Before we start: the translations from me here cover the trilogy of interviews/first-person reflections the online magazine Beep21 released for Lunar: The Silver Star—the two-part personal history/reader Q&A from scriptwriter Kei Shigema; the interview with character designer Toshiyuki Kubooka; the article from composer Noriyuki Iwadare. After purchasing the special issue Beep21 released to commemorate the Mega Drive Mini 2, I learned that the Lunar interviews from Beep are far from over. Iwadare and Kubooka both have released another article, this time detailing their work on Eternal Blue, and there should eventually be a piece on EB from Shigema as well. (Evidently, material for each "issue" of Beep21 is posted piecemeal, as it's ready. The Iwadare EB piece is almost a month old, but the Kubooka piece was released last week.) There's also an extremely long two-part interview with former head of Game Arts Yoichi Miyaji, the second half of which is largely dedicated to the technical and system design of both TSS and EB.
However: Translating the three TSS interviews took up most all of the free time I had in an extremely busy October, and we have an obstacle to any further time monopolization in the form of a pressing translation project that I cannot neglect any longer: Jennifer's Clock Tower choose-your-own-adventure book. That translation has gone on way too long, drawn out beyond all reason, and I want to put it behind me and let everyone who's been so very patient finally off the hook. I was going to dedicate October to finishing it, but that didn't work out, due both to the discovery of the TSS interviews and me getting just slammed with work.
I'm going to therefore try to dedicate what time in November I have to getting the Clock Tower novel translation wrapped up. I'm going to try to make some progress on the additional Lunar interviews, but I'm planning on making Clock Tower the priority. Needless to say, the untranslated interviews deserve attention, too. We'll see how things go.
(Update: So far, though I've made progress on Clock Tower, I've also almost translated the Iwadare EB interview. I follow through on my plans so well.)
- Iwadare's bit is a good overview: it tells how he got the job, the tools he used on it, the challenges he faced, and a few vivid, illustrative anecdotes. It doesn't get into track-by-track specifics as the game music fan in me wishes he would, but it's efficient and effective for its relatively-brief length. Shigema speaks as a man who loves this material and still has a lot to tell. Despite the reservations I had toward certain opinions and attitudes Shigema expressed, it's a substantive piece with lots of affection for the franchise that I enjoyed reading. Kubooka, for all he talks, doesn't really say much; while he does go over the same beats as Iwadare about what he did (or didn't do as opposed to Shunji Suzuki, which evidently was substantial), there's shockingly little about the specific ideas he put into the characters. His memory and unfamiliarity with the gaming field detract a fair deal.
- I found Shigema's recounting of how he was able to have a conversation with Ghaleon in the course of trying to understand him genuinely sweet. Ghaleon's this force that's too strong and too much of himself for even his writers to comprehend fully or command. Yes. Excellent.
- I'm honestly surprised that Shigema realized Dyne was committing "mythological parricide," as casting the relationship between Ghaleon and Dyne as parent-child was Akari Funato's big innovation. I'm glad Shigema is recognizing this dynamic, but implying it was patent in the original text is eliding Funato's contributions. It's as if he's claiming it was retroactively explicit and thereby giving the impression that it was originally his idea. From how Shigema speaks in his afterwords for the Vane Airship manga and Funato's view of her work on Lunar, I was under the impression that there wasn't a good relationship between them, so these issues with giving Funato due credit are, unfortunately, not surprising. (His being at a loss for what Lemia was like when younger also ignores Vane Airship's similarly completely-coherent characterization for a younger Lemia, implying that he's willing to ignore what Funato's done when he's not claiming it as his own invention.)
- Speaking of elided contributions: it seems this Shunji Suzuki had a lot more to do with Lunar's art than originally let on.
- The absolute best part of watching that Dragon's Lair-alike Kubooka made that was allegedly (allegedly) lost is combing the early stages for "Power! Power! Power! POWER!" clips. I haven't played the game, but that's enough fun on its own. Good for several days of memeing. I don't buy the act that Kubooka honestly thought the game was lost and only rediscovered it through the efforts of Beep's helpful staff.
- Speaking of that staff: I don't regret all the warnings I inserted about the comments from the interviewer and/or editor, as they're improperly marked and not distinguished from what seem to be parenthetical comments from Kubooka himself (like "we didn't pay as much attention to that in Eternal Blue" in the bit about including distinguishing features on TSS chibis); bad info is extremely hard to get out of the Lunar fandom (hello, Ghaleon's TSS motivation); and there's stuff in that one paragraph that Kubooka plainly did not say (dude obviously doesn't know from release windows, and who interprets a wish a digital version of a game as it being on the cloud specifically?). Also, the comments are just plain intrusive and not helpful. The pinnacle was including a little "(4)" after the mention of "FFIV," as if we wouldn't recognize the game otherwise—and this was an audio interview, right? You didn't even have to use the "IV" in your transcription in the first place!
I find it aggravating because I run into this attitude in translation—which, like journalism, consists of intermediary work, so to speak. In either job, your role is to get another person's words out to a larger audience, but you have certain practitioners, like the would-be superstar translators who throw fits on Twitter for not getting enough recognition, who think the story's equally about them—but no one came to hear you, buddy, and you knew that when you signed up for the job. If you're in this for fame and adulation, pick another profession.
- That said: I should take care to keep my own asides in these translations to a minimum, shouldn't I.
- I'd like to point out a reflection not of my own, but by pandorkful, suggesting that the influence of My Fair Lady might have been felt elsewhere in Lunar other than in Shigema's idea of romance—namely, in the central role music plays in the franchise:
But also, if Shigema spent a lot of time taking scripting notes from My Fair Lady, I wonder if what he came away with wasn’t so much the “romance” (ick, bad place to take that kind of inspo from XD, no wonder all the het couplings in TSS felt so aggro!) but more the “musical” story structure... Like, SSSC has always given me big “this game wants to be a stage musical” vibes, but that structure is still there in TSS even without the big “I want” boat song.
- I don't watch much anime these days, but after Kubooka's rundown of the properties on which he's worked: is all the stuff currently coming out of the industry so poisonously meta? "Look at how stupid and trope-tastic our story is!" "Our hero knows all the cliches of this dumb isekai, because he did nothing but play video games in the real world!" Also, great gender dynamics, if you compare the descriptions for the Uncle from Another World and Wandering Witch stories: "This guy thinks he's better than everyone else because he did nothing but play video games! He's right, and now he'll get all the babes and glory he deserves!" "This girl thinks she's better than everyone else because she studied and trained to practice a difficult profession! We're going to stomp this uppity bitch into the ground!" At least Tenchi Muyo gave you gorgeous colors and fun, engaging characters.
- Whether the Sakamoto Ryoma figure in that original treatment eventually translated to Ghaleon is probably a post in itself. In brief, Shigema says traces of the idea linger in the Magic Emperor, Ghaleon's the "anarchist" (more on that below) seeking to upset the status quo and ruling system and depose the ruler and bringing modernization to Lunar, and he's the figure driven by thought and ideals, but given how Ryoma's sainted in Japan, it's unlikely he'd be identified with the character who became the villain, and Ghaleon's form of modernization would likely be identified more with the imposition of modernization from elsewhere (with the Frontier/magic race being the icky, non-human "elsewhere" in the Lunar calculus) that, as illustrated by Live A Live, stands in opposition to the organic, home-driven modernization Sakamoto was advocating. Perhaps in the "blockaded world" of this treatment, the Magic Emperor was already ascendant, and the hero figure was trying to spread democracy in opposition to his rule. Identifying the adolescent power fantasy Alex represents with Sakamoto and his ideas is a blasphemy to Sakamoto, though. (Could Ghaleon at one point have been the hero? That seems unlikely given Shigema's worldview.)
- When I wrote about the Mega Drive Mini 2 kerfuffle over the Lunars not making it into the English-language version, I reflected that it didn't really matter in regard to exposure for the games, outside a bit of coverage from the press, since these mini consoles have such a tiny sales base nowadays. I'd argue that still holds for the audience, but given the attitudes demonstrated in these interviews, the attention from the enthusiast quarters might matter to the creators. Shigema and Iwadare seem very fond of the franchise; they may very well take this as a PR opportunity: "ah, look at this unbelievable outpouring of public support for Lunar—brings tears to our eyes and sparks hope in our chest, it does! Why, it almost inspires us to bring back this game series we all love!"—and then try to use the PR to get support for making another installment at some developer. They really do seem to want to make a Lunar 3.
All right, then: I'd like to move out of List Items in this giant Wall of Text to talk about what are, in my view, the two meatiest haunches of food for thought in these interviews. Hmm. That's an unappetizing metaphor. Unfortunately, I've written dozens of paragraphs here and don't have the stamina to think of something better.
1. Ghaleon the anarchist?
Labeling Ghaleon as an anarchist is truly puzzling and made me wonder, initially, if the writers understood their own character. (To which Shigema himself readily confesses: no, not entirely.) It's doubly odd because his motivation is written very strongly and consistently.
In TSS, he's angered that Althena, in his perception, is being neglectful of her charges and abusive of her retainers' loyalty: abandoning her duties to traipse off and have fun as a human, necessitating Dyne to sacrifice his own power needlessly and thanklessly in her place. In SSS and beyond, it is, in brief: disaster will inevitably ensue if people are left to their own devices, as they will fuck things up without protection and oversight. He's arguing for continued, principled supervision, not the complete absence of it. He does attack and seek to upset the dictates of Lunar's ruling power, but because he feels she's made immoral, massively-harmful decisions and demonstrated herself unworthy and incapable of rule, not because he rails against the idea of a protective, overseeing power in itself - far from it.
This is a glass-houses charge, being the big Ghaleon partisan that I am, but I think the initial "anarchy" idea can be chalked up to a simple kneejerk case of character partiality: oh, but our Althena is so sweet and kind and could never do anything wrong; no one, not even our villain, could ever seriously object to anything she's done; if he has a problem with how she governs, he must just have a problem with all government - hence, the anarchy idea. That, and/or the other writer was just pulling something out of his hat about which he didn't think too much and which he didn't mean to be taken too seriously. This was, Shigema himself notes, at a stage where they didn't understand the character at all, even less than Shigema says he does now. (That, or Hino got the concept of an anarchist mixed up with that of an iconoclast, which isn't entirely correct either but closer to the mark; Ghaleon isn't one to defer to a higher power for authority alone.)
That the idea took root in Shigema's mind, however, does point to the attitudes about Althena being an old problem in the script. Ghaleon's problem in TSS is that Althena is irresponsible and that she used and cast aside a human who served her. Though Ghaleon's means of expressing it, let us say, prompts objection, that is a legitimate complaint. If they pretend anything other than "oh, he's just an anarchist," they have to come to grips with that complaint. Shigema wasn't, and still isn't, wholly prepared to do that, despite his story's innovations.
(By the way, I've written about this before, but, to engage in further favoritism here, I'll note that the development of the world of Lunar, or lack thereof, bears the darker parts of Ghaleon's SSS political worldview out: absent some sort of central protective or organizing force, the world is notably diminished in the sequel, having devolved basically to a desolate collection of outposts, with everything great in ruins. It's little wonder that it fell prey to a cult promising revival.
I could continue. Your party in Lunar 2 consists of a scavenger, a dissipated priest, a nomad, the scion of a long-fallen house, and a figurehead in a sham religion. No one recent has accomplished any true great deeds or is even attempting to do anything with the world. Everyone's just...subsisting. This is depressing. We need to move on.)
2. The limitations of the TSS romance
I'm surprised that Kei Shigema thinks and wants TSS to be best-remembered for the Alex-Luna romance - for its incarnation of the "boy tries to save girl and end up saving the world in the process" storyline Shigema loves so. In a way, I'm not - though Silver Star storywise is renowned in the West greatly for what it did with its villain (despite the fandom fucking this up in ways I've discussed ad nauseam), the creator isn't going to want his world to be remembered primarily for the guy pointing out everything that's wrong with it. Lunar is a youthful, hopeful series, and it wants the youthful, hopeful boy & girl in love - what it thinks is a fairytale romance - to headline it. (NEWS FLASH: Writer believes plot line featuring the main characters is the most important!)
The thing is that it's not a good romance, in several respects. I'm not saying this solely as someone whose favorite fictional character is the villain: I find Alex, and the Alex-Luna romance, the least-successful part of TSS's story.
There are several sets of reasons for this. Part of it is due to sheer datedness in its attitudes toward women - the very first incarnation of Lunar came when the medium was targeted to and crafted to serve a certain teenage-boy mindset, from a time when girls in adolescent media were these wet dishrags who hated fun and nagged and were kind of inept and in the love-interest role just needed to be pretty and little else. As I said in this essay, this can hardly be laid solely at Lunar's feet, given the era - but Lunar can claim more fault than most titles, since in TSS, it's part of a coherent idea of male-female relations that's developed as a central theme throughout the game. (There are also markedly-backward parts of TSS's expression of that idea that are unique to that game, such as evil Luna and how she represents the concept that if you don't watch and take possession of your woman, she'll sneak off behind your back and become...well, I used the term "brazen hussy" in that essay, but I'm sure the target audience of the day would have blunter language for it.)
Part of it - a big part of it - is the choice to make Alex a largely-silent character. Romance stories are greatly about two people getting to know each other, and you can't build a romance around a character who's outright forbidden to communicate. The decision to make Nall his mouthpiece of sorts only makes matters worse, as Nall is bratty and thinks the sun rises and sets in Alex's deerstalker, which makes both him and Alex look bad and only underlines the "entitled kid unjustifiably full of himself" aspects of the storyline.
Part of it is because it's in direct contrast to a far richer and more successful character. In '91-'92, RPG storylines were beginning to strain against the traditional conventions but were still ultimately defined by them, producing these groundbreaking, attention-grabbing characters and elements but eventually defaulting back to these remnants of the old ways that look all the more dated next to the innovations. It's kind of like Rydia and Rosa, right? You have this powerful, confident, electrifying woman with her own story arc, who gets the Big Damn Hero moment in a way no woman did, and in the meantime, everyone's fighting over the dull mean-girl damsel who's squealing "Cecil!" every five seconds and has no redeeming qualities but physical beauty. With Lunar, you have this boundaries-breaking villain with VA work that's light-years beyond the contemporary standard, who actually has a point, and meanwhile, you have Alex, who is the traditional wish-fulfillment avatar whose driving need is for everyone to recognize that he's the best at everything and deserves everything. This tension between evolution/deconstruction and comfortable cliche would eventually explode in a few years in stuff like Live A Live, but for now, RPGs for the most part couldn't fully shake being on rails.
In this vein, it's not tough to realize that the stars of Lunar's romance are flatly not interesting characters. As detailed above, Luna isn't allowed to be much of a person given the constraints of the day, and what little characterization we get for Alex serves almost exclusively to paint him as a self-interested teenager. We don't even have to include Ghaleon in this calculus - compare them to, say, Jessica or Mia, and it's clear that Alex and Luna aren't even the most interesting people in the party. But, yes, in contrast to Ghaleon, characterwise, they particularly suck.
(And this is an outstanding problem for a romance; there are other types of plotlines where the driving characters don't necessarily have to be likable for the development to engage the audience, but you kind of have to like the people in a romance to be invested.)
Part of it (in brief, so as not to belabor another point of direct in-game comparison) is that every other relationship in the game - be they friendships, parent-child relationships, or even other romances, even the not-great relationships - have more connection than Alex and Luna, and it's hard to hold that couple up as the romantic ideal, the pinnacle of love, when we see stronger relationships elsewhere.
And part of it is that the romance, despite billing, is, in my view, just not a big part of the story. If you asked my what Alex's story is, I wouldn't say it's about protecting the one he loves; I'd say that it's the typical JRPG Chosen Wonder Boy plotline of trying to get everyone to realize that he's the Bestest Ever. Yes, I realize that this is, in part, intentional: that the bit in the SSS version of the plot with Dyne at his "grave" after Alex gets beat for the first time is supposed to course-correct on this, to get Alex to realize that Dyne gave up his power for the sake of a woman and a true knight (or Dragonmaster) is made by his dedication to protecting something, not self-aggrandisement. That comes only at the very, very end, though, after dozens of hours of focus on the power fantasy.
I never, ever get the idea that Luna is a priority to Alex as a person. She's important because she's the damsel, the Girl Who Belongs to Him, the final part of his knightly panoply. It's about his aggrandization and not her. (This is a particular problem in Lunar when you throw in "Kokuhaku Suru Kioku" and its thesis on how love doesn't mean you can own a person.)
Now, as an aside here: I have considered if part of it is part and parcel of the entire Lunar worldview aging badly as the player ages - the phenomenon Shaun Musgrave talks about in the closing paragraphs here, where he likens the game to a beloved jacket from high school that just doesn't fit anymore. The hopeful, naive mindset of Lunar and its heroes is the type that gets disproved as you, y'know, live. After all, which moral has more enduring relevance: I Am Fifteen and Can Solve All the World's Problems (the Most Pressing of Which is That Everyone Needs to Realize I Am the Bestest Ever and Deserve Everything), or "people will mindlessly fuck things up and destroy each other if left to their own devices." Hint: It's the one validated by every single story in the news. The problem with pitting young vs. old is that everyone gets to be old, and everyone gets to that "...oh" moment of realization re: why things are the way they are.
I don't think that's the key to this particular criticism, though. I've been using modern constructs to analyze the story and praising elements that buck convention, but fairy tales are expected to be simple illustrations of basic truths that are worth keeping alive throughout the generations, not contemporary position platforms. The thing is, the failings of Alex-Luna romance can be put in simple terms that detract even from fairy tales: the boy is self-centered; the girl is treated as a thing, not a person; the boy seems to seek power, not love. The romance's problem is not that it's a fairy tale; it's that it's a bad one.
So I disagree with Shigema on the romance's timelessness, yes. What puzzles me, though, is that we see Shigema course-correcting from TSS's shortcomings in his later Lunar work. Eternal Blue's romance featured two characters who have actual personalities, who are both allowed to speak, who have motivations and character development both outside of the romance, and who spend most of the game together. The Silver Star games post-TSS largely supplant the "how to be a real man" thesis with the generational-inheritance story, which, while still hopeful and youth-oriented, is more universal, more profound, and encompasses the struggles of the entire cast. It's odd that he'd go back to championing this particular storyline, its particular embodiment from TSS, as the groundbreaking, historically-relevant aspect of the game, the key to Lunar's success, the thing that's kept it relevant over the years, when Shigema himself once realized its limitations and reworked it. An innocent, young and wide-eyed outlook greatly distinguishes the series, yes. But there are more successful incarnations of it in Lunar.