Posted by: seanmalstrom | November 25, 2009

Miyamoto WAS inspired by Alice in Wonderland

In the Mario 5 Iwata Asks interview, Miyamoto says,

Some time ago I was being interviewed and I spoke about Alice in Wonderland. But it seems there was some misunderstanding and it’s since been stated that I was influenced by Alice in Wonderland. That isn’t the case. It’s just that there has always somehow been a relationship between mushrooms and magical realms. That’s why I decided that Mario would need a mushroom to become Super Mario.

This is hilarious! Here is what Miyamoto said in 2005 in an interview with Business Week:
Do you remember how you came up with Super Mario Bros.?

It started with a simple idea. I thought: “I wonder what it would be like to have a character that bounces around. And the background should be a clear, blue sky.” I took that idea to a programmer, and we started working on it.


Mario ended up being too big, so we shrank him. Then we thought, “What if he can grow and shrink? How would he do that? It would have to be a magic mushroom! Where would a mushroom grow? In a forest.” We thought of giving Mario a girlfriend, and then we started talking about Alice in Wonderland.

I don’t see how in the world that can be a mistranslation. Miyamoto actually said they talked about Alice in Wonderland. Then, when others (such as myself) repeat exactly what Miyamoto said, he calls it a “misunderstanding”.

So what Miyamoto says instead, in the Mario 5 interview, is that…

But it seems there was some misunderstanding and it’s since been stated that I was influenced by Alice in Wonderland. That isn’t the case. It’s just that there has always somehow been a relationship between mushrooms and magical realms. That’s why I decided that Mario would need a mushroom to become Super Mario.

And where did that ‘relationship’, in the bold, come from? The relationship between mushrooms and magical realms is from Alice in Wonderland. Whether or not Miyamoto read it is not the point. If he saw it in manga or other stories, where do you think they got it from?

It is well known in Western humanities that we run around, saying and thinking things, that we believe we, ourselves, invented but were actually from somewhere else. For example, Shakespeare scholars delight in saying how much of the English vocabulary and popular sayings are Shakespeare quotes. When someone says, “That is Greek to me,” they are quoting Shakespeare whether they like it or not.

Since Japan at time was being invaded by many American media such as movies, it is pretty certain that some of those ideas were bouncing around in the minds of the Japanese people whether they know it or not. We are influenced by cultures and ideas which we may not even realize.

Western scholars love exploring Shakespeare’s “sources” this way. They chart the ideas of the plays through different nations, through different cultures, back to the ancient oral tradition from where they spawned. None of this takes away from the genius of Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the seed where influences or sources, which Shakespeare himself may not have been aware of at the moment, are the soil. Studying the soil is not taking away from the genius. Genius, that seed, can thrive in any time period. If Shakespeare lived today in another nation, he would be using a very different soil and have different influences. It is the nature of things.

So why is Miyamoto so defensive on not admitting that Alice in Wonderland is where the power of the Mushroom Kingdom comes from? Alice in Wonderland was such a widely known children’s story, especially many decades ago, that its influences would be everywhere. This is where the relationship between mushrooms and magical places come from.

Miyamoto even uses the word “wonderland”. And where did the word “wonderland” get popularized? Obviously from Alice in Wonderland.

So there are two problems here.

First, Miyamoto says he got the idea because everywhere he saw a relationship between the mushroom and fantastical realm. (This “relationship” was established because of the popularity of Alice in Wonderland. This “relationship” did not exist prior to the publishing of Lewis Carrol’s book.)

Second, Miyamoto says he was not inspired by Alice in Wonderland when, in an interview several years ago in Business Week, he says exactly that.

So why is Miyamoto doing this? It is no shame to find roots of ideas in the past. The world of Hyrule is obviously from pieces of popular myths here and there. The Master Sword in the stone is very much similar to the sword in the stone in King Arthur. Does it bring down Zelda by pointing this out? No. The universe of Metroid has no traces in the Eastern World. Metroid is clearly a child from the science fiction that was going on in the West. You can point to the movie Alien or to other books. Clearly Space Invaders was the same thing. Starfox could not exist if Star Wars did not exist in some form earlier. The pop culture at that time was clearly echoes from ideas in the past (this pop culture that was injected into these early games).

Miyamoto even gives the advice to “young game designers” to look at pop culture for inspiration on video games. This advice he gives in the Nintendo Power interview on the Creation of Super Mario Brothers 3.

My hypothesis of why Miyamoto is incredibly trying to backtrack from this is because he, himself, believes he is a creative genius. He, himself, believes that he created whole universes out of thin air. By saying that other works are behind what makes these universes resonate with audiences means that he is not the Creative God he believes he is. No one will deny his skill at game creation, but it is silly to believe he is some generator of fictional realms that had never existed before. Today, children grow up with Super Mario Brothers where they eat magic mushrooms and get big. A century ago, children grew up with Alice in Wonderland where they eat magic mushrooms and get big.

The User Generated Content movement by Nintendo was spearheaded by Miyamoto and it was based on the entire premise of “creativity”. As User Generated Content crashed in flames, perhaps Miyamoto’s perception of “creativity” is not correct. If he was the generator of whole universes coming from his head, like Athena sprouting from the head of Zeus, certainly there should have been some new game universes  in the last couple of decades. Creative geniuses do not reuse the same old universes over and over again as we have seen Miyamoto do with Mushroom Kingdom and Hyrule. Even average fictional authors won’t put up with it (but publishers force them to only write Wheel of Time or Dune or Ender’s Game books because they sell. The writer would rather make something new).

I actually think combining Wonderland into video games was a stroke of genius. And I think this fact needs to be realized if video games are ever going to legitimize themselves. Harold Bloom, that academic and literary critic, rightfully criticized Harry Potter because it would not lead children to Alice in Wonderland. However, there was another work out there that WAS leading children to Alice in Wonderland. It was Super Mario Brothers. Literary critics have not realized yet the connection that video games are providing the same imaginary realms that children had a century (or prior) ago. Centuries ago, children did have Zelda but it was either a King Arthur tale or some other type of myth or story. The idea that video game makers are inventing new realms that have never before been seen in Human history is laughable.

Since I am the one responsible for highlighting the connection between Alice in Wonderland and Super Mario Brothers, let me explain the context of how it came about.

I want to know why Super Mario Brothers endures beyond the children who initially grew up with it. Why does the Mushroom Kingdom still hold appeal? Why does it still resonate?

The answer is that the Mushroom Kingdom still resonates for the same reasons that Alice in Wonderland resonates.

My answer to explain this phenomenon has been mythos (which is constantly misunderstood). What I mean by Mythos is some work, in the past, often ancient past, that still resonates to this day. Like with Star Trek, I would point to the naval stories of the past, of ancient sailors traveling into the unknown. That is the source of its power in the minds of men. And this is why such entertainment becomes “classics” in a sense. Technology might be forward thinking, but the power of entertainment is found backward through time. Think of all the fantasy books out there. Where did they get their power? They got it through Lord of the Rings. Where did the author of Lord of the Rings get that power from? From the ancients.

Instead of video games being the “newest” form of entertainment, I suspect they are the oldest. The communal experience that video games offer is not unlike the oral tales. Even the “plots” and “worlds” of video games match these ancient oral tales shockingly well.

Connecting Alice in Wonderland to Super Mario Brothers is a no brainer. Even in Alice in Wonderland, Alice runs around nibbling on a mushroom that makes her grow in size (and shrink as well) as she talks to giant turtles, giant cats, giant rabbits, and so on. (If Miyamoto was serious about making gaming mainstream, he would openly acknowledge the connection between Alice and Mario. Academics, those cultural custodians, scrutinize plays, novels, and all. By rejecting the connection, Miyamoto is insulting their intelligence and comes across as if he is trying to make himself a giant in the same vein as a Shakespeare or a Lewis Carrol. These cultural academics do not forgive such narcissism which could be a big reason why they keep ignoring video games.)

The authors and makers of the tale are not relevant. Only the work and the audience is relevant. This is why I think interviewing Miyamoto about Super Mario Brothers is not going to result in explaining why the game is magical. Donkey Kong (which is clearly influenced from King Kong) is not “magical” in that same sense. Many games are not. Even many games made by Miyamoto (which is why he keeps re-using the Mushroom Land for over twenty years).

Miyamoto is on record clearly stating he and his team discussed Alice in Wonderland when creating Super Mario Brothers. Miyamoto, in that Mario 5 interview, even says that he ‘got the idea from the relationship of mushrooms and wonderland’ which was clearly established by Alice in Wonderland even if Miyamoto didn’t read it himself.

There is no doubt about. Alice is the mother of the Mushroom World.


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