• RPGs and cultural context: a conversation with Andy Kitkowski about Tenra

    by  • January 2, 2013 • Design & Art, People & Events • 1 Comment

    Tenra Bansho Zero is a hugely popular anime-themed tabletop roleplaying system first released in Japan. For many years, Andy Kitkowski had been working on translating the material and getting it ready to publish for North American audiences. When Andy was getting the Kickstarter together earlier this year, he wound up contacting me about doing an alternate campaign setting to be used as part of the higher reward levels. I had some pretty mixed feelings about Tenra, mostly because of art like this:

    Tenra Bansho Zero cover

    The cover for TBZ

    Ultimately, I wound up doing the project and writing the Ruined Empire campaign setting for Andy’s Kickstarter campaign. I didn’t do it just for a paycheck (although I’m not going to lie – paying work is always nice) – I used it as an opportunity to “fix” the things that had always bothered me about Tenra’s default setting. And the result is something I’m really proud of! It’s a super-grabby, dense campaign setting that’s as fail-free as I could make it.

    I wanted to write about the thought process that went into the creation of the Ruined Empire setting, as a way of highlighting that thoughtful game development can still be socially conscious and produce interesting material, but I felt like that would be missing an important part of the picture. Tenra isn’t a Western game written for Western audiences. It’s been translated and adapted for Western audiences, true, but it was initially created for Japanese gamers and anime fans. As such the cultural issues and context surrounding this game are different than what Western audiences are used to dealing with.

    As a somewhat casual anime and manga fan, I have a base level of familiarity with some of these issues. But I thought it would be good to get Andy to comment a bit more in depth on the Japanese gaming/anime culture before delving into my own thoughts on Tenra as a cultural artifact. The following is taken from an email exchange I had with Andy, edited only slightly for formatting:

    So I’ll admit that I fall into the category of people who would be reluctant to be seen in public reading a book with this cover, but that’s a reaction I want to take a moment to examine. In talking about Tenra, you’ve mentioned that the Tenra cover art isn’t “as bad” as it could be, and as a former manga collector (it’s just too expensive a hobby to maintain) I totally get what you’re saying. There’s so much manga that really is worse in terms of cover art. But by Western standards, the cover art is pretty damn extreme. That’s a LOT of crotch right on the cover. So could you comment on the cultural differences at work there? Because it seems like that “I don’t want to get seen reading this in public” is a very Western reaction.

    Yeah, it’s kinda weird. I mean, in the west, we have games like “all of the Vampire the requiem book line”, where the covers are artistic and abstract; but each of them inside actually features at least one or more pictures of female full frontal nudity. I found the clause that lets them get away with it in our hearts: “It’s okay to depict full frontal nudity, as long as the woman is screaming and covered in blood” (all of the nudity in Vampire actually hit that mark. It’s kinda creepy, actually).
    Meanwhile, in Japan there’s little compunction about putting it on the cover… In General. I mean, it’s still a flag to people, like “be careful here if you don’t like fanservice”. In a way, making covers more marketable would of course net a wider market, but at the same time allows the reader to judge (a book by its cover) what the manga might contain without opening it. So I say “in general” because while eye-rolling is distinctly not a Japanese gesture, a normal (casual manga reader with an adult temperance) woman might still ‘roll her eyes’ internally upon seeing such a cover, and move right along.
    It’s interesting, though: At the same time, nudity (for men and women) isn’t as much of a big deal as it is over here: Little kids still go with their moms and dads to the sex-segregated public baths (little boys in the women’s bath; little girls in the mens’ bath, etc), cartoons or commercials might feature naked children (in a totally non-sexual way), until very recently Ama-san ( Also, this ) were topless… until exactly after WW2, when westerners would come by to watch point, take pictures, leer, etc; then that tradition ended almost overnight. Families (fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters) bathe together until the child is well late into elementary school. There’s a lot of sexualization of the human body in Asia, but there’s a not of non-sexual nudity and casualness that can be strange (and frightening!) to foreigners.
    At the same time, modesty and shame (especially Shame, oh god) are huge in Japan. Incidentally, most bookstores will, for general privacy, offer to make book covers for every book you have like this. So if someone is reading something that they think might get them looks, they’ll opt for that book cover when buying the latest Princess Panty Pirate manga or whatever.

    In the case of Tenra, specifically, I think the author at that time just wasn’t aware of the possible misrepresentation that featuring “ninja crotch” on the cover of the book could cause. He was kinda in his own little puzzle palace at the time, and unless someone said “Hey *smack* you can’t draw this!” he didn’t consider it. At the time, he was very insular and reserved, and I think that definitely led up to some choices in art. You might say that even working with his friends and peers, he didn’t have the spoons to look at his work from all angles.

    But again, it’s very interesting to see his art now: He’s completely shelved his near-pornographic line of pose-able figurines (and replaced them with a line of cute figurines of people that appear in his new and widely popular autobiographical manga), and his art has become more reserved. He’s definitely more aware of what’s around him now that he’s happily married, and successful enough to be, well, *loved* by people. It definitely returned him in part to a real world with real people, pulled him in part out of his otakuhood, smoothed over some issues he likely didn’t know he had, and now his art lacks most of the “gooeyness” of the past.


    In talking about doing this interview, you mentioned that you aren’t going to do any future work translating games with cheesecake art that you don’t have any editorial control over. I’d really like you to provide a little expanded commentary on your reasons for that. This is a hugely important thing to hear from a male publisher and I absolutely want to hear you say more about this.

    Well, in short, it makes me feel uncomfortable.
    I run games all the time where sex and sexualization is not a factor at all. I run and play in games as deadly serious as Stalker to light comedy action games, from wacky maids to bloody body-horror demon hunting with blunt weapons, from traditional to independent; and aside from perhaps seduction, descriptions of pretty/sexy/etc characters, there’s really not any gratuitous sex.
    A cover, and the art inside usually sets the tone or mood of a game. Especially to a very visually-oriented person like me: I get more out of art books than setting descriptions. And if the art is primarily sexualized art, that alludes to a game that plays off of that. “You can play this game however you like, but this is what the author expects you to put into your sessions. You can choose not to, but by default it should be there” is kind of the message that art sends to a visually-oriented person like me.
    So the sense of being uncomfortable comes from me wanting to tell people, “Look, this is what the game is about! Well, mind you this piece here is just the artist’s kink, you don’t have to have bowling ball tits on your character. But aside from that, this art here tells you everything you need to know about this game. Oh, that girl that looks like she’s wearing a diaper? Well, it’s a long story. See, traditional Japanese outfits from that period… (a long discussion of garb, body-issues, and culture commences). That’s… complicated! I have to present material full of contradictions, require a lot of clarification that I have to be present for, and ultimately requires for me to say things like “The author doesn’t care what you play, and the games can totally be ‘rated PG’, it’s just… well… this is what he does, so he did it. And they published it. But you shouldn’t judge the book because three out of three hundred pieces of art involve weird body images…”
    I mean, in the end, isn’t it just *easier*, and more comfortable, to present a book of art wordlessly to people, without feeling the need to jump in and clarify, to explain? That would just erase that discomfort I feel at contradiction.
    Some might see this as an attack on sexy art, but I don’t think so. Take a look at the art for the French version of Barbarians of Lemura (which was folded back into the English version of the game later): There’s sexy characters, nudity, etc. It’s very comical, very cool, not weird/gross, and it really sets the mood for the game: The game is seeped in this sexy imagery. I can pass someone a copy of Barbarians of Lemuria and not have to clarify anything: Either they’ll get it or they don’t. Then again, France and the Americas aren’t separated by an extreme cultural gulf, so that might be a thing in play.
    And to carry the point, I have to clarify a lot when I hand someone a copy of “Apocalypse World” (a great game, which I love) as well: It has very little art, and the art it has is stylistic and thematic of a post-apocalypse game. Nothing about the cover says “The characters all have to fuck each other. A lot. It’s on the top of the character sheet. It’s a requirement of this game that you, as a player, have to consider who your character fucks, in almost every scene or session of this game.” That’s not very clear by the art, so if you line it up on a shelf next to a copy of “Book of Eli” and “Fallout 3″, people are going to assume the game is one thing by the cover, when it actually is another.
    So in the end, whether you put sex scenes into your game of Doublecross or Shinobigami or Ryuutama or whatever will be up to the group, the book doesn’t indicate at all that it’s part of the central experience of playing the game.

    Going forward, there’s not going to be an issue, though:

    • Both primary Ryuutama artists are female, and there’s no cheesecake. There’s a sexy merchant, but it’s sexy in the “1001 Nights” Claudia C-style art sense, and not “generic fanservice anime” sense.
    • The art in Shinobigami has no fanservice (the artist writes in a pseudonym; I heard that the artist was a woman but I am not positive).

    Those games are not from FEAR, but from other companies. After Shinobigami we might work to translate 1-2 more FEAR games but again the art is simply devoid of fanservice.

    I’ve often noticed that there’s a lot of shoujo (“girls” anime/manga) out there with a LOT of fanservice. Not the stuff with super super young protagonists, like Card Captor Sakura. (Because, um, yuck. She’s like 12.) But even stuff where the protagonists are like 14 is just full of gratuitous outline nudity, beach/hot springs episodes, and panty shots – which always seemed weird to me considering that shoujo is aimed at a female audience.

    Sailor Moon Fanservice

    I do love Sailor Moon despite the fanservice, but there’s an awful lot of it.

    Do you have any thoughts to offer on why it is that such extreme fanservice doesn’t seem to alienate Japanese women the way it would alienate Western women?

    Hmmm. I think a lot of it goes back to the statements above regarding being more accustomed to nudity in general. But also note that not all women *like* it. It’s becoming one of those staples that folks are starting to get tired of, the “fanservice dropped just to make sure you’re still watching, that has nothing to do with anything going on”. I’d wager that in another 10 years we’ll see less of it in mainstream anime, with perhaps those anime taking more of a sideline.

    The other thing is that me and many of my friends who are into Japanese culture pretty much treat meaningless fanservice with derision: Like, we note it and move on (“Oh, it’s one of *those*. Nevermind, next!”). However, there are a lot of folks with a better, more qualified voice who think and talk about it far better than I can. I found a plethora of interesting articles and blogposts on searches for “women and fanservice”, “feminism and fanservice” and the like.
    (This is a cute article which shows what the author finds to be classifiable fanservice types (and I agree with most of the ones he lists, even if many of them are not so common, while others are).)

    A side issue, but one of importance to me: There are many respected female manga artists, it’s totally not a boy’s club by any means (unfortunately, those bales and bales of shojo and romance manga (like all manga, a lot of it admittedly throw-away and dull) aren’t picked up for translation in the west as fast as Dumb Egregious Shit is). But a lot of the discussion of manga (in particular) kinda glosses over that fact. In short, I see a lot of disparaging of Japanese visual culture in general, thinking that it’s all a wash of misogynistic crap. There are so many women manga authors, it does them a real disservice to lump folks like Saibara Rieko, Takinami Yukari, Takaya Natsuki and hundreds more. Unfortunately, their stuff doesn’t seem to be picked up by the west as fast as other things, but I think that’s far more our fault (whomever makes decisions as to what to license) than Japan’s.
    And perhaps a more complicated issue: There are many women who are famous for making their living writing and selling pornographic manga: A friend-of-a-friend of mine is Yonekura Kengo (and apparently she’s actually pretty famous, likely because her art is so excellent). She alternates between writing volumes of hardcore pornography and then non-pornographic interesting tales of obsession, youth and sexuality (“Fire Candy”). I’ve seen a lot of Western slut shaming of the women who write for porn, in much the same way we do over here for alternate sexuality, kink culture, etc. It’s… well, expected I guess, but it’s disappointing. However, pornography is a much more complicated subject than for example the works of the women as per the paragraph above.

    This post is long enough, so I’ll hold off on adding my thoughts until next time. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Andy!


    I’m an occasional game illustrator, and game designer, long-time LARPer, and player of tabletop roleplaying games (mostly indie games). I have a terminal addiction to board games. I also play both PC and console games – mainly RPGs of all stripes, but I do enjoy puzzle games like Katamari as well. My main source of gaming notoriety, however, is the feminist gaming blog Go Make Me a Sandwich. In addition to being a cranky feminist blogger, I am a photographer and somewhat half-assed writer living in the wilds of Canada with a wonderful spouse and two slightly broken cats.


    One Response to RPGs and cultural context: a conversation with Andy Kitkowski about Tenra

    1. avatar
      Melody Haren Anderson
      January 2, 2013 at 22:16

      Honestly, this was a very interesting interview, and I had backed the project because I had the feeling that many of the problems arose from those very points he made. That said, I was curious to see the project once done and wanted to help make it happen.

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