Ph.D. Candidate, Comparative Asian Studies Programme, National University of Singapore
In Simulacra and Simulation (1995), philosopher Jean Baudrillard discusses the perception of reality, originality, and duplication. Fundamentally, he questions if reality refers to a physical space or object, or to the imaginary representation perceived by society. In the act of simulation, something original, for example land and objects, are transformed into something operational. Perceiving something based on the selected imageries and experiences provided to them, people consider the simulation as equal, or even superior, to the original. Simulacra are duplicates of someone or something in the form of image or representation. The creation of the simulacra is inspired by the original source, using the original’s familiar characteristics or imageries to extract the feeling of nostalgia from the target audience. Nostalgia contributes to the strong emotional pull of the duplicate, creating an illusion of originality. It exists to represent the original, but it does not represent the whole narrative or imagery, showing only those things that needed to be seen, and applies new components to its narratives and imagery to suit the creators’ and consumers’ interests. For this reason, the question is no longer about originality or duplication but rather about how reality is formed through imagery that is operational.
To demonstrate the concept of simulacra, or modified duplication of the original, Baudrillard provides a number of examples, including Disneyland Park, a theme park created for the purpose of entertainment in Anaheim, California that opened on July 17, 1955. Disneyland contains architecture and environments inspired by fiction in general and animated films in particular. The films of Walt Disney were created based on the Western imagination, especially that of the United States, and many parts of the theme park portray a compressed and idealistic image of “the West” (Baudrillard 1995, 12). Take for example, the entrance of Disneyland Park, within an area known as “Main Street U.S.A.,” visitors could stroll along the long street decorated with shops, lamp posts, and trees that are inspired by a street in the city of Marceline in Missouri (Iovine 1998). When Walt Disney created the park, he was inspired by the street of his childhood home in the early 1900s and designed the road through the lenses of nostalgia and an idealistic aesthetic. The original area in the city of Marceline will experience changes through the passage time, but the road in Main Street U.S.A. will continue to look like the idealistic representation of the city in the early 1990s. Furthermore, by being called “Main Street U.S.A.,” visitors will not recognize the street as one from a specific city in United States but as a miniature representation of the old street in all areas of the country. The street in Disneyland Park is an example of the park’s application of simulacra, as it uses a fragment of the country’s land and timeline and represents it as an overall representation of the country’s historical image.
Building on Baudrillard, theorist Umberto Eco (1983) criticizes how entertainment and artistic productions become substitutes for the real, fracture it to appeal to public expectations, and thus create fake representations that are superior to the truth. In an environment of saturation and hyper exposure, media companies compete with one another to provide the most stimulating content and win over viewers. Similar to Baudrillard’s argument, Eco considers how the nostalgia of simulacra comes to legitimize its authenticity (ibid., 30). To create something appealing and “new,” media producers take a fraction of the original, blend it with other appealing factors, and deliver it in a compressed, simple, but stimulating way. Finding the content satisfying and relatable, viewers are more strongly connected to the copy than the original, and some even consider the copy to be the true original. The existence of simulacra overshadows the original, since the contemporary functionality of simulacra is equal to or more appealing than the original.
According to philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1983), however, Baudrillard’s and Eco’s definition of simulacra as a more valuable and operational copy or duplicate of the original is overly pessimistic. In contrast, Deleuze advances a positive perspective on simulacra, which does not replace the original with an inferior but likable copy but rather opens a space for improvement on the original (1983, 49, 53, 54). Constant media consumption results in the expectation of continuous, new, and stimulating content, but “new” does not mean “unfamiliar.” Taking content from different sources, media producers can attract viewers with cultural familiarity or nostalgia, which also makes it more appealing. Unlike Baudrillard and Eco, who consider simulacra to destroy the true meaning or representation of the original, Deleuze sees simulacra as a form of preservation and promotion of the original, which is adapted in the world where trends and social expectations continue to change.
In Japan, the concept of simulacra has appeared in discussions of manga, anime, and games. According to cultural critic Azuma Hiroki, to understand contemporary manga, anime, and games is to understand simulacra (2009, 60). Azuma argued that contemporary consumers “consumed only the information that was behind the works without relation to the narrative or message of those works” (ibid., 36). Small narratives and appealing characters traits and appearances are taken to create derivative works that are more appealing to the consumers. As Azuma sees it, manga/anime characters are produced by combining appealing elements that trigger affective responses in consumers. Consumers are more attracted to characters than the overall narrative, and one of the reasons for this is familiarity with the elements and nostalgia for the originality of the sources used from previous manga, anime, and games.
A recent Japanese game strongly connected to simulacra is Touken Ranbu (Wild sword dance), which revolves around historical Japanese swords and adds a heavy dose of science fiction. Players of the game are taken to a futuristic world where technology is capable of transforming old artifacts, primarily swords, into humanoid forms. These swords not only have human male bodies but also human characteristics. The player’s role in the game is to collect all the swords and cover all the maps. On this journey, the player’s swords are soldiers fighting against evil swords that travel to the past to destroy history.
In both its narrative and visuals, the game leans heavily on nostalgia. Backgrounds contain well-known Japanese cultural imagery, such as cherry blossoms, Mt. Fuji, and Japanese gardens in every season. Most of the sword characters not only have the names of Japanese historical swords but their clothing references traditional kimono and the uniforms of Japanese soldiers. The cultural and historical aspects of the game legitimize simulacra by appealing to nostalgia (Eco 1983, 30). The swords do not represent a “historical real” but rather the media translation of the real (Baudrillard 1995, 45). Azuma also gave a similar example in his discussion on the world of the television anime Saber Marionette J., where the world represents the combined imagery of ultramodern technology with the everyday customs and design of the premodern Edo era (Azuma 2009, 22, 23). The worlds in both Touken Ranbu and Sabe Marionette J. create a nostalgic Japan that never existed, and thus they become a form of a simulacra of Japan.
Overall, the game narrative is simple and compact, which allows the player to focus on characters. As humanoid swords, the characters follow the ideals of Bushido, or the Japanese warrior code of “courage, benevolence, politeness, selflessness, sincerity, honor, loyalty, self-control and strong sense of justice” (Benesch 2014, 1). While the portrayal of Bushido can be considered its own form of simulacra, the swords in particular are of interest. For example, Mikazuki Munechika is based on one of Japan’s oldest swords. The original was forged by Munechika in the Heian period (tenth–eleventh century) and given the name Mikazuki Munechika, or “Crescent Moon Munechika.” Based on information given by the Tokyo National Museum, the sword was owned by the wife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a Japanese warlord, before the Tokugawa family, who would rule Japan for centuries, took it. The sword is now a historical artifact and Japanese “national treasure.” While the existence of the sword is not popularly known outside of Japan, the developers of Touken Ranbu used it to design the Mikazuki Munechika character.
In his design, Mikazuki Munechika highlights two appealing factors of the sword: beauty and rarity. Drawn in the style of manga and anime, the character is a beautiful young man with flawless pale skin who is wearing an elegant traditional kimono. The designers also make a point about the sword’s age, as players are made aware that the character is an old man through his use of old and formal speech patterns. This inspires some fans to refer to him as “jiji” (old man). In the game, players need resources to get swords, and Mikazuki is one of the hardest to retrieve. Online, players share their formulas for retrieving Mikazuki, but players still must rely on luck to get the necessary components. For this reason, having Mikazuki as part of the player’s collection of swords is an achievement.
In terms of the game highlighting idealistic imagery of Japan, its compact and appealing narrative, and the beautiful humanoid character design, Mikazuki fits with Baudrillard’s and Eco’s definition of simulacra, but the character also calls into question their pessimism about originality and duplication. Indeed, the character is more appealing than the sword itself, and most contemporary Japanese familiar with manga and anime prefer him to the artifact itself. This does not mean, however, that the character’s appeal detracts from the original sword’s identity, let alone replaces it. Following Deleuze’s positive spin on simulacra, the character inspires consumers to conduct their own research into the original, historical sword, and some even go to see it. An exhibition of the sword at the Tokyo National Museum drew hundreds, who lined up to get a glimpse of the original. (Yomiuri 2015). Many visitors described the sword as beautiful, but not in ways equivalent to the beauty of the character. The two are related but not identical, let alone interchangeable.
In terms of the character, simulacra maintain consumers’ interest in Mikazuki. There is official merchandise, from toys and action figures to stationary and posters, but it is especially media and material produced by fans themselves that reproduce the character. In the game, the player comes to know the character through his speaking role and small interactions with other swords, which provides room for fans to interpret Mikazuki in their own ways. The flexibility of the character, which is quite unique from the original sword at this point, attracts consumers, who fantasize the character’s existence into their own reality.
An example of simulacra, Mikazuki Munechika is a character created through the combination of an original object, idealistic nostalgia, and contemporary methods of image production. The character is not an exact copy of the original, which is a historical sword in the Tokyo National Museum. While its existence is more valuable to contemporary audiences than the original, which seems to support the pessimistic perspective of Baudrillard and Eco, Mikazuki is in fact related to the original but not a duplication that might replace or reduce interest in it. Mikazuki might be considered as an addition to the saturated media market of Japan, where characters are key to attracting consumers, regardless of relation to any original. Nevertheless, following Deleuze’s positive spin on simulacra, connections between Mikazuki and the sword might inform consumers of the existence of the original and draw them to museums to see it. Connecting anime, manga, and game narrative to Japanese history inspired fans to perform pilgrimages to the historical sites and objects mentioned in the fictional narrative. According to Sugawa-Shimada Akiko, female fans of the video games Sengoku Basara and Hakuaki performed the act of pilgrimage by visiting temples, memorials, and other historical sites connected to the characters, to create the feeling of intimacy between themselves and the characters (2015, 46–50). From the creation of anime, manga, and games content and the actions of their consumers and fans, the concept of simulacra can be applied in many contexts within Japanese media and popular culture.