Greetings. I agree with you on a lot of stuff, and generally find your blog to be a breath of fresh air and really fun to read. However, there’s one thing that always kind of bugged me: your comments about certain games being ‘too Japanese’ to sell in the West. Obviously there is a lot of truth at the core of those statements, but your comments regarding Wind Waker, Nintendoland and anime seem a bit off-base to me. At one point (around a year ago) you even said that you think the idea of an ‘art-style culture barrier’ is untrue and a bit of a red herring, but you seem to have changed your mind since then. I also think you might be mistaking your own tastes in artwork with the tastes of the majority.
So basically, I’ll just get right down to it: I don’t think the stuff you view as ‘too Japanese’ or ‘alienating’ is really all that uniquely and/or oddly Japanese, let alone ‘alien’. Your blog post about anime and why it was never ‘cool’ in its ‘fully Japanese’ state seems to assume that anime fandom in the West is stigmatized because anime is simply too foreign for Western audiences, and I can’t agree with that. Anime fandom is stigmatized because it is cliquey, exclusive, obsessive and often really strangely perverted. Anime fandom largely doesn’t follow the human, relatable shows that have truly universal appeal; they gravitate towards shows made specifically for young teenagers, or stuff made for obsessive, perverted adults with no intended appeal to anyone else. The shows that lead to the stigmatization of anime in the West are just as hated in Japan as they are in America, by everyone outside of the core obsessive social pariah nerd clique.
Wind Waker’s doesn’t really come off as too ‘embarrassingly anime’; its visual style is clearly highly inspired by classic 60s and 70s films by Toei Animation, and those are pretty wide-appeal and western in nature. The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon, which is very easily comparable to Wind Waker, was even a huge influence on the American cartoon Samurai Jack and its style has a lot more in common with Western cartooning than with the strange, fetishistic look that the West views as ‘the anime style’. In fact, Ocarina of Time’s concept art feels more ‘anime-esque’ (under the West’s perception of anime) than Wind Waker does.
I completely understand why you dislike it and I see nothing wrong with that opinion, but I personally do not see the art style of Wind Waker being significantly more repulsive to a general Western audience than a Disney film, or a Looney Tunes or Tom & Jerry short. They both follow some very Western cartoon principles, as does most of the anime that actually finds a general audience in Japan. The most widely-appealing cartoon art will always be the most ‘western’ in nature, because it is genius Western animators who figured out, during the golden age of animation, what makes for instantly-appealing, relatable and human design and animation. Western anime fandom, however, became interested in anime as a result of hating such principles to begin with, and as a result gravitate towards the most alien and strange cartoons from Japan. It is very interesting and enlightening to compare the stuff self-described ‘anime fans’ watch, and what Japanese animation ‘people who sometimes watch animation’ watch.
When Steve Jobs was young, he became obsessed with Asian “culture”. He flew to India, got his head shaved, immersed himself into the religions and philosophies of the area, and came back to the United States. When Steve Jobs directed products, he did not make anything of Asian “culture” as we would think. Nothing he made was designed around, say, Hindu religion or Hindu values.
There is a distinction be made between craftsmanship of the New World (which is what Asia is considered historically) and its other aesthetic elements. The issue of Asian craftsmanship is so incredibly important that it IS the reason why Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492 with the destination being Japan. All the best stuff came from that area. It was not necessarily the most ‘innovative’ stuff. It was stuff that FELT the best, that TASTED the best, stuff that Europeans would pay a large amount of money. Aristocratic and private investors lined up to fund ships to sail to the ‘New World’ and to establish a new trade route to the Indies.
What was wrong with the old trade route? After Marco Polo let the West know about the wonders of the New World, demand soared for these goods. Since the land based trade route traveled across half the world, middle men appeared along this trade route and got rich. These middle men of the land based trade route were the seeds of what became the Ottoman Empire. Goods from the New World were much more expensive because of the Ottoman Empire. This is why investors lined up to create an alternate trade route that bypassed the Ottoman Empire entirely. Eventually, these sea based trade routes were established and the Ottoman Empire lost its major source of revenue. By the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire had essentially collapsed. New empires arose based on the new sea based trade routes such as the British Empire. Colonies, acting as middle-men, sprang up to become full blown countries due to the sea based trade such as the United States.
I say all this to put into context how important it is to look at the relationship of the East and the demand for its craftsmanship. The ‘Japanese invasion’ that occurred in the 1980s from Sony’s Walkman to Toyota’s cars to Nintendo’s video games were all largely due to that high degree of craftsmanship. Super Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda were not particularly innovative but they had so much damn craftsmanship in them that they completely blew everything away.
The West, however, has co-opted much of this craftsmanship. While it is accurate to say Apple is an American company, it is also accurate to say it is heavily Eastern influenced. Not influenced in the way of “culture” but in the importance of craftsmanship. Apple’s products are nothing more than rounded rectangles, but the products are so well made that everyone wants to get it even if they don’t need it. Some Western game companies have placed an extremely high importance on craftsmanship with their games which has led to continued success. Rockstar games places a massive demand on detail which led to their Grand Theft Auto hits. Blizzard also has high craftsmanship demands leading to their games continually selling forever on the store shelves.
Cartoons and animation were always done in the West such as Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse. The Japanese, in their Eastern tradition, took a highly craftsmanship way with their animation. Looney Tunes and type shows were initially made only as a short before a movie (I wish we had them today. I’d go to the movies more if I saw a Bugs Bunny cartoon instead a preview before the movie). Looney Tunes and type shows eventually got run on TV where the market was for kids. And since kids were the market, there was not much money spent. The Japanese took their anime more seriously. When Robotech came out, it opened many people’s eyes. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that starting at that time was Disney investing heavily in ‘high production’ cartoons such as Ducktales.
There is an important distinction to be made with craftsmanship/production as compared to “culture”. Donkey Kong had Japanese craftsmanship but actually had Western culture. King Kong was an American film after all. Super Mario Brothers 1 and 3 had strong Alice in Wonderland themes which means they were more Western culture. Zelda had Western culture in it with its themes. And with Metroid being so close to Alien and Contra looking like a Rambo movie, it was more Western culture.
I’m not going to get into an Eastern “Culture” versus Western “Culture” debate. But I can point to data that says Eastern “Culture” doesn’t sell in the West. However, the reverse is true (which may surprise game developers trying to grok the strange ways of Japan).
The NES games didn’t become popular because of Japanese culture. They became popular because of their craftsmanship. There wasn’t any popular video game then that was about Eastern ‘culture’. It was either culturally neutral or Western. As for the Japanese ‘culture’ games, they stayed in Japan because everyone knew they wouldn’t sell in the West.
I remember Iwata once saying back around 2006 how Japan used to be an exporter of Japanese “Culture”. And that is completely incorrect. It is wishful thinking on his part. Eastern “Culture” has never been popular in the West and never will be. Even marital arts schools have to advertise that they don’t teach the Eastern ‘culture’ because Westerners only want the craftsmanship of the fighting, they don’t give a damn about its ‘philosophies’.
There were definitely niches for a while of people loving Japanese anime or JRPGs. But all that collapsed or, rather, as the economy contracted the luxury of niche markets disappeared. As for Robotech, the storyline was redone by Western writers (which is so obvious with their blatant Shakespeare quoting) and the lame drum music replaced by a more interesting Western music score.
Has there been anything of Japanese “culture” that has become mainstream in the West? Ever?
The shows that lead to the stigmatization of anime in the West are just as hated in Japan as they are in America, by everyone outside of the core obsessive social pariah nerd clique.
I think this is a strawman. I know in Japan that there are nerds that are stigmatized there as well as anywhere else. The most popular animes there have no influence in the West. Tatsuo Yoshida has ZERO INFLUENCE in the West. However, everyone in Japan knows who George Lucas is.
Heck, even Mickey Mouse is well known around the world. You can go to the middle of Africa and see people wearing Mickey Mouse T-shirts.
Something like the below video is shown to Japanese children. Westerners just look at it in complete shock.
Remember when Mario would just go down the flagpole and go? Starting with Super Mario World, he did that stupid ‘V’ sign that all Japanese do when they get their pictures. WTF!? There is a reason why Mario’s popularity began to drop around that time. I’m reminded of this because the kid on the toilet does the V sign at end of the video .
Here is my premise:
What the West liked from Japan, throughout not just video game history but history of the last six hundred years, was never the “culture” but the craftsmanship. (What proves this is that once this craftsmanship is found on equal or superior terms somewhere else, the West purchases it from there. Cotton was once only imported to Europe from Asia until North American cotton surpassed it and dominated all the sales.)
The issues of Wind Waker and modern Japanese games are more complex than just saying ‘Japanese culture’. (Wind Waker has a ton of Aonuma in it as well as betraying Zelda fans’ expectations [remember that Gamecube demo of Zelda?])
However, due to Iwata’s comments, it is clear Japanese companies such as Nintendo incorrectly believe Japanese culture has sold to the West in the past.
All this talk about ‘art style’ is more than just ‘creativity gone nuts’. ‘Art style’ is actually a betrayal of that craftsmanship tradition. The reason why developers want to use a heavy art style is because it means they don’t have to do much work on the graphics. Think Mad World or No More Heroes for the Wii, both games that bombed. Think Okami which bombed for both the PS2 and Wii. The lack of that craftsmanship is what I believe truly repels people from ‘art styles’. Nintendo thinks it can ‘tune’ the art style correctly where everyone can be happy. It cannot because the issue isn’t style but craftsmanship.
I’ve learned over the years that I have different standards for games than many gamers. To me, Wind Waker is a game with extremely poor craftsmanship which can be seen in the game design, the ‘art style’, everything.
As for Nintendo Land, its craftsmanship is an open question because we have not played the game in full. However, Nintendo Land does seem interested in putting out a Japanese “culture” with art styles and iconography that wouldn’t work in the West.
Let me ask the reader: “Why was everyone repulsed by the E3 trailer of Nintendo Land?” Where there is stink, there is a bomb. I think the stinky smoke is coming from a sort of ‘Japanese Theme Park’ concept. If gamers didn’t like theme parks, Rollercoaster Tycoon would not have become so popular. But is anyone interested in a Japanese theme park?
Above: This video alone has almost as many dislikes as it does likes. Very unusual for a Nintendo game launching on a brand new Nintendo console.