In the book, Alt draws a very clear link between how the social conditions in post-war Japan led increasingly to young people tying their identities to the products and media they consumed. Many of us who grew up with video games can identify with that to an extent, especially in our youth. Overall, does he feel it’s a healthy attachment to make?
"You are what you eat, as the old saying goes, and so it's only natural that we will be shaped by the things we consume. But it's key to remember that fantasy-delivery devices are more than just products. They're tools for navigating modern life, with all of its complexity and weirdness. From that standpoint they're less "attachments" and more roadmaps or even lifelines. It's hard to imagine going back to a life where we can't listen to music on the go, or play games on the go, isn't it?"
In the Game Boy section of the book, one phrase in particular caught our attention when Alt was discussing how that console overcame more technically sophisticated rivals: “Convenience and content trumped all else” - a phrase that could equally be applied today to the success of Switch, Nintendo’s most recent modestly powered, plucky handheld console. Are convenience and content always the most relevant criteria when it comes to successful products?
If [a product]'s novel and interesting and stimulating, people will overlook the shortcomings. It's something that I saw again and again
"They certainly don't hurt," Alt says. "The Walkman is another example. It wasn't a particularly high-fidelity tapedeck and it couldn't even record, in its initial incarnation (which is, incidentally, the one you see Peter Quill carrying around in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.) So is the Famicom, as it wasn't anywhere near the peak of computing power when it first came out. Unless you're a luxury maker whose market consists of people willing to pay any price, the trick for any company is making something that's just good enough to do the job. If it's novel and interesting and stimulating, people will overlook the shortcomings. It's something that I saw again and again with the products in Pure Invention. Very few of them were what we'd think of as cutting edge. Most were existing technologies or genres of entertainment that were repurposed in some new way." It would seem that Gunpei Yokoi's theory of 'Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology', that Nintendo took to heart back in the Game & Watch days, applies to successful products across the board.
Creative thinking is often the key to getting around restrictive technological or budgetary issues. There are times, though, when something's got to give. One of the most fascinating sections of the book details how legendary manga artist and animator Osamu Tezuka’s enthusiasm to make an animated version of Mighty Atom (better known in the West as Astro Boy) led to him securing funding by accepting what he knew to be a stiflingly small production budget. The end product would go on to be hugely successful, but Tezuka had set a damaging precedent that affected animators and the burgeoning medium of anime itself.
"Hayao Miyazaki famously penned a furious obituary when Tezuka died, accusing him of just that," Alt says. "But while nothing is created in a vacuum, creators also have the ability to change things if they want." We wondered if there were any examples of precedents set in the early gaming industry which adversely affected the medium as a whole. Alt believes Nintendo's bullying treatment of developers in the '80s and early '90s might qualify.
"When Nintendo ruled the game industry in the Eighties, President Yamauchi compelled developers to sign non-compete agreements, pay big licensing fees, and manufacture products in Nintendo factories with daunting minimum order quantities. This really put the squeeze on smaller developers in particular, and is one of the big reasons why Sony was so successful in convincing companies like Squaresoft to jump ship from Nintendo to their PlayStation — the terms were better, and CD-ROMS are much cheaper to make than cartridges. So where there's a will, there's a way." PlayStation offered game makers a welcome alternative, and although it's taken much longer, evolving technology has opened up avenues for Japanese animation studios to explore. "The anime industry is changing now, too, finally, thanks to the advent of streaming services like Netflix that let studios bypass the old business models."
AltJapan, the company Matt runs with his wife and collaborator Hiroko Yoda, is behind a large number of game localisations and has expanded into other media over the years. We wonder if there is a particularly special project that jumps to mind in his back catalogue of work.
"Some of my favorite projects were either sequels or reboots of stuff I played as a kid," he tells us, "like when we worked on Dragon Quest VII or the 2014 reboot of Strider. I also love it when multiple streams of our interests converge in a project, such as when we were hired to localize Nioh because we'd written so much about yokai monsters."
Overall, Pure Invention suggests that Japan, through economic and social ups and downs, has been well ahead of the (pop) cultural curve; over the past century or so it has repeatedly given the rest of the world a taste of what’s to come. We wonder, does that remain true in 2020? What about in gaming?
“Japan was ahead of the curve, but now the world has caught up: demographically in the way the advanced world is aging, politically in the chaos unfolding everywhere, and economically in the post-Lehman shock Great Recession we've all been experiencing for the last decade. But that doesn't mean Japan has fallen behind — what it means is that our tastes and lifestyles have largely synchronized. I think we're going to be seeing a lot more stuff made outside of Japan, but with Japanese sensibilities, fusion products like Pokémon Go, for instance. Made in Silicon Valley but with Japanese characters."
These days, Alt finds himself playing fewer games. "Confession time: I'm not much of a gamer anymore. I often find myself playing games in the course of my work, so it isn't nearly the restorative, relaxing activity it used to be for me. That said I enjoyed the first several hours I've played so far of Death Stranding, and am looking forward to checking out Ghost of Tsushima."
A Japanese-developed game and a game steeped in Japanese history and folklore (albeit Hollywood-ised)? You might say that Alt is very on-brand with his game picks, but — come on — what PS4-owning gamer hasn’t played those two in the past year? As a time-travelling teen from the mid-‘80s once said, all the best stuff's made in (or about) Japan.
Pure Invention: How Japan's Pop Culture Conquered the World is available from all the usual outlets - we listened to the audiobook (read by the author). It's a fascinating jaunt through 20th and early 21st century Japanese history that ties together pop cultural threads in a thoroughly entertaining and illuminating way. It comes highly recommended.
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