Friday, July 03, 2009

It’s a Secret to Everybody, Part Four: Name Origins for Street Fighter and Other Capcom Titles

(This is a reposting of just one section of my rather lengthy “It’s a Secret to Everybody” post on video game etymologies. Click the link to see the whole shebang. Links to other sections are at the bottom of this post.)

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By virtue of boasting an international cast of characters, the Street Fighter games incorporate more languages than most other games do.

street_fighter_ii_ryu
ryu: he fights on the street but doesn’t wear shoes

Now in its fifth official incarnation but with countless remakes and retreads filling the gaps between full-fledged sequels, the games focus on Ryu and Ken — respectively Japanese and American twists on the karate fighter character type. Appropriate though their names might be in the countries they hail from, there’s an added layer of meaning: Ryu’s name translates from Japanese into English as “dragon,” while Ken’s means “fist.” Both Ryu and Ken appear in the Japanese name for a certain move that these two characters share: a jumping uppercut officially known as the Shoryuken, or “Rising Dragon Punch.” (Ryu’s name, as commenter parsleyboots pointed out, can also mean “noble.”)

Incidentally, the Street Fighter Alpha installments introduced a less honorable version of Ryu. He’s known in the U.S. simply as Evil Ryu. In Japan, however, he’s Satsui no Hadō ni Mezameta Ryū, which translates into English as the far more awesome appellation “The Surge of Murderous Intent Awakened in Ryu.” Harder to fit on screen, yes, but I say the literal translation should have stuck. Later on in the series, other characters received evil versions of themselves, many with amazingly long, evocative names. The Street Fighter EX character Hokuto was given the alternate form Chi no Fūin o Tokareta Hokuto (“Broken Seal of Blood Hokuto”), for example. Series villain Akuma has a more powerful, more evil version known as Shin Akuma (“True Akuma”).

street_fighter_ii_ken
ken: number two, twice over

While Ryu may be the most important character in the Street Fighter games — in the first, he was the default Player One character — Ken gets the honor of having a last name: Masters. Of all people, Ken has Barbie to thank. When Hasbro made a line of Street Fighter action figures, Capcom had to supply the character a surname in order to distinguish him from the other Mattel-produced doll of the same name, Barbie’s male counterpart, Ken. I can only imagine Capcom chose the name in order to emphasize his status as a world-class martial artist. The name was eventually absorbed into the Street Fighter canon. It has also been claimed that Ken, with his shoulder-length banana-blond hair and muscular build, bears a passing resemblance to another Mattel character, He-Man, in which case Ken’s last name would also recall the cartoon that popularized the character, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

Perhaps significantly or perhaps not, the protagonist of Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden series is named Ryu Hayabusa. In the American version of the game, this character’s father is named Ken Hayabusa, even though he’s Joe Hayabusa in the Japanese version. Since Ninja Gaiden debuted a year after the first Street Fighter, it seems possible the father’s name was changed to create another Ryu-Ken pair, but it could just as easily be a coincidence.

street_fighter_II_chun-li
street fighter ii to street fighter iv: years and years of chinese thunder thighs

Chun-Li, who debuted in Street Fighter II, has a name that translates from Mandarin into English as “spring beauty.” While not technically the first female combatant in a fighting game — that honor, notes commenter Stercus, goes to Edwina from the obscure Tongue of the Fat Man — she’s definitely the first notable one. Many a subsequent lady fighter was designed in Chun-Li’s image, as a quick-moving, light-hitting, acrobatic fighter. As such, I’d like to think that the “spring” doubles as nod to her ability to fly through the air, but I doubt it’s anything but a coincidence, notwithstanding the fact that one of her signature moves, the Spinning Bird Kick, evokes imagery along the lines of both interpretations of the word spring.

street_fighter_II_zangief
the red cyclone: still apoplectically russian after all these years

It’s speculated that Street Fighter’s Russian wrestler Zangief takes his name from a real-life Russian wrestler, Victor Zangiev. More interesting to me is that the working name for this character was Vodka Gobalsky. This is notable for two reasons — for one, that this name is amazing and deserves to enter into the public consciousness, and, for another, that it bears a striking resemblance to the name of a Russian boxer in Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! series, Vodka Drunkenski. I’m sure this says something about Japanese perception of Russian people. The latter Vodka, by the way, goes by the name Soda Popinski in U.S. translations of the game, presumably because Nintendo of America didn’t allow references to booze.

street_fighter_II_dhalsim
stretch: then and now

Dhalsim is the fire-breathing, limb-stretching Indian yogi who’s willing to forgo his pacifistic ways to kick ass around the world. Most profiles of the character note that he hails from the southwestern Indian state of Kerala and that his name comes from Malayalam, a language spoken in that particular state. So I guess I’m a little impressed that his back story matches his name, considering that Malayalam is one of India’s twenty-two official languages and less subtle things have gotten confused in translating from one language to another. Though I wish I could tell you what Dhalsim means, it’s literally the one word of Malayalam that I know, and functional, online Malayalam-to-English dictionaries are hard to find. So I’ll give you this, at least: If you ever want to see where Capcom more than likely got the idea for this long-lived yet remarkably odd character, watch the 1975 Taiwanese martial arts flick Master of the Flying Guillotine, which features a suspiciously similar limb-stretching Indian fighter competing in an international tournament.

guile_e_honda_blanka_streetfighterI
stereotypical america, stereotypical japan, and a slap in the face to brazil

And that’s all I could put together from the initial eight playable Street Fighter characters. I’ve got nothing on Guile, the other American fighter, other than his name sounds quite a bit like the more common Anglo given name Kyle. Unlike Ken, who received a last name through connections with American products, the notion of the character’s full name being William F. Guile — as it is in the awful 1994 movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme — wasn’t accepted into the game’s canon.

After the original post went up, a commenter pointed out that I neglected to note that Guile’s name is also a generic noun in English, meaning either “deceitful cunning” or “stratagem, trick.” I suppose I skipped over this because I couldn’t think of a way to relate this fairly negative concept to the character. The commenter, however, pointed out that the name’s connotations could be a comment on Japanese perception of the U.S. armed forces. Another commenter even pointed out that the name makes sense in the context of how many players use Guile: trapping opponents between projectiles and air kicks, essentially strategizing his opponents senseless. The same commenter also noted the similarity between Guile’s name and of that J. Guile, a character in the manga JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. (Like many members of the JoJo cast, J. Guile takes his name from a pop music act, in this case the J. Geils Band.) Such a connection wouldn’t be unheard of; many members of the the JoJo cast look suspiciously like Capcom characters — the mystic Lisa Lisa in particular looks like Street Fighter Alpha’s Rose — and Capcom released a video game based on the manga back in 1998.

Equally perplexing is the other Japanese fighter, the sumo E. Honda. I have no idea why the “E” stands for the decidedly non-Japanese Edmond, though the helpful Guile commenter also offered a theory, if a nonserious one. He writes:
E. Honda is the least clear of the three — but if someone asked me to find a meaning within the name I would tell you that Edmond translates to Edomando in Japanese. Two hyphens and some heavy squinting later and we have Edo-Man-Do a cheap play on words describing a sumo wrestler — literally ,“The Way of the Man from Tokyo.”
Even its creator, however, admits that the theory is a stretch.

Most inexplicable of all is Blanka, the feral thing from Brazil, whose name is very close to the feminine Spanish Blanca, which means “white,” even though the character is male and green-skinned. Various sites claim that the character’s name comes from either the Spanish hombre blanco or the Portuguese homem branco, both meaning “white man,” as a result of being called this by people he met in the Brazilian jungle. This strikes me as unlikely for a few reasons, the least of which is that Blanka would not have been especially more white than most people living in Brazil. Right?

So that does it for the eight main characters. But there exists a slew of others, each of whose names hide their own verbal curiosities. My recommendation: If you know the series or thrive on verbal minutiae, read on. If not, skip down to the next chunk.

Even casual players know that three of the “Four Devas” — the original Street Fighter II bosses, M. Bison, Balrog, Sagat and Vega — swapped names when the game was translated from Japanese to English. Theories abound as to why, and, as I explained in a separate post devoted to the subject, the American set of names actually make more sense. Click through to read all that.

Similarly, I also have a post that focuses specifically on Gouken (a.k.a. “Not the Sheng Long”), the Street Fighter uber-sensei. It’s here and includes a bit on the character’s name and his long and complicated history with the mysterious W.A. Stokins.

The name of the aforementioned series villain Akuma translates from Japanese to English simply as “devil.”

dee_jay_MAXIMUM
dee jay: maximum jamaican, no matter which way he faces

Aside from having a fairly obvious name for a fighter associated with music, Dee Jay — the Jamaican fighter and the only American-designed character in the whole Street Fighter series — merits a mention on account of his band name, Maximum, which appears in all capital letters down whichever pant leg is facing the screen. Since Street Fighter II has characters punching or kicking with whatever arm or leg is nearest to the screen — essentially making them right- or left-dominant, depending on which direction they are facing — Capcom had to pick a word that looked the same when flipped, mirror-style. “MAXIMUM” happens to be one of the rare English words whose letters are vertically symmetrical, thus allowing the word to be readable to matter which way Dee Jay faces.

I’m not sure if I agree with the connection, but at least one site claims that Cammy — the beret-sporting, thigh-tacular Number Two Girl — is named and modeled to some extent after the protagonist of the manga known as Battle Angel Alita in the U.S. In Japan, it’s called Gunnm and the alleged Cammy inspiration is named Gally. I suppose the Japanese name is not too far off from Cammy’s.

It’s also worth mentioning that Street Fighter Alpha gives Cammy a whole back story involving her unwilling participation in a league of brainwashed, teenaged, female soldiers called The Dolls, who rank easily among the most obscure canon characters in the entire series. (And, now that I think of it, they remind me just a little of characters on the TV show Dollhouse.) The Street Fighter Alpha games also feature two other Dolls as playable characters, the almost identical Juni and Juli, who, according to a comprehensive Street Fighter plot canon guide, take their names from the months June and July. That origin, however, might not be immediately apparent.

cammy_juni_juli_dolls_street_fighte
the original, plus the june and july models

The month theme becomes a lot clearer when Juni and Juli are considered in light of the ten other dolls, who, if they appear at all in the actual games, play only minor roles.
  • Enero (Spanish for January)
  • Février (French for February)
  • März (German for March)
  • Aprile (Italian for April)
  • Satsuki (the Japanese name for the fifth month)
  • Santamu, or possibly Tháng tám (Vietnamese for the eighth month)
  • Xiayu (allegedly some form of Chinese for the ninth month)
  • Jianyu (again, some form of Chinese for the tenth month)
  • Noembelu (purportedly from an unspecified Latin American country, representing November)
  • Decapre (the Russian doll, representing December — more correctly rendered as Dekabre, says my Russian-savvy friend.)
Given that there are twelve “month” dolls, Cammy doesn’t fit into this calendar pattern and is known as the “zero” doll, which is possibly significant in that the Street Fighter Alpha games are known as Street Fighter Zero in Japan. In further evidence of the Cammy/Gally connection, Battle Angel Alita features a series of clones of Gally that take their names from the German words for the numbers one through twelve. Commenter Migaloo points out that Cammy’s name could just be a reference to the camouflage paint she sports on her legs. It seems sensible enough to merit a mention.

The Native American fighter T. Hawk was allegedly going to be called Geronimo until Capcom thought better of it. Really, the name T. Hawk — short for Thunder Hawk — is only slightly less stereotypical. Incidentally, one of the dolls is purported to be T. Hawk’s long-lost sister. Depending on what you take as official, it’s either Juli or Noembelu. Juli’s possible status as T. Hawk’s sister is alluded to in the nutball crossover title Namco vs. Capcom, which has Juli partially regaining her memory and confusedly stating “I am... Juli... a... Hawk?” at one point in the game.

In creating the plot for Street Fighter II, Capcom dreamed up a fallen comrade-in-arms whose death Guile fights to avenge. In the Japanese version, this initially minor character was saddled with the name Nash — unusual enough in America that the game’s translators dropped it in favor of the name Charlie. (If you think about it, the decision to select Charlie is also strange, considering the connotations the name carries among American military men.) In the prequel Street Fighter Alpha games, however, Capcom made Nash a playable, forcing the a second set of translators to choose between preserving the switch or retconning it to keep various international versions on the same page. They chose the former, Charlie became popular, and the disparity lasts to this day, though the English versions eventually used Nash as Charlie’s surname.

Also in Street Fighter Alpha, Capcom introduced a new female character, a Japanese schoolgirl named Sakura, whose name means “cherry blossom” or “cherry tree.” The character eventually became popular enough that she received her own rival, the snobbier but equally fisticuffs-prone schoolgirl Karin. Given that Karin has these blonde locks that approach some awful hybrid of Shirley Temple ringlets and stripper curls, I’d always assumed her name was an alternate spelling of the common Western name Karen. It’s not; it’s actually the Japanese word for “quince,” which is appropriate given her relationship with Sakura. Both are named for flowering, fruit-bearing trees, but while cherries are sweet, quince fruit is sour and generally hard to love.

A less subtle name theme exists for two British fighters who appeared in the original Street Fighter: Birdie and Eagle, both of whom seem to take their names for golf terms. Both reappeared in Street Fighter Alpha, with the former becoming a hulking punk and the latter a fey, Freddie Mercury-quoting fop. Funny how that happens.

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biblical brothers, minus one: abel and seth

A confession: I have yet to play Street Fighter IV. Consequently, I can’t speak on any connection between newcomer Abel and the game’s big bad, the Doc Manhattan-looking Seth, who, as a commenter pointed out, was named in honor of real-life Capcom employee Seth Killian. Real-life Seths aside, I’d be willing to bet it’s no coincidence that Abel and Seth share their names with children of the Biblical Adam and Eve. And I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if subsequent ports and incarnations of Street Fighter IV feature a third character named Cain.

(After the original post went up, a commenter calling himself Toninho 3rd noted that the missing Cain could be Cammy. Abel, Seth and Cammy are apparently all clones of M. Bison, if I understand correctly. Cain and Cammy aren’t especially similar, but the possible connection is helped a little bit by Cain’s status as the Bible’s first and perhaps most famous murderer and Cammy’s nickname, Killer Bee. It’s probably not the case, but it’s a nice little theory.)

I’ve never been able to make much of the cast of Street Fighter III, save for one: Sean, a Brazilian fighter whom the game introduces as Ken’s protégé. He fights and dresses much like Ryu and Ken. With that it mind, it is plausible, at least, that Sean’s name is meant to represent the first syllable in the name of the aforementioned Shoryuken, a key move for all three characters. Speaking with an American accent, however, you really have to fudge the pronunciation to make it work.

A number of Street Fighter Alpha characters originally hailed from that other long-running Capcom brawler, Final Fight. In early English translations of the game, one character decked out in Japanese armor bore the name Katana, except for one installment in which he was called Shogun. In Japan and in most versions of Street Fighter Alpha, however, he has always appeared under his original, Japanese name, Sodom. Given associations with the Biblical city of the same name and the related sexual act, it’s not altogether strange that American video game companies would censor the name. However, such associations seem to be coincidental, as there is actually a Japanese name Sodom, sometimes rendered as Sodomu. (The name doesn’t seem to be especially common, though it does appear in the title of the 2004 film Sodomu no Ichi, known in English as Sodom the Killer.)

sodom_katana_final_fight_street_fig
variously, katana, shogun or sodom

One of Sodom’s character quirks is that he is a Westerner who is obsessed with Japanese culture but unable to properly speak the language. He wears a traditional Japanese get-up, for example, but it bears the symbol for “death” scrawled sloppily enough that it looks more like the one for “heart.” The intentional goof seems especially appropriate given that his creators named Sodom in way that would be easily misinterpreted by English-speakers. In some appearances, Sodom’s inability to speak proper Japanese is represented with his use of English words that vaguely sound like what he’s trying to say. For example, his attempt to denounce an opponent as shoushi senban, “truly pathetic,” appears in text as “SHOW SEA SEND BANG.”

andore_andre_the_giant_hugo_final_f
andore, andré, and hugo

Being that Final Fight is a sort of sister series to Street Fighter, it follows that its characters would also owe their names to various pop culture references. One of its mainstays, for example, is a family of hulking wrestlers who each bear the name Andore. The name and the characters’ design are pretty clear references to famed wrestler André the Giant. Curiously, the one member of the Andore clan to make a playable appearance in Street Fighter III doesn’t bear the family name. He’s called Hugo.

A great many other Final Fight characters seem to take their names from musicians and bands. (An exception: the protagonist Cody, who could possibly have gotten his name from Tom Cody, protagonist of the 1984 film Streets of Fire, whose plot bears a few similarities to that of Final Fight. Worth a look, really: Diane Lane essentially plays Jessica Haggar.) For example, it’s suggested that the protagonist Guy could take his name from Guy Picciotto, frontman of the band Fugazi. Two of the game’s minor enemy characters, Axl and Slash, are obvious references the members of Guns N’ Roses. And to complicate Sodom’s origin even more, there’s also a German thrash metal band by the same name.

In the console version of Final Fight, the heroes take on skinny punks named Billy and Sid, whose names sure do sound like references to Billy Idol and Sid Vicious. What’s most interesting about Billy and Sid, however, is that they replace two other characters censored from the console port but present in the original arcade game: Poison and Roxy. The former seems to take her name as well as some fashion cues from the band of the same name. The latter, a palette swap of Poison’s sprite, could owe her name either to the band Roxy Music or the Roxy Theater music venue on the Sunset Strip. (Rather than footnote just about everything in this Final Fight section, I’ll just cop to cribbing nearly all of it from the website FightingStreet.com and its amazingly comprehensive list of video game rip-offs — that is, characters and ideas video game companies have themselves cribbed from movies, comics and some of the most random sources you could ever imagine.)

poison_transexual_newhalf_final_fig
poison transcends the passage of time like she does biological gender

Incidentally, most who read up on video game lore know a theory about why Poison and Roxy were nixed from the more family-friendly versions of Final Fight. Aside from the fact that they sport short skirts and some serious under-cleavage, they’re both transsexuals — or newhalfs, to use the Japanese term. Roxy has all but vanished, but Poison has actually grown in popularity since Final Fight’s release in 1989, either in spite of or as a result of her being a transsexual. And if it strikes you as strange that the only active female characters in a game full of ripped, physically aggressive men would be transsexuals, there’s a whole separate gay subtext to Final Fight beyond just Poison — but that’s a whole other post.

A “no duh” about Captain Commando: In 1991, Street Fighter creators Capcom released the arcade beat-’em-up Captain Commando, which starred a hero of the same name. Only recently did I realized that the character’s name is based on that of the company itself: Captain Commando.

In 1996, Capcom put out another brawler, variously titled Red Earth or Warzard in different geographical regions. It never got a sequel, though a handful of its characters appeared in later games. One of these is a sexy witch named Tessa in the U.S. and Tabasa in Japan. I’d always assumed Tabasa was a slightly mangled take on the more common name Tabitha, maybe as a result of having watched Bewitched as a kid, but I recently found another witch character with a similar name. Mario’s second Game Boy outing, Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins features an otherwise forgettable boss character named Sabasa. She’s such a non-entity, in fact, that her name doesn’t even appear in English version the game, which makes me think Sabasa might only be her Japanese name. Regardless, Sabasa seems pretty damn close to Tabasa.

tabasa_tessa_sabasa_warzard_witch
sexy witch on left, more standard witch on right

I couldn’t find any connection between the two or an explanation as to why two witches might have such similar names, however, though I did have to laugh at the fact that Sabasa’s German name is apparently Heiße Hexe, which translates into English as “hot witch” and which also would an accurate description for sexed-up Tabasa.

Street Fighter and thereabouts, previously:
The whole “It’s a Secret to Everybody” series:

2 comments:

  1. Captain Commando was Capcoms mascot for a while but he's been replaced by Megaman it seems!

    I have a comic book from the early 90's with ads for Capcom games in it and Captain Commando is in every ad! and on the back there is a special ad where, if you buy his game you get a watch or something?

    I wish I could have gotten that watch..!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous4:11 AM

    "ryu: he fights on the street but doesn’t wear shoes"

    was that a canny reference to the original street fighter where ryu does in fact where shoes?

    ReplyDelete