Friday, June 4, 2021

Multiverse Mayhem in The Mighty Marvel Manner!

 Before I move on to discussing the various Japanese Tabletop RPGs that cover the Superhero genre (and thereabouts), I thought I'd share some news on an upcoming American Superhero TRPG that has come to my attention...

Look at that cover! Wow. It has some awesome stuff on it, as well as some things that make me scratch my head a little. 

First, I like the title, Marvel Multiverse. It ties into the upcoming Doctor Strange and The Multiverse of Madness film as well as implying that each campaign you play, that anyone plays, exists somewhere in the infinite dimensions of space and time. Yes! Love it. 

If you read the full article, Matt Forbeck and the games' design team have done my kind of reinforcing of the IP and setting. Their new, original rules for the game are referred to as the D616 System, a homage to the main universe of Marvel Comics being Earth-616. The Attribute stats for a character appear to be Might, Agility, Resilience, Vigilance, Ego, and Logic. Yep, MARVEL and honestly I just did that from memory after reading it only once or twice. Clever on their part. I would say even easier to memorize than FASERIP (I can never remember what all of those letter stand for). 

Lastly, I love that the character in the forefront of the cover is yours. A silhouette that could be any hero but which intrinsically implies you can be the greatest hero Marvel has ever seen. Brilliant! A long way from Marvel Heroic's lack of built-in Character Creation and a mindset of 'Why wouldn't you want to play as Spiderman?". Maybe because I'm an Tabletop RPG gamer? I want to meet Spiderman. I don't want to BE Spiderman. I want to be someone I created and have them save Spiderman!

Now for some...odd choices on the cover and in the write up of the announcement.

First, who the heck is this supposed to be?

Is that supposed to be Thor? Just when I get done praising the designers for brand identity and marketing they gotta go and do dumb stuff like this. Are the art directors and editors working on this new to comics? Even if Thor looks like this now, by the time the book comes out in a year or so he definitely won't look anything like this. Why not draw him to more closely resemble the iconic image of Thor we'd all recognize. Even better, why not illustrate him so he resembles the MCU Thor. That is what is going to sell your game to fans of 'MARVEL the Entertainment Empire' as opposed to those who like Marvel Comics (smaller group) or gaming (waaay smaller group).   

The second thing that bugs me is in the title...Playtest Rulebook. It says the players can get the Playtest Rulebook and effect the shape of things to come as their feedback will be included in the final, complete version of the game due out a year later.

Are you saying...wait...does the Playtest Rulebook cost money? Are we, the fans and consumers, going to need to pay you in order to make your game for you? I know I'm being cynical here but it just sounds like we'd be buying an incomplete game that Marvel is going to complete a year latter using the fans' ideas and then sell then the book again. That may not be what's going on but that's what it sounds like. I could really use some clarification on how this is going to work. 

Still and all, I am looking forward to it. I haven't run or played a lot of games set in the Marvel universe, usually preferring my own setting or DC as I was once a huge DC Comics fan. Nowadays however, with the MCU in theaters and on TV, the upcoming What If? animated series and DC doing at terrible job of being DC, I could definitely see myself running another alternate universe Marvel game like I did way back when

I'll be following the developments of news of this one closely so check back and stay tuned.


Now back to Japan...

Barking Alien

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Faster Than A Speeding Bullet Train

By the mid-to-late 1980s Superheroes were all over Japan, even if the Japanese still didn't call them Superheroes. 

Henshin Heroes, Cyborgs, Aliens, and all many of Supernatural types roamed the Japanese airwaves; from television to movie theaters, from comics to video games. Many had colorful outfits. Most had amazing powers or else high tech or magical weapons and vehicles. Few however received the coveted title of Superhero. 

The real reason for this is that the name was linked, in the mindset of both Japanese Creatives and Fans, with American Comics. Rarely was a Japanese Hero seen in the same light as Superman or Batman because, simply put, Superman and Batman are from the United States.

For those familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, do you consider them Anime? They weren't made in Japan and so they technically don't qualify as Anime even though they share many of the same qualities as Japanese animated TV shows. 

At the same time, Japan couldn't resist the lure of the American Superhero for long...

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I personally recall a number of interviews with Japanese creators, in both Japanese and American Pop Culture magazines, mentioning the influence of Western comics and comic book characters on their writing and art. Notable among them was Dragonball creator Akira Toriyama who noted that the idea for Dragonball Z came largely from combining his two favorite works of fiction: the famous 16th Century Chinese novel 'Journey to the West' and DC's Superman comics. Kia Asamiya, whose real name is Michitaka Kikuchi, is the creator of Silent Moebius, Martian Successor Nadesico, and Steam Detectives. He is a self-proclaimed Batman fanatic and is the owner of a number of props from the first Tim Burton Batman film. 

The 1986 Sci-Fi Action-Comedy Anime 'Project A-Ko' features a 16 year old, female heroine attending high school with a rich, technological genius who builds powered armor and giant robots as well as a friendly, though immature girl who turns out to an alien princess. A-Ko herself possess Super Strength, Superspeed, Superhuman Jumping Ability, and some degree of Super Durability if not Invulnerability. It is hinted at the end of the first film that she may be the daughter of two very well known parents...

On first watch I assumed this was Clark Kent and Lois Lane
but another shot I couldn't find shows the woman wearing wrist
bracelets similar to none other than Princess Diana!

A-Ko is the daughter of Superman and Wonder Woman!

I also recall an ongoing Light Novel story that appeared in Hobby Japan magazine around this time. I might be wrong about the magazine but I clearly remember the story as explained to me by a Japanese friend: In the USA a boy attends a high school for Superheroes but his 'power' is that he's really smart and builds a suit of armor like Iron Man. Unfortunately, most American Superheroes in the setting have powers and the school can only teach him so much. Luckily - it seems - he gets a scholarship to attend a prestigious Superhero school in Japan where most heroes are technology based. 

Unfortunately he is ridiculed by many of his Japanese classmates as he 'only made Powered Armor', which they view as nothing special. Also, he doesn't really speak Japanese. Thankfully he makes friends with a few other misfit students and changes his armor into a sort of Power Suit / Mecha combo. While testing the Mech Armor out he accidentally stumbles into a real crime scene! He ends up saving the day and is swarmed by Japanese reporters who want to know more about him. He tries to answer but as soon as he speaks English that label him a hero from America and the papers end up calling him, 'The Great Gaijin'!

The Great Gaijin was a favorite of mine and also a completely obscure and overlooked entry in the American/Japanese Superhero crossover genre (I can't even find references to it on the internet). However, I bring it up because long before the present day Superhero Anime and Manga, long before the MCU broke the Japanese box office, here was an Iron Man type hero, from America, going to a High School for Supers. 

Which brings us to...

Today, the influence of American Superheroes on the Japanese Pop Culture market is no longer underground, hidden as Easter Eggs, or subtle for that matter. A public love for many American Superhero movies, animated series such as Paul Dini and Bruce Timm's Batman, and of course video games like Marvel vs. Capcom is evident in some of the most popular Anime and Manga titles out there. 

My Hero Academia, One Punch Man, and Tiger and Bunny are all series that focus on American style Supers, though each has a very Japanese take on the Western costumed crimefighter. As with other Anime and Manga that tweak, twist, or turn genres on their ears, these titles excel for much the same reasons; Superhero stories true to the topic but with their own unique identities and a point of view we in the US might not immediately think about. 

Now the question is, "How do Japanese Game Designers and Fans translate this clear love of Superheroes - American or Japanese - into their Tabletop RPGs? Do they even do this?"

The answer is of course yes but the forms these games take can be as different from what we're used to as their series are from our comic books. 

See you soon - same Chojin-time, same Chojin channel!

Barking Alien

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Truth, Justice, and The Japanese Way


The very word conjures up images of powerful, colorfully costumed individuals with masks and capes, soaring above a metropolis teeming with crime. Our champion of truth and justice is out to do battle against similarly cowled and cloaked villains out to cause mayhem and take advantage of the innocent. 

So...wait...Are these Superheroes?

What about these guys?

Surely these are Superheroes! Right?

Yes, according to the Japanese, these are all Superheroes and yet rarely if ever are they called that. 

The thing is, the Japanese have a slightly different view of what qualifies as a Superhero and it's not necessarily just that they are 'Chōjin' - literally a Super Natured/Powered Person. In fact, the term Superhero is often reserved for American-style Comic Book characters, although more and more of those are popping up in Manga, Anime, and Japanese Pop Culture entertainment all the time. The basic concepts of the Japanese 'Chojin Hiro' and the American Superhero aren't all that different and yet like Japanese Horror, their physics defying champions have a distinct flavor all their own. 

The first Superhero of Japan was very possibly the first Superhero in the history of the world. Ōgon Bat or 'The Golden Bat', was created in 1931 - predating both Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) - by a 16-year old Japanese lad named Takeo Nagamatsu and 25 year old Suzuki Ichiro. 

The name came from the Golden Bat Cigarette company, while the elements that originally inspired the character's design and story came from paintings of Japanese mythological characters and some of the Western fiction available after the First World War. The creators decided to portray the character as Scientific in origin rather than Supernatural, another first for a Japanese fictional hero. 

Originally created for kamishibai (paper theater), a form of traveling show that would display sequential illustrations while a narrator told a story, the two young men would go around telling tales of Ōgon Bat, periodically showing pictures of him in action. After World War II, with the decline of Kamishibai as a form of entertainment, Ōgon Bat transitioned to Manga (done by none other than Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy/Tetsuwan Atom) and eventually a live action film and one of the earliest Anime.

Speaking of Osamu Tezuka, we can thank him for one of the most internationally well known Japanese characters of all time, Tetsuwan Atom, better known in the US as Astro Boy. First appearing in Manga form in 1952, The Mighty Atom's story was viewed as a Science Fiction tale and he was not really seen as a Superhero by Japanese fans. Other characters created by Tezuka, including his very popular Princess Knight heroine, were likewise not seen in the same category as Superman or fictional entities commonly thought of Superheroes. 

Manga writer and artist Shotaro Ishinomori released one of the first Manga series specifically aimed at something like the Superhero genre, creating a Superhero Team in point of fact. Still essentially viewed as a Science Fiction story with Espionage components, Ishinomori's Cyborg 009 shows signs of things to come, clear to anyone familiar with early American Superheroes such as Wally Wood's THUNDER Agents or the original X-Men.

Cyborg 009 tells us about a team of nine individuals, kidnapped and transformed into superpowered cyborgs against their will by the Black Ghost organization. The group escapes to use their abilities to stop Black Ghost's plan for world domination. Costumes? Basically. Check. Superpowers? Check. Multi-national, multi-ethnic team? Check and check. Curiously, while early Western Super-Teams mostly consisted of White Males, Ishinomori depicts a team including an African Member and a Native American member in 1964. Thought the initial designs of these characters were a bit stereotypical, they were full and effective members of the group and their looks have been improved over the decades.

In 1966, Tsuburaya Productions aired the first Tokusatsu TV series featuring a heroic character battling evil space monsters; the now world famous Ultraman! Tokusatsu refers to any live action series featuring fantastic or science fiction-related elements and involving elaborate costumes and special effects. Prior to Ultraman, many of these were Kaiju/Giant Monster related and before that they dealt with Mythology or Sci-Fi related stories. Now those aspects were being directed towards telling a story about a alien being who has come to Earth to protect Humanity against more villainous aliens. The first Kyodai Hīro - Giant Hero - is born!

The next live action Superhero to take Japan by storm was the Toei Company's 1971, motorcycle-riding, insect themed, kaijin (Strange or Monstrous Person) known as Kamen (Mask) Rider! Kamen Rider was the Batman to Ultraman's Superman, a darker (though still kid friendly) avenger doing battle with the Sacred Hegemony Of The Cycle Kindred Evolutionary Realm or S.H.O.C.K.E.R.. In case you haven't noticed, there is a common theme emerging. Unlike American-Style Super Villains, Japanese baddies almost always serve at some level of a larger HYDRA or COBRA like organization. Their origins, goals, and methods may differ but the tendency is to go less Dr. Doom and The Joker and more James Bond's SPECTRE. 

This sort of 'Secret Agents with Superpowers' or with super equipment (sometimes both) would take off in Anime and Manga form from 1972 to 1975, with the Tatsuunoko Production company leading the charge. The famous Tokyo based Animation studio and producer, responsible to one of the earliest of these heroes 'Mach GoGoGo' (aka 'Speed Racer') would develop solo and team heroes such as Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (Battle of the Planets / G-Force in the US), Casshan, and Hurricane Polymer. 

The Western entertainment influences on Japanese culture were becoming increasingly more evident if not yet prominent by the mid-70s. American Comic Books made it to Japan by way of G.I.s and their families. Hollywood films and TV show were coming over with more regularity. As with all such things however, the Japanese are quick to adopt, adapt, and then make it their own.

In 1975, the first Super Sentai series, Himitsu Sentai Gorenger (Secret Squad Goranger) would debut, changing the face of Japanese Supers forever. Here, when the villainous Black Cross Army emerges and virtually wipes out the Earth Guard League EAGLE, the five remaining agents are summoned by the surviving EAGLE Leader to save the world from the terror of The Black Cross Fuhrer and his forces.

Gorenger ran from 1975 to 1977 and was such a success it spawned a second series, then a third, and on and on to this very day. Unlike the American adaption 'Power Rangers', each of the Japanese shows are a self-contained story and universe, crossing over only for special occasions (TV Specials, Anniversary episodes, and the like). Interestingly, the third series, Battle Fever J, was a Toei Company / Marvel Comics co-production and yet not the first time Marvel had inspired a Japanese Tokusatsu show. In 1978 Japan saw a live-action Spider-Man show featuring a very different webslinger and of course his giant robot, Leopardon! 

It should be noted that all of these characters - Ultraman, Kamen Rider, and Sentai - fall into a Superhero sub-category that is extremely popular in Japan: The Henshin Hero! Henshin means to change or transform and Henshin Heroes are known for transforming from normal (or seemingly normal) Humans into superhuman ones.

While not unknown in the US and beyond - the Hulk and Captain Marvel/SHAZAM! qualify as henshin characters - in Japan the tropes is very popular and can go further than their Western counterparts. For example, many versions of Kamen Rider have him as a normal person with a tiny implant that enables him to go from Human to full-on Cyborg. I vaguely remember a character, a little boy, who uses a special device and becomes a robot with the boy's mind. 

As time progressed forward and exposure to more American products grew, the opposite was also true. The appearances of Japanese Anime and Manga sent abroad and translated meant the lines of inspiration were beginning to blur and a new generation of Japanese creators were influenced by the Western depiction of the Superhero in different way. Likewise American artists and writers were seeing Japanese Animation and Comic Books and a cross pollination of epic proportions slowly but surely began taking place. 

In 1983 the Japanese Manga and Animation studios Kadokawa and Madhouse teams up to produce an animated film based on the 1967 Manga series 'Genma Wars' by science fiction writer Kazumasa Hirai and manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori.- yes, the same Ishinomori who gave us Cyborg 009. The character designs for the film version were done by Katsuhiro Otomo, the writer and artist of the groundbreaking 1982 series and 1988 film Akira. The film was entitled, 'Genma Wars: Harmagedon'. 

While the Manga and film were once again placed in the Science Fiction genre, it is impossible not to see the influence of American comics on movie version, particularly Giant Sized X-Men #1 by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum. Thanks to Otomo, the look of the characters changed; they are less cartoonish in overall design to coincide with the modern aesthetic of the time and the dark nature of the story. The global threat is pointed out by showcasing the international origins of the various Psychic/Psionic defenders of the Earth. It's not that this wasn't done in the Manga but the Manga focused more on the main hero, Jo Azuma, and he was Japanese. 

A domino effect had begun at this point, with Japanese artists and writers wanting to integrate more elements from outside of Japan, while America, England, and other nations were finally realizing the scope of the Japanese Anime and Manga empire and its fresh creativity and lucrative opportunities. 

Fast forward a bit and the Superhero would leap across the ocean in a single bound to have game-changing impact of Japanese/American fandom relations...

準備をしなさい True Believers!

Barking Alien

The Same But Different

The unassailable Tim Knight of HeroPress posed an interesting question in the comments of my previous post:

"Are there any genres/topics that the Japanese TTRPG market covers that we don't?"

It just so happens that on the day I put up that post, on the day he commented, I was thinking about that very subject and considered making it the focus of an upcoming entry. This is not so much that entry but it is a preview of sorts...

It is difficult for me to say that the Japanese cover genres we simply do not. While the argument for that can certainly be made (MAID The RPG, Golden Sky Stories, and Uncle Gap come to mind), it is more the execution that differs, not the base conceits. 

MAID may be a game about normal and/or superhuman female domestic help trying to protect and win the favor of their employer but at its heart it is a Romantic Comedy RPG and we certainly have those. Golden Sky Stories (Yuuyake Koyake in Japan) is a heart-warming, decidedly non-violent RPG featuring various spirit folk and set in modern times. Do we not have Modern Fantasy games in the States? Sure we do. Do we have one like this? No, not really. 

Just looking back at the Horror genre TRPGs I mentioned in my post on that topic you can see a few that are definitely unusual in premise - especially Nechronica, Kill Death Business, and The Castle in Gray - but they are really just riff on the basic concept of Horror. Could The Kill Death Business take place somewhere beyond the mortal realm in the World of Darkness? Possibly. Could you use All Flesh Must Be Eaten to run a Nechronica type game. Well, with some effort, sure. The Castle in Gray could be a setting for practically any traditional Paranormal Investigation or Supernatural Conspiracy game. The thing is one in the US has. 

The culture of Japan, its peoples' beliefs, history, folklore, and traditions over the course of many hundreds of years has resulted in a particular way of looking at things. That outlook consciously or unconsciously forms the way they write stories and design games. There are definitely games in Japanese unlike any I've see in the US but not because they are wholly original; rather it is because they are innovative, taking an established concept and moving it in a new direction. 

This may be what attracts me to Japanese TRPGs in the first place. Japan's Game Designers and TRPG Creatives and I have a similar view of what makes a cool game. Look at a familiar idea in a new way. Put a twist on some popular genre without fundamentally changing what makes it what it is. Do this and you can open up a world of heretofore unknown possibilities. 

Expect a follow up post on this subject later this month. For now, get ready for Superheroes! 


Barking Alien