According to Disney World’s famous ride and song, it’s a small world. A ride that is not only found in Tokyo’s Disneyland, but in Florida’s Magic Kingdom and the Disneyland Park of California as well, its message of global unity and peace has never rang truer. Now that we live in what is known as the Information Age, our world has grown even smaller. Instant communication from one part of the globe to the other has never been so easily accessible; along with notions of migration and cultural exchanges, this is a time that allows for greater diversity and cultural influence. Ni No Kuni displays this ability for a culture to cross borders – not only national borders, but also ones of expectation.
Studio Ghibli came to fruition in 1985 in Japan, with Hayao Miyazaki and his friend and partner Isao Takahata. Along with this duo, the producer and business director Toshio Suzuki was a part of the founding team that was Ghibli. After the success of the movie “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”, which was written and directed by Miyazaki and produced by Takahata. Suzuki was also involved in the production of this film. Following the film’s success, Suzuki and Miyazaki formed Studio Ghibli and invited Takahata to join them. The studio has been one of the most prolific animation studios of all time, not only in Japan but worldwide. Studio Ghibli has seen continued success, smashing box offices with every release since the release of “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. The first English release of a Studio Ghibli film came in 1998 with the dub of “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, which premiered at the Seattle Film Festival. Although it did not receive a large theatrical release, it was the start of a long relationship between Disney North America and Studio Ghibli that involved Disney making all of the English dubs for the Japanese studio.
The influence and importance of Ghibli is an international phenomenon. The film “Spirited Away” is the only anime film to win the Academy Award best animated feature. Studio Ghibli films still, to this day, are some of the only anime movies that receive such large budget dubs from studios such as Disney. Their last film with an English release saw actors such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt in the voice cast roster. So why exactly has Studio Ghibli’s films, and their other related works, become so popular in the Western world?
There are many different commonalities to the work of Studio Ghibli. They are all very similarly stylized, and it’s very easy to spot the style that is put forth by Studio Ghibli. This style of animation is part of the reason Ghibli became so popular in the Western world, at a time when the idea of anime was not as accepted as it is now. It’s a very soft and light style of animation, there are lots of bright colors and easily flowing backgrounds (such as soft nature shots). The stories were simple, often takes on different fairy tales and folktales that are easily relatable in a Disney-esque way.
These elements of the Ghibli film run through all Ghibli films be they produced by Hayo Miyazaki, Takahata, Goro Miyazaki or someone else. This Ghibli brand, this Ghibli feel is the successful thing that draws people in. The game, Ni No Kuni, is no different from the films. Although the main producers of Ghibli films were not heavily involved in the production of this game, it still has the elements that has made Studio Ghibli one of the most successful and well-respected animation studios in Japan, and in the world.
Role playing games have been a popular part of, what has been come to be called, “geek culture” since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. The idea of becoming a mythic character and embarking on a grand mission is one that many people have had; not just telling the story, but being part of it.
In Japan, in the early 1990’s, videogame studios like SquareSoft and Enix began creating role playing games for home consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System. Whilst popular on home soil, games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest failed to gain much traction in North America.
Although Final Fantasy III (numbered VI in Japan) was a hit with North American fans of the medium, it wasn’t until SquareSoft released Final Fantasy VII in 1997 that games known as JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games) really took off on our side of the Pacific Ocean. The company went on a marketing blitz; showing ads on television and in comic books.
Their plan worked: Final Fantasy VII was a blockbuster hit for Square. This victory not only cemented SquareSoft as one of Japan’s most popular studios in North America, but also pushed the medium of JRPG into greater prominence and popularity in Western culture.
Level-5’s Ni No Kuni follows in the footsteps of Final Fantasy and others. The gameplay is simple: the basic, turn-based battle system is reminiscent of the early JRPGs. But what makes Ni No Kuni stand apart from its digital colleagues is the animation that has been provided by renowned Studio Ghibli.
Unlike much of the anime that was distributed in the West since the mid-1980’s, Ghibli’s soft, innocent tales gave North American audiences something besides Sailor Moon and near-endless barrages of giant robots. When that same innocence is translated into a videogame, the results seem like a Studio Ghibli film that we can play.
HAYAO MIYAZAKI AND FEMINISM
Hayao Miyazaki’s work with Studio Ghibli defies many tropes that Western and Japanese viewers alike have come to associate with anime. For one, there are no scantily clad, improbably proportioned teen girls, magical or otherwise. Miyazaki identifies as a feminist and his works are known for outstanding portrayal of their female characters that are, in many ways, ahead of their time. Not only has he written some of the most memorable, multifaceted female protagonists of anime (Kiki, Nausicaa, Chihiro, etc) but also supporting characters who steal the show (for example, the titular Princess Mononoke who isn’t the hero of the anime itself, though she might as well be) and complex villains (Lady Eboshi, for one).
Ni No Kuni is a Ghibli creation from the first frame, with an easily recognized gorgeous animation style and character design. It does have strong female characters such as Allie/Alicia and Esther, and it eschews some of the worst videogame tropes: for example, there’s no sexy armor on anyone, although it could be explained by the fact that it is a game aimed primarily at children. However, certain aspects set it apart from Miyazaki’s work.
It should be noted that Miyazaki’s own involvement with the storyline in Ni No Kuni was minimal. Studio Ghibli did the design and contributed gorgeous animated sequences, but Hayao Miyazaki (whose role within Studio Ghibli has been less and less prominent over the last few years) did not write the story of the game. As Luke Plunkett writes in “Ni No Kuni Isn’t Miyazaki/Ghibli’s First Video Game Appearance”, the game inspired by Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, back in the 80’s, put him off videogames as a medium. The majority of Ni No Kuni was written by Level 5, the game developer.
Studio Ghibli brought us many memorable female protagonists, so it might seem like cherry-picking to complain that Ni No Kuni doesn’t have a female character option. But on the other hand, animation aimed at children usually doesn’t lack female protagonists (even questionable ones such as Disney princesses and bodacious Sailor Senshi). A video game, however, is one medium where having a girl protagonist could really make a difference for an entire young generation of future gamers, even if it were just one option out of two.
The plot of Ni No Kuni is more reminiscent of Harry Potter than of Miyazaki’s cartoons. Likewise, while it can be appreciated by children across all ages, ethnicities and genders, it maintains a certain uniformity. Young girls can identify with male protagonists as well as female ones, but with young boys that is unfortunately not the case—especially after a certain age, once adults have taught them the usual gender norms (Gotz). We internalize the messages we receive in childhood, and a videogame aimed at children is the perfect place to start instilling the idea that girls can be heroes, too. Hayao Miyazaki would certainly approve.
ORIENTALISM OF EASTERN POP-CULTURE WITHIN GAMING
Western world has leaned on Asia and Eastern cultures for inspiration since the dawn of the Communication Revolution. With respects to this text, the primary focus will explore the relationship between the American media and gaming industries, and China and Japan’s respective industries. Despite this more narrow focus, the theory of Orientalism and the Western Gaze can be far more vast reaching than just these three Countries. The Western gaze is the theory of how the Western world (America for this example) views and portraits other cultures. Often times this appropriation of cultures by the US is non-beneficial to both Nations. The West works off offensive and racially ingrained tropes that date back to as far as early Colonialism. A very clear example of this would be Hollywood’s portrayal of Asia throughout history. The advent of the ‘Samurai’ and ‘Ninja’ reached an exponential increase in Cinema, and with time only became a more ingrained western filmmaking trope. Movies such as The Last Samurai, Seven Samurai, 47 Ronin and many more all relied on outdated, largely inaccurate portrayal of early Asian (Japanese) cultures. Moreover often times the film focuses on a singular white Westerner being thrown into feudal or conflict Japan and acting as the “saviour” to these Asian societies as shown in 47 Ronin, Black Hawk Down and Kill Bill.
The western gaze has once again become a prominent factor in the media with the introduction of video gaming as a profitable media. Moreover video games have even seemed to exaggerate these stereotypes with the introduction of the genre of “Ninja” games. It was clear capitalists could capitalize on this genre as a worldwide phenomenon; gamers were buying so developers were making. Ninjas as portrait by the gaming industry shows societies of masked mobs that are both futile and weak. Almost never alone, Ninjas travel in large groups and are almost always viewed as the enemy. From Western gamers perspective, the only real examples of Asian characters being shown in American produced games was the rampant mobs of ‘ant-like’ Ninjas and stereotypically ‘mystic’ and ‘wise’ Chinese characters that work off outdated stereotypes. With reviewers and academics criticizing the “Yellowface” that had become synonymous with the perception of Asian gaming protagonists; it was clear that counter arguments needed to penetrate the Western gaming industry. This is where Ni No Kuni becomes such an interesting case example for the analysis of Western capitalist markets competing with Japan and the actual easts perception of themselves.
Ni No Kuni, despite being produced for both Eastern and Western audiences, manages to rely on almost no ‘eastern-tropes’ that have become so popular with games designed for Western markets. Despite this, the game managed to obtain extremely high reviews and critical/popular reception in the USA. This means that Ni No Kuni effectively combated the capitalist gaming market by going against the relatively easy formula America had worked to construct. As Ni No Kuni was such a split audience in reception, it would not have been enough to work off tropes and stereotypes when a large portion of the Audience would be from Asia. The game was fighting not only the perceptions of audience members, but also addressing the very way Eastern cultures are perceived by the rest of the world. No longer should Asian protagonist be forced to be in faceless mobs of ninjas, but instead the Asian protagonists of the future will hope to show complex, powerful, and engrossingly human portrayals of modern Japanese life and culture.
JAPANESE LITERARY INFLUENCE AND THE WESTERN WORLD
For an extraordinarily long time now the Japanese culture has had such an intriguing and nuanced influence on the Western world. It is difficult to place exactly when it began, but many believe that the 11th century novel The Tale of Genji—written by a Japanese noblewoman named Murasaki Shikibu, which details the aristocratic life style and specifically the tea ceremony—to be the first modern novel, or at least the first to still be considered a classic. The first translation of Tale of the Genji into English happened in 1882, and many more have been written since with the most recent being published only a decade ago. Perhaps the cause for such effort in writing all the various dignified translations is the stark contrast in the cultures. Considered as well to be the first psychological novel—one that had emphasis on interior characterization, on motive rather than action—these disparities would be exponentially amplified a full millennium later. There is something to be said about that. It is conceivable that in some shape or form, Tale of the Genji is the mother to confessional and stream of consciousness type writing. Plath, Ginsberg, Faulkner, Woolf, etc. all could be said to owe something to Shikibu.
While it is evident that her work has had a direct and dynamic impact on the Western world, it should also be realized that she laid a foundation for her fellow compatriots to follow suit. The same emphasis on the internalized character can be found in Japan’s most widely read and regarded writer outside of Japan itself, Haruki Murakami. His stories revolving around loneliness and alienation have struck a chord with audiences throughout the world. When one talks of the Japanese artistic influence in the west, two names immediately come to mind: Murakami and Miyazaki. In the same vein of Spirited Away grossing $330 million worldwide, captivating its new larger audience and remaining the only anime to ever win the academy award for animation, Murakami’s novels have had a similar effect. They have sold by the millions, been translated into over 50 languages, and allowed for the Western world to better appreciate and empathize with Japanese culture.
As mentioned before Miyazaki is known for identifying as a feminist, and this is exemplified throughout his novels where female characters are strong and nuanced, take Princess Mononoke as a good example. Admittedly, Murakami is not as diligent, as a lot of his literature can be seen as representative of the Japanese patriarchy, but his last novel sparks interest and growth in this regard. 1Q84 is a mammoth of a novel that contains two protagonists—one a woman named Aomame—who is not only strong, but a detached, intelligent serial killer. In many respects Murakami is seen as the Japanese Kafka, and most of what that infers is undeniable agreeable, but what is interesting and important to note is that Aomame as a character would never have been written by Kafka, or most others regarded as Kafkaesque. What this demonstrates is that it is not only the audience who receives the writer—this is not a one-way street—but that the creator too can be affected and changed by those that listen. Throughout a variety of artistic mediums there is an optimistic, empathetic compromise of sorts. That, this Japanese influence that is so widely accepted and appreciated by the Western world, may too itself be absorbing and adapting to the audience in its own way.
When communication is facilitated between people, it becomes easier to exchange ideas. With those ideas come tiny parts of what was once a foreign culture. Now, with globalization becoming an increasingly powerful part in not only game making, but international culture as a whole, the fact that Ni No Kuni would become such a popular game in the Western world is not so surprising.
– Matthew Duffie, Jamie Lightfoot, Gavin Lytton, Michael McGrath, Ioulia Zaitchik
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- How does the animation in Ni No Kuni change the gameplay experience?
- Is that fact that Ni No Kuni is not a “typcal” JRPG make you more or less likely to play it?
- What aspects of JRPGs still make them less popular in North America when compared to action-adventure games?
- Given the artistic style and themes of Ni No Kuni, would you consider this a good introduction to JRPGs to new gamers?