13 Sentinels and how it believes in love

I’m pretty familiar with Vanillaware games. Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir to be exact, and having beaten 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim recently I’d say I’m confident in my ability to recognize a lot of the common elements in their works.

But I don’t mean the food and fan service. I mean how love underpins their plots. Apparently it’s not a George Kamitani original unless love is a major, if not the only, driving force behind a character’s actions.

I was pretty young when I first played Muramasa, and fighting countless ninjas in beautifully-painted 2D Japan is a strong memory of mine. What really stuck with me, though, was Kisuke devoting his life to Torahime. I was surprised his cool, “boyish” journey to regain his memories was actually a love story. I mean, the other protagonist, Momohime, was right there. Isn’t that what girls do, love and wait to be loved? But she wasn’t the one begging god to let her be with her girlfriend in a next life. I felt that I had been duped, somehow, but I wasn’t complaining. It was a welcome change.

Odin Sphere wasn’t any different. By the end of all five storylines I’d gotten the memo: if the love felt by a character for another wasn’t worth dying for, wasn’t worth killing for, if it didn’t have the fate of the entire world hinged on it, well. Then it just wasn’t something George Kamitani had written. I could argue that the relationships in these games are a little undercooked—I tend to feel surprised by the intensity. My feeling is that the character development focuses more on moving the plot along than it does presenting a cross-section of a character’s thoughts and feelings, or it’s just a result of the format of the games themselves, or something. But Kamitani sells love that’s bold and big, and I’m happy to buy!

I’ll take the time now to say I intend to avoid talking about any large plot spoilers for 13 Sentinels, but given the nature of the game that’s a bit difficult. If you’re picky about spoilers like me I’d recommend giving this a read later. To be more clear, I’m going to talk freely about the romance between Fuyusaka and Sekigahara, and their characters.

Anyways, even while knowing that Vanillaware is as romantic as they are, I was still extremely surprised when this turned out to be true for 13 Sentinels as well.

I think why blatant depictions of love in media tend to shock me, aside from all my time spent inventing romance between characters in various fandoms, is because life gets pretty cynical about the topic. Romance is a popular genre but it’s still seen as this flighty thing that only women enjoy, whatever the hell that means. Wanting it is made to feel like something to be embarrassed about. I think life would be a little nicer if we could be more genuine and open about it.

So it’s a real treat how Vanillaware’s games are unabashed about love. They seem invested in making, or at the very least know how to make the point that love is powerful, that it can do a lot of saving and a lot of damage, and maybe more prominently in their games: that it can shape someone’s life.

I think that’s why Fuyusaka’s and Sekigahara’s relationship has really stuck to me. I’m already admittedly a big fan of romance, but this was a development I just didn’t expect as someone who is awestruck whenever someone has the courage to say those three words to another person. It really turned out to be the most unreservedly self-indulgent romance I’ve seen in a long time, which feels like that step towards “genuineness” I mentioned. Also, Fuyusaka has a plot I never get tired of: when a girl, by any means possible, goes after and gets what she wants.

I think Yakushiji and Shinonome are also two girls who have something they really want—by the way, there’s something to be said about how this something always happens to be a guy they have feelings for—and go to extreme lengths to get it. Takamiya too, who just wants to see her friend safe. But it’s Fuyusaka, to me, whose desire to “get” was made as palpable as possible. I wonder if it’s because unlike the others, she actually gets what she initially set out for.

This could not have been more blatant.

I kept saying that Fuyusaka’s route was just a shoujo plot while I played it. I’m a bit embarrassed that I didn’t realize that was the point. As it turns out, Kamitani’s major concept for this game was “robots and shoujo manga”. At least that’s what Yukiko Hirai, one of the game’s artists, got from his pitches. While I’d love to ruminate over the different ways the game achieves this, I’ll take that easy route and look at Fuyusaka’s story. Kamitani even reveals the specific shoujo manga, Tokimeki Tonight, that inspired her plot. I’ve never read it, but it always seems to crop up on my radar in the most random ways.

Shoujo on its own is an interesting genre. I’ve definitely read a lot of it, and I do love it. But I really have to wonder why a girl’s life is always about waiting on romance to happen to her, while boys get to fight with large swords. Fuyusaka’s route was making me worry whether it’d fail the Bechdel test. And when she, Miwako and Kisaragi weren’t talking about boys, they were talking about sweets and cats. Japan’s particular gender role issues are not for me to discuss, though, so I’ll leave it at that.

Still, it’s an aggravating truth that a prominent woman in some piece of media often has a prominent man somewhere nearby. And if a large chunk of the story isn’t him being the object of her affections, then he’s doing emotional heavy lifting (or actual heavy lifting) for her where she should be independent.

However, after saying all of that, I don’t intend to make the argument that Vanillaware is a common offender when it comes to this particular type of sexism—at least not right now. I was actually caught off-guard by how Fuyusaka offhandedly finding Sekigahara cute at the very start became what it did. I figure that’s where the shoujo influence comes in.

To be clear, I’m tired of love portrayed as this shallow thing that girls think about only because they don’t have the capacity for much else. In part because love is an indispensable force in this world, in part because girls obviously care about other things, and in part because so what if Fabio is what a girl wants? Girls should have what they want. Or more specifically, they should get what they want.

And that’s pretty much what Fuyusaka does. When and where she can, she goes for what she wants. It doesn’t matter to her (or to me) that she hardly knows him, and why should it?

Her story ramps shoujo up to absurd parodical levels. Sekigahara is what would happen if you told an AI to make a bad boy character: he’s a stoic, mysterious assassin from the future complete with futuristic motorcycle, and knows his way around a gun that he doesn’t hesitate to point at Fuyusaka the second time they meet. Their first encounter is a meet-cute where she bumps into him after running with toast in her mouth, and the confession scene happens while they’re riding on aforementioned motorcycle, cruising along the night cityscape. Him cooly telling her to hold on tighter in case she falls before revealing his vulnerable, troubled past was just wringing the rag. But there’s no intention to ridicule the genre, here. Like many of the romances Kamitani writes it’s remarkably sincere and loving in its exaggeration, and I think that’s why it’s good.

In particular, there were two major things about her route that I felt honoured its shoujo influences the right way:

The first is that Fuyusaka is her own person. Sure, her route is largely devoted to her feelings, but I don’t think her character (as in who she is) is influenced by Sekigahara as much as one would initially expect. She always takes the initiative, whether it’s meeting him despite the dangers of doing so, or something as simple as asking to refer to him by his first name. I’m not saying it’s radical to put yourself in danger for a guy, but I do think it’s pretty rad to follow your heart! It’s cool that she takes on active roles in her own life, and it’s clear she’s more than capable of doing the saving between the two of them. The handling truly makes all the difference. Think of it this way: Sekigahara gives her his sentinel, but I think she has the resolve to get in the robot from the very beginning.

The second thing is that Fuyusaka’s feelings are never made fun of. She’s warned that she shouldn’t go after Sekigahara both by him and others, but that’s the extent of it. She’s not belittled for feeling so strongly about a boy whose name she doesn’t even know, and Sekigahara himself, while confused by her feelings, considers them quite seriously. Demeaning young girls for what they like is no rare event, so his acceptance of her love despite not understanding it is a good move on the writing’s part. She says she can protect him and he believes her. It’s really that simple.

Love requires bravery!

I really do enjoy stories where a girl just wants something and decides to go get it. It’s important to me to see girls not only understand themselves and what will make them happy, but have the capacity and the space to make that decision for themselves. Maybe it’s because in life, girls, anybody who isn’t a cishet man really, don’t really “get” to have things that way, so seeing it happen in the most dramatic ways possible (think The Shape of Water) I find really cathartic. It’s ridiculous that this thing is always some guy, but I don’t want to dismiss the importance of the act itself. At the very least it’s done a lot for me.

I’m not trying to say that Kamitani is a feminist, or that he writes feminist games. I’m not trying to say that his works don’t have a lot of old-fashioned portrayals of women that I’d love to just do away with for good. What I am trying to say, though, is that wrestling tropes that aren’t inherently bad away from negative portrayals is worth the effort. The narrative of a girl falling for a guy is obviously overdone, but someting about the cheesiest form of love and emotion there is—shoujo—powering those massive, world-ending robots, to me, is pretty cool.

I’m belatedly realizing that I’m describing the magical girl genre—nothing says love is power more than when it’s being beamed out of a frilly wand. But 13 Sentinels takes that concept and shoves it into places that aren’t confined to the romance genre, so that we don’t expect it, so that it feels more real, so that a player can think, hey, that really made my heart beat.

On an unrelated note, magical girls in the form of mecha would have been a pretty good thing to touch on here. But, I also think that’s enough material for its own post and maybe something I’d like to think about with a more focused lens some other time. If anything it’d at least be a fun way to use Fuyusaka’s final quote, which was a real gem.

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