Kawaisa!: A Naive Glance at Western and Eastern RPGs

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Matt Barton's picture

In some ways, I feel that my videogame experience has been a bit limited. While I know plenty about computer games of today and yesterday, I've owned very few consoles. What I've discovered (and continue to discover more and more) is that my computer-centric habits have caused me to have a decidedly Westernized view of videogames. Obviously, kids growing up with Nintendo and Sega spent a great deal of time playing games designed by Japanese developers. They grew comfortable (and even in love with) many aspects of Japanese culture, such as its unique style of animation and cultural attitudes and traditions that might strike the typical American or European as downright bizarre.

Chris Kohler talks a great deal about the Japenese videogame scene in his book Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life, a recommended read for anyone interested in the subject. While I don't have the time or knowledge to delve into the matter as deeply as Kohler (read the book!), I am becoming more and more interested in how Japan's stranglehold on the console market in the late 80s and all throughout the 90s has affected those generations of gamers.

A few things are puzzling, but likely significant. For instance, one of the best-selling console games here in the US is Halo and Halo 2 for Microsoft's Xbox. Yet neither title had much success in Japan. The primary reason for that, I think, is that Bungee's game is simply too "Western." Meanwhile, Japan's legendary Dragon Quest series never enjoyed the success on American shores that it did back home. Again, perhaps this is because the game is too "Eastern."

Now that I've opened up that can of worms, I'll shy away from trying to define what I mean by "Western" and "Eastern." It's obviously be stupid to try to generalize about such huge, diverse groups of people. Still, just looking at the games, I think we can notice a few very obvious differences:

Kawaisa is a term Kohler uses to describe Japan's obsession with "cuteness," which Kohler believes began with the Hello Kitty phenomenon of the 70s. A quick glance through any collection of anime, manga, or Japanese videogames will reveal the prevalence there of kawaisa. For instance, let's consider this cover shot of Final Fantasy XI Online:
FF Online: Do you see the cute?FF Online: Do you see the cute?

Now, there's certainly nothing wrong with a game that tries to appeal to a wide audience. I've always been on the side of folks who want to see games reaching out to women, and also to older people. Still, something just doesn't seem compatible here. On the one hand, you have three characters that would look at home in any Western fantasy game. Then you have a...what is that? Some kind of teddy bear? At least for folks like me, this character seems out of place against the other ones. I suppose it's rather like the age-old debate about the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. You either love them or hate them. For me, an infusion of cute, fluffy little bears nearly ruined the movie. Sure, they may have gotten a squeal out of the 6-year olds in the audience, but whatever dramatic tension I'd had building up was gone in a flash--and only slowly, fitfully recovered. I really think at some point, you have to decide whether you're making something for kids or for grown-ups. Often, the kids will be able to relate to something intended for grown-ups, but it hardly ever works well the other way around.

Dragon Warrior: What Americans sawDragon Warrior: What Americans sawLet's look at another example. You've probably heard of a game called "Dragon Warrior" for the NES. Well, that game was originally called "Dragon Quest," a Japanese CRPG for the Famicom system. Let's compare the cover art for the original Japanese version compared to the "Westernized" version exported to the US. First, though, let's take a look at what's going on here in the US version. It's a scene straight from any of the popular AD&D books of the time--a heroic looking European slashing a sword in the face of a menacing-looking dragon. This is the classic image borrowed from a thousand stories of knights and dragons. I think deep down all of us would like to be one of these dashing figures, all full of bravery and honor--it's a powerful and deep-rooted image in our culture.

Now, let's take a look at the original Famicom box art:
Dragon Quest: What the Japanese sawDragon Quest: What the Japanese saw Now, here's an image that's a bit hard for an American to parse. It looks distinctly cartoony, and I'd probably guess it was intended for young kids. It certainly doesn't inspire fear. The exaggerated features of the boy (definitely not a man here) are strange. Is it supposed to be comical? What we're confronting here, essentially, is the realism of the Western style vs. the highly stylized art of Japan. And this cover is hardly the most stylized. A quick glance at some of the other covers reveals an even greater tendency towards cartoony graphics. Now, I haven't even mentioned the actual games, which differ in interesting but probably less dramatic ways than the artwork on the boxes.

As Kohler points out in his book, the Japanese have a much different attitude towards religion and Christian imagery than we do. In a word, it's not held as sacred, and often used in surprising ways that could easily be misconstrued as "blasphemous" by American audiences. For this reason, Nintendo made every effort to "cleanse" the religious stuff from its American imports. A quick example is the game Devil World by the famous Shigeru Miyamoto. The game was considered simply too Japanese and was never released in America.

In short, what I see when I compare games like Pool of Radiance and Dragon Quest, or Neverwinter Nights and Final Fantasy, is a great cultural rift. It seems to me that folks who grew up playing Japanese games on their NES and later SNES systems probably developed an affinity for Japanese style art and themes that have created a sort of "East/West divide" right here in the US. I'm sure that many (if not most?) American fans of anime and manga probably got their first exposure in the form to the themes and content by playing NES and SNES games. Since I grew up playing games on computers, I saw relatively few of the Japanese imports that were so prominent on the consoles. The upside of this is that I was spared the "Engrish" of so many poorly translated imports. The downside is that I'm still somewhat virginal when it comes to the Japanese style. This has led me to favor European-style CRPGs like Dungeon Siege and shy away from games like the Final Fantasy series, which seem too stylized for me to really get into.

However, before anyone accuses me of being narrow-minded, I am constantly working to acquire a taste for these titles, and even purchased some anime (and, gasp, actually enjoyed it). We could easily spend a great deal of time comparing a film like Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke to Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid. Although there are certainly similaraties, it doesn't take long to see incredible differences, some of which are so profound that I doubt I'll ever really "get" them.


Mat Tschirgi (not verified)
On Kawaii and other bits

Very nice entry, Matt! A good extension on the earlier RPG post...

As some of our readers might know, I recently lived in Tokyo for a month with some friends and indeed, the concept of "kawaii" (super-cuteness) is everywhere in Japan. Every national landmark has its own personalized Hello Kitty keychain you can get-- even Hiroshima (no, Hello Kitty doesn't straddle the atomic bomb, but she does ride one of the paper peace cranes from the Hiroshima Memorial for Elementary School children killed during the blast).

Commercials, music videos, and banners often feature anime characters or have actors with really over the top expressions. I define "kawaii" as so cute it makes one want to vomit. Since I am American and not Japanese, I can not explain why things have to be kawaii in Japan. I know a lot of Japanese women speak in higher pitched voices to make themselves sound younger and cuter-- more "kawaii." It permeates Japanese culture and I'm sure there is a good book out there somewhere explaining this in more detail.

Looking at the cover art for the American and Japanese markets are always interesting. The European cover art is often very interesting as well to notice the cultural differences. While the American cover art for "Dragon Warrior" looks more American, it still is very stylized. Yes, the Japanese art looks more humorous, but it is adhering to the "shonen" manga style-- the kind of Japanese comics made for teenage (or younger) boys.

You are absolutely right, Matt, when you say that when somebody (like me) grows up with Japanese games, the culture shock is a lot less. I played my first RPG when I was 6 and that was the original Dragon Quest. I didn't play a Western RPG til I was 13 or so, playing a copy of The Bard's Tale.

I enjoyed Dungeon Seige as well. I wish the plot wasn't so cliched, but it had a rousing musical score. The upcoming Uwe Boll movie based on the game looks hysterical-- search on YouTube for the trailer!

=- Mat Tschirgi =- Armchair Arcade Editor
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mrCustard (not verified)
On the Dragon Quest Box Art

The character designs of popular manga artist Akira Toriyama is one of the reasons why Dragon Quest is what it is, and a buyer of the game would certainly expect to see his artwork on the box. This has nothing to with the game being specifically made for kids. His artstyle (unlike that of other mangaka) very European (having comic looking, deformed characters in an lighthearted, but essentially serious story is common in European comic art (example). In US comic strips there is a big gap between humorous and serious comic, with little in between.

So the US box art is exactly what an US gamer in 1986 would expect. However, in recent years thanks to Dragonball Z, Toriyama's style (although not his name) has gained more popularity in the US and Europe, and in Dragon Quest 8 his character designs adorn the boxart in both Europe and the US.

Incidentally, calling Dungeon Siege a European style CRPG, is a bit off the mark, I think. RPG-ing is a predominantly US development, and the they only European thing about it is the Tolkienesque (mis)use of characters from European folklore.

Gamertag: Custardo

Mark Vergeer
Mark Vergeer's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
some more pondering on cultural differences.....

The Japanese culture from my perspective (I happen to know a couple of Japanese people, a friend of mine has travelled there extensively) is one with big opposing forces. The culture has a chasm that's hard to comprehend for westerners. It helps if you grew up being exposed to Japanese games and comics. I've been exposed to quite a few Anime / Japanese animation stories as a kid - for some reason Japanese Anime is often inspired by European culture with European like settings.

Yes there is a lot of cuteness in the Japanese art and culture... yet at the same time the Japanese culture is quite harsh and demanding. Even more so than in the States or Europe. Businessmen pretending to have jobs for extensive periods of time when they get fired and when that facade breaks - committing suicide by the dosen. Kids having to go to extra schooling during the weekend just to be able to keep up and be able to go to University.

The very crowded surroundings in the big cities and having to travel the subway in such quantities that there are actually special people physically forcing more commuters into a wagon would make a lot of westerners angry or even agressive. But the Japanese behave very very politely. Conflict is avoided to keep things running along smoothly.
The supermodern busy cities compared to the ancient traditions and buildings and history of Japanese culture.

Videogames are a way to express that bottled up anger and stress - violent and horrific battles can be fought, things that can in no way be done in real life can now be done within the realm of the videogame. That's probably one of the reasons videogames are so big in Japan.

Western society and Japanese society are radically different where the way people interact and make deals is different - of course people are people and many things are also similar - so different that business can easily fail because the gap cannot be bridged. Even Europeans and Americans are more different than first looks and experiences would appear them to be. In Europe every nation feels and acts and behaves vastly different from the other with diverse traditions and habits. Put a few Europeans in a room and they note those differences quite easily - and of course we are used to being surrounded by culturally different folk more then Americans might be. Come and visit and you'll see that Spanish folk are very different from Danish or Dutch people. Still when in America - Europeans feel a stronger similarity amongst each other than with Americans. I've lived in the States for a while and I can confirm this. Still American culture is very easy to get into for a European - going back to Europe truly was a reverse culture shock for me - not a big one but still there was one to be experienced. It gives me a pretty good insight into the subtle differences between Europeans and Americans. And believe you me - I've been mistaken for native in the past ;) "You're from Holland? Hmmm isn't that somewhere around Wako, Texas? Hmmm isn't that somewhere upstate New York...?" People would react surprised if it turned out to be Holland/The Netherlands Europe. But that'll only work if I'm surrounded by the American accent the entire day - I pick up ways of speaking accents and all in a couple of days sounding pretty native. If you hear me speak English now I'll no doubt have the accent of the people arround me in Holland. You guys (Bill, Matt, Mat) must notice that I do interact and behave a little different in staff gatherings than you fellow Americans ? Although I must say my stay in the US has sortof never gone away and I still feel sort of like it's my 2nd home away from home and I am at ease and know quite a few of the little nicknacks of the culture in various US states when I am visiting - so perhaps in my case this isn't that obvious :)

But let's get back on 'Japanese Cuteness'....

-= Mark Vergeer - Armchair Arcade editor =-

Mat Tschirgi (not verified)
European VS American VS Japanese Cultures

Stress is very high in Japanese society, absolutely. In public, most Japanese repress their feeling and act so neutral that it appears they have no emotion at all. We met a Japanese man while in Japan who said, "The way to get to know a Japanese person's true personality is to get them drunk," which made a lot of sense to me after observing Japanese culture for a month.

I don't think you act that differently in the meetings, Mark. While in Japan, 2 of our roomates were from Europe: one from Italy (in his 40's) and one from Sweden (he was 19). The Swede had excellent English, knew a lot of languages, and was very outgoing and friendly-- he knew his American and video game pop culture even down to the slang. With the Italian, there were a lot of differences, a lot because of age, arguably; he tended to keep to himself and when he would talk, he would ramble for 30 minute diatribes about life and cooking (he was a professional chef), which were very interesting.

I would argue that Americans often talk a lot and are very loud and on the whole aren't very tolerant of other cultures. When we came back from Japan, we were in an airport going through the security check and everything was relatively silent. Suddenly, someone cut in line. A few people started shouting at him, "Hey, you asshole, you cut in line!" The line cutter in question responded with, "I gotta catch up with my friends." A minor round of grumbling circled around the room and we realized we were back in the USA.

But back to the topic... ;)

Mr. Custard is right about Toriyama too; he is probably the best known manga artist in the world. His art is arguably more Western than other Japanese artists, particularly in the Dragon Quest series, because you have the Asian manga/anime style faces wearing European armor, casting spells, and so on.

I quite enjoy the Slime from Dragon Quest. He holds a special place in my heart because Dragon Quest I was my very first RPG and there's something about the innocence and cuteness in the expression that makes it a monster you almost don't want to kill, but you have to in order to progress in the game. How could something that cute be so deadly?

The link to the Douwe Dabbert character reminds me a lot of the artwork in the classic 80's David the Gnome show, which were based on some European art books (David the Gnome, not Douwe Dabbert).

=- Mat Tschirgi =- Armchair Arcade Editor
Hear my gaming podcasts!

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Anonymous (not verified)
You, sir, are much too old to

You, sir, are much too old to enjoy Japan's challenges to Disney, Pixar, etc., except while napping on the couch as your own offspring watch it for the umpteenth time. The mentions of NES and Sega give you away.

If you want insight into Japanese culture or artistic style, you should really go for the adult (non-pron) titles. These people have some sort of deep-routed aversion to the actor profession, and thus animate EVERYTHING. If they made their equivalent of Requiem for a Dream, even that would be animated (well, not if - they did - and it's called Welcome to the NHK!). It's also decidedly creepier and *gasp* more realistic.

Joined: 01/21/2009
wow this one came back from

wow this one came back from the grave didnt it :)

One thing i notice about the differences (more now then the "old"days) the asian games tend to include "grinding". FFVII (hope I have the right one) for example, i played it striaght through and got to the "end guy" he spanked me with incredible ease. I went back and basicly just leveled (no quests, no reason, just KILL KILL KILL) went back and the boss got spanked. American games tend to be liner in such a fashion when you get to the end you can almost always kill the "boss" grinding and side quests are options if you enjoy the game enough, you go back and do them. Asian games seem to require some boring grinding (boring to one person is fun to another). Back in the NES days I never really noticed how much "filler" games had, that was just the way they where. Nowdays i notice it alot.

But right now I would honeslty say I prefer the asian RPG's to the american ones. I dont wanna play QUick time events, i want to chose my attacks, and excute, not time button pushes. Some of those "hit circles" or other button timed methods when done to keep you from just A+A+AB battles are ok, but when they "REQUIRE me to be perfect on the button smashing, no thanks.

While technicly not a RPG (in the truest sense of the genre) I still think DEMONS SOULS (PS3) may be the best game to c0ome out in a long time, incorperating more RPG elements, and I think I would be in heaven.. a cross action RPG, plenty of that out there, but not many that are great.

Enthinuver (not verified)
Exactly… that’s a hardcore

Exactly… that’s a hardcore fact. Kids growing up with Nintendo and Sega spent a great deal of time playing games designed by Japanese developers.
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