Many elementary schools in Kumamoto recently went through trying times, with much sweat and tears, much stress and disappointment, much wailing and gnashing of teeth. I refer, of course, to undoukai.
Undoukai, or Sports Day, is one of the most time-honored and annoying of all school traditions in this country. In format it resembles something of a cross between an American school's Sports Day and a track meet -- the student body is divided into four teams, across all grade levels, and the teams compete against one another. Mostly it's running sports, but each class often does some form of dance. One of the more common dances (though no longer as popular as it once was) is the "Oklahoma Mixer," a variation of "Turkey in the Straw" which has nothing to do with my home state.
There are several reasons why I feel undoukai is unnecessary. First, it tends to take over all parts of school life in the weeks leading up to it. Students will spend one or two hours a day (more in junior high or high school) practicing when they could actually be learning something. Second, it tends to put a lot of stress on the students, and Japan is already a pretty stressful place to go to school. Many parents don't like it because of that. Third, the organizers don't always take student health into account. Strongly asthmatic kids usually have to run the relay or mini-marathon with everyone else. Last May -- junior high undokai season in this city -- there were many cases where the students had to stand in place for two or three hours, with regular but short breaks on the hour. Quite a few kids went to the nurse's station for heat exhaustion that month.
So why go through with undoukai every year? Well, conservative Japanese hold discipline and group cooperation in high regard, and undoukai is all about those characteristics. The sports teachers strongly support it as well, because it gives their jobs more importance. Mainly though, it's because they've always had it every year, probably going all the way back to when the public school system was founded in the Meiji Period.
Now, on with the column!
When it comes to market penetration, Nintendo's definitely sitting in the winner's circle at the moment. The company holds a very high percentage of the children's gaming market, a more than decent chunk of the teens and twenties section, and -- with brain-training games, Wii Fit, and an assortment of electronic reference materials, cookbooks, skills practice and brain-training games -- they've got a lock on the parental demographic as well. Where else to expand, though? With a population as umbrella-shaped as Japan's, there's just one answer: up.
Let us picture a commercial I saw a few weeks back. Serious Senior Gentleman and his wife are watching their Beloved Grandson at his school's Sports Day. Their Dutiful Daughter is recording the event with her digital camera. She promises to send them the pictures.
But now Serious Senior Gentleman's habitual frown deepens. Dutiful Daughter's camera is digital, and he does not want to admit that he does not know how to use a computer -- in fact he has never had to use one. Now we flash forward to a meeting with Friendly Smiling NTT Salesman. He has the answers, for certain.
In fact, the solution is simple, as Friendly Smiling NTT Salesman quickly shows. Any house in Japan can get an NTT line of one sort or another, and NTT's new partner can provide an easy way to use it -- the Nintendo Wii. Friendly Smiling NTT Salesman quickly and politely guides Serious Senior Gentleman through the basics, and at the end of the commercial, he is able to access his new email account and see the pictures of Beloved Grandson which his Dutiful Daughter has sent. His face creaks as it moves into an unfamiliar contortion, almost a smile.
Thus begins Nintendo's bid to control Japan's largest consumer demographic.
For most people of the gaming persuasion, the initials D and D mean something. They mean fathomless dungeons full of monsters. They mean fearsome and awe-inspiring encounters of the draconic kind. They usually don't mean an interest in structural engineering. Yet that's just what Acquire Games has in store for us with their newest RPG offering, Dungeons & Dam.
Our hero for the day is the brainy Shion, he of the light green shirt. He and his egocentric sibling Fia are the children of the town's resident hero, Gauche, who is now in semi-retirement. Their partners in this adventure are sleepy Elka and frantic Elua, who are priestesses at the shrine of the Water God.
Unfortunately, their home town's built on top of an old monster den. After several generations of quietude, strange shadows once more prowl the night. Shion may be the hereditary hero, but he's much better at using his brain than his brawn. With the shrine sisters' cooperation, he comes up with the idea of a stone dam, behind which a reservoir of water could build up. Then, whenever monsters threatened the town, they could simply be drowned out.
Now, everyone agrees this is a swell idea, but it'd be a dam shame (sorry, couldn't resist) if the dungeon denizens wiped the town out first. So, Shion has to organize things just right. Various sorts of adventurers have come to town, attracted by the monster threat. Once recruited, they can be put to work on the Day Shift, doing various tasks to help build defenses, resources, or the dam itself. On the Night Shift, Shion must lead his forces down into the monster den to hold them back for one more day. To make things more interesting, as the dame nears completion it can be used more and more frequently as it was intended -- namely to wipe out all opposition for the evening.
A variety of classes are available for recruitment. Warriors and Strikers are fights who focus on power and speed, respectively. Wizards harness the forces of nature, while Healers patch things up afterwards. Thieves rob monsters blind, and Archers cover their retreat. Porters make themselves useful by carrying and acquiring new items. Builders do what they do best, and scholars do research into monster types and weaknesses.
At 35% completion, we won't be seeing this one for a while, but it looks like something to look forward to, perhaps.
We first looked at the almost embarrassingly fanservice-y tactical RPG World War Moe a few months back, and I really didn't think it would be gracing us with a repeat appearance. Then I open last week's issue of Famitsu to the mobile gaming section, and I realize there's just no stopping the cuteness.
Here we are with Moe-Moe 2-ji Taisen Mobile (World War Moe-bile), soon to be available on DoCoMo's FOMA 905i series of mobile phones. The girls are all back, with shy blushes, demure smiles, emoticon smiles, and panty shots. Thank you, SystemSoft Alpha, for making grim international conflict into such a guilty pleasure.
Level 5 has confidence, of that there is no doubt. Less than two months after the release of their hit soccer/RPG hybrid Inazuma Eleven, they have no fewer than five new RPGs confirmed to be well into development. Three of them were mentioned in the previous column, but we've still got two to go.
Obviously, no developers going to let a hit release go uncontinued, and the newly announced Inazuma Eleven 2 is hardly a surprise. Aside from the addition of new techniques, Number Two looks to play about the same as Number One. Why fix what's not broken, after all? The story, now, that's where things get weird. After successfully taking down their rivals, the Imperials, the kids at Denmon Jr. High have a chance at the big tournament called the Football Frontier. Your team's frontiers definitely expand in this game, with matches set in at least eight major cities across Japan. The weird part is where the Football Frontier meets the Final Frontier -- the new rival team, Alieh Academy, is quite literally out of this world. The Alieh Aliens are out to be the best, and their ultimatum is simple: "Lose to us, and you may never play again." Their goal is to eliminate the game from the face of the Earth, leaving them the sole champions. I guess this is about as epic as a soccer RPG can get.
But wait, there's more:
Not content with just challenging outer space, Level Five is taking their series into a new dimension, the third. Inazuma Eleven BREAK!, which we'll be seeing more of at TGS, is a fully 3D reworking of the series. There's no word about the story in the Famitsu article, nor even what platform it will be on -- though it won't be the DS. We'll just have to see.
Koei has confirmed that Zill O'Ill Infinite Plus, the PSP remake of its 1999 RPG for the Playstation, will be in stores on Christmas Day. At least twenty new scenarios have been added to the remake, though as it has never managed to get a US release, it's still all new to most of us.
While there isn't much more to say about this Monster Racer which wasn't said last column, Dengeki Online has a few screens that give us a better idea of what this game looks like.
And finally, Falcom has a Christmas surprise of its own for us. Their PC and PS2 game, Zwei!!, is out for the PSP sometime this winter.
As of about two weeks ago, Sony started a new service on the Playstation 3's online network. Angel Love Online, one of the many cutesy online RPGs to swarm the Japanese PC market, is now available for download and access on the PS3. The game itself is free to play, but I'd imagine the download will cost you a little.
The game itself is your normal MMORPG: there's plenty of customization in appearance, with the makers boasting upwards of 30,000 possible design combinations -- though they also note that appearances don't really alter a person's skills any. There are plenty of pets / familiars available, and some can even be used for transportation (though I wonder how one rides an animatronic koala). And of course there's the Emblem Wars, large-scale conflicts between player alliances or between any of the four disparate nations of the game world.
I'm still wondering if this will start a trend, or fall flat on its face.
An S-Ranked Question
In many video games and anime the S-Rank for some reason always beats
the A-Rank. It seems perfectly natural now, but I have to wonder why.
Also, does the S-Rank extend into actual Japanese life? For instance can
you go to the supermarket and buy S-Ranked daikon radishes? Or does the
S-Rank remain solely in the realm of video games and anime?
Well, I know Japan borrowed the A to F grading system from America, but I always assumed that someone wanted to have a rank that showed a perfect 100%, and an A+ just wouldn't cut it. So they made a Super-Rank to fill the void. I have no idea exactly when this showed up in Japanese culture, but I'd bet it was during the game show craze of the late 70s, early 80s. You know, the insane game shows that are a stereotype of Japanese culture, but no longer actually exist? All guessing aside, I know I have seen the S-Rank used in contexts outside of video game and anime culture, but again mostly in informal ranking programs and other semi-reality TV shows (not in the supermarkets). I really can't tell if the game designers got it from TV, or if it were the other way around, but the S-Rank is an acknowledged level of superiority in Japan now.
Synthesizer Signals Suspense
Sir Gaijin, we correspond again. Naturally I have more queries regarding both the serious and the silly of the Rising Sun, so here we go!
Something I'm curious about, especially with all the mobile games you mention, is just how seriously the Japanese gaming public takes the cel phone as a gaming device. Can you provide illumination on this mildly fuzzy point?
Well, cell phones are handy for when you're stuck on the train, but I'd say the hardcore gaming public takes them about as seriously as American gamers would take Yahoo's Flash-based games. They're convenient, easy, and casual, but to take them seriously...? Not really..
There is a country we've all heard of called North Korea which seems to have some bad blood with Japan thanks to its apparently kidnapping numerous Japan nationals in the 70's. How prominently does this bad blood figure into Japanese relations with the country now?
Not apparently. They did kidnap quite a few people from some islands in northern Japan. Some of them have even made it back to Japan. In any case, would you be comfortable knowing that a police state led by a paranoid midget and pursuing a nuclear arms program existed within a thousand miles of your home turf?
Playing a title called Blue Breaker is making me curious as to the omnipresence of dating sims in Japan. Blue Breaker mixes what I presume to be typical dating game elements with an RPG (a traditional RPG and not Sakura Taisen-style tactics) in an interesting fashion, and I have to inquire whether you've heard of other titles that do the same.
Dating sims are the standard fallback when someone's making a game based on an anime. As such, there are a heckuva lot of them in this country. RPGs (non-Sakura Taisen) that use this style include Akerenbou Princess, Thousand Arms, and the last two Persona games, actually.
The Economist reports that Japan's economy is doing rather better than most developed countries' thanks to a slump for the last few years that means it has no gigantic bubbles to burst. Does that sound accurate from where you live? On a tangentially related point, I wonder about the prices of everyday sundries compared to elsewhere. Is a takeout meal noticeably more expensive in Japan than in the US? How about a bus pass or a phone plan? I realize this is difficult to quantify accurately thanks to the difference in real wages, but an approximation would be valuable.
I haven't seen much change in the prices of goods, though baked items have risen about 15 cents or since this spring. That's because the worldwide price of wheat has risen, though. They've been trying to compensate with rice flour, but as it turns out, Japan's own system for protecting its riziculture has kept the domestic price of rice at about twice the global price. Gas has been dropping recently, however.
Clearly when I wrote the last letter Taro Aso hadn't been officially made prime minister... now that he has, will Japan have an election soon or will he be content to join Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe as unelected leaders of the recent past?
That's all for now. A pleasant day be with you and may the weather not assail you too violently.
You're laboring under a misconception, my friend. No Prime Minister in the history of Japan has been elected in a popular election. The Diet is a Parliament, not a Congress. The PM is voted in by representatives and the prefectural governors, who are in turn elected by the populace, but that's about as close as the citizens get to determining who runs the country.
Thanks for writing in! Always a pleasure.
And that concludes our column for this week! There's a lot more stuff I have on file, but I'm waiting to see how the Tokyo Game Show coverage turns out before I add the rest of my stuff.
And that's the news from Hi-no-Kuni,
Your man in Japan,