Thursday, July 7, 2011

Auteurs, Shadows of the Damned, and Suda 51 motifs

The film industry revolves around stars. When you see a movie poster, it likely has the names of star actors prominently displayed to lure you into the theater. Actors are sexy. Actors sell tickets. But there are a number of directors who are big enough names on their own that they're able to get their names on posters, too. It's a way of validating film as an art form, that the name of the "artist" behind it is able to sell something like the names of authors or painters.

There are a handful of auteurs in the video game world who are considered big enough to get their names on the boxes of their titles, but despite Japan's massive worldwide industry presence, virtually no Japanese designers receive this honor outside their home country. In fact, the only name that comes to mind is Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima. Even Shigeru Miyamoto, the most important game designer on Earth, doesn't get his name on the cover of the newest Mario game. So it's a pretty big deal when punk rock designer Goichi Suda, better known by his pseudonym Suda 51, gets the phrase "A Suda 51 Trip" emblazoned across the front of the North American and European release of his newest title, Shadows of the Damned.

Gaining a cult following in 2005 with his opus Killer7, Suda finally had a commercial breakthrough with 2007's No More Heroes. This led to his company, Grasshopper Manufacture, doubling in size and adding offices both in Japan and in the United States. It was all a lead-up to Shadows of the Damned, released last month as a collaboration with famed Resident Evil creator (and auteur in his own right) Shinji Mikami, and a soundtrack by Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka.

Mikami's influence is clear from the get-go, as the gameplay and controls of Shadows of the Damned are drawn straight from his own personal masterpiece, Resident Evil 4. And oddly, both games feature a "merchant" who first appears hostile to frighten the player, but is revealed to be a friendly character who sells the protagonist goods throughout the storyline. In Shadows of the Damned, his name is Christopher, and in Resident Evil 4, he's simply known as the Merchant; both characters emanate a blue glow from their stores to let the player know they're near. But that's where the obvious Resident Evil connections end, as this game is firmly placed in Suda 51's realm.

The premise is simple: your girlfriend commits suicide and gets dragged to hell by demons, and you must travel to the Underworld to get her back. Sounds like a standard video game trope, but Suda adds his signature crude humor and crazy art style with creeps galore. Since this post is all about auteurs, though, let's take a gander at the motifs running through Suda's games, and the sexual themes explored in Shadows of the Damned.

Right off the bat, protagonist Garcia Hotspur comes off as strikingly similar to Travis Touchdown, the main character in No More Heroes. Both are leather jacket-wearing cool dudes in their 20s or early 30s with giant motorcycles and a penchant for penis jokes stemming largely from their phallic weapons of choice (see photo above for Garcia's). Both embody a hyperbolic version of modern male American (in Garcia's case, Mexican-American) culture, and are going through the violent events of the game in pursuit of a hot blonde woman (see below for Garcia's).

The enemies of the game bring Killer7 to mind. Coincidentally, it was the last game on which Suda collaborated with Shinji Mikami. Both games take place in a strange afterlife world--Shadows of the Damned in Hell, and Killer7 in an alternate version of Earth where protagonist Harman Smith interacts largely with characters who are dead. The lowest form of enemy is similar in both games: the demons in Shadows of the Damned resemble Killer7's ghostly Heaven Smiles.

Suda's tradition of featuring a game-within-a-game is even more widespread. Killer7, Contact, and No More Heroes all feature games-within-games, and it's most developed in Shadows of the Damned's "Great Demon World", a 2D R-Type-style shooter with a distinct construction paper-esque art style. Even a major boss battle against one of the main game's prominent antagonists takes place in this 2D minigame.

Another motif in Suda 51's games is his obvious love for Mexican imagery. One of the playable characters in Killer7, Mask de Smith, is a lucha libre wrestler. Travis Touchdown lives just north of the Mexican border, collects dozens of lucha libre masks and learns Mexican wrestling moves in No More Heroes. And in Shadows of the Damned, we've finally got a Mexican-American main character. Garcia uses plenty of Spanglish throughout the story, and his background is a big part of his characterization in the game. It's strange, then, that Suda didn't capitalize on all the great Mexican Day of the Dead imagery he could've used for the Underworld.

Shadows of the Damned is a tonal halfway point between the deathly subject matter of Killer7 and the juvenile shenanigans of No More Heroes. While Shadows of the Damned is a solid game, Suda's distinct style works better if he stays in either extreme; this median means the game is not quite as compelling as the two that precede it.

A more serious theme the game deals with is Garcia's sexuality. As he travels through Hell to find his girlfriend Paula, hellish apparitions of her appear to him constantly. Sometimes he thinks he's finally found her and they share a loving embrace, only for her skin to peel off and reveal a demon inside. Sometimes her severed head appears to him in Underworld markets or ghoulish bowling alleys. Sometimes she simply chases after him in a zombie-like state and tries to kill him with the Kiss of Death.

But while the "real" Paula appears to Garcia in an elegant dress, the hallucinations of Paula always appear to him in seductive lingerie. In a sequence about halfway through the game, Garcia most run across gargantuan building-sized Paulas, who are naked and moaning while he is forced to run between her breasts and down her stomach.

It's all a reflection of his sexual tension. This suddenly puts all the dick jokes and fun phallic insinuations throughout the game in context. Now it doesn't seem so trivial. Shadows of the Damned is a trip through Garcia's fragile psyche, his greatest fears and instincts visualized.

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