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  • “The Phantom of Akihabara,” Chapter 1

    Posted on May 8th, 2009 keving 12 comments

    090509-akihabara1

    “I don’t care what it takes. I want to play Teitoku no Ketsudan from Koei. The first one,” the man said, as if confessing his darkest desires. “I’m not talking about the console port, either. The PC-8801 one. First printing.” With that, he fell silent. Now I knew why that envelope was so thick. I had heard stories about that one.

    The Phantom of Akihabara: GAME OVER is a serial novel written by Yoshitaka Ohsawa and published in 2002-04 over eight issues of YuGe, a Japanese magazine devoted to games old and new (now called GameSide). Illustrations were provided by Aki Shimizu, a manga artist who I don’t think has done anything that’s attracted a Stateside fanbase yet but is still a pretty talented dude.

    This is almost certainly the only apocalyptic SF novel themed around used video games that has ever been written, and its mere existence shocks and enthralls me, and so I’m translatin’ it, starting with this first installment. I’ve included a decent amount of links and footnotes so you’ll be able to understand all the Japan- (and Akihabara-) centric references. If something still seems obtuse to you, please let me know.

    Happy readin’.

    ——-

    The great skyscrapers, once some of the most renowned in the world, crumbled into an abandoned, almost incomprehensible ruin. The towering hulks of Old Yodobashi town, once the proud face of Nishi-Shinjuku’s economic industry, transformed into enormous slums that are lawless even by Tokyo standards, making them famous for a far different reason than before. Being here at night would make you a man with suicidal tendencies.

    The unique smell of rancid garbage fills the air. It is unique to the slum because public services, including trash collection, have long shied away from here. Here there is no electricity, no, gas, no water — not officially. And yet the lit windows that dot the high-flung buildings, illuminated by generator batteries stolen from somewhere, cast a yet-more ominous light on the landscape. Someone has forced an illegal connection into the city’s sewer system, and leaking pipes snake their way through the innards of every inhabited building. It is impossible to say if the homeless people lying at the edge of the roads are dead or sleeping, but there they are, not even able to stake out an existence in the slum itself. “Hi.” A woman from some unknown country calls to me, hoping to sell herself for the cost of a bowl of ramen. The darkness in the corner no doubt hides some kid, a pickpocket or mugger aiming for my wallet.

    I gripped the gun by my side tightly, not quite used to the sensation.

    I may not live here, but like them, I am an outsider all the same. They must have smelled this out, which is why they elected not to attack me on sight. I proceeded on to my destination: the remains of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, smack dab in the center of the slum, the structure above its 42nd and 31st floors blown away by a missile.

    ——-

    The thickness of the envelope placed before my spoke volumes about the difficulty of the job, not to mention the insanity of the client.

    “So, what do you need?”

    The man dressed in Japanese clothing sat in front of me, staring into my face as if brooding over something. He seemed older, but probably he was in his forties or fifties, like most of my customers. The look on his face belied that. Only a certain creed, from only a certain era, caused that look.

    “I need you to search for a game,” said the man. He was an author. His work allowed him an extremely comfortable living, allegedly.

    “Then why don’t you go to the store? Or a used-game shop?” I fully understood the pointlessness of this question, but nonetheless repeated it with every client. It served as a sort of final warning.

    The man spat out his response. “Who the hell wants that crap they sell?” he said, peering as if trying to curse me with his eyes. Oh, great. This guy’s for real — an honest-to-god surviving otaku.

    ——-

    Apparently the world started falling out of whack right after we got into the 21st century. Japan, forced into the corner by its declining economy, reverted to its maddeningly insular island-nation mindframe, eating itself bare from the inside. Teenage crime skyrocketed, the spread of the Internet and its establishment as a form of new media created a haven for uncontrollably free speech, unemployment rates rose higher and higher, and in a crazed attempt to quash it all, the land and its people yearned for more controls and restrictions than ever before. The Child Pornography Act, the Juvenile Harmful Environment Protection Act, the Resident Registry Network System, and the Anti-Spying Act were all enacted, one after another, and the valiant politicians who subsequently snuffed out free speech made Japan a very uncomfortable place to be.

    The deciding factor came with North Korea’s national-scale suicide attack. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building was the first of many city targets hit by missiles, followed by a string of terror attacks carried out by North Korean agents, their very existence in Japan a startling horror to most. The desperate regime plowed its way southward, and the resulting Korea War II (a media misnomer, since the first war had never officially been declared over, but the term I use regardless) forced the Japan Self-Defense Force into full deployment, causing untold deaths. The fiscal cost of fighting plunged government finance and Japan’s own economy into further turmoil, and the overwhelming flood of refugees (both real and opportunist) that drifted in from the Sea of Japan after the war ended spread the poverty and chaos deeper into the country. They, more than anything else, struck the final blow against Japan.

    Its economy and security at rock bottom, Japan’s government saw an immediate power grab and restriction on all aspects of society as the only way to restore order. The Social Environment Protection Bureau is the most symbolic example of this attitude. The establishment of an office that eliminated any aspect of society deemed “harmful,” like something straight out of a science-fiction novel, was welcomed by the Japanese, every one of them raising their hand in agreement. Maybe it should have been expected. We always preferred law and order over freedom and equality anyway.

    The SEPB’s primary targets included the very thing I base my work around nowadays: the “otaku culture” that sprouted like weeds from the end of the 20th century to the start of the 21st. The manufacture of pleasure for the sake of pleasure, of no productive value whatsoever, and the ineffectual “otaku” that voraciously consumed it all were the most wasteful thing imaginable as Japan rebuilt its economy and society, and nothing could possibly be more harmful to youth in this modern land. Besides, it was the sex and violence in video games and violence that brought about hikikomori and juvenile crime in the first place. Everyone knew that.

    The blind leading the blind.

    It didn’t matter what it was. They needed a scapegoat, someplace to shift the blame for this impoverished, unstable society, and they chose otaku and their culture, stacking them up right alongside the refugees that flowed ashore.

    Outright oppressing it was far from necessary. If you take a bunch of retired police detectives, give them a cushy, well-paying job keeping watch over publishers and game makers for harmful content, grant them the right to file criminal charges and apply governmental pressure as a division of the SEPB, then ask them to choose between free speech and feeding their family in this economy, the decision was painfully clear. As for the rest of the problem — the doujin culture sparked by Comiket, the circulation of peer-to-peer media, the chaotic webs of speech on 2channel and elsewhere — relieving them of their forums and placing trade-ministry bureaucrats into a watchdog organization to keep the handcuffs on Internet providers proved to be more than enough.

    In the blink of an eye, it was all gone — every pedobear and longcat and “Do a barrel roll” and “so i herd u liek mudkips,” every depiction of war, sex and violence from games, novels, manga and anime. A new era in mass media was created, one bursting with harmless, wholesome Disney ripoffs.

    Back to today, though. Even though this new wave crashed over every form of media, it still failed to wash away all the otaku. The games, manga, doujinshi and anime videos that fueled the glory days of the otaku era, seized and trashed and their mere possession criminalized, were still passed around behind closed doors. The otaku of the age, now in their forties and fifties and most of them with stable, financially secure lives, are still burning with their passion.

    090509-akihabara2Case in point, the elderly writer sitting before me.

    My name is Ryohei Takamizawa, professional broker specializing in video games, exclusively serving the needs of ex-otaku like this one.

    “I don’t care what it takes. I want to play Teitoku no Ketsudan from Koei. The first one,” the man said, as if confessing his darkest desires. “I’m not talking about the console port, either. The PC-8801 one. First printing.” With that, he fell silent.

    Now I knew why that envelope was so thick. I had heard stories about that one. Even back when otaku culture was booming, the game was infamous, treated by the industry like some kind of demon spawn. Koei was a publisher that made it big with historical simulations, especially the Nobunaga’s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, and Teitoku was their World War II sim, one that attracted an exceptionally dedicated fanbase. WWII sims had a tendency to be obsessively detailed and accessible to only an elite few, and Teitoku (released in 1989) became a hit because of its comparatively simple and “game-like” battle system. Releasing a “war” game like this nowadays is something beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

    The initial pressing of the first game in the Teitoku series had a command called “Comfort.” This option, when selected, displays a little animation that shows a soldier putting his arm around a (presumably native) woman. It was a simple command that let you rest your soldiers, but the media at the time was perpetuating a scandal at the time about “comfort women,” something or other whose significance is nil at this stage, so the depiction was not taken to very kindly. It became the target of pundits claiming that video games are socially irresponsible, and so another version got made.

    “Huh. No wonder you’re throwing that kind of money around.”

    “During the Second Korean War, I was–”

    “Wait. This doesn’t need to get depressing. I don’t need a reason — you’ll pay whatever it takes for that game, right? That’s all I need to know.”

    “Yeah.”

    “Pretty generous guy. Does being an author get you that much?”

    “It doesn’t matter what I write about. With all the regulations, all they need is something coherent, and they’re ecstatic.”

    I checked the envelope after the writer left. There was a million inside. Inflation being what it is, that was about a month’s salary for your typical office flack, but even an office flack is an enviable position these days. I thanked myself for calling him generous.

    ——-

    Walking down the hallway, stained and moldy thanks to the leaky, exposed water pipes, was treacherous. The fact I am willing to live twenty floors up in a building where the elevators are mere conversation pieces astonishes me sometimes.

    Advancing slowly to soothe my aching lungs, dulled by my usual lack of exercise, I finally made it to the 23rd floor. The moment I opened the door, my ears were greeted with a song that had been implanted into my mind after all the times I heard it — the Sato Musen commercial jingle, a tune that throws the old otaku generation into paroxysms of nostalgia. This floor, and the next nine above it, are known to those aware of its existence as “Neo Akihabara.”

    The doujin shops, game stores, and used-game retailers driven out of Akihabara (now a simple jumble of appliance shops) have piled into this black market, given no place else to go. Law enforcement is at best spotty in the giant slums, and the fact this market exists at all is due to its location in Nishi-Shinjuku, a place most normal people would be reticent about ever stepping foot in.

    I knew exactly where I wanted to go.

    The weathered sign said “Sofmap #666,” the numerals painted in bright white after the fact.

    (To be continued)

    Footnotes

    Nishi-Shinjuku: One of Tokyo’s main business districts, packed with skyscrapers.

    Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building: A large building that houses the city’s government. Actually composed of two skyscrapers connected on the bottom.

    Child Pornography Act [...]: The three acts are proposed bills that, in real life, did the Japan-politics equivalent of dying in committee after public controversy. The Resident Registration Network System is form of citizen database launched in 2002; its constitutionality was upheld by Japan’s supreme court in 2008.

    Pedobear [...]: I engaged in selective localization here because I was too lazy to explain “uguu” and other Japanese Internet/video-game memes. Apologies.

    Teitoku no Ketsudan: The SNES and Genesis versions were released in the US under the name P.T.O.: Pacific Theater of Operations.

    Sato Musen: A Japanese electronics store that used to occupy the building directly facing the JR Akihabara rail station exit. Their annoyingly catchy ad jingle could be heard on TV spots and blaring from speakers immediately upon exiting the station, making it an unmistakable part of Akihabara culture. The chain sold its stores to rival Yamada Denki and ceased operations in July 2008.

    Sofmap #666: Sofmap is another chain of Japanese electronic and game shops. Until 2006, each of its stores in Akihabara were assigned numbers, with Sofmap #3 specializing in games, #6 exclusively selling PC software, #7 dealing in used laptops, and so forth.

     

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