All This and Miso Soup

“I’m really interested in miso soup. I ordered it in a little sushi bar in Colorado once long ago, and I thought it was a darned peculiar sort of soup, the smell it had and everything, so I didn’t eat it, but it intrigued me… I don’t need to eat the stuff now because now I am here—right in the middle of it. The soup I ordered in Colorado had all these slices of vegetables and things, which at the time just looked like kitchen scrapings to me. But now I’m in the miso soup myself, just like those bits of vegetable. I’m floating around in a giant bowl of it, and that’s good enough for me.” — Ryu Murakami, In the Miso Soup

Frank is a serial killer. An American psycho. But that is hardly important. These are his parting words to his native translator and tour guide, Kenji on the Kachidoki Bridge on New Year’s Eve.

Superficially, In the Miso Soup is a tour of Tokyo sex clubs leading to a moment of graphic violence, but Ryu Murakami is in fact guiding the reader through a city haunted by a political history with the United States. Japan lost the war, as we are reminded in the book, and though the country was never under a formal American rule, the impression left by Western influence on the culture is very present in the book. 

This vision of Tokyo is emotionally and culturally flat. Seen through the eyes of Frank, the city’s an imitation of American consumer and pop culture, with a populace at once seduced by its shopping-mall Americana and apathetic to the apple pie of it all. Kenji begins as the guide in the narrative but finds himself being guided by the gaijin through a completely different Tokyo than he has known.    

So what does this have to do with collecting and games?

Really, Miso Soup is a commentary on Japan’s postwar culture and relationships with the West, a product of some very real history that still has an impact on products today. America’s quiet occupation yielded a postwar policy that exported goods be culturally mute, stripping national identity from products to maximize potential in a global market.

The silence, though, is softly broken in Japan’s visual arts that reflect on the Westernizing of culture—with anime emerging as an animation with Disney tropes, and Takashi Murakami’s “Superflat” movement proudly putting “soy sauce” on American pop. The popular-art aesthetics that signify Japanese-ness are sorts of translations and responses to the politics of identity. And the international popularization of these and other pop forms prefixed with the letter “J” is another element of this history. 

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The collecting of imported games can’t really escape this cultural frame, and its pleasures are rooted in it. Even today the old export rules are somewhat in effect and affected by national identity. A substantial amount of Japanese hardware and software never sees release in other countries—like the Starry Sky games, interactive stories like the Memories Off series, and even those with an existing international fan base, like the Studio Ghibli collaboration Ni no Kuni. Those games that do receive general release undergo the localizing process that makes them more appropriate to different regions—even on a hardware level. So in the 1980s, guys and gals in North America and PAL territories unboxed very different Nintendo machines from kids in Japan. One was a grey box with a flap top that the game cartridge slotted into; and the other was a red, white, and gold console with a cart insert on the top exterior.

These politics promote difference in a formula a little bit like “Japanese = that; other stuff = this.” When games are categorized by region for consumers and we get error messages when we insert the “wrong” disc, we can only really understand things in terms of their differences. That said, for the collector, the importance of the imported game is in the difference, and the satisfying discovery of those differences.

The import game may offer different content, as with the Final Fight original that features profanity, references to physical disability, and transvestite enemies; or the wider range of music (including familiar game themes) available in Taiko: Drum Master. The experience of a game might be different, as an import of Mega Man 2 means playing through the pixel-perfect game in the one and only “hard” mode; while playing Megami Ibunroku Persona instead of Revelations: Persona reveals new side-quests playable by quite different characters and set in different places. Two game versions might be as different as Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic is from the reskinned release as Super Mario Bros. 2; or the import might offer new insight on a franchise, as with the original second Super Mario installment, Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels.

Importing also allows access to different kit—for instance, the peripheral issued with Slide Adventure MAGKID that makes the Nintendo DS operate like an optical mouse; and the WonderSwan, a portable console by Bandai produced to compete with the Game Boy but never released outside of Asia. Box art is often cited as the most immediate and alluring difference in imported games: the original Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island box is candy-colored in comparison to the dramatic and bold Western edition; and the import case actually displays the characters of Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter. The differences may also be subtler, like the compact packaging of GameCube games and Capcom’s convention for tagging genre on Dreamcast game sleeves.

In sum, the pleasure of collecting imported games is in a desirable difference. It’s more than playing “spot the difference” with one’s playthings, because the differences fill a gap in a game lover’s history and experience.

But what of the miso soup? Frank’s final statement is an understanding of the ingredients, but more accurately of the culture he has experienced and his (foreign) place in it. This metaphor speaks to what this collectorship is about—learning a little about what’s in it, even if that is understood by what’s not in it. And I don’t mean to simplify what is complex, but to point out the teeny-yet-significant pleasure that the subculture of import collectorship finds in an international politic.


Photograph by avlxyz