Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Samurai in Chief

In late 2007, I wrote on this blog about Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown and all those other Neo-Geo quarter-crunchers of my youth that bombarded me with worldwide pop culture as reinterpreted by Japanese people. They were an education, those games, and I find again and again that I’m still learning from them today.

In this post in particular, I wrote about Samurai Shodown VI — released in 2005, long after I had reason to look for whatever arcades might exist anymore, anymore, maybe — and I focused on a certain character representing the American segment of that population of late-18th-century sword-swingers who crisscrossed the globe to either vanquish evil or promote it. (Such people truly did exist, if I’m to take seriously what video games tell me about world history. And I do.) The character’s name is Andrew, and nearly everything about him suggests that his creators based his design on that of Andrew Jackson, the United States’ seventh president.

andrew, patriotic american samurai-fighter (image found here)

and old hickory himself, andrew jackson (image found here)

This is all information I explained in the old post linked above. However, in that post I also discussed with unabashed geekcitement that SNK, the company behind the Samurai Shodown series, had vowed to port all the arcade titles onto a single disc, Samurai Shodown Anthology, for release on the Xbox 360, the Playstation 3, and the Wii. A year and a half later, the company made good on this promise. Since Samurai Shodown Anthology arrived in the mail last week, I’ve had a few occasions to play the game, to relive glorious days of prepubescent joystick-waggling and to explore entries in the series that I never before had a chance to play.

I’ve also had the opportunity to play as our former president, and his portrayal merits a little discussion.

First off, the series title is no misnomer: It does feature a lot of samurais. But not all the characters are samurais. Even the first game, in fact, features two American fighters: Galford, a blue-eyed, blond-haired ninja who hails from San Francisco and Earthquake, an obese giant from Texas whose attacks include noxious flatulence. The game takes place in 1788, before either San Francisco or Texas existed in the way the game depicts, but hey — at least they got the Texas body type right and behavior right. All that being said, it’s not especially remarkable that the series would eventually add another American into the mix. However, I didn’t expect that they’d use him for politically commentary.

For starters, they pretty openly associate Andrew with Andrew Jackson, and, by extension, the presidency and the United States as a whole. The stage on which Andrew fights, for example, is the White House, albeit a version of it with less urban surroundings than I’m used to seeing.

andrew dukes it out with mizuki (image found here)

no idea what’s happening here. eagle is dropping something on dog, for some reason. (image found here)

And the background music for the stage is none other than “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Andrew’s move set is pretty damn American too, which befits a guy whose dressed in a manner that suggests the Revolutionary War. (Of course, he’s wearing a red soldier’s uniform…) While most everyone else in the game fights with a sword or a knife, Andrew carries a rifle. He can slash at opponents with the bayonet, but, if the player so chooses, he can also just plug them with bullets. His projectiles sometimes take the form of screaming fire eagles. And, perhaps best of all, his super-de-dooper special move is called the Statue of Liberty. (Yet to perform it, will report on results when I do.)

One habit shared by all Samurai Shodown fighters can claim is that they never shut up. They yell and grunt in battle — often in Japanese, even when they hail from somewhere else — and then before and after each match, they spout quips — often in English, even when they hail from Japan. The quips can sometimes be tailored to specific opponents. For example, when Andrew fights Galford — who, again, is American — Galford politely addresses Andrew as “Mr. President.” Fact check: Jackson didn’t take office until 1829, of course, but then again he never kicked the shit out of a ninja, either, so it’s clear that the game’s creators aren’t letting a thing like historical accuracy get in the way of what they’re trying to do. And they’ve very clearly put a representative of the American presidency in the game.

With that in mind, consider another exchange between Galford and “Mr. President.” When Galford asks him why he fights, Andrew offers this: “I say I fight for freedom, but it’s really for world domination.” No beating around the bush there, so to speak. This dig at current American international policy actually took me by surprise, though I suppose it probably shouldn’t have. So far, I’ve found one other line like the preceding one: “You’re the biggest threat to world freedom!” It’s spoken by Andrew to one of the series villains. I suppose it can be read any number of ways, but the reoccurrence of the word freedom does not seem coincidental.

If Andrew reaches the final stage of the tournament, he fights the Japanese swordsman Yoshitora Tokugawa, himself being a riff on Ienari Tokugawa, real-life shogun who ruled from 1787 to 1837 and is therefore another embodiment of a certain nation’s politics. Unlike games in which all fighters must take on the same ultimate big bad, characters in this game each tangle with a final boss suited to their storyline, meaning that the a figurative United States-versus-Japan fight was more than likely intentional. If Andrew wins, he asks Yoshitaka to join his coalition of elite nations. Yoshitaka refuses, but representatives from France, Germany, and an un-named South American nation join, uniting the globe under a single American-style rule.

I know, not subtle at all.

I have no way of knowing how much of this criticism of the U.S. appears in the original Japanese version. For all I know, whoever translated the game into English took some liberties — or inserted them, anyway — to put in political commentary where none existed before.

Even if that were the case, it still would be hard to characterize Andrew’s ending as anything other than a grim triumph in which the U.S. conquers the world. Regardless of who did it and why and whether any of it should be read as tongue-in-cheek, I think it’s appropriate that the first game I can recall allowing me to play as an American president would also be the first inject a contemporary war into a samurai swordfight, however unsubtly.

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