Friday, May 8, 2009

Metaphor: Katamari Damacy and Capitalism and Overconsumption

When I first watched "Reservoir Dogs" (1992), I thought I had watched the very essence of the coolest god to have ever taken attention of us mere mortals. I was witnessing the truth, and it was cool. It was the coolest. This Quentin Tarantino appeared to be an auteur of the highest class. This revolutionary man with the household name would surely go on to make the best movies the world has ever seen.

Or not. While Reservoir Dogs and "Pulp Fiction" (1994) were fresh, innovative films that were well done and epitomize "cool" for a league of copycats that would follow in their wake, director Tarantino would lazily release a new movie every few years or so for good reason: he's made the best movies in life already, and now lives in the shadow of his achievements. As an artist that mercilessly steals from other sources, it appears Tarantino requires a few years in-between movies to find new sources to undermine to fund his bankrupt creativity.

And the theft is blatant and brazen and even a source of pride to Tarantino, a B-genre director who brings an artistic sensitivity and high production values to his movies. Examples of such theft include: "A Better Tomorrow II" (1987) by Tsui Hark has a scene of its heros walking in profile in slow-motion wearing black suits and ties, similar to the beginning of Reservoir Dogs; also, the three way gun stand off seen in Tarantino's first three crime movies he wrote a script for (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and True Romance) originate in Ringo Lam's "City on Fire" (1987).

Indeed, it appears this type of referential art work exists only to reference other sources. Like rap and hip-hop music, the idea to to find the best lines or samples from other sources to remake into your own image; thus we have Rick James' "Super Freak" (1981) remade into yet another hit, MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" (1990). However, in Tarantino's case this leads to pompous and indulgent film making. Tarantino has a penchant for long, lingering shots happening in real time (eg. Jackie Brown's walk through the mall in the pedantic eponymous 1997 movie) as well as long, drawn out, meandering conversation seemingly full of significance but not having any.

Perhaps the worst crime Tarantino commits regularly in cinema is his regular device to establish dramatic tension by having one character point a gun at another character; in this imbalance of power, we can see both characters operating under duress to try to influence the situation. This is best seen in the opening scene of Pulp Fiction when Samuel L. Jackson's character points a gun at Frank Whalley's character. As a dramatic device it's cheapened when it used again and again with diminishing return.

As cinema, it's exciting to watch. The immersion is deeper for this type of scene since there's so much at stake for the characters. With the imminent threat of death looming, we normal film-goers who haven't had a gun pointed at our heads think to ourselves: is there anything more terrifying? What is more powerful than brute force? Violence is terrible and affecting, and its influence can shape further than upon its victims. Violence can affect people and the way they think, but what about changing entire worlds? Being able to shape entire world views without having to go through the trouble of pointing guns at everyone - now that's power.

The pen is mightier than the sword; it's true, and it isn't negated by the joke "Anyone who ever said violence never solved anything obviously never tried it." In the age of information wars are fought daily for opinion through flame wars on forum boards, snarky blog posts and writing everywhere. This is why metaphor is so important - metaphor is a weapon that can turn the tide of opinion in your favor for victory.

Metaphor is powerful because it can be so subversive and so subtle; by being understated and not focused upon, metaphor can deploy its hidden cargo of meaning to take down established, ingrained ideas and the regular status quo. You see, the status quo is just that: an entrenched, established way of thinking or doing that serves a certain minority an advantage to perpetuate, but isn't challenged by the majority to change even though it may be to the majority's favor to do so.

Metaphor, a device too subtle for most of Tarantino's low-rent movies, is more powerful than any gun. In slyly suggesting a metaphor whose message may or may be accepted by the public and so can surreptiously disseminate through society without obstruction, the status quo of entire empires and armies can be challenged - successfully, all without having to hold a gun.

After World War II, the world order was in flux; after years of violent upheaval, powers would consolidate to have two opposing sides - this would then begin the Cold War pitting east versus west, communism versus capitalism. Effectly ending with the collapse of the former Soviet Union and East Germany, we can safely say that capitalism and a culture of consumption has won out. This is a capitalist world, everything has a buck, and everyone wants to be rich. You can even safely say that capitalism is the status quo, as enough people believe in capitalism that you can't expect a sudden change in the world order anytime, ever.

Not if "Katamari Damacy" (2004) has anything to say about it. Katamari Damacy is by far the most sinister and subversive mainstream video game to clandestinely challenge the status quo. Katamari Damacy uses the power of metaphor to subvert the ideals of captialism, the culture of consumption and even the value of other video games. Katamari Damacy, developed and published by Namco, is a sublime work of persuasion because it masquerades as a video game while sabotaging the mainstream; it is so effective that it's work as a metaphor goes undetected by the many who play it.

Because this is metaphor, being undetected doesn't mean that it is uneffectual. Rather, as a metaphor Katamari Damacy plays to the subconscious and to overall themes; this means that without having to say it plainly and obviously, Katamari Damacy is able to give its players a "feeling" that will linger and may even trigger some follow-up thought and discussion that would expand upon this metaphor.

To explain this metaphor, the entire game play and premise must be explained. In Katamari Damacy, you play as the Prince to the King of All Cosmos, your father, and are sent to Earth in an attempt to recreate all the lost stars of the universe, which disappeared suddenly and unexpectedly one night. A star is made by rolling around a "katamari" which picks us suitably small items and objects; as this occurs on Earth, it is noticeable that each location a game level occurs in is teeming with objects to pick up. In houses, streets and cities we see the product of capitalism and overconsumption: floors and ground littered with junk, stuff we amass for no reasonable purpose but for the purpose of amassing.

In any level there is literally no end to this junk as upon rolling the katamari around and collecting things the katamari grows in size, letting the player reach areas previously unaccessible as well as now being able to pick up things once too big to handle. And you will grow to the size of islands, being able to pick up clouds and oil tankers. The message is clear: Earth is full of stuff of all sizes, and there's too much stuff.

Katamari Damacy takes a left turn from other video games and the approach to inventory. Most adventure and role-playing games have the status quo approach and adopt a philosophy of "more is better", allowing the player to own vast inventories and to enjoy the culture of consumption unavailible to them in real life on real life salaries. Instead, Katamari Damacy presents a situation where you capitalize on the excesses of others. Instead of claiming others peoples treasures as your own, Katamari Damacy has you use the possessions of others to achieve your game goal of making a star.

Katamari Damacy is a fun, addictive game in this aspect, but what hides this metaphor so well is the presentation the game comes in. The graphics are purposely low-tech and outlandishing cartoony, obviously to defeat any suspicion to the games subversive message. Bright and colorful, this game appeals to kids and the kid in all of us by stripping itself of unpretentions - as a game, Katamari Damacy doesn't try to be anything but fun. It doesn't try to impress you with cutting edge visuals as every other game attempts to do. It doesn't try to present a gritty, realistic view of the world in all its problems. Instead, you have brightly colored singing ducks and red dancing pandas - it looks like a world any cynic would be happy to inhabit. In a medium where video games are commonly derided for having poor graphics, Katamari Damacy requires the use of poor, simple graphics to add to its charm and sense of fun.

In fact, if you don't find this game fun you have to pinch yourself to find out if you're breathing or not. The game tells two (!) seemingly unrelated nonsensical stories that are burst of child-like joy; the inanity and lack of ostentation evoke the rapture of Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl. Katamari Damacy has an unthreatening sense of humor that has you accepting this game in no time flat. Adding to this sense of joy is a J-Pop soundtrack full of catchy, fun songs that have you humming along. Everything adds to Katamari Damacy's status as a fun, unthreatening game played by everyone, regardless of demographic or world view.

It also stands to emphasize Katamari Damacy's use of songs. That is: pieces of music with a beginning, middle and end that have a melody. This way, Katamari Damacy differs from most video games as well as most modern music at this point. As if it knew that society suffers from a lack of fun, Katamari Damacy also supplies us with songs with real melody to make up for the lack of melody in our everyday lives.

To underscore the sublime mastery of game and persuasion that is Katamari Damacy, this game is also what the best ideas are: simple. In a revolutionary new use of the Playstation analogue sticks, Katamari Damacy goes the opposite route from its peers and has a control scheme that doesn't use every button on the controller. Furthermore, it has a gameplay concept that can be instantly learned instead of fumbling with controls and manuals. In fact, Katamari Damacy has alot of simularities to "Portal" (2007) by Valve Software, yet another quirky, sleeper hit. Both games are simple concepts that provide a unique fun experience that use humor to hide the game's subtext.

Also worth comparing is that both games are relatively short in order to serve the exposition of the story/subtext. For Katamari Damacy, the dramatic effect to emphasize the consumption metaphor would be lessened with if levels were repeated ad nauseum; while the game has the resources to do so and pad out the experience for whiny fans who demand value/time for their purchase, the developers did not do so, just as the number of colossi ended at sixteen in "Shadows of the Colossus" (2005). For Portal, its status as a puzzle game was subjugated to tell a story about love (please see: Analysis: On "Portal" and Love). We feel they are too short because we want more; however, they are great specifically because they are short. Napolean knew this; and he conquered France and most of Europe and got a chick Josephine, to boot.

While fun on it's own, all these disparate elements combine together to create that feeling every single gamer has been trying to recapture ever since he blew up his first asteroid or jumped his first barrel: joy. Nothing can ever match that sense of wonderment as when we first allowed ourselves to live another life in a fantasy world where we could do and be so much more than what we actually are. This is a similar reason that musicians have for playing music, both professional and amateur: even though we continually grow and learn for the rest of our lives, that very first feeling of discovery is profound.

Katamari Damacy reminds you of your first kiss, the first time you held hands, the first time you actually saw a nipple. It gives you a child’s sense of wonderment that other companies like Disney try to ape; however, when your first responsibility is to your shareholders and the profit they seek, your motives cause your results to be contrived. That's one reason of the universal appeal of Katamari Damacy: the game enables the player this immediate feeling of joy and doesn't let go.

However, the brillance in Katamari Damacy is in combining the fun and joy with the game's metaphor against capitalism and the culture of consumption and have no one notice but leave them nagging, lingering feelings afterwards. For a children's game it's especially sinister and subversive, but then again most children's fiction is similar (eg. "Alice in Wonderland": drugs, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory": class war). It makes for the happiest social commentary you'll play on the Playstation2.

This type of artistic deception is the same reason how people can play the Police's "Every Breath You Take" (1983) for a first dance at a wedding and yet not realize that it is a song about obsession and stalking. Oh, I'll be watching you.

Rated: Three out of 3 stars.
Played to completion on the PS2; had finished with the last level katamari measuring over 900m in diameter.


  1. I'm sorry, is this all some sort of elaborate satire of games journalism?

  2. Very nice commentary.

    Though the honesty and sincerity of the metaphor is begging for a bit of scrutiny, what with the shameless churning-out of sequels. It was an amazing message that needed to be made, but four times over since the original?

    No longer does Katamari seem to be the not-for-profit revolutionary catalyst it entered this world as. It seems to be the very thing it's parodying.

    The same game is being re-released over and over... that in itself almost seems to be a satire of consumption. But I think that's reading a bit too deeply into it.