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  • “The Phantom of Akihabara,” Chapter 5: “Like the River Flow”

    Posted on July 16th, 2009 keving 4 comments

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    “You know how I’m helping out with the Comiket down below, right?”
    “Uh-huh. That, and how you worked with the closet otaku in Urban Planning to keep it from attracting any attention.”
    “Yeah, well, the honeymoon’s just about over with that. I think they’re gonna do away with Comiket, and they’re gonna take down every damn store in this building along with it.”

    Here is chapter five (“Like the River Flow”) of The Phantom of Akihabara: GAME OVER, a serial novel written by Yoshitaka Ohsawa between 2002 and 2004. You’ll want to start at chapter one if you’re new to the tale.

    With an economy in shambles and a nation in chaos, the Japanese government has forced peace and goodwill upon its people — a movement that dovetailed all too well with media’s tendency to censor itself, starting in the 1990s. With all the “poison” sucked out of their popular entertainment, how can Japan’s game nerds continue to exist…if they can at all?

    Happy readin’.

    “Wow. I heard about stuff like this, but it’s crazy how they’re still doing it now, huh?”

    My hand was in my pocket, gripping my gun. The girl grabbed my elbow, practically hanging on to it as she looked up at the old Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Normally the air would be stagnant with the smell of the city slums, but today, there might have been a suggestion of cheer in the wind. Just a suggestion.

    You could say this event, held twice a year, toed the line between legal and il- even before the pressure and regulation began. It is no longer the massive event it was, one that occupied enormous event halls and attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. Now it was only for the survivors, those who knew what it meant and who still managed to find themselves a home here. This thing had been watched over by the authorities for years; the fact it existed now might be considered a miracle by some. It was called Comiket, and it was being held in a stifling summer night.

    “Whoa, look at this! Space Fantasy Zone for the PC Engine! An arcade board for Navarone from Namco! A copy of Saori, that game they banned! Motoko-hime Adventure? I don’t know that one…”

    The girl was a little put off by the “event space” at first — the Tokyo government building’s dimly-lit underground parking lot, scattered with exposed pipes and ventilation ducts — but once she laid eyes on the merchandise, she was right back to her old self. Removing her grasp on my arm, she approached the ladies manning the tables, dressed in cosplay outfits that looked like the traditional dress of some long-lost Renaissance village. Most of the attendees were in their forties and fifties, and I could spot the occasional broker here and there. A girl who wasn’t out of her compulsory school years was more than a little out of place here.

    “Hey, is this the first release of Assault Armoroid Angelio Complete?” the girl meekly asked a woman in a maid outfit. “The one that erased your hard drive if you installed it?” The woman was at a loss for an answer. No one could blame her. That was an adult game. It said “18+” right on the box.

    “Huh. That’s quite a kid you got with you.”

    I brought my hand to the gun in my pocket, turning toward the voice’s direction. “Who’re you?”

    Greeting me was the middle-aged guy from Sofmap #666, a man I’ve met many times before. His store was in the building above this underground Comiket. I had heard he was acting as the de-facto go-to man for the show’s Video Game Day.

    “So, who is she?” he asked. “She looks pretty well at home here, huh?”

    I turned around to find the girl deep in conversation with the maid lady’s boss, talking about how badly delayed LOVERS was and how little effort was put into Colorful Box and other topics that not even I could make any sense of.

    “I couldn’t tell you, actually. She was just…there, one day.”

    “Oh. Well, anyway, I was looking for you because I’ve got some serious shit to discuss.”

    The owner must have thought I was trying to change the subject, but I was more interested in receiving work from the guy than correcting him.

    —————

    Sofmap #666 was cluttered as usual. I found myself surrounded by great, swaying stacks of small cardboard game boxes.

    “You know how I’m helping out with the Comiket down below, right?”
    “Uh-huh. That, and how you worked with the closet otaku in Urban Planning to keep it from attracting any attention.”
    “Yeah, well, the honeymoon’s just about over with that. I think they’re gonna do away with Comiket, and they’re gonna take down every damn store in this building along with it.”

    “Huh?” Helping out my more eccentric clients with their esoteric collections was the most time-consuming part of my job, but the majority of my money came from brokering game deals between ordinary people and store owners like this guy, taking my middleman’s cut for a couple of phone calls’ worth of work.

    “I’m getting rumblings about how the police and the Ministry of Education want to step things up. They got something called the Entertainment Distribution Management Bureau in the works. The way I hear it, they want to put all the regulators under one roof and watch over games, manga, anime, and movie distribution with a single department. I don’t know if they’re trying to nationalize us or what, but basically the government wants a hand in every type of media they can get.”
    “Nationalize…?”
    “They’re probably dreaming of the tax revenue they’d get. You saw what they did with tobacco. The entertainment industry’s finally starting to recover a little from the last round of regulation, too.”
    “Yeah, but…can they even do that?”
    “Why not? With games, at least, distribution’s always been regulated like a disease. Those companies are already used to playing by someone else’s rules.”

    From the late 1990s onward, the video-game marketplace — expanding like a nuclear blast up to that point — found itself plunged into a deep recession in the blink of an eye. Japan itself was on the brink of a recession, an economic collapse, whatever you want to call it, so most analysts simply saw it as another symptom of a national problem.

    But that explanation was just a ruse. The game industry’s recession was an institutional malaise, one even less salvageable than Japan’s banking crisis. For one, the business used a disturbingly abnormal distribution system ever since the glory days of the Family Computer. In what other entertainment industry would you ever find the creator of the platform holding complete control over manufacture and distribution of media? This devious scheme continued on even after Nintendo gave way to Sony as the industry leader. With the hardware makers allowed to retain full control over distribution, they arguably took the entire idea of “competition” out of the equation. It was an atmosphere of festering collusion up there with what you saw in the construction industry, and it meant that software publishers only produced titles that the hardware makers would approve of. A small handful of large businesses held a monopoly over game distribution; there was no level playing field to compete on. And yet new platforms kept coming out, pushing development costs higher and higher. The competition-free industry began to wither, and even the big publishers lost the ability to make big moves, only releasing the lowest-risk titles possible. The industry lost its spark, and gamers began to get bored.

    Maybe this distribution scheme worked back when games were fresh and the industry was still expanding. Maybe it avoided another video game crash like the one Atari engineered, the way that Nintendo always claimed it did. But with game culture a part of society and the marketplace stabilized, a survival-of-the-fittest glut of titles was exactly what the industry  needed. However, the distributors’ firm grasp on power refused to allow that.

    Thus, with such an extreme imbalance of power, it’d be all too simple for the government to flash the whip of regulation, the sweet candy of protection, the sword of financial backing, to take over. That was why, out of all the entertainment media out there, the game industry was the easiest one to regulate and legislate against. It was used to being ruled over and abused.

    PC games worked the same way. You were free to release whatever media you wanted, but SoftBank retained final control over distribution for the entire country. Between the late 1980s and the end of the ’90s, Japan’s PC game marketplace crumbled to nothing. The reason was simple: SoftBank was the sole distributor, and the only games SoftBank picked up for distribution were sequels to previous bestsellers. The games they ordered — and the games made for their tastes — grew more and more soulless, and again, the spark was lost. Thus, pornography was the only game genre that survived. PC games may have been fighting a losing battle against consoles in the long run, but it was the imbalance of power among distributors that killed them with barely a whimper.

    The powerful allure of adult games allowed publishers to expand the market into a variety of subgenres, but in the end, not even they could escape the rule of EOCS, the organization that placed itself above the distributors. The interesting thing about this industry was that developers were able to keep their production costs low, finding an escape route from distribution tyranny by offering their games as net downloads. The content of these games being what they were, many companies made a far-from-trivial amount of their profits by selling their wares directly to the consumer, ignoring the distributors entirely.

    Whether you’re talking about books or movies or whatever, you never see distributors have much control over the content of what they deal in. Look across the game industry, though, and the rule of the distributors extends all the way down to designers’ project documents.

    “So the easiest way to put it,” the owner said, “is that the government’s gonna do it all themselves now. The publishers and doujinshi makers are lobbying heavily against it — you know, the idea’s unheard of to ’em, it’s outrageous — but I get the idea the game industry’s already caved in. Figures, huh? Even the porno game industry didn’t fight for freedom of speech once they started feeling the heat. They went off and created the EOCS to curry favor with the authorities. And, hell, the console makers put more regulations on what you can do in games than even the government would. It’s nothing new to any of ’em.”

    From Yojohan to the Chatterley case, the publishing industry had both a tradition of fighting for freedom of speech in the courtroom. That was their strategy from the start. They saw it as a point of pride, a way to protect their business, and it was ingrained in the culture of the business. It could be said that the history of publishing is, in itself, a history of struggle between government regulation and freedom of expression.

    But the game industry never had this history, this way of thinking. Whenever a game like 177 or Saori stirred up moral panic, the industry obediently followed the government’s orders — creating the EOCS, an organization where all the posts were allegedly reserved for retired police officials. Nintendo and Sony’s guidelines were even stricter — in many ways, more so than what creators had to deal with in communist societies. When the Child Pornography Act gathered steam in the late 1990s, the EOCS and adult-game publishers — the main target of the act — hardly even dared to twitch.

    “The game industry is a master-and-slave system,” the owner said. “It’s endemic. The console makers kowtow to the government with regulations stricter than what the government would’ve forced on ’em. The game makers kowtow to them because the distribution system gives them no other choice. And the buyers aren’t helpin’, either. Nobody ever got sued for releasing bad or buggy games. They just want the special-edition bonuses. One thing’s for sure — you ain’t gonna find a industry that’s more manipulable than this.”
    “Yeah.”
    “Game culture has more of an effect on young people than any other form of media, and the game industry…I mean, us, we don’t take any pride in it.”

    I didn’t have any idea what kind of past this man experienced. But I always held the impression that game creators never felt any pride, or responsibility, toward their own work. That game publishers never realized that they were purveying culture through their releases. That gamers never realized the power of words, that they were more than the final, silent receiving point for the industry. From top to bottom, nobody wanted to take responsibility, and the more you dove into game history, the more you realized exactly how deep that went in this business. The creators of Shenmue and the Final Fantasy movie never really took responsibility for the millions they lost for their company, and from this vantage point decades later, the reason behind that was a near-total mystery.

    “So. What do you want me to do about it?”
    “Well, we aren’t stupid, either. We love game culture, and we want to instill some pride into that culture. Lots of people feel that way — and not just the freaks you were looking at down in the parking garage, either. I can’t leave my store, so do you mind playing middleman for a bit? I need you to meet this guy for me.”

    The man handed me a single photograph. It was an interesting one.

    Footnotes

    Space Fantasy Zone: A Super CD-ROM game made by NEC Avenue for the PC Engine, originally announced in 1993. Produced by Toshio Tabeta, the game (basically Space Harrier with Fantasy Zone characters) bounced around release lists for four years before being formally canceled in 1997. An all-but-complete beta version exists and can be found on the Internet fairly easily.

    Motoko-hime Adventure: An adventure game released by Tatsumi Shuppan for the PC-8801 in 1987. It stars real-life Japanese SF author Motoko Arai as she’s sucked through her word processor into the world her characters live in.

    Assault Armoroid Angelio Complete: A PC overhead shooter originally released on the cover disc of adult-game magazine Tech Gian. The first version of the 2002 boxed release erased your hard drive if you tried changing the install directory from the default.

    LOVERS: A doujin adult adventure game produced by Jellyfish, originally announced for the fall of 2001 but ultimately delayed until October 10, 2003.

    Colorful Box: An adult adventure released by SoundTail for Windows in late 2003 and ported to the PS2 by KID the following spring.

    “Institutional malaise”: Ohsawa spends the brunt of this chapter discussing the multitude of issues that (in his eyes) have sunk the Japanese game industry:

    • A national retail distribution system controlled a small cabal of companies that have the right to refuse what they aren’t interested in. (Parallels can be made to Diamond’s monopoly-like role in the US comic marketplace.)
    • Console manufacturers controlling the game manufacturing process.
    • Excessively restrictive guidelines placed by console manufacturers on their third parties, stifling innovation.
    • Government pressure caused by moral backlashes against sexually-provocative games.
    • The game industry’s tendency to fold against all such government pressure instead of more proactively fighting against it.

    Yojōhan: In July 1972, general-interest monthly magazine Omoshiro Hanbun published Yojōhan: Fusuma no Shitabari, a pornographic tale that led to one of Japan’s most famous obscenity cases. Japan’s supreme court ruled against the magazine, and the case became an important precedent for defining “obscenity” in the nation.

    Chatterley case: Like in many other countries, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in Japan when a translation was prepared in 1952, leading to one of the first precedent-defining obscenity lawsuits in the nation. An edited version was released in Japan following the end of the suit; a fully-uncensored Japanese translation didn’t come out until 1996.

     

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