Senran Kagura: importing Japan’s sexualised sub-culture

Wednesday, 26 February 2014 12:20 GMT By Dave Cook

Senran Kagura Burst is the titillating Japanese brawler coming to Nintendo 3DS in Europe this week. Dave Cook discusses the culture of sexualisation in Japan with Kenichirō Takaki, and looks at key examples of exploitation with the industry.

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I hadn’t heard of the Senran Kagura series before two-game compilation ‘Senran Kagura Burst’ was confirmed for release in the West. Coined by developer Tamsoft, the series has proven so popular in Japan that it’s spawned a novel, anime television series and a handful of games.

It stars the girls of Hanzō Academy; a band of trainee ninjas charged with battling rival clans. The more damage they take during fights, the more their clothes rip off. Special moves trigger cut-scenes complete with close-up shots of their exposed, jiggling bodies. The girls look ashamed as they become stripped, and their most-private parts are concealed beneath chibi faces. Some of these girls are supposed to be between 15-18 years-old.

Here’s a typical battle scene:

We have reported on this series in the past, but only recently have I really dug into what it involves. The game’s cover was also revealed recently, but for reasons you may feel are prudish; I chose not to post it on our site. It looks like this.

After seeing the art I felt that with all of the debate surrounding the treatment of women – not just within titles, but those working on games across the globe – that Senran Kagura is coming to our shores at a most unfortunate time. We’ve seen great discussion on the role of female protagonists from writers such as Tomb Raider scribe Rhianna Pratchett, along with the rising prominence of developers such as 343’s Kiki Wolfkill, the VR tinkering of former Valve employee Jeri Ellsworth and the continuing work of Jade Raymond, to name just a few.

Despite whatever concerns I may have, one glance at YouTube ‘Let’s Plays’ reveals genuine excitement for the game and its sexual aspects. Here’s a snapshot of a recent search query:

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It’s all too easy to look at this and say, ‘Well it’s a Japanese game; they have a different culture to ours,’ or to pass Senran Kagura off as a bit of laddish fun. Do we ignore such exploitation because it’s intended as a joke, or is this another case of Eastern studios importing a slice of ingrained sexism to our shores? For this critic, it’s counter-productive, and that’s not a comment I’m solely aiming at Senran Kagura either. It’s a wider issue.

You saw examples of rank sexualisation in Warface, with its busty, cleavage-toting avatars, and in the case of Deep Down, the complete lack of playable female characters. Capcom claims that women have been excluded for story reasons, but from where I’m sitting there needs to be a bloody good explanation as to why that’s the case. I’m going out on a limb to guess that there isn’t one. Brenna covered the issue in this heated blog last week.

Even Hideo Kojima confirmed that he ordered artist Yoji Shinkawa make Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain sniper Quiet more “erotic,” to encourage cosplay, and to help the PlayArts action figure to sell well. This furthers the idea that some content creators out there genuinely believe that the key to generating more interest in their products is to over-sexualise and exploit by exaggerating or exposing their female quotient. I don’t subscribe to this point of view. It’s horrid. The industry is better than this.

The counter-argument I hear often is that men are exploited in games too because they are muscular, out of proportion hulks that are at odds with those of a portly or waif-like disposition. That’s crocodile tears, an utterly bonehead riposte if ever I saw one. I challenge anyone to convince me that taking strong female leads and stripping them down to giggling, half naked objects of desire is the same as taking a weak man and making him a chiselled hero.

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I wanted to hear what Senran Kagura’s game producer Kenichiro Takaki had to say regarding the game’s depiction of woman and how the attitude towards females differs between Japanese and Western culture. I arranged to speak with him over email, via publisher MarvelousAQL. I explained that throughout 2013 western game development saw great advancement in the treatment of women characters, and asked if he could see the same happening in Japan any time soon.

“It’s important to note that a high amount of sexualisation is not the primary way of depicting female characters in Japan. What are considered positive traits stem from each region’s own cultural values, so direct comparisons between the two will probably remain difficult.”

Takaki replied, “I think it’s important to note that a high amount of sexualisation is not the primary way of depicting female characters in Japan, either. That said, though what we feel contributes to a character’s ‘depth’ may differ between cultures, I think there are many positively portrayed female characters in Japanese entertainment, and new ones continue to be created every day. What are considered positive traits, however, stem from each region’s own cultural values, so direct comparisons between the two will probably remain difficult.”

I explained that from the outside looking in, it’s not hard to see why people believe that over-sexualisation is just the culture in Japan, and something that won’t be going away any time soon. Takaki countered, “If we look into the past we can see a lot of change throughout Japan’s history, with the influence of Western culture being a major recent contributor.

“And while I don’t know what the future holds, cultures that refuse to change with time simply disappear, so I’m sure Japan will continue to evolve. But I do hope the fun that the small community of fans of games like Senran Kagura enjoy doesn’t have to be sacrificed along the way.”

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Takaki’s response felt counter to Goichi Suda’s view on Killer is Dead’s Gigolo scenes, which saw players wooing busty females and staring at their body to fill up their ‘guts’ meter. Once full, protagonist Mondo propositions his target before triggering a sex scene. The women giggle, act ashamed when they catch you ogling them and talk about submitting themselves to you entirely. I found it disgusting and I penned a blog to that effect here.

Suda responded to the issue by saying, “Any kind of artistic value, anything you create, there’s always some kind of criticism behind it. Which means we’re making an impression and an impact. So I think we’ll stay with what we’re thinking and just keep going with that way of thinking … And when I say that, sexuality is a touchy subject. We don’t want to make people offended, but we’re trying to create something that makes people laugh a bit because we’re [dealing with] that topic.”

I’d reply to that by asking how, exactly, presenting women as dullards that can be won over with flowers and perfume – before having the hero bed them repeatedly – deals with the issue of over-sexualisation. Short answer; it doesn’t. At all.

I suggested to Takaki that Western gamers might not respond the same way to that sub-set of Japanese culture, given the vast differences and views on gender between both territories. Takaki agreed, and added, “Sometimes when I travel abroad I do get the sense that Japan’s attitudes may seem unusual when viewed from other countries. However, such attitudes are not limited to portrayals of females – there is entertainment for women that focuses on male sexuality, too.

“But the goal of such entertainment isn’t to degrade the opposite sex; it’s simply about men and women enjoying each other’s sexuality. The reality may seem less equal than it is because the forms of entertainment made for women aren’t as well known. But I don’t want to generalize about all of Japan with my answer, and I don’t mean to claim that no objectionable content exists at all, either.”

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To Takaki’s credit he was both balanced, reasonable and open about what Senran Kagura entails throughout our exchange, even going so far as welcoming opinions post-launch so he could learn from them. He never once pretended that the game was anything else. “Negative reactions aren’t unique to games like Senran Kagura,” he stressed, “you’re bound to get them for anything you do.

“For creators like myself, the most frightening scenario would be to release a work and receive absolutely no reaction to it at all.”

“But we’re already receiving a lot of positive reactions, too, and I’m going to keep making my games for the people who want to play them. I won’t try to change the minds of those who don’t. And for creators like myself, the most frightening scenario would be to release a work and receive absolutely no reaction to it at all.”

On the game’s outfit-shredding damage mechanic, Takaki explained, “The characters lose clothing as they take damage. So it works as an interesting representation of something that’s otherwise just a numerical value, while playing with the suspense you get from revealing something a little bit at a time.

“That’s important because it speaks directly to instinct. Sexual desire is an innate part of human nature, and much like with common themes of violence, video games provide us with a safe environment to explore that part of ourselves. These may be things that we would never consider expressing in real life, but escapism is something that games excel at, right?”

In the end Takaki feels he is making a game for a minority that we all know still exists, rather than trying to push taboos or controversial subjects on to the widespread gaming audience. To that end, it could be argued that his games are specialist or ‘to-hand’ should you be inclined to seek them out. “Senran Kagura is essentially a niche title,” he stressed, “in an industry where the available products have been gradually consolidating around a smaller number of major AAA titles. My intentions for this game were never to create a huge worldwide hit.

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“I just wanted to make a game starring attractive girl characters, for the small but dedicated audience that enjoys that type of game here in Japan – so I was completely focused on making what I wanted, and what those fans would want, from such a game. At the time, Western perceptions were not something I was considering at all. Now, it’s easy to imagine that in the West there may be many people who feel the game is inappropriate. But that is true in Japan as well.

“When I first announced Senran Kagura, I wrote the following comment on my production blog: ‘There’s room for this type of game, too!’ My feeling is that just as there are many different opinions throughout the world, there ought to be many forms of entertainment as well.”

It’s clear that Senran Kagura has not been designed to directly inflame or court controversy, and if you feel you’d like to play those games for a laugh then that is entirely at your discretion. I cannot and will not try to stop you, because I respect the opinions of our readership and gamers everywhere. However, I for one simply can’t overlook the game’s flagrant depiction of females given the culture of positive change I see during my work every day.

I want women to be respected individuals in the games industry. I will never know how it feels to be discriminated against for being a woman. That’s simply impossible, so I won’t even begin to try or pretend and understand how it feels. To do that would be an insult to women, so it’s not something I’ll do here.

What I will say is that there are probably plenty of men and women out there who see no problem with what Senran Kagura is doing, and that – again – is their decision. But to outwardly deny that the game indirectly conflicts with the positive advancements we’ve seen through 2013 in the way women are depicted and written into games, as well as the healthy conversations taking place regarding women in the workplace, is to lose sight of everything we’ve achieved in this area so far.

I sincerely hope I’m not alone in this.

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