“Yo-kai Watch” Inspires Fitness, Challenges “Pokémon” with Animist Tales
Yo-kai Watch, a colorful new game from Level-5 game studios of Japan, may be the next big rival to the much-loved Pokémon franchise. Originally released in Japan on Nintendo 3DS in July of 2013, the American release on November 6th, 2015 has enchanted American gamers' imaginations and spawned a devoted new fan following. Now, almost a year later, there's still a lot of love for this charming new game which has become a popular hit. The game has fueled a multi-million dollar franchise including offshoot manga (comic books) and anime (animation) series. The next installment, Yo-kai Watch 2, which in 2014 was released in Japan in the Japanese language, is set to be released for an English-speaking audience on the Nintendo 3DS in the United States on September 30th, 2016. Get ready, gamers!
Upon hearing the news of the upcoming release of Yo-kai Watch 2, I decided it was high time to learn more about this new gaming adventure which appears to have drawn deeply from traditional Japanese folklore, in particular Shinto mythology, a field of study I hold special affection for. I decided to interview a local game developer to find out more about Yo-kai Watch. We're here in the greater Seattle area, a region of the US with a considerable Japanese media fanbase as well as home to a number of tech and video game development studios.
I sat down with Terence* on Sunday, August 21st 2016 to ask him: why is Yo-kai Watch so popular right now? Anyone who has a finger on the pulse of the gaming world has picked up on the stir it's creating. It rivals Pokémon in story and tone, featuring colorful monsters that interact with humans in a technological world much like our own. Terence is a programmer and developer of video games at one of the tech development companies in the greater Seattle area. He has spent time working on video games and gaming apps and is knowledgable about trends in the video games industry. He takes an interest in evolving mythological and cultural themes in popular gaming stories. We're curious about the mythological background to the storyline underpinning the Yo-kai games.
AMBER MV: Tell me about Yo-kai Watch. Why are people talking about it right now? They're into it. What's the big deal?
TERENCE: Yo-kai Watch is a Japanese RPG [“role playing game”] with a strong Japanese feel to it. Basically, you get to wander around in a modern, everyday-Japanese town. But you get to see the-world-behind-the-world. You encounter yo-kai [alternatively written “youkai”, “yōkai” or “yokai”] which, broadly speaking, could be considered Japanese fairies and monsters, spirits from the ancient animist tales, the Shinto tales. They're alive and well in modern Japan and they influence everything around you. They mess up your hair. They make you forget your papers on your way to work. They make your parents fight. It's a very charming game that shows a hidden world behind what we see every day.
AMBER MV: What kind of character do you play in this game?
TERENCE: Like most Japanese RPGs you have a generic character. In this case, you choose either a young schoolboy or a young schoolgirl. This character, whoever you choose, ends up finding an old gumball machine out in the woods. Inside it they find the yo-kai watch, which allows them to pop up a little lens and see yo-kai all around them –normally, invisible spirits.
AMBER MV: I see. What are yo-kai exactly?
TERENCE: They're spirits. The spirits in Yo-kai Watch all have a basis in old Shinto legends. For example, one of the yo-kai you find is Baku. If you've watched anime, you might have seen Baku make appearances in several movies or TV shows. He's a dream-eater. You weave Baku's dream-eating into one of your quests and he gives you a special power after you make friends with him. Many of these yo-kai do the same thing. Other yo-kai that you encounter that are in famous legends: there are kappa– those are little lake-dwelling imps that are very mischievous. There are many stories about travelers falling prey to them or being tricked by them. Of course, you find this kappa by the lakeside, and when you help him, he ends up being able to help you by going through the water.
Author's Commentary: Similar to the Kami of Shinto mythology, who are more specifically deities or gods of nature, the Yo-kai may be any spirit entity of the world, from a troublesome demon to the soul of a being who has died. They may appear as humans or animals and often possess the power of shapeshifting. The famous film “Princess Mononoke” directed by Hayao Miyazaki, also features yo-kai of traditional lore.
AMBER MV: So, the watch is a device on the kid's wrist, and they get to see the spirits through it. Is that how it works?
TERENCE: Yes. And there's the play-mechanic all through the game– whenever you want to find a yo-kai, you go into yo-kai watch mode and you pop open a little lens. You scroll the lens around the screen, looking for a yo-kai.
AMBER MV: I've heard that Yo-kai Watch is similar to Pokémon. What are the similarities or differences, and is there any tension between these two franchises right now?
TERENCE: There are some similarities. I think it's mostly in the thematics of the game rather than the way the game plays. For example, the creator of Pokémon, Satoshi Tajiri, has given interviews to the effect that he was inspired by being a bug-collector as a kid. He would go out into rural Japan and catch bugs and study them. He felt that, as Japan was becoming more urbanized, something was being lost. He created Pokémon to bring that spirit of finding new animals and exploring wild places back to the modern world. Well, the very first thing you do in Yo-kai Watch: you and your friends are talking about catching bugs for a school project. You're trying to find bugs out in the city. There's also that similar tension between the old spirits, the old world, and new, urban, industrialized Japan. In that sense, the two games have a very, very similar theme. Also, of course, you are “catching” monsters and having them do battle [in Pokémon]. But, the storyline and the justification are very different between the two games. In Pokémon, you're traveling around the world and you're capturing monsters and fighting in tournament battles. Whereas, in Yo-kai Watch you don't really have this ambition. You're just an every-day kid who has found themselves sucked into a world beyond sight that now they are an intimate part of. They now have the ability to solve problems and put things right that would've been out of their hands before.
Author's Commentary: People of 21st century developed societies, children in particular, are increasingly deprived of unstructured time spent in natural areas, such as forests and wetlands. In Richard Louv's renowned 2005 book, Last Child In the Woods, Louv draws attention to the epidemic of “Nature Deficit Disorder” in children who have not had access to enough free play in natural places. Children's needs for physical movement are not being met by shrinking school recess times alone. Obesity, depression and attention disorders may accompany youth and adults who are deprived of outdoor activity. What's more, they do not engage with the local flora and fauna of the bioregion in which they live, leaving ecologically –and culturally– problematic gaps in vital relationships between the human and non-human lives of an area. The same urgent need to reconnect holds true for adults as well. In almost all societies previous to the industrial revolution, it was normal for human beings to have consistent exposure to the names and personalities of non-human lifeforms sharing their territory. Satoshi Tajiri tapped into this unfulfilled need in modern people by inventing Pokémon, a game which, in part, inspires urban children to go on nature adventures looking for wild creatures, whether real or imaginary. Japanese children in particular are subjected to extremely long, arduous hours and academic pressure in school, furthering the disconnect of Japan's modern children from the nation's roots in a strong animist relationship with nature. The Pokémon games have appealed to children worldwide facing these problems of over-urbanization. When I was a child in the 1990's playing the original Pokémon Red and Blue versions on Gameboy Color in California, my friends and I would carry our gameboys wherever we went in our neighborhood on bike and on foot. We were physically active while using our imaginations outdoors, seeking aliveness in trees, insects and small mammals while acting out the Pokémon stories. Yo-kai Watch offers a similar inspiration to outdoor exploration and imagination for kids and adults alike.
AMBER MV: So, the child in the Yo-kai games doesn't capture the yo-kai? They just work with them?
TERENCE: They befriend them. You don't ever throw a ball and capture a yo-kai. You can toss yo-kai some food. If they like the food, after you win the fight, they may decide they want to be friends with you. Otherwise, no, there's no capturing of them. Some of the yo-kai join you as part of the story as well. Every time you make friends with one they give you a little yo-kai token that represents who they are. It also has some similarities with a franchise called Shin Megami Tensei, in that the yo-kai can be fused together. In Shin Megami Tensei, there's a great deal of emphasis on world mythology. You go around talking to angels and demons and monsters and you can get them to join your party and battle with you. When you find that they're lagging too low in strength, you can fuse them together in this dark ritual that makes a brand new demon or angel that's stronger than the previous one. Yo-kai Watch has a similar mechanic in which yo-kai can fuse together. Sometimes, these yo-kai have interpersonal relationships with each other, either in the story or in [mythological] history and the new yo-kai that arises now is an evolution of what they used to be.
AMBER MV: Pokémon Go is really popular right now. Do you think that Yo-kai Watch is going to try to follow in Pokémon Go's footsteps or become a real competing force?
TERENCE: The funny thing is, Yo-kai Watch as a storyline and an intellectual property is probably even more appropriate for the game mechanic that Pokémon Go adopted. Simply because the whole point of Yo-kai Watch is you can see a world-behind-the-world. You look through a lens and see magical creatures. Pokémon Go's mechanic is literally that. So, in one sense, Yo-kai Watch would be a perfect game to do this, but on the other hand I think that the reason Pokémon Go succeeded had more to do with the long history and the beloved nature of the Pokémon franchise. If Yo-kai Watch were to drop out of the sky with this game right now, let's say “Yo-kai Watch Go”, I think it wouldn't catch on quite as well. But as far as competition or business tension, I do think that they're going for the same audience. They're both easily exportable to young children and adults as well. In many ways, Yo-kai Watch is even more adult-accessible than Pokémon because there is an actual storyline that goes a little deeper than just the exploration of the world. Because Yo-kai Watch is so close to home, rather than this big world-spanning epic, you get to touch on a lot of dramas that unfold in the life of everyone growing up. Like, oh, your parents are arguing– wait, what? There's a monster causing your parents to fight? In that sense, yeah, they definitely are competitors. Is there room for both of them? In the short term, definitely. But the existence of Yo-kai Watch should be causing The Pokémon Company to evaluate– “Okay, what do we do to differentiate and push ourselves in the face of this really adorable competitor?”
Author's Commentary: As noted, these games have the ability to inspire kids and adults to go exploring the world outdoors in search of wild nature. Enter Pokémon Go, where gamers take their handheld devices outside to find digital pokémon at various locations through a city, such as a park or a local neighborhood. The game utilizes map data based on Google Maps to overlay the Pokémon world on top of the real world, where players must physically walk to locate the game's critters. Many gamers have noted an increase in physical activity and subsequent health benefits from walking to find pokémon. Yet, there remains a paradox which sets the game at odds with the outside environment. Players may be too easily absorbed into the game on their portable screens, to the extent of being dangerously oblivious to the physical world around them. Players have been known to be so unaware as to walk into oncoming traffic or unwittingly trespass onto personal property. Still, other players have exercised circumstantial awareness and gained a greater appreciation of the need to be clued into the real-world environment. The opening screen of the game features a dragon pokémon about to attack an oblivious gamer, humorously admonishing players to be aware of reality. It has inspired in many gamers an enjoyment of the environmentally-aware, physically-active life.
AMBER MV: I see you have a yo-kai on your lap right now. [There is a cat on Terence's lap.] Can you tell me about this yo-kai?
TERENCE: He's a little nyan-chan.
AMBER MV: What's a nyan-chan?
TERENCE: He's a little cat.
AMBER MV: He's a little cat.
AMBER MV: He's really cute.
TERENCE: Yes, he is. He's normally very talkative but he's kind of sleepy right now. Yo-kai sometimes like to loaf and they don't want to do anything in battle. That's exactly what he's doing right now.
AMBER MV: I see. He seems like a very effective yo-kai at cuddling. Is that true?
TERENCE: Yes, he drives away all the evil en-spiriting that makes you depressed.
AMBER MV: That's adorable.
Author's Commentary: Cats are beloved in Japan, where they have long been honored as mischievous bringers of both goodwill and trickery. In Japan's native religion of Shinto, as in many nature-based animist cosmologies, creatures of the earth and their accompanying spirits, or “demons”, are neither strictly good nor evil, as nature itself is understood to be amoral. Instead, creatures are lively, animated with dramatic personalities. Folktales relating creatures' influence on mystified humans are rich with humor, awe, adoration and fright all interwoven. Much like Baku, who devours nightmares to relieve a sleeper of fright, yet may keep eating one's hopes and good dreams if he is not satisfied, Japanese tales of cats are of the same mischievous vein. The word “yo-kai”, when written in Japanese Kanji (Chinese-based pictographs), is composed of characters meaning "attractive; bewitching; calamity;" and "apparition; specter; suspicious; mystery;". Makeneko, meaning “beckoning cat” is a popular cat figurine placed in store windows which is believed to beckon in customers and good fortune for a business. Cats are often found basking at Shinto temples, fed by sympathetic visitors. Urban Japanese people visit cat-petting cafes to cuddle up with the purring felines. Jibanyan, a red cat who is one of the main characters in Yo-kai Watch, is a yo-kai who, when alive, was a pet cat that died from being hit by a truck. Jibanyan now, endearingly, haunts moving vehicles, seeking revenge upon these large machines which endanger small creatures.
TERENCE: Which are also things that happen in Yo-kai Watch. One other thing going back to the question of the business tension or competition. I think that if Yo-kai Watch has an obstacle to overcome, it's that it's very Japanese, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But one of the things about Pokémon that made it a little more accessible worldwide is that, while some of these pokémon definitely have Japanese origins, they're sufficiently removed from all of the trappings of Japan that they could be anywhere. Whereas Yo-kai Watch, it's in a Japanese suburb. Everything screams Japan about it. Though these days there's a lot more awareness about Japan and Japanese culture than there was when I was a young kid, even still, a lot of the cultural references within Yo-kai Watch are probably very difficult to translate and localize to America. As a result, it may have a slightly more limited appeal than Pokémon given its more general style.
AMBER MV: There's similar themes in both Yo-kai Watch and Pokémon concerning industrialization, nature being pushed away. Can you elaborate on what you've experienced in these games, particularly Yo-kai Watch, concerning themes of human relationships with nature? Or, Shinto mythology and its relationship to modern gaming youth in an industrial culture?
TERENCE: I think where it really shines is that because these creatures are all from actual Japanese legends, the more interested you are in the game, the more likely you are to stumble onto the actual origins of the creatures and read up on where they came from. Going back to the example of Baku: you might not necessarily think, “What is a pink pig with sharp teeth doing in this game?” but you go and Google him, and you find out there's an actual legend behind this creature. Likewise, there are several YouTubers out there who make it their job to do a lot of cultural research, and they've also pointed out such similarities in Yo-kai Watch. For example, Gaijin Goombah has talked about the origins of Jibanyan.
Yo-kai Watch Game and Culture Review! - Gaijin Goombah
AMBER MV: Is that the demon cat?
TERENCE: Yes, and several others of them as well– a piece of educational material for world mythology, to keep us in touch with our roots.
AMBER MV: Do you think that Yo-kai Watch has a strong environmental message about respecting or preserving wild animals or wild forces in the world?
TERENCE: One of the bosses that I fought recently was angry about people swimming in the pond, so there's definitely that part of it.
Author's Commentary: Today, Japan and it's exported media continue to be charmed by its lively animist heritage. Old mythologies spring up into new forms relevant to an evolving society. Video games and manga, which make an immediate connection with young audiences, provide a medium for imparting traditional folklore to new generations. Shinto, an ancient “pagan” religion predating written language in Japan, developed gradually over generations from the common person's experience of awe and mystery in the natural world. It was not declared once and for all time unchanging by the writings of select men as were the doctrinal faiths of the West. Animist cosmologies evolve and adapt with the nature of life itself, meeting human life where it's at. In Japan, Shinto has blended harmoniously with Buddhism, which arrived from China centuries after Shinto's formation. It has even adapted to minor Christian influence –albeit secular, Western influence more precisely- such as the integration of Christmas celebrations with ubiquitous shrines to the kami and yo-kai. Shinto has helped legitimize environmentalist movements in modern Japan, a country facing the same global ecological issues as all developed nations. In animist cosmologies, there is not a sharp division between human and animal, human and divine, natural and cultural, animate and inanimate. Likewise, there is not an assumed antagonism between nature and technology, such as the use of video games to inspire physical exercise and a relationship with the natural world.
AMBER MV: Thank you, Terence. Is there anything you'd like to add about this wonderful fantasy world that is now competing with Pokémon?
TERENCE: I'm very much looking forward to innovations in game technology that bring these sorts of experiences to us in more-than-just-the-console and the hand-held world that we're aware of. An idea similar to Pokémon Go with characters from Yo-kai Watch, or with a virtual reality setting in which you can explore virtual worlds, perhaps a historical world or a future world, would be really interesting as well.
AMBER MV: And have you been doing a little bit of research, perhaps experimentation or development with that?
TERENCE: No comment! [He smiles]
*(Name has been changed to protect privacy. Neither the interviewer nor the interviewee claim to represent or speak on behalf of Nintendo, Yo-kai Watch, The Pokémon Company, or any related brands. This is an opinion and research piece.)
Amber MV is a writer in the greater Seattle area. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University. She played the original Pokémon games as a kid in the 90's which inspired a fondness for Shinto and Japanese folklore. Visit Amber MV's blog, The Leafy Paw, at www.theleafypaw.com.
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© 2016 Amber MV