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Breaking The Narrative Episode 95: A Journey of Vengeance? Reviewing Shenmue I+II

The year is 2000, I had been an owner of a Sega Dreamcast, playing Phantasy Star Online for months on effectively the first console I ever personally owned. It wouldn’t be much longer before I owned a Playstation 2. Shenmue had gotten released in the United States and I was enthralled. The ambition and scale of the game was insane and unlike anything seen before.  While I wouldn’t be able to play the second until years later on the original XBox, I had done everything I could to try to play these two games as originally intended. It helped, of all things. to birth my interest in soldering and making modifications to not just technology but games and model kits, Making something all my own. However, that’s not what we are talking about today.

Today we are talking about, effectively, the first chance people in the United States have to legitimately play these two massive-for-their-time games as originally intended, with some fidelity and process boosts of course. Shenmue I+II are collections currently available from Sega on PS4, XBOX ONE and PC via Steam. They follow the adventures of Ryo Hazuki, and the quest to not only avenge his father Iwao’s death to the Chinese mafioso Lan Di, but to discover the mystery behind two stone mirrors made in an obscure corner of China proper. The story was effectively incomplete for nearly two decades but starting August of 2019 the third game of the series will finally be released and will begin the journey to the story’s end.  As such Let’s Hammer This In!

Now I get what you are wondering? Why cover this obscure game saga at all? What does it have to do with Men’s Issues? Well for starters it covers some of the aspects of male disposability by showing how innately willing not only Ryo but Iwao are as martial artists to put their lives on the line for what they view as a noble cause. But it also, through flashbacks, shows us something about father and son relations specifically. Then there is how two men who are completely unrelated can start considering one another as brothers. Then just to twist the knife in certain narratives I’m going to show how even in 1999 when this game was originally released in Japan, ‘representation’ was not even a problem. Even if at the point in time in which the game is placed, Japan was not seen as much of a ‘diverse place’.

First, we’ll jump onto our setting for the game, December 1986 in Yokosuka – a prefecture of Tokyo known for its harbors and commercial districts. Our hero Ryo lives on the street of Yamanose in his family’s dojo where they practice the self-named Hazuki-Ryu of martial arts. The fighting sections are based around the combat systems in the Virtua Fighter games, as this was originally being touted as an RPG offshoot of that series. This style of martial arts is based around fast and hard hitting attacks, albeit not nearly so fluid considering the limitations of the hardware of the time. The game opens up with Ryo just getting home and finding his housekeeper Ine Hayata on the ground, disoriented from being pushed away by Lan Di’s thugs, his fellow student and brother figure Masayuki Fukuhara being launched out of the door, and his father Iwao under attack from the cruel gangster boss.

It is here we find out about the core of Lan Di’s search, two mystical mirrors each emblazoned with a guardian beast in the forms of a Dragon and a Phoenix. As the games go on we find that this is due to some legend concerning the summoning of the demon his particular cartel – the Chi You Men – is named after. This is something our hero, Ryo gives no fucks about. He just wants to avenge his father, but as the game goes on, he finds that the quest to stop this demon and his urge for revenge are inseparable.

Early on in the quest we have a few flashbacks. One is of when Ryo is 7 years old and is just starting to learn from his father in the family style. The earliest of these is simply a vision of eating lunch with his father, in which Iwao admonishes his son for not eating his carrots, teaching that farmers worked hard to produce that food which he was trying to discard. Its a small detail but showed how caring and good of a man that Iwao was, even if he did have to kill a man in China during his youth.

One thing that should be remembered is that killing a person in Japanese culture even today while illegal doesn’t necessarily carry the same connotation as it does in Western culture. Its quite likely that the situation in which Iwao and potentially eventually Ryo have to kill have easier justifications than the same killings would have in say, American culture. We also have the option of seeing how tight of a friendship Ryo has with Naoyuki Ito, effectively his best friend, who eventually lends you his motorcycle to save potential love interest Nozomi Harasaki. I say potential because Shenmue is an early example of a game where your actions determine the outcome of the game. Effectively the only way to ‘lose’ the game is if you let the in-game clock go past April 15th in the first game, and do something similar in the sequel. In short, you don’t simply screw around in Shenmue. You can, but its often highly discouraged.

Now as it goes along, male disposability is evident. While the housekeeper Ine and close confidant Fukuhara highly discourage the actions Ryo desires to take in vengeance, neither of them actively do much to oppose it short of Ine eventually cutting you off of your daily allowance of 500¥ (effectively $5 USD,) which is typically used early in the game on a sidequest of taking care of a small kitten to help a neighborhood child who wishes to take care of her. This is an honest show of male compassion because while you could ignore it the story is expanded and fleshed out better if you do care for the kitten. This is a tribute to the vision that game lead Yu Suzuki had for the project. He originally viewed this as a 7 game epic that would transfer saves between each game and each decision would effect how you entered into the next stage of the franchise. For example if you made and saved a lot of money in the first game that would transfer to Chinese Yuan when you finally hit Hong Kong in the sequel.

Every interaction would effect how characters in the following game viewed your approach with Ryo and his quest, complete with which characters would and wouldn’t help you further your quest as time goes on. This is impressive, considering that it was being worked on in 1999 and 2000. The problem was, Sega was so haphazard with their hardware development that they simply ran out of money to keep up both console and game development. Therefore, to save their game division they went third party and signed a deal with Microsoft and their original XBox to keep things going. Sadly, Shenmue II, which was released in the US with a Cinema version of the first game, did so poorly among the Japanese market that the series was considered for nearly 13 years to be completely nonviable.

So what about the representation angle that I mentioned? Well that comes in three parts really, the first being through the port’s sailors. Being primarily American, they’re not just the usual white ‘gaijin’ types. There are a few African American, Chinese and even one or two Hispanic sailors in port throughout the game. There is even specifically an Iranian dock worker who is there trying to pay off various debts. So not only are these characters organically inserted in the game but all of them have reasonable backstories that are fleshed out sanely for the sake of the game’s overall plot. Add to it that each one of these characters are voiced in both Japanese and English (and in case of the European release subtitled in Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese as well) the costs of this game did stack up.

While the acting is notoriously bad in most versions that is part of the game’s overall charm as well. It doesn’t take away from the emotion that is imbued into it as the pacing and style very expertly mirrors that of a Bruce Lee kung-fu flick.
This is reinforced by Mark Kimberly, an analogue for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar whose character arc is a thread in which Ryo follows to track down the partnered smaller gang that helps the Chi You Men – the Mad Angels. Mark is also your trainer in your harbor job and is by far a very positive showing of a hard working black man trying to figure out what happened to his kid brother.

That’s one of the most beautiful aspects of the entire game. Most of the characters are shown to be inherently good people and if they hand wave you away it’s not felt like they were trying to be cheap with the voice acting but that these characters actually have real life cycles that they have to adhere to… So much so that you are given crap for not moving on and trying to get into college if you take enough time in the game. Still, once you hit Hong Kong in the second part of the game that criticism falls to the wayside as the people in Hong Kong frankly don’t give a crap about you for the most part. Those that do don’t care for any status as a student you had because you are seen as a full man by that point, as they have no memories of you before meeting you as an adult. In fact, you are basically treated as someone whose well-being is your responsibility alone, but they will give you help when it comes to pushing your quest forward.

I’m not going to go so much into the story aspects of the second game because overall, it’s an experience that I feel you should have for yourself, especially considering the save transfer aspect. The way I played through the games may not be the way you do it and you might not even hit all the same points I did. You might even learn moves that I did not because that is made possible. Now unless Sega and Suzuki-sensei work something out, the save file from the second game will not transfer to the third game. So I wouldn’t worry so much about that for now.  It might become possible depending on the deals made over the franchise and how much further it goes. At this point it’s suggested that it might lead into a fourth or even a fifth game depending on how the third is received.

However, no matter what, the story will be finished hopefully within the next ten years and I think shows full well why the Hero’s Journey that seems to be hated by the social justice crowd is so adaptable. It also does full well to show not only the strengths but the weaknesses of men, and takes the seemingly over-serious Ryo and opens up the easy-going side. It shows that while he’s a serious martial artist and laser-focused on taking out Lan Di, who is not so well fleshed out in the games (primarily only really being shown for 5 minutes to be kept a complete mystery,), Ryo has an obsession with gatchapon toy capsules that in this game are primarily long lasting Sega characters, many of which didn’t exist in the era the game takes place.

This covers overall that men aren’t simple at all, we have a lot of different parts to us that make us the complex beings that feminists constantly try to discard. Most importantly this game shows that race/skin color deep down don’t matter even to the seemingly ‘racist’ Japanese. It shows that as long as you try to integrate into the culture and community you are travelling to, things like skin and physical attributes or even gender matter very little, even in what seems to be Suzuki’s memory of Japan of the 1980s. The reason I say this is because Suzuki wanted this world to feel real and lived-in and, the easiest way for him to do that was to base it around somewhere he actually lived near – Yokosuka, a place that effectively you could visit today. Of course it’s changed over 3 decades but if you look close enough you can easily spot landmarks from the actual game.

So if you have $30 and a platform you prefer, go and buy this game and play it. There are so many paths you can take what I’ve gone through so far spoils very little of the actual story. There are several layers and secrets that you can find surprisingly enough and you’ll never have every single hint or item you could get. In short, it’s a completionist’s worst nightmare. Now if you’ll excuse me….. I just have to play through the game again. There are a few things I still want in it, until next time Please Remember to Game Freely!

Alex Tinsley
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Alex Tinsley

A student of Fine Arts and Japanese culture of six years at Murray State University. Having never graduated due to difficulties with a specific teacher has gained a unique perspective upon the issues being faced by men and boys. A father of a young boy and loving husband.
Alex Tinsley
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Alex Tinsley

A student of Fine Arts and Japanese culture of six years at Murray State University. Having never graduated due to difficulties with a specific teacher has gained a unique perspective upon the issues being faced by men and boys. A father of a young boy and loving husband.