Sunday, March 8, 2015

About Legend of the Five Rings

Not too long ago (although longer than it should have been since the last entry in this webspace), the Society co-sponsored an event at the 2015 Tolkien Days at Ohio State University, acting in concert with the Medieval Electronic Multimedia Organization and the nascent UNICORN Cloud Conference and Virtual Museum of Medieval Studies and Medievalism. The focus of the event was the Lord of the Rings Online MMORPG, and several papers were presented in person and online; they can be found here. My own contribution to the event offered some perspective on the history of the gaming property, tying it back through its direct subject matter and the history of the RPG, generally, to Tolkien and thus to recapitulation of the medieval.

Not too long ago, also, this webspace saw comments on The Year's Work in Medievalism 28, which includes an article by E.L. Risden that treats the Japanese medievalism exhibited in Miyazaki's animated films and calls for more consideration of how the Japanese medieval is deployed. In those comments, I invoked an earlier piece in which I note the deployment in anime of the Western medieval despite the easy access of Japanese artists to a rich history that, because it is caste-based and feudal under the (often nominal) oversight of a centralized religious authority, can easily be considered medieval as Risden asserts (with medieval remaining a fraught term). The reverse also occurs, not seldom in the RPG, with Western audiences recapitulating (romanticized and simplified) figures and tropes from the Japanese medieval--as is the case in the Legend of the Five Rings RPG.*

Legend of the Five Rings, or L5R, is both a CCG (following loosely the model of Magic: The Gathering) and an RPG. In both cases, it is based largely in Japanese culture, taking its name from Musashi's treatise, the Book of Five Rings, and deploying an iteration of Japanese myth, legend, and history that is as true to its sources as Lord of the Rings is to Tolkien's or Foundation is to Asimov's. That is, it makes free use of the "truth" while deploying some obvious fictions and occasionally mixing in things that are not in the originals but still make for interesting storytelling. For even in its CCG iteration, the game makes much of telling a story that is driven by the player base; official events such as card tournaments and sanctioned RPG events are taken up as parts of the ongoing storyline that has been in continuous evolution since 1997. Generations have passed in the game's milieu, and that milieu has changed as the result of player decisions, corporate concerns, and shifts in the prevailing cultural standards of the player bases--but it still retains in large part the trappings of the Japanese medieval in which it was initially grounded.

Several reasons for that grounding suggest themselves. The personal interests of the game's initial designers--most notably John Wick--do much to shape it, of course, and the thought that some desire to not overlap overly closely with other CCG and RPG properties (notably the aforementioned Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons) informs the choice is a sensible one. the notion that the Western audience of L5R is less likely to be steeped in Japanese and other Asian medieval cultures than Western, and thus less likely to be attuned to deviations therefrom, an inversion of an idea advanced in "About Student Papers and Anime," may also obtain. And the feudal Japanese system, with easily identifiable social standards (bushido, social stratification, and traditional and contemporary dojo structures), lends itself to the kind of quantification typically seen among RPGs, as well; promotion up the ranks of a martial arts system comes off as more authentic than the level-based advancement in such games as D&D.

Whatever the reasons, though, there are things to consider about the deployment by L5R of its Japanese medieval tropes, particularly in its RPG iteration. The complexity of the in-milieu social structure is welcome. While it is ostensibly strictly ranked and tightly controlled, the practice of the game is such that there are many methods to circumvent the prevailing social controls at almost all levels. Competing chains of command and webs of loyalty pervade the setting, and attempts at negotiating them effectively inform many of the stories the game tells both at the individual game level and in the canonical storyline. Combat and tactics necessarily inform the game, both owing to the historical influences on the RPG and the specific social setting of L5R, which focuses on the deeds and doings of a warrior caste, and such concerns are differentiated from one another substantially among the various martial arts schools present in the game's world. The plethora of religious practices present, although formally united under the aegis of a central authority, also provides an authentic narrative complexity to the world, and it joins the variety of martial and sociocultural practices present in the game to present a recapitulation of feudal Japan that, if far simplified from the "reality," is still far more complex than many depictions of the medieval admit.

This does not mean, of course, that there are not problems in the depiction. The validity of the sources that inform the game can certainly be questioned in terms of their historical authenticity. If Musashi and Sun Tzu inform the game substantially, so does Shogun, and so do the films of Akira Kurosawa. As histories, they are not necessarily the best sources, and the latter's presentations of the samurai are directed towards audiences that follow the feudal period by quite some time. How much of the presentation of figures and tropes in the game have to be considered culturally apporpriative, how much of it serves the colonialist purposes Davis and Altschul's Medievalism in the Postcolonial World identifies as at work in the description of non-Western cultures as "medieval," and how much of it is set up specifically to accord with Western expectations of the medieval all need to be investigated. That is to say, how authentically L5R represents what can be called a medieval Japan bears further study--and where it is inauthentic needs to be critiqued. As Helen Young has noted, how true a presentation of the medieval is to the medieval it claims to represent matters, and those of us who study the medieval, either directly or in re-presentation, have a duty to look at those presentations. What they get right, what they get wrong, and how and why they get it wrong all tell us much of ourselves, and that is surely worth all the attention that it can be paid.

*I have been involved with the L5R RPG for some years now, having participated as a player and a GM in various incarnations of the online Winter Court game and having contributed informally to some of the now-canonical storyline.

1 comment:

  1. As a follow-up to the above, this piece: