I'm constantly studying Japanese comics and cartoons, or "manga" and "anime" to you cognoscenti, because they have a hard-to-define directness in their themes and ideas, and the ability to hook you very quickly in the way the best serialized stories do, almost effortlessly, while the majority of Hollywood movies and American and Western comics seem to struggle with trying to make their stories compelling enough to have the audience keep coming back for more. When I want efficient stories, I look at American comics and movies. When I want cutting edge narrative pacing and ideas that push the envelope to the point of sheer fucking – and exhilarating – insanity, I look to Japan. Maybe it's their lack of irony (and other mental filters I can't find names for) that enables to them to earnestly chase after any idea they set their sights on with total commitment, whether it be a schoolgirl coming-of-age story, a giant robot story, a technothriller, or a superhero whose mask is a pair of woman's panties (no I didn't make that up. Honest). One genre the Japanese actually do very well in manga and anime is the thriller. The Japanese had developed had a strong affinity for Science Fiction since the 1950s and their pop culture is suffused with high tech and military fiction. They are generally well-read and books on Science and History consistent sell well. A lot of manga and anime often has suprising bits of either information or commentary on global politics, espionage and war. GHOST IN THE SHELL, in both manga and anime versions, tackle serious ideas and questions about cybernetics, surveillance, espionage, terrorism and questions about humanity. The manga EDEN: IT'S AN ENDLESS WORLD is a dark, messy and intense cyberpunk geopolitical thriller about crime, politics and private armies in the shadow of a looming alien disaster that will rewrite the map of the world. Current anime series DARKER THAN BLACK explored the existential and moral dilemmas of superpowered spies as they fought over the secrets of an alien-altered zone on Earth, CANAAN offered commentary on terrorism, genocide and realpolitik corruption alongside emotionally damaged girls with guns. The common pattern here is ambitious political commentary married to cheesy fantasy staples.
So imagine my surprise when I bought Hideo Kojima's METAL GEAR SOLID 4: GUNS OF THE PATRIOTS and found that the entire game is in fact a near-encyclopedic compendium of Japanese storytelling conventions found in anime and manga. Kojima set out not just to make a game, though there's plenty of that, he designed it to be a multifaceted media experience packed into a single Blu-ray disc. I'm not going to talk about the gameplay, which is the usual tactical sneaking, shooting and boss fights. Apart from some satirical live action shorts that spoof daytime American daytime TV and commercials, MGS4 features the longest cutscenes in a single video game in the history of the entire medium. Gamers have complained about the cutscenes since they were so long they interrupted the gameplay, but I think Kojima wanted to make more than just a game, but an elaborate CGI anime epic. The cutscenes are the real point of the venture. The story of MGS4 is an example of everything good and silly in Japanese genre storytelling as informed by the last few decades of anime, adventure thrillers and Science Fiction. The plot is a thoroughly-researched infodump culled from Kojima and his co-writer clearly having read up on war, technology, politics and commerce to create a dense, wild-and-woolly commentary on war, technology and the Military-Industrial Complex, marrying political sophistication with earnest silliness. The codenames for the characters are deeply silly and sound like parodies of badass codenames, so you wonder if Kojima was having his cake and eating it too by indulging in his milporn obsession and taking the piss out of it at the same time.
What I find interesting about Japanese thrillers is that they may feature heroes who are Americans, Europeans or aliens, but they are always ultimately about the Japanese themselves. This is partly because the writers don't really have much experience with non-Japanese people beyond the characters and stereotypes they encounter through American movies and TV shows. The characters' mannerisms and body language tend to be Japanese even when they're supposed to be American. They don't openly touch each other or express affection easily. Characters who are in love are too nervous and repressed to express it to each other and their chasteness is almost pre-adolescent. Even "BACANNO!" a fun series about immortal gangsters in Prohibition America is filled with characters that essentially behave like Japanese people when they're supposed to be Italian-American. Yet it's easy to overlook that because the series is ambitious and surprising, like ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICAN if it had been written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Nic Roeg.
You could go through the checklist of Japanese action story conventions and find them all here: Massive and dense infodump of what the writers found out while researching geopolitics, check. Angst-ridden hero with a tragic past who's really a samurai at heart in modern times, check. Hero's smart but less masculine best friend and partner, check. Tragic heroines, check. Unrequited love, check. Genius hacker children, check. The heroes worrying about said genius children growing up in a fucked up world and vowing to protect them, check. Dodgy black "cool" stereotypes, check. Tragic Villains with Nice tits, check – there are women suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress fashioned into killer cyborgs in a creepy sexualised commentary about victims of war. James Bond-style intrigue in hot-button foreign countries from current news like the Middle East, Latin America and Eastern Europe, check. There's real passion and obsession driving this story and game that keeps it from feeling homogenized. Made between 2006 and 2008 before release, it's a product of its time in the way it observes the rise of Private Military Companies during the War on Terror and the Iraq War, the makers really wanted to say something here, and the genre dressings and game itself are a Trojan Horse for smuggling those ideas in. METAL GEAR SOLID 4 was the first pop culture fiction that used PMCs as villains before anyone in America did. There are even two elaborate and balletic martial arts fights that are the most elaborately choreographed sequences of their type in years, influenced by decades of ambitious wuxia movies from Hong Kong and beating out every martial arts fight ever seen in a Hollywood movie.
It also features the worst convention in scriptwriting that Japanese movies and TV shows use all the time, which is to have a character bring up a surprising or shocking new topic and the other character repeats the topic in a question in order for the first character to explain in more detail:
"They're all PMCs." Says Character A.
"PMCs?" says Character B, who's a soldier and really should already know what a PMC is, but then is acting dumb for the benefit of the player/audience member who doesn't keep up with real life news.
"Yes. Private Military Companies. They're now flourishing all over the globe." Replies Character A.
AAAAAAGGGGH! WE HEARD YOU THE FIRST FUCKING TIME! WE ARE NOT RETARDS!
This happens everytime exposition is required in a scene, which is pretty much every single dialogue scene.
"He's one of General Kang's most feared enforcers. He kills people with the radioactive dog poo that he wears on his head."
"Radioactive dog poo?"
"Yes. It is poo that comes out of a dog that is radioactive."
Okay, I made that one up, but if you know the game, it might as well have been in it. The interminable expositionary speeches must have been hell for the voice actors and are more examples in How Not to Write a Screenplay.
This way of conveying information in dialogue is clumsy, lazy, on the nose, and the first thing every scriptwriting class, producer and story editor will beat out of you at the first opportunity, yet nearly every single anime and genre movie and TV show from Japan does it these days, usually several times in an entire scene, let alone the rest of the episode or movie, usually stopping the story stone-dead for the five minutes it takes for it to get the exposition over with. Interestingly, I've found that genre movies made before 1990 and arthouse movies – older movies by Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, even modern auteurs like Kore-eda – and current movies aimed at a non-adolescent audience don't do this at all.
But you have to take the good with the bad for an interesting narrative and cultural experience. It's a flawed and contradictory product: serious-minded about politcs and war, yet resolutely adolescent. Everything you ever wanted to know about Japanese screenwriting is condensed and installed in METAL GEAR SOLID 4. You could use it as a case study the same way CASABLANCA is a compilation of all the genre conventions found in 1930s Hollywood storytelling, Renoir's THE RULES OF THE GAME for a catalogue of European storytelling, or THE MATRIX as a compendium of every Science Fiction and action movie tropes from the 1980s and 1990s. They become invaluable cultural artifacts and learning tools.
Oh, and the other anime titles I brought up are worth checking out too.
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