Thursday, February 7, 2013

Steampunk and New Millennium

Although it'd been around for a while, I just recently watched "Sherlock Holmes" by director Guy Ritchie. The movie gained popularity as a modern take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" that placed action-packed entertainment above mystery. While the contemporary Sherlock Holmes played by Robert Downey, Jr. is a shut-in inventor, he's also portrayed as an eccentric hoodlum that'd participate in London's underground boxing. He's a different flavor from the deerstalker-wearing British gentleman, and was quite fun to watch. But the most charming part of the movie was the beauty of their clothes and gadgets, and the scenery characteristic of late 19th century London—the costumes and gadgets were elaborate enough to yield an Academy Award for art direction. The slapped-together gadgets invented by Holmes were particularly wonderful, as well as designs like that of the weapon of mass destruction central to the climax. In short, it was influenced heavily by "steampunk", the pedigree of so-called "science fiction".

Steampunk Invades the Aughts 

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, influenced by such 19th century novels as those of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, considered to be the fathers of sci-fi. I'm an outsider when it comes to sci-fi, so those who want to know more about it should read the web site linked at the bottom, or the special steampunk feature in the issue of "SF Magazine" released in July of last year.

But to broadly explain steampunk from its stereotypical motifs, the "steam" moniker introduces the idea of retro-futuristic mechanisms like steam engines, springs and cog wheels. Steampunk copies the fashion of the Victorian era (Neo-Victorian), the world view of England at the turn of the century, and points to the sci-fi works introducing inventors with an inclination towards do-it-yourself-ness.

Among science fiction novels, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's 1990 "The Difference Engine" became a testament to this genre, its fame spreading even to Japan. But after that, the steampunk genre went out of style for a while in the world of sci-fi novels.

Even so, the steampunk world view met with a massive boom outside of novels in the 2000s. Like in the video game world, the masterpieces "Myst" (1993) and "Bioshock" (2007) produce steampunk world views. In "Machinarium" (2009), a game localized for Playism, the fantastic robot designs also express a strong air of steampunk.

Other than that, the steampunk trend is shown not only in movies and fashion, but in the fields of music and technology as well. Even in Japan, the topical Chris Anderson book "Makers: The New Industrial Revolution" also ground out the strong preference for DIY in the steampunk boom. Because of that, the steampunk boom from 2000 onwards has grown into something surpassing simple sci-fi, to the point that we can label it a global trend.

Japan's Dull, Half-Baked Steampunk 

The word "steampunk" in Japan, however, only seems to have permeated among sci-fi fans and those interested in overseas culture. Even Chris Anderson's book is mostly introduced as a simple business book. I've almost never seen it introduced as part of the steampunk boom.

On the other hand, this doesn't mean that Japanese pop culture in the 2000s never had any steampunk. In fact, several anime and games have taken on this genre, but unfortunately they haven't garnered much popularity, to the point one can say that they aren’t an established part of the boom.

Director Katsuhiro Otomo's "Steamboy", for example, was an animated Japanese film with a strong sense of steampunk, as you can imagine from the name. Putting aside the pros and cons of the movie itself, its box office record as a film was regrettably poor. A game adaptation was made as well, but it seems that it faded into obscurity without much repute.

And at the turn of the millennium, GONZO was determined to take on the challenge of anime as global content, creating the TV anime "LAST EXILE” with a wonderful steampunk world view (unfortunately, the sequel created in 2012 had some horrid subject matter).

From the start, the main world view in Japanese anime and domestic games has been that of heartwarming otaku content, so-called "Moe" content and slice-of-life stories. Sci-fi and fantasy works are less popular than you'd think. The influence of the aforementioned steampunk boom abroad is practically nonexistent. Be it anime or games, it's quite rare for the word "steampunk" to be a topic of conversation. (Although personally, as a fan of 2D shooters, I thought the shooter "Progear" developed by CAVE (2001) melded young adult fiction with a steampunk world view quite well.)

The Final Fantasy Influence 

Japanese pop culture like the stuff I mentioned before seems to have progressed with almost no contact with the international steampunk boom of the 2000s. Having said that, we can't forget the fact that the current steampunk trend - specifically, its visuals and world view - was influenced significantly by a Japanese game.

"Final Fantasy 7", released in 1997 for the PlayStation, was a milestone for the series, becoming its greatest hit. It holds an astounding sales record of 9.7 million units worldwide, with North America alone seeing 3 million of those units. In the history of video games, many speak of it as the software that sparked a massive shift in the console business from Nintendo to Sony Computer Entertainment. But the importance of this game should be remembered not just in the realm of business, but in the revolutionary "modern fantasy" world view it established.

The Final Fantasy series had departed from the classic world of swords-and-sorcery fantasy around the time of Final Fantasy VI, starting to feature sorcery called "magic" and the power of science. Such ideas were inherited a great deal by its sequel, Final Fantasy VII. In FFVII, the story develops further between the corporate giant Shinra Electric Power Company monopolizing the power known as Mako Energy, and the resistance group Avalanche rebelling against them.

The world of magic and machines in FFVI could only be displayed in 2D pixels on the Super Famicom, but FFVII utilized the strength of the PlayStation to represent this world view in 3D graphics. As a result, it achieved amazing success, even in the global market. Plus, although demon kings and devils are established villains in existing fantasy-based RPGs, making the baddie a corporation could be considered both novel and ground-breaking at the time. And such a setting—fighting as a resistance against neither government or a devil king, but a corporation (!) in a dystopia born from industry—thinking about it now, it ladles out the taste of the steampunk derived from cyberpunk quite faithfully. (Even so, I'm personally more attached to FFVI. The king and lady-killer inventor Edgar is my favorite character in all of Final Fantasy, but even he is a character with strong hints of steampunk.)

Creating a Global Trend from this World View 

Last year, Final Fantasy VII was re-released as a digital download for Windows, becoming the subject of conversation several times in the English-speaking world. Within such reevaluation, I'm sure it was positioned as a pioneer of the 2000s steampunk boom. In Japan, where steampunk didn't quite take off, few people gave it such a second look. However, one should consider the steampunk genre as one of the keys to competing in the global video game market.

In Japan, the Dragon Quest series possesses a high degree of familiarity, accepted by even the casual gamer, while Final Fantasy (the numbered titles in particular) is thought of as hardcore gamer fare. Internationally, however, the Final Fantasy series is overwhelmingly popular, and a majority of that popularity is thought to dwell in the steampunk world view hammered out by FFVII. Of course, this is a retrospective from looking at the current steampunk boom. Hindsight 20-20, as they say.

Even so, the impact of the world view held by this game at the time was essential, as was the subsequent effect it exerted on the world. Looking back at the role fulfilled by Japanese games during the globalization movement of the 2000s, this takes on the shape of a case study for content industries planning to advance exports into overseas markets in the future. To say it another way, the content industry had a honeymoon period between Japan and abroad in the steps taken in 1997; starting from Final Fantasy VII, both creators and producers with prospects to enter foreign markets must thoroughly examine overseas pop culture in the 2000s.