Brain Diving Lunar Landing
by Brian Ruh, Feb 1st 2011
Going on a quest is a central part of many mythological tales and stories from folklore. In such narratives, there is usually a hero that must go off to accomplish a grand task that only s/he can do, meeting many people and encountering many adventures along the way. At the same time, the hero grows as a person, learning something more about him/herself and the key reasons that motivate him or her to take action. (Although a hero is often thought of as a male protagonist, I'm trying to keep it gender neutral here, particularly since anime and manga are filled with plenty of strong female heroes.) The hero's journey is one of the most basic plot constructions out there, but it has many variations and specific incarnations. It's a pretty common way of approaching RPGs, since the structure for a heroic quest is already pretty much in place – you have a main character that you control (the hero) and must meet friends and combat foes as you go from place to place until you finish off the final boss and win the game.
I think there's a strong connection between this idea of the hero and growing up through adolescence. Since the fictional hero is usually someone young who is trying to find his or her place in the world, this hooks into our own thoughts and concerns as we are growing up. I've talked a bit in previous columns of my own experiences in finding a kind of escapism from everyday life in anime and manga. And while that was certainly true, I think it was a bit more nuanced. Not only was I escaping, but I was working through ideas of the kind of person I wanted to become. I think I felt this even more when I was playing RPGs where I was spending hours at a time with the characters in my party. Over fifteen years later, one title in particular still stands out in this regard – Lunar: The Silver Star. I remember shutting myself in my room for hours at a time on weekends, playing this fantastic game on my Sega CD (which was, incidentally, also my first CD player). I think part of the reason I was so engrossed in the game was that I could identify with the quest of the main character – he was from a small, backwater town but had big dreams of following in the footsteps of his hero to become a Dragonmaster. Having a firm grasp of the distinctions between reality and fiction, I didn't identify with the Dragonmaster part, but I could see my own aspirations reflected in those of this fictional character I was controlling and who was supposed to be around my same age.
I can't really talk about myths and heroes for much longer without mentioning the work of Joseph Campbell, whose work is my main Read This! recommendation for this column. I'm sure that many of you are probably already familiar with the name. If you're reading this and are interested in how stories are put together in any way (whether as a critic or a creator of fictional worlds) then you should definitely know about Campbell's seminal book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, Campbell traces the general heroic arc that he has found common to countless myths and legends throughout the world. Borrowing from James Joyce, he calls this the monomyth because it was transmitted from one person to another through kissing. Wait, that can't be right. Okay, “mono” means “one” (and “myth” means “myth,” to complete a Simpsons reference), so Campbell's idea of the monomyth is that it is the single basic template for nearly all of these heroic stories. This isn't to say that these multitudes of cultures around the world were in contact with one another and sharing information; it's more like there is a basic drive in our human psyche that causes us to shape our stories in this way.
Once you realize the stages in Campbell's monomyth idea, it's not difficult to pick them out in countless stories and films. In fact, The Hero with a Thousand Faces was a key formative influence on George Lucas's Star Wars trilogy, which in turn been a big influence on so many other films, games, and television shows. One of the interesting things about Star Wars is that Lucas has said that he didn't read Campbell's book until he had already begun working on the films and was surprised to discover how close the monomyth concepts were to what he had been writing. This could be looked at as further evidence that the heroic journey in the monomyth isn't something that is necessarily conscious, but occurs at an unconscious level in many cultures. A fair number of examples of this can be seen in anime. One good place to start would be the Study of Anime website, which is run by Charles Dunbar. I found his post titled “Modern Mythology: What is Mythology?” to be particularly enlightening. If you're looking for some heavier reading, you can check out a Master's thesis titled “Hero Myths in Japanese Role-Playing Games” by Kieran G. Blasingim. Additionally, I know that anime voice actor Crispin Freeman runs panels on anime and mythology, although I haven't actually seen one so I can't really give an opinion on them.
Lunar: Silver Star Story -The Call of the Wind- by Kei Shigema
When Lunar: The Silver Star was released for the Sega CD in 1993, it was pretty unique – a Japanese role playing game that was unafraid of highlighting its anime influences. As a teenage video game player, I remember that the game's art was the first thing that drew me in to it. As I was working my way through it, I also appreciated the game's often funny, irreverent dialogue, courtesy of US publisher Working Designs. (There's a fascinating article on Working Designs in the June 2008 issue of the short-lived PiQ magazine if you're interested in learning more about the company.) In spite of my great affection for the game at the time, I didn't really think about it very much for a number of years after I played it, although I did pick up the game's sequel Lunar: Eternal Blue when it came out for the Playstation.
Last year I noticed that the original Lunar game was getting a remake and port to the PSP, and I briefly considered getting it for the sake of nostalgia. After all, I had long since gotten rid of my Genesis and Sega CD, I I'd never bothered to pick up the game when it was re-released for the original Playstation. (Throughout its life, Lunar has been released for a variety of other platforms, including the Sega Saturn and the Game Boy Advance.) Although I didn't end up getting the game, I was surprised when someone on Twitter pointed out that a Lunar book had come out in English in late 2010. I had to find out more, and saw that Lunar: Silver Star Story -The Call of the Wind- had been published for the Kindle at the end of November by Game Arts, the company that originally developed the game in Japan.
Regardless of content, this in an endeavor I can get behind. As far as I can tell, this is the first book that Game Arts has published in English, which makes sense because they're in the business of creating games, not putting out books. A few years ago, if they had wanted to put out an English-language version of a book based on one of their properties, they would have had to have worked out a deal with a publisher, who would have had to have printed copies, worked out a distribution deal, and so on. Now, however, Game Arts can bring their properties directly to the reader. And of all the possibilities I've played with so far, I like the Kindle the best because it is easy to use and platform agnostic. (I can read my titles on my phone or my PC without having to buy specialized hardware.)
Lunar: Silver Star Story -The Call of the Wind- was written by Kei Shigema, who had written the scenario for the original Lunar game. It expands upon the world of Lunar and was first published in Japan in the mid-1990s when they were revamping the game for the Sega Saturn. In addition to his work on many games, Shigema also has a number of other writing credits to his name, including a couple of novels and a film screenplay for Kia Asamiya's Silent Mobius franchise.
The novel follows the adventures of a young man named Alex, who has lived all of his life in the small village of Burg but who dreams of becoming a great Dragonmaster like his hero Dyne. He lives with his mother, Luna (a young woman his same age whom his family adopted when she was just a baby), and Nall (a talking creature that looks like a flying cat). When a young, egotistical magician named Nash enters their village looking for guidance to the legendary cave of the White Dragon, Alex, Luna, and Nall are the only ones who volunteer to go. Nash is trying to find the cave in order to try to begin the trials necessary to become a great Dragonmaster, and Alex thinks he will try as well. Although they encounter danger along the way, they manage to find Quark the White Dragon and he allows them to begin their quest but does not tell them what any of the following steps will be, making them discover that for themselves. In their further adventures, they encounter a spirited yet beautiful priestess named Jessica and a righteous pirate named Kyle.
If it seems like I'm leaving out details of the heroes’ quest, it's because the book really doesn't get very far into the story before it ends on a cliffhanger. The novel doesn't seem overly short as you're reading it, but a lot of the time is spent on character dialogue and interaction. Plot-wise, the characters are just beginning to set off away from home when the book concludes. The book is labeled volume 1, so presumable more will follow if this first installment does well enough.
Although I enjoyed Lunar: Silver Star Story -The Call of the Wind-, think it was in spite of and not because of the translation. I don't feel entirely comfortable saying this, since I don't have the original Japanese in front of me to compare it against. However, many of the English sentences are long run-ons that seem like they're trying to reflect the original Japanese, where such structures are not uncommon. And although I don't think I have an overly large vocabulary, it's rare for me to encounter unfamiliar words when reading a book; however, I found myself stopping to look something up every couple of pages with this book. (Of course, this is easier with the Kindle, since all you need to do is to double-click on a word to bring up its definition in the built-in dictionary.) And, frankly, sometimes the phrasing was simply awkward and the use of semicolons incorrect. These factors all combine to make for some odd sentences that would occasionally bring me up short. Such examples include: “Given that either of them had quite the sassy mouth planted on their face, the cause of the petty bickering lay at about half and half between the two” and “Directly below the spacious empyrean, a silver spring of flawless clarity spread out in front of the party of four, imitating the effect of a vividly colored daguerreotype, and mirroring the heavens’ pristine sapphire and the trees’ uncounterfeitable emerald in its placid waters.” Examples like the latter in particular just make me sigh. It certainly could be that this is a faithful rendition of the original Japanese and that the author intentionally used words not in common circulation; like I said, I don't have the original Japanese novel to compare it against. However, to me seems as if the translator is trying too hard, resulting in sentences that come off sounding rather pretentious.
On the flipside, however, the novel could also get oddly colloquial at times, such as when the narration says “Either the man had to be a total master of his environment or completely insane in the membrane…” or “Nash, on the other hand, taking no particular notice of Alex's reaction, much less giving a care…” At one point one of the characters even declares “I ain't afraid of no ghost.” If the language were like this throughout, I think it could work (as in the pop culture-laden dialogue in Working Designs’ script for Lunar), but as it stands it seems rather odd in the few places it does occur. And, not to be too sensitive here, but I'm not a fan of any translation where the narration calls one of the characters “retarded.” (As in “…though it should be noteworthy to mention again that it was only one specific dunderhead in the small party of four who was retarded enough to attack the great army of insects…”) Given that it's a particularly offensive term to some people and that it's not being used in any way that's creative or satirical, I just don't think it's necessary.
All in all, Lunar: Silver Star Story -The Call of the Wind- stands on its own as a lightweight novel apart from the game. It's a quick, entertaining read, although I think that a more reader-friendly translation could go a long way in helping it find an audience. I have to say that reading the novel, I've rekindled some of my old nostalgia and now have the urge to go and play Lunar again. Which is probably the point.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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