Considering that Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE puts a lot of focus on Japan’s infamous idol culture, I was going to try and lead into it by talking about the recent anime series Macross Delta -- since it also leans deep into idol territory. The problem is that, even if I like the core concept of Macross/Robotech, I haven’t seen enough of it to be an authority. And more importantly, I haven’t seen anything from Macross Delta besides complaints that it skews WAY too far in favor of idols/CD shilling, to the point where it cripples the show. I don’t know if that’s a fair assessment, but for now I’ll switch to Plan B.
See, when I was in elementary school there was this special program that incentivized turning in stuff to the lost and found. Even if it was just a few coins nicked from the playground, you could still be recognized for it on a bulletin board in one of the halls -- and better yet, potentially win prizes. So by turning in some lost lunch money, I won a coupon for a free rental at the local video shop. I thought that it meant I could get my hands on a new game, but the selection at said store was so limited I opted for a video instead. And so it was that I discovered Macron 1.
Don’t worry. I’m going somewhere with this.
There are only two things that I took away from that video. The first is that even little baby Voltech would’ve pointed at the screen and shouted, “Man, that’s a shitload of info-dumping.” The second is the actual song, which I still think about on occasion to this day. Have you ever heard such sterling, dazzling lyrics as “Ma-Ma-Ma-Muh, Ma-Ma-Macron 1”? Everything else is…basically a blur, since I don’t think I paid even a second of attention to the actual show. I could be wrong, though; maybe deep down, it helped solidify my appreciation of giant robots. Alternatively, I have that appreciation because I exist.
I wouldn’t exactly call Macron 1 an inspiration, then. I don’t know what would, if I’m being honest. Well, maybe Final Fantasy, but chronologically speaking I wouldn’t touch that until many years later. On the other hand, maybe I just have a predisposition toward liking certain things -- like there are slots in my brain reserved specifically for nerdy Japanese stuff. It’d help explain why I never truly stopped being a tokusatsu fan, and why I couldn’t help but snatch up a copy of Tatsunoko vs. Capcom (given that it had the guys from Gatchaman/G-Force in it). It’d also help explain why I’m waiting with bated breath for what I can only assume is the inevitable Hollywood treatment of The Centurions. By which I mean “I’m waiting to see how Hollywood will fuck it all up.”
So where am I going with all of this? Nowhere. I lied. I just thought I’d talk about stuff that made me smile -- because the circumstances around Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE make me sad. Sad, and tired, and frustrated, and confused, and…just so, so tired.
I would love to reserve this post for space to talk specifically and solely about the game, because I think it’s pretty good. I’m too early into it to make any super-final judgments, but based on what I’ve seen, it’s solid. It’s strong, even. Tokyo Mirage Sessions may not win any popularity contests for a number of reasons -- like appearing on the much-maligned Wii U, for one -- but I’m glad it’s here. I’m glad I’m playing it. I want to play it more. And I hope that others feel the same way; either that, or I hope people will open their hearts to a game so unabashedly Japanese.
But I can’t go on and on about the game right now, because of all the controversy. The anger, the debates, the criticisms, the disbelief, all of it -- all of it is orbiting the game like a satellite. Granted I managed to sidestep said satellite out of sheer willpower (i.e. a commitment to ignorance), but I did recently start reading up on the game. Inevitably, that meant I started reading up on the changes, and the censorship (or claims of it, but we’ll get to that), and the controversy. And I swear to God, I felt myself age about three decades as I made it through one comment section after another.
That was my fault, I think. At this stage, I suspect Rule #1 of the internet is to NEVER READ THE COMMENTS.
But let’s back up a little. Like I said, TMS has a pretty big focus on the idol culture, and presumably Japan’s entertainment industry at large. That’s a topic ripe for exploration, or at least introduction in the west. I have a basic grasp of the culture, but there’s still a lot lost on me and I’d like to see a scenario play out from the lens of some Japanese creators. What are the nuances? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks? From what I can gather, idol culture in particular has a lot of negative connotations. The idols are forced to be inhumanly pure or face severe penalties; they’re marketed as would-be girlfriends to fans, who then decide that they “own” the idols and lash out when scorned; all of that is on top of questions of objectification and exploitation. It’s a deep, dark hole, and fiction is primed to put that under the microscope.
Well, I say that, but I wonder how many people have actually pulled the trigger on such an introspective look. As of this writing, Love Live is getting a sequel/reboot anime, featuring a new set of idols in the making. I’d assume that The Idolmaster is still going strong, even if it’s just with an upcoming PS4 game. Like I said, Macross Delta leans heavily towards idols; granted it’s not the first installment in the franchise to feature music or pretty singing girls, but between that and all the other idol-based shows out there, you have to wonder if maybe -- just maybe -- a lot of Japanese creators aren’t interested in a deconstruction. Not all of them, of course; I’ve heard that Persona 4: Dancing All Night goes the distance. But since I don’t have a Vita and likely never will, I’m pinning my hopes on TMS. I don’t think I’m alone on that.
With all that in mind, I guess there’s a question that needs to be asked: did this game immediately ruin itself? I mean, sure, it’d be cool to get an inside, thoughtful look at a culture so far removed from mine. Idol culture (and again, entertainment at large) has plenty of baggage. It’s not an off-limit topic; not a lot of things out there are, especially if it’s for the sake of telling a good story. But even though I like TMS (based on its first few hours, at least), it’s not hard for me to get a sinking feeling in my gut at certain moments. As a guy who sifts through anime blogs regularly, the weariness and cynicism have rubbed off on me some. I know some of the medium’s conventions, for good or ill -- and they bleed into TMS like mad.
It’s unfair, I know, but I can’t resist the knee-jerk reactions that pop up whenever certain elements are introduced. Main girl Tsubasa gets swept up by idol fever (i.e. she fawns over a popular songstress and gets roped into becoming a performer maybe an hour after the game’s start). She’s played up as a cute and clumsy girl who’ll always try her best, and it’s even made a point that her idol persona will play up the “pure and innocent” angle. Then you meet Fortuna Entertainment exec Maiko, who’s introduced with a slow pan up her body that stops directly on her bouncing breasts -- and when you sift through the status screen in the menu, she’s striking a sexy pose. Then you meet Tiki, who of course is a cute little girl dead-set on calling you “big brother”. And of course, you can’t refuse her despite a dialogue option. It felt like a naked attempt to cater to tastes -- to mark off a checkbox on The Big List of Otaku Bait.
It doesn’t really inspire confidence for the rest of the game, knowing that anyone who says “this game is bad at representing women in fiction” might have a semblance of a point. On the other hand, it’s not an immediate failure; there are threads that either have potential, or have already started leading to some interesting places. True, Maiko at a base level is “the sexy one”, but that’s justified because she used to be a model (well, it’s convenient, but it helps explain things and can go a long way towards developing her character). Tiki makes me groan internally -- in the soul region, if I had to guess -- but the game puts her off to the side in another dimension, not directly in front of your face at all times to gawk at her cuteness.
And even if there’s something safe or pandering about Tsubasa, her route is already taking form. She gets called out immediately for trying to be an idol for the wrong reasons, which helps jump start her arc. It feels like a couple of the characters are in on the joke, and aren’t too keen on taking her antics -- of which there are many -- seriously. And while she’s theoretically playing second fiddle to main character Itsuki, in practice it feels as if she’s the real main character. In an industry that’s starved for female characters in leading roles, you take what you can get -- and I’ll take a character that’s got a personality, has motivations, and puts her agency on display. Also, her horse is a rocket bike.
I guess what I’m getting at here -- what my gut tells me, even at this early stage in the game -- is that TMS is confused about what it should be doing. Does it want to treat its female characters like commodities, as flavors designed to lure in hungry players? Or does it want to use those basic archetypes as a foundation, and build off of them to create an engaging story? Is it out to glorify the idol culture by featuring a girl who unabashedly wants to follow in her personal idol’s footsteps? Or is it simply using that culture to tell a story about personal growth, and the idealistic pursuit of stardom? It’s too early to say for sure, but I still have plenty of high hopes for the game.
So it bothers me that the legacy of TMS is going to be mired in controversy. I don’t want that to be all that matters about the game -- well, that, and the fact that it reportedly bombed in Japan -- but my greatest fear is that it already is. I’d think that at this stage, you can’t talk about the game without talking about The Big C, The Death Knell of Artistic Integrity: censorship. Changes were made going from the original Japanese release to the western one, and fans have already taken note. Costumes altered, lines changed/re-recorded, ages bumped up, “explicit” content covered up…there are comprehensive lists and videos ripe for perusal.
Okay, so the next few paragraphs will either have me make a strong case, or cement my heel turn into the enemy of mankind. But I’m just going to go ahead and go for it, because…well, I have to. The only person I can speak for with 100% accuracy and clarity is me, so I think I should start off by giving my opinion on the subject. It’ll probably be contentious for one side or another, but bear with me. Also, as a forewarning: if I were a villainous archetype, I’d probably be a Knight Templar. Take that as you will.
First of all, I’m going to agree with the sentiment laid out by Jim Sterling and others, and argue that we should probably not cry out “censorship” whenever there’s a change. In fact, I’d prefer the use of “change” or “edit” to “censorship” because I’d rather give the devs/publishers the benefit of the doubt. TMS is a good game, but some of the content in it makes me cringe or sigh. It’s content that might and probably will have a point in the future, but in terms of knee-jerk reactions and justifiable cynicism -- coupled with tastes that differ from person to person, let alone country to country -- I understand why there had to be changes. The ideal state for any piece of art is for it to come without changes, yes. But I understand why changes had to be made. I don’t resent them.
Speaking personally, I measure the changes made on two metrics. One: What’s the context behind the content, both pre- and post-edit? Two: Is it an edit that makes the game demonstrably worse (or better)?
I’m not going to go over every change made, because I’m trying to go through the game raw and I already feel like I’ve run into too many spoilers already -- plus, that’d bloat this post’s word count by a few thousand words. But as I am now, I feel like there a couple of points I can comfortably talk about. But for those whose eyes are already aching and seconds from oozing blood, here’s the gist of it: some edits are good. Some are not good. The important thing is that we analyze those edits as they come, and come to a conclusion based on reasoning. Evidence. Feelings and preferences inevitably factor in, but those can come in as a result of (or following) a good, hard think.
So here are my thoughts. First of all: I’m actually okay with the ages being changed (raised in most accounts, as far as I know). The obvious reason is that it’d make some of the more salacious content easier to digest -- Tsubasa being 18 might keep a few more eyebrows in a low position -- but I feel like it could actually play to a different strength. Itsuki, Tsubasa, and Touma being 18 mans that they’re nearing the end of their high school careers. The core symbol of their youth is almost past them, meaning that time is running out for them to decide on their futures (going to college, jumping into the workforce, etc). Plus, they’ve still got no shortage of studies and exams that need taking care of. Given that, juxtaposing the responsibilities of reality with a set of childish, often-unattainable dreams like “I’m gonna be a pop star!” or “I wanna be a Kamen Rider!” gives the game some unique thematic heft.
Sometimes, you need to make edits -- especially when the content in question has the grace of a brick to the ribs. There’s a scene in the early part of the game where there’s a pretty clear panty shot for Tsubasa, at least in the Japanese version; in the west, it’s shaded out of being. It’s at this point where I have to ask: why did there need to be a panty shot in the first place? Sure, dresses in the real world can lend themselves to that (though I’d imagine that women know how to prevent them by that age). But in the context of TMS, what does it add? How would the devs answer this question: “We needed a panty shot on Tsubasa because ___________?” My gut instinct is that it adds “nothing” or “fanservice”, so it’s fine if it gets the axe.
Likewise, there’s a boss who make sure things get pretty nippy pretty quick. Was it an absolute necessity to include such a scandalous-looking boss? It’s arguable that there’s context behind it (again, trying to avoid spoilers), but A) whatever point they wanted to make, they could have represented differently or through other abstractions, and B) it straddles an easily-blurred, easily-misconstrued line between “fanservice with a point” and “YO! BOOBS! YES!” It’s a complicated issue that not everyone will grasp, or even try to grasp. Why process a game that takes -- and this is a low estimate -- thirty hours to beat when you can look at a clip of boobs or underoos to make a snap judgment with minimal context?
Judging every last element and edit of TMS takes time. It takes energy and effort. It’s not something you, I, or anyone can slot into a black or white, all or nothing, Cap or Iron Man sort of camp. There are just too many things to consider, whether it’s in the context of the game or the context of the real world. For example: I’ve read that 384 lines of the script were rewritten, which might sound alarming at first glance. Terrible, even. But that’s just a number that, when isolated, barely means anything.
For starters, we need to know how the content in those lines changed from one version to another, and then decide if the changes were for better or worse, which then becomes complicated by taking in personal preferences and judgments. Also, we need to know what proportion of the script those 384 lines encompass, given that something like Katawa Shoujo can have a hundred times that amount -- and it’s hardly the only example. Alternatively, an old, unedited file of mine has more than 8,000 lines. It’s in a different medium, granted, but it just goes to show that it’s about perspective. Context.
And I’ll go even further than I have into that context…next time. Till then? I don’t know. Try scraping up whatever clips or info you can for Macross 7. Something, something, listen to my song. Something, something, power of rock. I’m sure it’s an airtight production.