Diss Bits: Punch Line and Trans Representation

I said recently that I wanted to start using these posts as a way to work out some thoughts as part of my dissertation work, and I just finished reading a chapter that contributes something to my previous thoughts on the game Punch Line. In those thoughts, I stopped short of calling the game a queer game or the protagonist a transgender character. After thinking about it more and discussing it with a friend, I began to think it probably was at least in part an allegory for the trans experience, intentional or not. As a refresher, from that post: “Yuuta is a man’s spirit in a woman’s body, presenting as a man (and voiced by a woman). It’s a little convoluted. He was a man, and because of an event in the game, he ended up swapping spirits with a woman, who swapped spirits with another man. In the end, a plan does emerge to return Yuuta to his original body. So, technically speaking, Yuuta is not a trans character, but I think it’s interesting and important that the main character of this game is, in an abstract (or symbolic) way at least, trans.”

If Yuuta was intended to be a character that represented the trans experience, I later thought, does that suggest that the Japanese see transgender people as the soul of one gender in the body of the opposing gender/sex? So Yuuta would be a trans man. The spirit of a man “trapped” in a woman’s body. Let’s ignore the performative part of his gender because it only complicates things and is more superficial than his lived gender.

I thought I remember coming across this idea of a gendered spirit trapped in an opposite gendered body in another game, in which they explicitly state that, but I can’t seem to find it. I thought it might have been Catherine: Full Body, and it might just have been, but I skimmed through the hundreds of screenshots I took of that game and I couldn’t find any line of dialogue that stated that. Regardless, I just ran across it in Mark McLelland’s chapter in the book I’m reading, Popular Culture, Globalization and Japan, titled: “Japan’s Original ‘Gay Boom’.” In it, he says “The category most commonly used to describe postwar danshô was ‘urning’ (ûruningu), a sexological term that had been devised by German sexologist and homosexual Karl Ulrichs (1825-95) to designate a ‘female soul in a male body’ and which had achieved widespread currency in prewar sexological writings” (161). McLelland is introducing this concept to describe the Japanese gei bôi, who are more akin to femme gay men rather than trans women, but I think the fact that the phrase and concept were so popular in queer communities so long ago in Japan is significant and might support my previous idea that many Japanese people see trans people differently than people in the West: as simply one ‘spirit’ in the body of another.

With that in mind, I would go back and revise my previous claim that I can’t call Punch Line a queer game, or Yuuta a trans character. I would argue now that they are, regardless if the developers meant them to be or not. I think there’s sufficient textual evidence to back that up, plus now I know that the concept of ‘spirits’ (probably not in the literal sense, though that’s worth investigating, too) is a popular way for Japanese people to understand gender, which makes me think that the game’s depiction of genders being swapped is not at all an accident.

Obviously I need to do more research specifically on this issue, but because my dissertation will probably only briefly touch on queer representation in Japanese games, I’ll have to wait on that. It’s something I’m very interested in, though. As I’ve said before, Japanese game developers have a complicated history with queer representation, and I think it bears a much closer examination than we give it in our mainstream discussions. Hopefully someday I can get around to doing some of that work. For now, the dissertation.

Save Point: Discussing My Dissertation

When I started this site, one of my intentions was to use it as a place to write notes and short blurbs about my dissertation as I researched and worked on it. I did post a thing or two about some book notes, but I haven’t really done much else. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, I think, is that I just didn’t feel very confident about my topic – for a while, at least. I am in a fairly traditional English department, so other than our one digital rhetoric professor, there isn’t much of a place for a dissertation that is essentially a video games studies project. The process of writing my prospectus was basically filled with anxiety and stress about convincing my committee that this project had the potential to be important and relevant. I was continually hearing dissenting voices in my head. “But why does this thing matter? What are you actually bringing to the field? Do you really know enough to write this?” But after I wrote my prospectus and began converting it into a presentation, I found my confidence again. Mostly. I won’t sit here and say there aren’t still doubts, but in the process of condensing my prospectus and thinking of how to verbally pitch it, I ended up convincing myself that it was as good as I had originally thought when I came up with the idea.

So, having said all that, I am going to start posting blogs about my work. The second of the previously mentioned reasons for not doing so earlier is that I was nervous about people taking my ideas. After much reflection, I have come to conclude: who gives a shit. I’m doing this work with the intent to share it anyway, and I don’t love academia’s habit of hoarding and gating off knowledge to boot. What scenario is that little anxiety-corner of my brain imagining? That someone will see my blogs and publish their own version of my dissertation? I mean, maybe, but that seems pretty unlikely, especially given that I have lots of material that I’m not posting. What is more likely, I think, is that someone might end up seeing this and thinking “hey, that’s kind of like my work,” and if I’m lucky, they’ll reach out and I’ll have a new contact/friend to chat about video games and research with.

Future posts will probably be a lot more specific. I don’t have an exact plan for what I’ll be sharing. Sometimes it will be fully formed thoughts, sometimes it will be aimless rambles, sometimes it will just be interesting tidbits (to me) that I may or may not even end up using for anything. With that, I suppose I should say a little about what my project actually is. The working title of my dissertation is Soft Power-Up: Japanese Games as Cultural and Rhetorical Exports. The “soft power” in the play on words in the first part of the title is kind of a key component of the project. Soft power is a term that essentially describes a nation’s capacity to influence other nations with culture, rather than traditional forms of global power, like military might and economics. There have been lots of studies on Japan’s use of soft power to fill the gap left by its loss in economic superpower status in the 1980s. Most of these studies focus on widely known things like sushi, karaoke, tea ceremonies, anime, manga, and more. Studies on the use of video games as a part of this national strategy seem surprisingly lacking. The most recent edition of The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture has chapters on music, education, food, anime, and much, much more, but there is not a single chapter on video games. This edition was published in 2009, which is far too recent for any excuses of “well video games weren’t big yet.” Video games are and have been huge exports for Japan since the 1980s, to the point of being the only cultural product that Japan exports more than it imports.

So it seems like a no-brainer to me to study this. I was recently pointed toward Rachael Hutchinson’s book Japanese Culture Through Video Games, published just last year (after I had stopped research for my prospectus), which seems to cover much of what I intend to look at in my work. I have yet to read it, because academic texts are vastly overpriced and I am a poor grad student, but I’ll hopefully find a cheap copy soon. I feel pretty confident that my approach will be different enough that I won’t be treading the same ground, but I can’t deny I was a little sad to see that someone had (at least partially) beat me to print. On the other hand, I was so excited and felt weirdly vindicated (to the doubting voices in my head, anyway) to see that a very close approximation of my idea was not only taken seriously by another scholar, but published by a major press as well.

One thing that differentiates my project from Hutchinson’s (I think) is our choice of case studies. Of all the games noted in her introduction and table of contents, I don’t see any mention of the Persona, Yakuza, or Resident Evil series, or Death Stranding, and these are the games that I’ll be looking closely at. She does have a whole chapter on absentee parents which I am interested to read, because that is one of the many aspects of Japanese culture I see reflected in a metric crap ton of Japanese games and was planning on talking about in my project. I chose the Persona and Yakuza series because they both take place in real Japan, often depicting real, specific locations that exist today. So they offer insight into how the developers chose to depict their culture in explicit terms. On the other hand, there are notable Japanese games that are set in America or other Western settings, like the Resident Evil games and Death Stranding. I want to use these games to show that, regardless of setting, there are a whole host of aspects of Japanese culture that end up showing through in these games (in implicit terms). When consideration of these two types of games are combined, I hope to show what Japanese games are “saying” about Japan to the Western world, how that message has changed over time, and why it all matters.

Okay, I should shut up. As usual, I am mostly writing these for myself, to work out and solidify ideas, and just start writing things out that might be useful later. However, I’m also sharing this for anyone that’s interested in Japanese games, is or will be writing a dissertation, or is in any of the many fields related to games studies. If you want to reach out, please do. I’d be happy to answer any questions or share/swap sources. Thanks for reading, and look forward to more posts like this. Or don’t, I guess. That’s cool, too. You do you.