By ROLAND KELTS
Japan once ruled and defined the global gaming industry. In the arcade age, Japanese developers gave us “Pac-Man,” “Space Invaders” and “Donkey Kong.” In the era of physical consoles: “Metal Gear Solid,” “Snatcher,” “Final Fantasy” and “Silent Hill.” Japan’s creative use of technology, physical design and narrative whimsy once made it the only country in the world that consistently delivered interactive pleasures via buttons and joysticks.
But as veteran American translator, localizer and voice director Jeremy Blaustein reminds me, that was a very long time ago.
Since then, the Japanese gaming industry has grown increasingly marginal in the global market. Costs have soared, technologies advanced exponentially and the Americans overtook the business. Speaking at the Tokyo Game Show in 2009, game creator Keiji Inafune was unequivocal: “Japan is over,” he said. “We’re done. Our game industry is finished.”
For nearly a quarter century, Blaustein has been translating and localizing Japanese video games, anime and television programs, including several shows and movies in the “Pokemon” franchise. He is best known for his work on Konami’s landmark “Metal Gear Solid” game series, whose fifth instalment was released last month to rave reviews.
“Metal Gear Solid” was created in the 1990s by star developer Hideo Kojima. Many gamers and journalists cite Blaustein’s 1998 translation and localization of the initial entry as an industry watershed: The first time a video game produced in Japan felt fluently homegrown to English-speaking players.
“The landscape’s really changed a lot from the way it was when I earned those accolades,” Blaustein tells me from his home in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, where he now lives with his wife and two children. “There were hardly any American game makers back then. Japanese developers were everything.”
Three key changes transformed the processes of localization into those of globalization: the memory size of games expanded dramatically; the Internet made games more malleable and afforded worldwide access; and game makers became increasingly aware of overseas markets.
This last change, Blaustein believes, has engendered a debilitating self-consciousness in Japanese creators.
“(When Japanese creators) started thinking, ‘Hey, I’m cool,’ they lost their innocence,” he says. “They started thinking about the foreign market instead of making things for themselves. The incredible irony is that what made Japan so desirable (to overseas audiences) was its alienness, and in Japan’s attempt to bridge the gap, that was destroyed.”
Born and raised in Long Island, New York, Blaustein describes his Jewish upbringing as a mix of early Woody Allen/Mel Brooks chaos — “a crazy family of East Coast Jews who yelled at each other over the dinner table. There were no rules. The kids falling asleep in front of the TV. Nobody cared if we brushed our teeth or did our homework.”
He was drawn to the sense of security and the unselfish consideration of others he found in Japanese culture, stunned that anyone at a communal dinner would care if he had a napkin or bother to refill his drink unprompted.
After a brief stint with Jaleco, a Japanese leisure firm, in the early ’90s, Blaustein worked in the international business department at Konami Japan — the lone foreigner in a sea of Japanese staffers.
Back then, he explains, neither the game producers nor their consumers knew what was happening in overseas markets. Localizers and translators had much freer hands. Small adjustments were made to suit parochial minds: a monkey king from Chinese lore transformed into a Native American chief, for example, the former’s magic staff becoming a tomahawk.
Blaustein left Konami and went freelance in 1995. Last month, Kojima left Konami, too, though the company insists it will consider releasing “Metal Gear Solid” games — minus Kojima’s name in the credits.
When he worked on the first “Metal Gear Solid” as a freelance translator in 1998, Blaustein says that his goal was to elevate the text to meet the demands of American fans, most of whom were already deeply familiar with military and spy narratives. “U.S. fans required a more subtle approach to the tropes, combined with a more advanced use of military terminology.” He went so far as to invent military-sounding phrases, such as “on-site procurement (OSP),” to give the game a more authentic feel.
The popularity and creativity of his translation and localization of “Metal Gear” garnered considerable attention, attaining legendary status after the Internet started spreading the word about everything everywhere.
Today, most of the momentum in Japan and the rest of Asia is behind mobile gaming. The region currently dominates the fast-evolving industry. Blaustein is now president of his own game publishing and localization company, iQiOi Co., Ltd, based in Kamakura. It will be releasing its first mobile game early next year.
But he is not betting on a revival of Japanese creativity or global influence.
“Compared with Koreans and Chinese, Japanese are really not very sophisticated with PCs,” he says. “Because they spend so much time on mobile devices, there’s going to be a lot fewer programmers. So, ironically, they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to creating mobile games.”
And his take on the government’s “Cool Japan” campaign? “Well, when you actually ask Japanese people what they think is cool, you usually wind up with Western things.”
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.