Published on July 31st, 2013 | by Andrew Vestal0
Attack of the Friday Monsters: Magical, Realism
Everyone has a favorite Ghibli movie. (Well, they should.) Mine is different from most – it’s not even directed by Miyazaki. It’s Mimi o Sumaseba, released in English as Whisper of the Heart. The movie’s emphatically not a fantasy; it’s about Shizuku, a Tokyo middle-schooler trying to figure out what to do with her life. She knows she should be focusing on her entrance examinations, but would rather be writing a fantasy novel. She thinks she might like a boy? Her older sister is annoying and supportive. She wants to translate Olivia Newton-John’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” into Japanese, and she really wants to get the translation right.
It’s tempting to call it a “small” story, but it’s not, really. For Shizuku, these issues are as important as the fate of the world. She doesn’t want to work on her manuscript because fantasy is fun and studying is boring. She needs to work on it, because creative expression gives her life meaning and means that she matters. It’s tempting to smirk at “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as a campy choice, but Shizuku loves the song the way only a 14-year-old can – and she needs her friends and family to understand that, too. Most “coming-of-age stories” rely on some great external event that divides the world into Before and After; Mimi o Sumaseba is just about a girl’s gradual internal awakening to her own clear voice.
Do you remember when things mattered so much? Of course you do. Everyone has their own misty-eyed memories of childhood, making nostalgia a tempting target for finding universal resonance. Stick the landing, and you get the magic of Miyazaki or Spielberg. Overshoot, and…ick. We describe overly nostalgic works as “saccharine,” “cloying,” “too sweet.” Something nice, overwhelming in excess. And when ham-fisted references replace thoughtful tone, the entire edifice comes crashing down in an unpleasant mess. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.
Attack of the Friday Monsters creator Kaz Ayabe, best known in Japan for his My Summer Vacation (Boku no Natsuyasumi) series, is an old hand at encapsulating lost memories in digital form. The time is 1971; the place, Fuji no Hana, in Setagaya-ku on the outskirts of central Tokyo. Nowadays, it’s difficult to distinguish one part of Tokyo’s urban sprawl from the next, but in 1971, Setagaya-ku was still the undeveloped countryside, a podunk town with one train station (but no trains). It turns out that these wide open-fields are the perfect place for tokusatsu heroes and kaiju to throw down each and every Friday afternoon. It’s a great opportunity for new kid Sohta to wander about, hang with the local kids, finish his errands, and solve the mystery of the local kaiju.
Except, there is no mystery. The kaiju, like everything in Attack of the Friday Monsters, are presented matter-of-factly and at face value. They might be real, or they might be part of a locally-filmed TV show. They might just be figments of Sohta’s imagination. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re real to Sohta, and the game respects his point of view. Even if his recollections aren’t accurate, they can still be important and formative. The game admires the sincerity with which children view the world, and doesn’t undercut their iron-clad belief with winking irony.
It takes the supernatural elements as a given and spends its effort building the world and characters of Fuji no Hana. The town’s streets and signage all make sense, but the kids have their own shortcuts to get around. The “magic spells” the kids cast on each other are just nonsense words, but the rules governing their casting, effects, and recovery are as rigidly defined as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition. The adults react to Sohta’s tale with everything from charming collaboration to the fervor of a true believer, but never dismissal or disdain. They’re friendly people with their own lives the kids don’t know about or understand. This isn’t used as an opportunity to explore deeper or more mature themes – just to show that the world is bigger than a child’s view of a single afternoon.
The narrator is an adult looking back at the events of this one Friday afternoon. It’s not clear if this particular day was unusually out of the ordinary for the residents of Fuji no Hana. But if it was special – if it was the day that “everything changed” – it’s not because giant monsters and space aliens came to town. That stuff happened every week. It’s because, this particular Friday, Sohta showed up in town.
Attack of the Friday Monsters doesn’t mine childhood memories like some kind of exploitable resource. It treats these memories with care and caution, honoring them as important because children willed them so. It doesn’t get mired in metaphor or symbolism any more than the rock ’em sock ’em tokusatsu shows it lovingly emulates. It is sincere, and to an adult that sincerity feels more like a foreign country than its vintage, rural Japanese setting. Most of all, it is kind – to its characters, its world, and its players.
It’s tempting to call it a “small” game. But it’s not. Really.