Kaiju—the giant movie monsters made famous by Godzilla and his ilk—keep showing up this month. First there was Pacific Rim, love letter to mecha, giant monsters, and craftsmanship. Then there’s this this totally badass Lego Mothra diorama (What sort of writing has been done about Lego culture? Links?) Plus, there’s the new info about next year’s Godzilla film coming out of ComicCon. And, finally, there’s Attack of The Friday Monsters!: A Tokyo Tale, a short adventure game that’s part of Level-5’s Guild series, which allows notable designers to direct small, interesting projects for the Nintendo 3DS.
Friday Monsters isn’t an adventure game in the “combine Dijon Mustard with Hairbrush to solve puzzle” way. Instead, as Janine Hawkins describes, you spend most of your time:
winding your way through the dusty streets of your town and passing over narrow footbridges, zig-zagging down hills and along burbling streams, running errands for your family and neighbours, playing with your friends and collecting pieces for the Rock-Paper-Scissors inspired monster cards battles they’re so keen on.
The game probably wouldn’t be called a “life sim” because it doesn’t include any resource management, balancing of character “needs,” or shopping, but it evokes a life in a way that those sorts of games rarely do. It’s an endearing and devoted recreation of the way a long summer afternoon feels as a kid.
Despite all that charm, though, Friday Monsters is actually built on a bittersweet foundation. What if some of this joy we get from the entertainment we love comes at the cost of criticality? Friday Monsters is a game about a genre in dispute, unsettled. How do we frame our stories in a given genre? Who are our villains, our heroes? What is at stake? Friday Monsters is a look at how real, historical circumstances determine the answers to those questions, and how over time those circumstances themselves change.
—There are spoilers for Attack of the Friday Monsters below.—
How does history have anything to do with a genre? In his piece on Pacific Rim, L. Rhodes writes:
…genres carry their own history implicitly, and that often makes it difficult to understand just what’s at stake. Often, the very things that give a genre its endurance are hidden behind affectations that are, if not quite superficial, then at least secondary. It’s all too easy sometimes to mistake those affectations for the real motive force that keeps us coming back to our favorite genres.
There are two ways to understand Rhodes’ claim that “genres carry their own history implicitly.” First, a genre’s subtext implies a specific history. Works in a given genre are often reduced (by fans and by critics) to their most obvious components—whether those are giant robots, neon lights, or star-crossed teens gazing tautly at each other from across a cafeteria. But a genre’s history, says Rhodes, is actually carried in what’s below that layer, the subtextual themes. A genre’s history isn’t just the flippant one-liner, it’s what’s barely said at all. It’s not just the uppercut, it’s the series of glancing blows.
There is a second, broader way of understanding Rhodes’ claim, though: To be a “genre” is to implicitly—that is, by definition—be a sort of history. While some seek to remove questions of context and history from media analysis, there is still fruit on those trees. The death of the author might be better understood as a dethroning: where once critics thought that the mind of the author and the times they wrote in were keys to unlock a work’s hidden depths, now we can think of a work’s context as one potential lens to view it through.
Genres reflect some real historical interest: Cyberpunk isn’t just neon lights and chrome prostheses, it is also a reaction to late capitalism. It’s hard to know exactly what role the 9/11 attacks had on entertainment in the early 2000s—there are whole careers built on analyzing this period of media production—but that there was an effect seems clear.
Just as interest can change, though, so can the themes and affectations of a genre. Genres are disputed ground, where new works, the criticism they inspire, and the social and economic structures that we encounter them on all work to map out the boundaries of what “counts” and what doesn’t (“Drive isn’t a real car film, because there’s only one chase!”) There is no permanent “settling” of this dispute—there is always room for reinvention. There is no Platonic “Western” that we’re getting closer and closer to with every new piece bashing The Lone Ranger. There are key moments, though, when disputed forms take and hold shape, finding some degree of stability for some amount of time.
These genre disputes don’t happen in a vacuum, they happen in history. That is to say, they are affected by our contemporary condition, by the worries and fears we have, by what’s fashionable and what’s desirable, by how much money a production company might have at hand, by the weather, and by all the “whether…”s that make up a time. Attack of the Friday Monsters! can be read as a game about these effects and genre disputes.
A Blood Covered Sun
Contra the popular notion that the Kaiju genre is about man-made disasters, ecological destruction, and the dangers of unchecked technological advancement, Rhodes effectively argues for another theme’s importance: anxiety about the modern city. He writes:
Nuclear anxiety would come later, likewise tied to urban life by the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the beginning, though, there was dread of the city itself, and the expression of that dread in the vision of a colossal monster moving through its streets.
One could read Friday Monsters in a similar light. As the game’s subtitle, A Tokyo Tale, suggests, Tokyo plays an important role in Friday Monsters. Sohta, the player’s character, isn’t running through the streets of a bustling metropolis, though. Instead, the action takes place in Fuji no Hana, a small town at the outskirts of the city. Tokyo looms in the background over many scenes. A train connects the two, bringing supplies from around Japan into the city for new construction. But the rail-crossing is also a divider: the player can never leave the town because some train or other is endlessly on its way past the town. City concerns are coming to the small town: film production companies, new businesses and neighbors, people with Western names. So, Rhodes’ read works here, there’s no doubt about it. We shouldn’t be too quick to toss away the centrality of “nuclear anxiety.” Before Tokyo Monsters’ start menu, a simple text screen reintroduces the bomb:
Here, Kaiju films aren’t being “reduced” to readings about ecological concern, but those readings are being recognized and reintroduced alongside their eventual displacement by the fantastic and the heroic. From this starting point, Friday Monsters stages the moment of that displacement from within the realm of a Kaiju story.
The small town of Fuji no Hana is special: every Friday afternoon, a monster attacks the town. It stomps through the cabbage fields as kids and film crews line up on the nearby hills. Attack planes drive the monster away, the town is saved, and the whole thing is turned into a TV Show. Sohta and his family have just moved to town earlier that week, and this will be the first time he gets to see the monster in action—plus, moving to Tokyo means getting TV stations, so Sohta is doubly excited.
As Sohta travels through the town, running errands for family and doing favors for neighbors, he and his friends begin to investigate the monster attacks. Strange things keep popping up. Why are there shovels in the big claw prints left behind by the giant monster? Why isn’t the cabbage field ruined by the battle that happened on it last week? Why does a TV Studio’s warehouse, hidden beneath a nearby overpass, have a schedule listing exactly when and where each week’s monster will arrive? Why does so much smoke begin billowing out of the nearby factories on the days that monsters show up? And (an important corollary) when the kids finally see the monster in person, why is it that it “looks like smoke from here…” but, “it becomes a huge monster when I watch it on TV”?
The kids so desperately want to believe. Sohta reinterprets evidence against the existence of monsters as points in their favor. He sees the shooting schedule and wonders if the TV station is summoning the monsters to attack the village. He personally figures out how to magnify his own voice, turning it into a monstrous roar, but never wonders if a similar technique is used to trick him and the other kids. All the while, Sohta misses out on information about real monsters and aliens, and ignores the history of his own origin even when it’s laid out plainly for him to hear. Instead, Sohta runs down alleyways, plays games with his friends, and eavesdrops on neighbors.
There is something oddly tense about the game, even when it’s at its most charming. By the time the climax rolls around, the game has been building pressure for an hour or two, but it’s hard to locate what threat backs up that tension. While we as players know that the genre conventions demand that Sohta’s father—a failed hero resigned to being the town’s dry cleaner—will step up and save the day, it somehow doesn’t feel that way. The problem is that those genre conventions feel immaterial and tenuous. They should, because in the world of Friday Monsters, they haven’t been formed or codified yet. The climax of the game is the moment of formation, a moment where a genre in dispute reaches a new form of stability. Sohta’s father isn’t just a “hero” in the vein of Ultraman. He’s the hero.
Friday Monsters divides the Kaiju genre into two eras. For most of the game, Fuji no Hana is a town of misdirection and illusion. No one is ever really hurt. The “monsters” aren’t just a sign of ecological concern, they are literally industrial creations: smoke flowing up from factories into our air. Our hope against the monsters is dispersed, governmental, as they are battled by the fantastically named, “Guardians! Blue Planet Defense Force,” a (fictional) military force. The “pilots” of the space age warplanes are never on screen, themselves, but their planes roar through the air to attack the monster. They are actors, standing in as assurance that we as a people can fight off whatever disaster comes our way—even the ones that sprang from our own assembly lines.
Enter Frank, one of the game’s most interesting characters. Frank is in the business of interstellar hero management. He’s “represents clients” who have sent him to Earth to shake things up, to make sure that Sohta’s father lives up to his potential as a hero instead of wasting away as just another citizen. Frank is business minded, organized, and efficient. He’s the guy the brass sends in to make sure that their investment has paid off. And it hasn’t. So in order to goad Sohta’s father into action, Frank summons a real monster into being (who else, but the robotic dinosaur “Frankosaurus”).
Suddenly the faceless military heroes are displaced by a spaceman as large as a monster. Actually, “displaced” is wrong—they are destroyed. Frankosaurus blasts one of the planes as it sweeps across the sky—we’re informed later that the pilots are injured and hospitalized. The cabbage field is destroyed as Frankasaurus and Sohta’s father—now named “Cleaner Man”—wrestle across the plains below the town’s hill. Their battle overrides distant Tokyo, taking visual precedent over many of the locales that Sohta runs through in the final act of the game.
Megami, the local TV producer gets it all on tape. She sees the children’s excitement for Cleaner Man and realizes that this isn’t just an incident that will make a good episode for her current show, but that it’s a new model that will set precedent for a whole new take on the genre. In the game’s epilogue she tells Sohta that in her new show, Cleaner Man will be the center of the action. She has, says the game’s narrator, “[discovered] that her career was about providing inspiration to children.” Instead of focusing on the giant monsters—and all the pollution, nuclear war, and terror that those call to mind—this new show will be optimistic, focusing on great individuals overcoming adversity.
There is clearly a double movement here. At the textual level, things become brighter. Sohta’s father lives up to his potential and realizes his dream of being a hero. Frankasaurus is driven away for good. The personal dramas that Sohta has been involving himself in—imagine micro versions of Persona’s Social Link stories—all find resolution: the bully opens up emotionally and integrates with the other kids; a father and daughter reconcile; the aliens that are in town decide to assimilate instead of leaving.
But there is a second more sinister movement, as well. As one of the game’s characters stares out at the sunset after the game’s climax, she wonders aloud “It’s a kind of a blood covered sun, isn’t it?” Sohta’s response, “What kind of blood?” is hard to read—is it a child focusing on specific details instead of the big picture, or the voice of a young boy stepping towards maturity, considering the costs of change? “The human kind,” she says. She’s right immediately, of course: Actors have been hurt in the battle, town property destroyed. But the exchange can be read in terms of a long term cost, too—especially given that the epilogue chapter is titled “A False Peace.”
What is this new world we’re left with? It’s one that replaces ecological concern with optimistic individualism (and which does so for the sake of TV ratings.) It’s one where special effects aren’t enough, where real human blood is spilled in order to establish heroes. Perhaps most frustrating of all, it’s a world where a hero rises to prominence on a con. Cleaner Man is only necessary because interstellar machinations created a worthwhile threat from whole cloth. We’ve replaced works that are concerned with weapons and technologies of mass destruction with ones that idolize a wholly unnecessary one.
It is to Attack of the Friday Monsters’ credit that this second movement doesn’t overwrite the first. Another game might luxuriate in these dark connotations, erasing any sense of charm from the game’s world in order to really hammer home the point. But Friday Monsters recognizes that the more interesting position to take is that the two are inseparable. It complicates a simple genre history by recognize what gets left behind, but also by recognizing the endearing qualities of what comes after.
There is a destabilizing current that runs throughout Friday Monsters. Towards the end of the game, Sohta looks at the giant alien hero, savior of Fuji no Hana, and at the giant robotic dinosaur that has put it in harms way, and can’t see the difference. He asks “What makes a monster a monster and an alien an alien?” This sort of question was inherent in the old, ecological Kaiju form that set human technological development against their monstrous side effects, but the new Hero show doesn’t have room for that sort of criticality. The Hero genre gets to be optimistic because it is insulated from that sort of question. Its concepts are as solid as the genre name “Hero” requires. Instead Sohta has to do heavy theoretical lifting himself, as an audience member. He changes “Hero” to “alien.” He complicates things, keeps the issue from ever being really, finally settled. We need to do the same