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.