Embarrassed as I am to admit it, video games did play a part in my decision to learn Japanese. I’ll bear the shame of this terrible truth for the rest of my life, and I really wouldn’t recommend anyone learn Japanese just for gaming. It’s a happy accident that I ended up liking Japan’s people and literature, so all that time I spent memorizing kanji wasn’t necessarily a complete waste of time. Sometimes, when I read books without English translations by authors like Nakagami Kenji or Kawakami Hiromi, I feel like I am, in a way, doing penance for the part of younger self who thought that the writing in Japanese videogames might be worthwhile.
[[image:cg_spoony.jpg:Dialogue so bad that I assumed it was probably good.:center:0]]
In my defense, I don’t think this was entirely my fault. The internet told me that the writing in all my favorite SNES RPGs was actually very good in Japanese, and I was gullible enough to believe it. In middle school, I thought that rigid American censorship and shoddy localization were getting between me and what very well could have been the best stories ever created. Sure, Final Fantasy 2 on the SNES might have seemed like a nonsensical children’s fantasy story with poorly developed characters in English, but this was only because its true greatness was hidden behind the veil of poor translation — so I thought.
As it turned out, I didn’t have the time or money to play games for most of the time I spent actually studying Japanese. During my last year of college I was studying abroad in Japan, and I decided to ease myself back into the hobby with Mother 3 and Final Fantasy IV for the GBA. Mother 3 turned out to be one of the best-written games I’ve ever played, but playing Final Fantasy IV in Japanese served mostly to crush all my childhood dreams. I’d been wondering what those characters were really saying since I was in third grade, and finding out that it was just as mundane as what they had to say in English was a bit of disappointment — albeit an expected one at that point in my life. Sure, the Japanese dialogue made marginally more sense than the English translation, but it would be a stretch to say that the quality of dialogue was even on the level of typical shonen manga.
Much of my enjoyment of the stories of 16-bit RPGs was based on the assumption that the actual story was surely much better than the junk I was reading. These characters might seem flat and the dialogue stilted, but that’s just because of the translation, I assumed. As it turns out, the differences are pretty marginal. Not only is the dialogue in a typical SNES JRPG not the masterpiece the internet promised it would be, it’s usually substantially worse than the writing in, say, Naruto. In retrospect, I think that, If anything, my assumptions about the quality of localizations protected me from having to face just how badly written these games most are, as I would assume any flaws were just localization problems.
Now, though, the opposite is true. I like to play all my JRPGs in Japanese not to get the experience closest to what the creators intended but to shield myself from that very same bad writing. I just can’t tolerate dialogue like that in my native language anymore, despite enormous advances in localization. And there have definitely been major improvements. From what I’ve seen of the English versions of games like Final Fantasy XII, the localized dialogue is not just equal to but significantly better than the original text. Nonetheless, no matter how well written the English is, I still find RPG plots to be mostly embarrassing, even when I enjoy them. Since my involuntary cringe reflex is much less severe when reading in my second language, I’m going to stick with playing JRPGs in Japanese for the time being.
In a way though, I’m grateful for the awkward translations I grew up on. A couple days ago I finished reading The Kareki Sea by Nakagami Kenji, a brutal and beautiful depiction of rural Japan. (If that sounds interesting to you, The Cape, a short story by the same author involving many of the same characters and themes is available in English). It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while, full of disturbing imagery that I can’t forget, even if I wish I could. The Kareki Sea left me feeling deeply unsettled, and images and moments from it keep seeping into my mind. Oddly enough, if I hadn’t been a confused little kid wondering what exactly “spoony” meant, I probably would never have been able read it.