The seriousness with which the Japanese take their rice is something which must be seen to believe. Rice-farming in Japan is still very much a small-scale business, with families owning and operating the same field for generations. The government hands out a lot of nice subsidies, of course, but it wasn't until recently that I found out how much government protection Japanese riziculture received. But enough about that.
The reason for all the protection is more interesting: the Japanese are irredeemable rice snobs. If it's not Japanese sticky rice, then often they won't eat it. Japan was forced by WTO agreements to import some rice every year, usually equal to less than 1% of their domestic production, and what do they do with it? Make rice crackers, feed livestock, or (this year) donate it all to Myanmar. There's just no market for foreign rice in this country.
Japan exports about as much rice as it imports, and most of that goes to restaurants or markets that cater to Japanese expatriates. Japanese tourists have even been known to bring a rice cooker and a few kilos with them, just so they won't have to suffer without the national foodstuff.
It's also interesting to see how traditional the methods of farming remain. True, tractors are used to churn up the ground before the rains start, but the planting of rice seedlings tends to be by hand. Many farms will hire out for machine harvesters, but some of the small plots are still picked without aid. If you watch a lot of anime, you may have noticed how old people are always depicted as really bent over. That's because many of the people of that generation spent their lives planting or picking rice, and it shows.
To instill a sense of importance for the national foodstuff, Japanese schoolchildren often make field trips to the rice paddies this time of year, and help with planting or weeding. Rice is literally everywhere in Japanese culture -- in almost every traditional meal, in building materials, in traditional insulation, in Asics footwear, and even in the drive-thru. It almost defines the word "ubiquitous."
While fertilizer is widely used, pesticides apparently are not. What that means is that right now, while the water is still flowing freely and the rain is (hopefully) not flooding the place, is a very interesting time to take a good look around. One day last week there was a momentary lapse of rain. I happened to look down into a small rice paddy near my apartment, and saw thousands of small fry, fish no longer than a centimeter, as well as tadpoles, snails, and (to my surprise) a bright green flatworm. Each paddy is its own little ecosystem, at least until they dry up next month.
But I think I've rambled on about rice for long enough. On to the column!
Recently, representatives from four of the biggest robotics research and development firms in Japan held a meeting, and came away with an alliance. They're trying to boost sales in a market that is not quite as enthusiastic about ubiquitous robot help as the cartoon industry would have one believe. Specifically, they are united against the mercantile threat posed by Japan's ancient enemy -- Korea. The Korean government has thrown a lot of support into its local robotics research, promising to have a robot in every home by the year 2010. Lacking such massive support in the land of the rising sun, the Japanese robotics researchers feel that an alliance such as they have just made will be in the best interests of the industry. Time will tell, I suppose.
Here are the Dengeki ratings for the past two weeks. The new Super Robot Wars remake has proven once again that large war machines sell like hotcakes, while the boobarific spin-off Infinite Frontier is proving that cheesecake sells just as well. A few items popped on the list at the end of June, only to blip off just as quickly. I'm still a little impressed that The World Revolves Around Me made it on the list, considering how niche-y it seemed to be. And, of course, Poké maintains its presence on the board.
We've got some pretty hardcore gamers in the audience, so I'm sure at least a few of you have heard of the Ultimania guides. For those who have not, here's an analogy: regular playing guides are to Ultimania as Sunday-school story books are to the King James Bible. You want to know everything about a game? Get the Ultimania. Not only will it have all the maps, walkthroughs, and detailed lists of items and monsters, it will also tell you what items may be in the game code, but not actually available in the game. It can tell you how to set the rapid-fire controls on your third-party PS2 controller so that Tidus can dodge 200 lightning strikes on autopilot (it involves rubber bands). I have the Ultimania guide for Romancing SaGa - Minstrel Song, and it happens to have sheet music for the opening theme, many pages of concept art, interviews with the production team, and a short novel about the main characters.
So, to the real news: Ultimania is coming out with a new guide to Final Fantasy. Not for the game, but for the entire series to date. Anything you ever wanted to know about the games' characters, monsters, plots, music -- it's all between these covers. Since it covers everything FF from the last 20 years, that's a lot of material. It's so much that they're printing it in three volumes, or Files: Character, Scenario, and Battle. Total length is 1,582 pages, for about $55.
Ultimania. By gamers, for gamers.
Moe (moh-ay) is one of those Japanese words that's hard to define properly. One way to look at it would be "a quality which makes a character cute, attractive, or vulnerable" -- though whether this means a physical, mental, social, or emotional trait is unspecified. The word can be used as a noun (for the character or the quality), or an adjective, but the way in which it's used seems to vary greatly from fangroup to fangroup, or between fans and artists. When it appears in a game title or as a marketing ploy, though, there's only one appropriate way to translate it: fanservice.
This brings us to Moe Moe 2-ji Taisen, or World War Moe, for the PS2 and PSP. WWM is a hex-based strategy game built around the actual battles of World War 2. Instead of B2s or panzers, however, all units are ridiculously cute young women in various styles of cosplay. On this page, some of the screens seem to be showing the Battle of Britain, as fought by airplane cosplayers.
Even though it's listed as a Simulation, which covers a lot of ground, this is definitely a tactical sim in the RPG sense. All units level up, and there's a simple class change system in place, similar to the one in Vandal Hearts -- units can be upgraded within their type (air, sea, sky), but not switched to a different type.
Along the bottom, the top, and various points everywhere else, we can see a selection of young ladies who are involved in the war effort. Global conflict has never been so ridiculously cute.
It's been a while since we mentioned Sigma Harmonics, so here's a short update. In this scan, we can see a bit more of the battle system. Neon in particular has a few surprises up her sleeve with her enchanted cards. Not only do they cast spells, but she can use them in battle to create weapons and other items. She can switch gears between physical and magical abilities completely with a simple costume change. Her magic outfit -- kimono and a cat-eared beanie -- we've already seen, but her battle dress is... well... I just had a sudden image of her decapitating people with a simple pirouette. I think there's more sword than fabric in that skirt.
Stranger still, the game's musical theme is elaborated upon. Apparently, Sigma can actually change the background music for the game, and in doing so influence various things in and out of battle. Also in battle, there's a set of three gauges which affect the music. Some of Neon's cards can alter the sound balance as well, which can tip the odds in battle. We also get to see what a few of the Ouma look like, and the musical aspect is once again confirmed in their design.
For a brief recap, here are some of the other characters in the game. Master Kurokami is a powerful magician who can use both sound and card magics. His wife, Keiko, married into the family, but seems to have some power of her own. Grandmother Ume is a very conservative type who will do anything to protect the family (and if that's not a plot hook...). Little Nene is a Tarot-dealing fortune teller, while Yuriko is the maid. Finally, we have the Masked Butler. That guy... I have no idea what to make of him. We'll just have to wait and see.
In every generation of Pokémon, the same pattern emerges. First, Nintendo releases a paired set of games for that generation (Red/Blue/Green, Gold/Silver, Ruby/Sapphire). Then, a year or two later, they reveal an alternate, often extended version that offers more options. There was Yellow, with its alternate storyline; Crystal, with animated Pokémon and access to a few new options; and Emerald, with the new and improved Battle Area.
Now, Pokémon is going Platinum.
Even though it's technically the same game as Diamond/Pearl, from the scans and screens it's pretty obvious there's been a lot of work done. Perhaps the most obvious is that the 3-D capabilities of the DS see a lot more use in this version. Besides that, new characters have been added to the story, and apparently several areas have been expanded.
The game also makes a lot of references to the soon-to-be-released next Pokémon movie. Giratina's lair, originally one of those annoying Lost Cave levels, now looks a lot like the strange dimension from the movie, including how some patches of ground float perpendicular to other patches of ground. Giratina's flying Origin Form, as seen in the movie, is also available, and seems to have some plot attached to it as well. Not to be outdone, Shaymin will morph to its Sky Form when you trade it from Diamond or Pearl.
All in all, it looks like they've put a lot of work into this version. We'll just have to wait and see. It's not slated for US release yet (which is how I can get away with using it here), but we all know it's just a matter of time.
In other Pokémon news, Nintendo has just made an announcement for all those adult Pokémon Fan Club members out there. First, there are t-shirts:
And next, there's the Make a Wish website for Pokéfans. Log in as a member, click the Jirachi link, and make a wish. Nintendo will pick 100,000 people out of those who make wishes, and present them with a Jirachi of their very own. There's a time limit involved (July 7th, 4PM JST), so the clock is ticking! Best wishes, everyone.
'Ey, Whatta Ya T'ink Wi Came Here Fur, Duwee?
And a good day to you, sir Gaijin.
And a good day to you, too! Good things do come to those who procrast.. er, wait! I must ask, though, what is it with you and completely non sequitur letter titles?
I have a couple of rather serious issues to inquire about once more, so let's hop to it. My understanding is that, because immigration is unacceptable in Japan, the means of coping with the declining population is to mechanize everything possible. Can you illustrate the authenticity of this practice?
Well, aside from initiatives to bolster the robotics industry, the government seems to be devoting a lot of resources to making immigration and naturalization a lot easier to do in Japan. [Edit: Thanks go to dorian for pointing out an English language copy of that article.] The LDP's immigration plan would hopefully lead to a resident or naturalized immigrant population of around 10 million by the year 2050. Japanese schools are already changing some high school entrance rules to make it easier for foreign-born children to attend. Also, the crown prince sends his regards.
Next I'm curious as to the Kurile Islands' status. Last I heard Russia and Japan vehemently disagreed over who should possess the southern half of these islands, and I'm going to consider that issue as being unchanged unless you say different.
Status quo, man. Status quo.
One other: just how prevalent is English knowledge among the population at large of Japan? I'm not sure how to better word that question, but I feel you can give it a go.
It's a required subject in junior high and high school, and soon to be one in elementary school as well. It's already available in some elementaries. Advertisers love to use it. Sometimes it seems like the big English schools have a license to print money. So, the average person in Japan ends up with a lot of exposure to English in various ways. Most people can write romaji (Latin letters) fluently. Many can read basic English. An astounding number of people fail abysmally when it comes to speaking English, often because the Japanese school system opts for a translationist approach to teaching foreign languages. The big problem would be that English and Japanese are not mutually translatable. You cannot take a sentence in Japanese, replace it word by word with English, and then expect something intelligible. If you tried that with French, Spanish, or German, it'd still be sore on the eyes, but you might see some sense in it. Not so, with Japanese... and I got off topic, didn't I? Sorry. Short answer: lots of knowledge, little practical ability.
And for a little frivolity - giant monsters. I cannot recall giant monsters (as in Godzilla, Rodan, etc.) being featured in RPGs much. Instead poor Godzilla gets thrown into terrible fighting games or 'blow-the-crap-out-of-everything' games. Can you offhand recall any RPG that featured Godzilla or that featured giant monsters and was any good?
While I can't think of anything that specifically featured giant monsters as a central plot element, I can name a few prominent examples. First, there's Xenogears, where many of the organic enemies were super-sized -- not to mention that annoying pink thing that joins your party at one point. Then there's La Pucelle, which featured a giant monster (strongly similar to one from GeGeGe-no-Kitarou) in the fourth chapter. Devil Summoner - Kuzunoha Raidou's villain creates a hulking, metallic superdemon that would definitely pass muster (it's even threatening Tokyo!). Finally, there's one classic game that features no fewer than five giant monsters, four of which your heroes can fight. The first one gets its head blown off by a super-über-hyper-laser-cannon-thingy, but the second one has to be beaten the old-fashioned way before it can reach the big city. The other three just wait around in their respective domains (land, sea, and sky), waiting for you to get up the courage to challenge them. I am, of course, refering to Final Fantasy VII here.
Anyhoo, thanks for writing in, and single-handedly resurrecting this section of the column! Much obliged.
And that concludes the second quarter of 2008! Will Q3 be as exciting a time for RPG-lovers around the world? My magic 8-ball says "Signs point to hell yeah," and it's usually pretty accurate about these things. Again, be sure to write in to the forum or Culture Corner with any comments or questions.
And that's the news from Hi-no-Kuni,
Your man in Japan,