Recently I had the good fortune to travel to Tokyo on business. This wasn’t my first trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, but it did mark the first time I’d set foot in Tokyo for any reason. As a ju-jitsu instructor and avid JRPG fan – to say nothing of my fascination with visual novels – I was of course excited to experience more of the culture from whence these things come.
(Food. I wanted to eat the food again.)
I was staying at a hotel in Shibuya which is right on the Yamanote Line, a beltway of train stations through the prefecture. My time was limited and I was limited to basically exploring two major areas. Shibuya was one.
Akihabara was another. Nicknamed the ‘Electric City’ due to its saturation with electronic goods shops post-WWII, it is now the hub for otaku hobbies, a name now synonymous with anime, manga, and games nerd in Japan/elsewhere – and with a very negative social connotation to boot. Means “those with obsessive interests in general,” i.e. sports otaku.
Predictably, I stepped off the train at Akihabara station with something approaching pure, unadulterated joy. This was where many of the things I loved about gaming converged to play. Pausing to take only a few bad pictures, I combed the area for a few hours.
My reaction was one of happiness; however, that happiness swiftly turned introspective and soon degenerated to intellectual lamentation.
I’m not here to wonder why Japan went the cutesy animated route. This isn’t a comparison between the Western RPG and the JRPG. Rather, it’s an observation. Not many fans have a chance to travel to Tokyo, and the things I saw enclosed in those gamestore walls will forever fascinate and puzzle me.
To put it simply, I came across the following display. In my wonderment, I neglected to snap a photo, but the fact remains that it exists (existed, given the ever-in-flux nature of games). There, capping the end of an aisle in the place where your most popular items rest, was a cabinet featuring the latest Call of Duty – and a visual novel, possibly with nudity in full display. The title, sadly, eludes me; possibly Timepiece Ensemble? Regardless, it was shocking to me.
How a gaming culture could reach such a point is wonderful. Throughout my time in Akihabara, pornagraphic material continued to be displayed in stores selling – on the same floor, sometimes in adjacent aisles or right next to each other – all-ages products. I stumbled upon an art-heavy Fire Emblem Awakening character book titled “Knights of Iris” in one shop. It was next to a visual novel artbook with… *ahem* rather well-endowed characters.
I don’t think it’s because they lack the shame. Teenagers obviously not legally able to buy such material – even in Japan (where age 20 is the only barrier to anything adult-related) – shopped alongside some gents I’d definitely wager to be many years older than I (’89). A collective “turning the other way,” perhaps? Probably not, as the Japanese police are known for their dedication.
So what’s the big deal? I recollect Anthony Bourdain’s brief interview with Toshio Maeda, the veritable creator of what the English-speaking world refers to as “tentacle porn.” He describes the repressed sexuality of Japan, how the country’s people seem to have a less puritanical perspective on sex, yet also mentions that about half the unmarried population wasn’t involved in a relationship (or wouldn’t disclose the information in a poll).
When games like Mass Effect advertise specifically the inclusion of sex and/or face an incredible amount of media attention for it, one does wonder where we all come from. The answer, of course (for most of us) is screaming headfirst through a vagina (though I was a cesarian section, apparently). And how we came to be there, again for most of us, is via sexual intercourse.
How defensive does this sound? Probably very. Obviously this bit has no place in a country such as Japan, where the visual novel, while still not a widely-accepted medium, is still better-off than it is here.
And there shouldn’t be – isn’t – anything wrong with that. No, I’m not saying that Mangagamer display their wares on shelves next to the latest WiiU releases. What I am saying is that here is a country that has no problem with artistic (and otherwise graphic(ally explicit)) portrayals of sex in a distinctive art style across the ocean from a country that covered a game on major news outlets (granted from admittedly conservative venues).
No one should feel bad about their fantasies. They are only that – made-up, not real, safe in the confines of our own heads. When those fantasies come to life in other media, possibly as the consummation of a romantic relationship or a pleasurable one-night-stand with the sole goal being sexual gratification, that’s okay too. It certainly is in reality, despite the hypocritical messages that confuse the idea.
I like visual novels. I love what they can do as a medium. Yes, many of them have a lot of sexual content. Many are centered around it. Others, like the impending Stein’s;Gate and hit No Escape and Ace Attorney franchises, do not. Neither is better than the other for that difference. Neither are those fans of either.
Like those shoppers in Japan, we shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed or bad for enjoying such things – any things, for that matter.