Let's talk about Setting.
Map of the 'Earth'
from the various Dragonball series
I am definitely a Worldbuilding Gamemaster; someone who personally enjoys and is known for the development of a fictional setting within which a given fiction takes place. I love running games that have cool and interesting settings and although both 'cool' and 'interesting' are matters of personal preference, many of my players over the years have remarked that they liked and appreciated the way I have handled the settings of the games I've run.
Now I will be the first to say that it's pretty easy to be good at Worldbuilding when you're running Star Trek, Star Wars, or another well known IP. Most if not all of the heavy lifting has already been done for me. This is no less true if I am running a campaign set in the universe of Mobile Suit Gundam's One Year War or the superheroic future of My Hero Academia. I don't have to come up with how the world works. We've seen how it works. We all watched the same episodes.
Map of the Earth Sphere during 'The One Year War'
from Mobile Suit Gundam
Except...sometimes all of us haven't. I have often come across the situation wherein I have seen all of the Gundam series set in the Universal Century timeline and not everyone else has. Another common scenario is one in which I want to run a game based on, let's say, Five Star Stories or Aura Battler Dunbine, and everyone says yes to this, only to find out that most of the players are largely unfamiliar with the chosen series. Now, although my job as setting developer is made easier by the extensive materials published in Japan for pretty much every Anime series they produce, the tricky task of being able to convey that setting to my players becomes key. They may not know any more about the world of a given Anime than they would about an original setting of my own creation.
That of course is the holy grail, the great experiment - Worldbuilding your own Anime/Manga setting! How does one create a milieu of their own with the proper Japanese Pop Culture Entertainment flavor and feel?
Like my first post on Characters, this entry is going to paint in broad strokes and get into the nitty gritty in the follow-up. What I want to discuss here are the elements that a great many Anime and Manga settings share
Now and Then, Here and There
The vast majority of Anime and Manga series take place on Earth, not unlike the vast majority of Western fiction. Much like the trend that most Superheroes live in New York City developed because the big comic book publishers were in NY, so too did most Anime feature action in and around Tokyo, the location of most animation and manga studios.
At the same time, Japan is structured differently from the US and their entertainment media is applied differently as well. It was not uncommon, even in the early days of Anime and Manga, to see stories set in what we would refer to as rural or suburban areas. Each prefecture has its own geography and character and often the creators of Japanese entertainment worked in their hometowns or used iconic locations that would be easily identified by anyone of Japanese citizenship - Mount Fuji, Tokyo Tower, Aokigahara (the so-called 'Sea of Trees').
Historic fiction and folktale based or inspired works have been a staple of Japanese Anime and Manga for a long time, giving us glimpses into Japan's past. Samurai films, Anime, and Manga, from the works of Akira Kurosawa to Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima of Lone Wolf and Cub fame have given us tales that clearly take place on Earth, in a very particular place and time.
The distant past and far future are common subjects in Anime and Manga, all taking place on an otherwise normal, recognizable, and believable Earth. The setting has familiarity and weight because it is our Earth, albeit with the fantastic elements of the stories thrown into it. I will go into more detail on Anime/Manga futures and pasts later in the month when I do posts focused on Science Fiction and Fantasy respectively.
However, there is another idea that is both very familiar to gamers and yet very Japanese that I'd like to address first...
It's Earth...but is it?
A number of very popular Anime and Manga take place on an Earth we surely wouldn't recognize. These settings, much like the Alternate or Parallel Earths of Science Fiction and Superhero Comics, TV, and Films are far more varied and indeed less clearly the world we know than their Western fiction counterparts. At the same time - and this is what makes it uniquely Japanese - they are never referred to specifically as a Parallel or Alternate universe.
Dragonball (and its follow-ups), Pokemon, and Hunter x Hunter all take place on Earth. It is never stated that these series take place on a 'different' Earth or that it is another planet entirely. They take place on Earth, just not our Earth.
Now I have a theory about this, though I do not understand the culture and psychology of modern Japan well or deeply enough to make any sort of claim of what is going on here. What I have is just a thought based on what I've seen and heard, nothing more and nothing less:
WARNING: Recorded in Minimum Setting Rant Mode:
It would seem that the Japanese fan community is less likely to deconstruct things than their Western (especially American and British) counterparts. In Japan, a setting just is what it is. They absorb a series and its universe without searching for some greater, conspiratorial reason things work the way they do or assuming the creator made mistakes and immersion breaking inconsistencies in their own work.
Even I am guilty of entertaining the idea of a dark origin behind the Pokemon universe. One in which the reason for all the identical kids, Officer Jennys, and Nurse Joys is that they're clones, needed to replace a Human population wiped out by the arrival of Pokemon.
That doesn't occur to the average Japanese Pokemon fan. No, it seems instead they see the many Jennys and Joys and think, 'Ha! What a quirky, fun gag to add detail to this show I love.'
Westerners want to show how smart they are by pointing out all the flaws in creative ideas until they render them sad and unfun. Aren't we just so clever?
Another trope common to Anime and Manga worldbuilding...
Time travel was, for a very long while, fairly rare in Japanese pop culture but present nonetheless. The various theories we see in Hollywood films and Western Science Fiction and Fantasy are all on display, though it would be seem Japanese temporal castaways are more inclined to mess with events than the ultra-wary chrononauts of the Western world. This goes all the way back to Doraemon, who traveled back in time from the 22nd Century to aid young Nobita Nobi in the 20th (Manga first published in 1970. Short anime series in 1973, followed by a much more popular one in 2005).
My favorite blue robotic cat from the future with no ears.
While straight forward Time Travel isn't all that different in Japan than it is anywhere else (blue robot cats aside), there is something much more distantly Anime/Manga related that I want to talk about; anachronisms.
Anachronisms are very common in Anime and Manga settings and much like a very strange Earth just being viewed as Earth, most of these anachronisms go unmentioned. Usually they appear in the form of some technology that was not available in the time period being depicted or a standard form of technology that is clearly missing, though this is less common.
Examples include Black Bulter, ostensibly set in 1888 London, shows a maid washing clothes in a washing machine, video games seem to exist, and other modern technology such as cell phones are seen in the possession of some villainous types. As the series progresses this happens less and less though certain characters can gain access to technology too advanced for the time by making deals with demons (which may also explain some of the earlier anachronisms).
Fullmetal Alchemist appears to be set in a Fantasy version of the late 19th or early 20th century, though periodically things such as steampunk-esque prosthetics ('Automail') and other machinery will appear that fit better into later eras.
Pokemon and Soul Eater both feature towns and people that seem out of time. In Pokemon we encounter someone who dresses like a early period Samurai, though the Pokemon World is clearly modern with occasional examples are future tech such as the Pokeballs themselves. Soul Eater characters stop by Medieval towns, then go to a Polish village where they see Golems, then travel to modern Italy, Venice, and America.
Sometimes it's explained and part of the story behind what is going on in the series. Quite often though, it just is, a fixture of setting that is largely as aesthetic choice of the creator. The American equivalent would be the the Batman Animated Series by Paul Dini and Bruce Tim. What that set in modern times, the 1930s, or some strange art deco universe all its own?
Finally, sometimes you just need a world of your own...
The Magnificent World
Many Fantasy stories and a good number of Science Fiction tales are set on other worlds far beyond our Earth. Be it an alien planet or a 'Oz'-like alternate dimension, other realms abound in Anime and Manga as they do elsewhere.
The World of One Piece
Some worlds are indeed wholly different planets, the setting of the Anime/Manga in question where the different culture, terrain, and history are a key part of the story and the characters within it. One Piece is among the best examples of this that I can think of, with Five Star Stories another and one a absolutely love.
A very common, very popular trope of this is having one or more normal teenagers or others from our world transported to this strange, other place and possibly trapped them, unable to return. This has become increasingly popular in recent years, being identified by the Japanese as its own genre or at least sub-genre of Fantasy known as Isekai. Isekai translates as 'different world' or 'other world'.
The 'Transported to Another World' concept has been a part of Anime and Manga for a very long time, with the classic Fantasy Mecha series Aura Battler Dunbine being among the early Isekai shows (and indeed a favorite of mine). Young Sho Zama has an accident during a motorcycle race that sends him down a hole and into the Medieval realm of Byston Well.
Other well known examples of this genre include Kagome's travel to and from ancient Japan in Inu Yasha, the three main protagonists of El Hazard: The Magnificent World, Rising of the Shield Hero, and another fave of mine, The Vision of Escaflowne.
A major trend is to see the characters transplanted from Earth to a Fantasy world with very video game and/or RPG laws and mechanics. Variations include someone dying on Earth and being reborn into this Medieval Fantasy universe or being trapped inside an actual game by some peculiar means. Often winning the game or defeating some key element of it is the ticket to returning home.
The Devil is a Part-Timer flips the scenario, with the Devil trapped here on Earth.
Like the previous posts, I could go on and on with this subject but for now I do believe this is enough. I still have a lot of other material to get to and I am running way behind schedule. In the next post I will touch upon some famous/infamous setting cliches and tropes you might want to include in your Anime/Manga game so that it feels even more like a real series from Japan.
After all, if Japanese Manga writers use these tropes, why shouldn't you?