Friday, January 23, 2009

The Lady in the Armor

You could say that Final Fantasy V doesn’t offer any unusual gender goings-on, I suppose, but the female samurai begs to differ.

Sexual politics aside, the title is exceptional anyway in that that it was the only Super NES-era entry in the series that never made it outside Japan during that system’s lifespan. When it final did reach the U.S. years later as a release for the PlayStation, the translation was a bit strange, at least in my opinion. I’ll point out some of the reasons I belief this as a go about discussing the subject at hand.

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Essentially, I feel that Final Fantasy V stands out from the rest of the main Final Fantasy games — that is, no spinoffs or sequels to specific titles —because only it offers a larger number of playable female characters than male characters. For the most part, these games follow an unwritten rule that three women — no more, no less, and often with one of them being a child — should be playable. Beginning in Final Fantasy III, the game that basically solidified the notion of what a Final Fantasy game was, three women joined the party: Sara, Aria and Unei. They participated in the game less actively than did their counterparts to later games, however. Final Fantasy IV offers Rosa, Rydia and Porom — all three principally being magic users and the latter two being children. (Rydia grows up midway through the game and turns into a bit of a sexpot. Feel weird about it.) Final Fantasy VI has Terra, Celes and Relm, the last of these three being the young one. In Final Fantasy VII, there’s Aerith, Tifa and Yuffie, with the last being teenaged but nonetheless childlike, especially in comparison to the previous two. In Final Fantasy VIII, there’s Rinoa, Quistis, and Selphie, with Selphie being “the kid” in the same way Yuffie is. (It also briefly features one additional playable character, Edea — probably the first controllable Final Fantasy character who happens to be “a woman of a certain age.”) In Final Fantasy IX, there’s Garnet, Freya and Eiko, the last once being a child in the literal sense. (There’s also a badass, eyepatch-rocking female paladin named Beatrix, but she’s only controllable for a brief part of the game.) I’m stopping here, because these games are the only ones I’ve actually played and therefore the only ones I can talk about with any kind of understanding. If I’m not mistaken, however, all the subsequent games follow the rule as well, save for Final Fantasy X-2, which is a direct sequel to Final Fantasy X and stars only female characters, and Final Fantasy XI, which lacks any default playable characters and is a whole other animal altogether.

Final Fantasy V doesn’t break this rule, really. It has Lenna, Faris and Krile, the last of whom stands about half as tall as her colleagues. However, it only features two male characters, Bartz and Galuf. A tiny cast though the game might have, the female characters still comprise the majority.

Of course, it doesn’t appear that this would be the case at the game’s outset. Very quickly into the game, the four available slots for party members get occupied by Bartz, Lenna, Galuf and Faris, the last of whom is the fourth to join and also the one who does it under unusual circumstances. Though Faris is actually the long-lost sister of Princess Lenna, and, consequently, a princess herself, she dresses and acts like a man as a result of the fact that she captains a pirate ship and her crew may not be as forward-thinking as the people who made Final Fantasy V. Faris never really changes her manly ways, though at one point she wears a dress for her official recognition as Princess Salsa.

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Yes, that’s right. “Princess Salsa.”

The name probably should have been Sarisa instead, but as I mentioned previously, the translators made some decisions that I might have not. On the whole, the cast of Final Fantasy V is probably the one that least lends itself to Googling, mostly because most characters are known by more than one name, depending on which translation one is referring to. In the original Japanese text and the fan-made translation, Bartz is Butz, but the game’s official translators apparently found that name too hilarious. Lenna’s name is sometimes translated as Reina, since its representation in Japanese characters can be Anglicized into either. And poor Krile completely got the shaft. Some translations offer her name as Kururu or Cara, but the official translators opted for Krile instead. In my mind, even Carol would have worked.

The way in which Krile joins up merits mentioning too. Galuf’s granddaughter and yet another princess, Krile appears partway into the game, but only joins late in the story, after Galuf kicks the bucket, leaving a lot open in the four-member party. Though she’s just a child, Krile magically inherits Galuf’s physical attributes and any abilities he may have learned in the game. In short, she gets to swing an axe as fiercely as a man. And it’s not every day that a little girl gets to do that.

Krile’s sudden strength is not unique in Final Fantasy V however. In fact, the game is the very model of egalitarianism. Whereas most other games in the series introduce characters with preprogrammed abilities, the leads in Final Fantasy start each as blank slates. The player develops each character’s ability as he or she chooses, possibly eliminating any bias that associates certain one gender with certain abilities. In the big list of female Final Fantasy characters above, all but Tifa, Yuffie, Selphie and Freya excel at magic rather than hand-to-hand combat. (Terra and Celes straddle the line in that their the only characters who can use magic from the moment they join the player’s party, yet they both are strong brawlers.) This needn’t be the case in Final Fantasy V, however, as players can assign jobs as they choose. Bartz can be the wizard, Galuf can be the healer, Lenna can be the knight, and Faris can be the bare-fisted martial artist.

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In fact, the game seems to be set up to toy with gender. Even if a player chose to abide by gender stereotypes and make Bartz and Galuf the weapon-swingers and Lenna and Faris the magicians, Krile would end up being a huge exception to this when she inherits Galuf’s skills.

So that’s that. All in all, a good name that continues to stand out for many reasons, its take on gender among them. Thankfully, I can report that Final Fantasy’s rather progressive take on gender is no longer unique, among latter-day entries in the series or games in general. It’s opened up quite a bit. Final Fantasy V’s job system — blank, customizable characters — takes a note from a similar set-up in Final Fantasy III, whose party originally consisted of four generic male characters. In a remake of Final Fantasy III for the Nintendo DS, these little nobodies were replaced with characters with names, faces, personalities and genders. Through three were male, one, Refia, was female, and I took much joy in dressing her up like a viking.

More recently, Final Fantasy IV received a direct sequel that continues the story told in that game. Among the nine new controllable characters in this game, titled Final Fantasy IV: The After, five are female. Newcomer Leonora might get stuck in the typical magic-user role, but that gets balanced out by Ursula (a monk), Hal (a book-wielding scholar and gambler), Izayoi (a female ninja, the proper term for which is apparently kunoichi). Princess Luca from the original game, who returns all grown up and in the likely role of a robot-savvy engineer. Even better, the curiously-named Minus gets to be another relative rarity: a female villain.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous12:55 PM

    Agreed on all points, but you failed to mention the most sexually charged scene in the game. When Bartz, Galuf and Lenna finally find out that Faris is a woman, they do so immediately after a scene in which the two men peep on Faris while she sleeps. There is no indication that Faris is female at this point, but then the two men both get this little hearts above their heads. Way homoerotic and otherwise unexplained.

    Nice pics, by the way, my favorite is "cavegirl" Cara, with the big cat ears.

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  2. Ah yes. Don't know how I could have left that out.

    And as long as I'm letting my geek flag fly, I'll also note that the beserker class -- the one that typically makes characters look like cavemen -- for Cara/Krile is a sheep or something. The kitty ears belong to her white mage class.

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