthy. The most famous artist from the 18th & 19th century, Katsushika Hokusai, became 88 and worked on well after his 65th birthday.

This environment does not create a mentality to fear gods. Add to that the fact that Japan was practically closed off from the outside world during our medieval times and Victorian age. In medieval times the focus of our Christianity became warped from 'living good' to 'beware of the sin'. In Victorian times we became intensely prudish, shunning everything even remotely sexy. All these mindsets weren't imprinted upon the Japanese people. There is peer pressure to abide to certain rules, but these rules are different and mostly refer to your appearance in public. I can fill a full scientific book with when and where there was censorship on what in Japan, but let's suffice to say that Japan, although prudish at times, has hardcore tentacle porn in the same collections as classic art. (not making this up, google "shunga")

Nowadays Japan doesn't really have a "main" religion. People go to a Shinto shrine one day and read from a bible in front of their Buddhist departed altar on the next. The oldest religion, "Shinto", hasn't got an origin story and was mostly derived from local religious customs. It is not even entirely certain where the word "Shinto" comes from. In Shintoism, gods are not as much supernatural beings, but more like creatures who cause unexplainable things. Furthermore, these gods are inferior to man and are supposed to work for you, although they can be treacherous.

This totally happens in noh theater. Except for the wolf,
the bird in dress and the flying weapons...
The dress is authentic, though.
Having things put in perspective, the conclusion is a bit of an anti-climax. The silliness of the gods and their manifestations is just how the Japanese see their gods. Ogling over women has been part of Japanese literature for decades, although one should note it wasn't as present as it is in current Japanese pop culture. The cross dressing part of Amaterasu can be led back to the noh theater (not to be confused with kabuki theater) where all characters were played by men. They do not talk in sim-speak, however. That was just done to keep the production budget smaller.

Putting silly and 'naughty' aspects in a game about gods and religion might not be appropriate in the west, but if this game didn't have those elements, the creator's would have denied their own culture. Okami is a display of Japanese culture that is hard to understand for outsiders, but is a perfect display of what gives Japan the identity she has today. Being wise and serene on one side, whilst being silly and lechery on the other, Okami is a perfect window into the culture of her home country.