Gratitude for the spoony bard

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.

16 thoughts on “Gratitude for the spoony bard

  1. I would only play games in Japanese that weren’t made in English. However if it is in English, I’d rather have Japanese voice overs with English Subtitles… ;)

  2. Meanwhile, I like occasionally re-playing games I played as a kid now in Japanese now as an ego-boosting way to supplement my own language practice *because* their dialogue is so simplistic.

    Though I’ve found that learning Japanese and being surrounded by native speakers is a double-edged sword, because after a while you realize that most original Japanese audio voiceovers are at least every bit as ill-suited as the resulting English dubs.

  3. HA! You know, when Parish did his post awhile ago about how awesome the new FFT (for PSP) translation was, my own feeling was that the insanely mangled original translation gave this weird, semi-literary dimension to what might otherwise very well be a pretty corny fantasy yarn. I never played the new translation, and I’ve never played it in Japanese, either, so who the hell knows. I guess my reaction was sort of the reverse of yours, like “Wow, this is so outrageously bizarre and kind of cool! I bet it’s not really this great if you can understand it!”

  4. Weird coincidence — I just mailed my check for a beginning Japanese class yesterday. Good to hear your take, though I am old and wise enough to not learn Japanese just for JRPG dialogue (unless there’s a job in it). I’m always shocked when in a game like Persona 4 there is some adult and more or less plausible moment in the dialogue, and it feels for that moment that I’m watching the best thing ever — until I remember the writing qualityy in other mediums.

    That being said, I am learning Japanese in part from a video game, My Japanese Coach. Just in preparation for my class, but I advise anyone interested in any language to pick up one of those titles, which are very effective for basic vocab.

    The big tragedy with Japanese? Just when you think you’ve learned to count to ten, you learn that there are around one hundred ways to count to ten. Yeah, they’re a culture of masochists.

  5. Japanese nationals are impressed as hell when a foreigner actually manages to remember the differences between such as counting books and counting pencils, though. (Guess which one of them involves the kanji for “book!”)

  6. What about games that didn’t come out in English, though?

    (They’re probably not worth it, but unfortunately Venus and Braves, for example, is great but too repetitive when I don’t catch much of the story.)
    Oh, somebody already got it…
    “I would only play games in Japanese that weren’t made in English. However if it is in English, I’d rather have Japanese voice overs with English Subtitles… ;)”
    I disagree with the second part though. I can’t [i]stand[/i] Japanese VA, because the voices tend to be so obnoxious.

  7. I enjoy playing Japanese games in the original Japanese…but one thing really bothers me.

    Seemingly every JRPG ever created has some annoying anthropormorphic character that always ends their sentences with some random sound or character.

    The worst violater of this has to be the prinnies from the “Disgaea” series. For everyone out there who thinks the ‘dood’ is funny or cute…listen to Japanese original for 30 seconds (he adds “…ssu” to everything) and just try not to pull your ears out.

  8. I came for the video games and anime, but stayed for the video games, literature, food, and friends. I still love the video games, even with their cringe-worthy dialogue and worse voice acting that I can now understand in both common languages. I just found other things to enjoy too that made the whole ordeal of learning my second language more worthwhile.

  9. I don’t see why learning a language for the fun of it is a point of shame. What would we say to a Japanese person attaining fluency in English for the sake of understanding American media?

    There is no need for excuses. If we feel any sense of shame, it’s because we’ve been broken by the massive ignorance of idiots who don’t understand that we live in a globalized society. I learned Japanese because I wanted to translate some ROMs. I’m glad I did, because it opened my eyes to a wonderful culture and history that has added depth to my life experience. If people want to complain, fuck ’em.

  10. FFIV’s story is nothing special, but it knows that and makes the most of it. I think it’s a wonderful, simple little tale, even if it’s nothing special.

  11. For some reason, I always prefer to have the Japanese voices when available, even though I still need the English subtitles. I think I find bad video game voice acting more enjoyable when I don’t speak the language.

  12. Oh man, my classic example of this is from Grandia on Saturn. My roomate in college was completely engrossed when I was playing through it in Japanese. He never got to see the second disc, and when he got the English version on PS1, he was completely disappointed, apparently it was garbage. Can’t imagine that it was worse than FFVII though. Replayed the first disc recently in English, and I still enjoyed it, so maybe the problem is on that second disc. Eventually I’ll get around to playing it, along with the last disc of Lost Odyssey (which I was really enjoying, at least I finished Blue Dragon).

  13. I think one of the reasons I like The Pillows so much is some of their songs are in japanese, so I can’t tell if they are rhyming “girl” with “world” or “crazy” with “baby” or “feel” with “real”. On the other hand, “Dizzy my future, silly my way (Just runners high!)”

  14. To FalcomAdol: Grandia 1 was probably a letdown due to “import hype.” Saturn fans were going nuts about it. The PS1 version had some technicallly inferior aspects, arrived in English rather late, and the translation isn’t well-regarded.

    I loved FF4 in junior high. Now that I’m thirty, it’s charming, but not as awesome anymore. That said, the same is true for some other story-driven RPGs, even some without “Final” or “Fantasy” in their names. They once seemed like life-changing epics, and now they’re somewhere between nostalgic and childish.

    This is also true for certain anime series for which fans were telling newbies, “if you don’t see the fansubbed version, you won’t get the true experience.” For maximum effect, watch a “Macekred” show and then see how you feel about the original.

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