Full disclosure, I haven’t finished playing this game yet. But there’s a lot I’m enjoying about Okami and I think it’s worth writing about.
The game is set in Japanese classic history, and begins with a flashback to events 100 years prior to the game’s present, and describes how Shiranui, a pure white wolf, and Nagi, a swordsman, together fought the eight-headed demon Orochi to save Kamiki village and the maiden Nami, Nagi’s beloved. Shiranui and Nagi are unable to defeat Orochi but manage to seal the demon away. In the game’s present, Susano, a descendant of Nagi, accidentally breaks Orochi’s seal, and the demon escapes and curses the lands, sapping the life from every living thing. Sakuya, the wood sprite and guardian of Kamiki village, calls forth Amaterasu, the sun goddess and reincarnation of the white wolf Shiranui, and pleads her to remove the curse that covers the land. Accompanied by the inch-high artist Issun, Amaterasu is able to restore the land to its former beauty. …Amaterasu locates several Celestial Gods who have hidden in the constellations that bestow upon the goddess powers of the Celestial Brush to aid in her quest.
Soon, Amaterasu, along with Susano, must battle Orochi to protect Kamiki village and rescue Susano’s beloved, Kushi, recreating events from 100 years prior.
So, there are a couple things of note. First, Amaterasu, our main character, is female, and the game reminds us of it often. People address us, “Amaterasu, creator of all that is good and mother to us all.” She’s strong with a kind of animal strength, literally tackling her foes, unlike most female protagonists, who use magic or ranged weapons to maintain a delicate distance. (Can you picture Princess Peach tackling someone, for example?) She’s also literally a bitch, which makes me giggle.
Second, though, the plot is the very typical rescue-the-maiden story. It’s really depressing that 100 years go by between Nagi’s unnamed beloved and Susano’s Kushi, but both women get kidnapped to be delicious maiden sacrifices and need rescuing.
Well, Kushi is a little more complicated than that (though Nagi’s beloved is not.) She seemed really cool at first– she supports herself by making sake! Her life is dedicated to her work! Okay, she also has a crush on Susano, which means she has no taste, but that’s OK. He’s not as interested in her at first so she just takes care of herself– at one point she carries a comically oversized barrel of water back to the village all by herself. But then she’s marked as the maiden sacrifice for Orochi, and has to get rescued. She walks into Orochi’s cave herself, to avoid putting any of the village at risk, and she even has a plan to escape (get Orochi drunk!) but she isn’t able to do any of it herself. We carry her in, and carry in her sake, and defeat Orochi for her while she wriggles around as dinner. She tries to break the mold but ultimately it’s just the damsel in distress trope played straight, again.
Plus, what’s up with the annual maiden sacrifice? Kushi’s the first in 100 years, but before that Orochi took a maiden every year. Why is it always a maiden? He just eats them, as far as I can tell; does having sex change a woman’s flavor somehow, so that it’s necessary she’s still a maiden? Do even young boys taste too different to be yummy? And how do they get enough maidens?? It’s been 100 years since Orochi’s taken a sacrifice, and they still don’t have any kind of decent backlog built up– Kushi is their only maiden. We’ve seen the old village, and it wasn’t any bigger. Did they kidnap women from other towns every year? This is the sort of thing that’s a little silly in a full city, but impossible in a village of eight people. And while I’ll ignore even basic logic in favor of a good story (that’s what sci fi is about!), this is not a good story. It’s not even an okay story. The ancient Greeks did it already, and did it better– they didn’t stick to the silly notion that only maidens were delicious. All this incarnation of the story does is make me annoyed with the writers’ laziness.
The other female characters manage to be even less impressive. Mrs. Orange is OK, but she’s mostly just Mr. Orange’s wife. She cooks for us after we help her with her laundry. Mushi’s mother doesn’t even have a name; she chases us out of her garden when we try to dig up her turnips. (She doesn’t appear to have a husband, either, which I’d call a cool representation of single motherhood if I didn’t think it was entirely due to the fact that they wanted to avoid animating more people than necessary.) Mrs. Cutter was awesomely creepy for a while but then she turned out to not be a woman at all. The tree goddess Sakuya is my least favourite– she wears less and less clothing as the game goes on and her cleavage…wiggles. Her bum is visible, too, and again, there’s…wiggling. It’s actually an uncomfortable level of sexualization, considering I’m playing with my little brothers. Especially since she’s a tree.
So as I play, I keep asking myself, does Amaterasu make up for this? She’s female, but she’s not a woman. There’s a whole lot of cultural baggage that doesn’t apply to her because nobody expects wolves to be sweet and nurturing, or whatever. And the other female characters, who are subject to that baggage, are nothing to write home about. So is Amaterasu a fluke, of sorts? I almost think so…it turns out that in the original Japanese, no gendered pronouns were ever applied to her (a wonderful feature of the language that I wish we could replicate). It’s kind of cool that, in the absence of gender information, they chose to make her female, but not too notably cool, since the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu is female…
I’m torn; I do enjoy the game, but the more I think about it, the less impressive I find its representations of gender. Well, I’m still only halfway through the game so there’s plenty of time for things to get better. I sure hope they do!