Thursday, January 1, 2015

Response to Legend of Five Rings essay on Asian and Western Storytelling

I do not know why I ever expect something useful out of essays regarding the differences between Western and Asian storytelling. As a result, I am almost always disappointed to find the same points and arguments made whenever I read such an essay; points and arguments which are disproven with even a passing familiarity with myth, legend and storytelling traditions. Since the essay which is provoking me is coming from the Legend of Five Rings RPG section on storytelling, that’s where I’m going to be pulling some of the points I’m planning to argue against.

First, there is the characterization that the first difference between Western and Asian storytelling is that Western storytelling focuses on “mere lone ‘adventurers’ wandering the landscape” as adverse Asian heroes who are “members of the samurai caste, with a specific role and duty….sworn to die at a moment’s notice…part of an elaborate system of social relations, etiquette and tradition – a system which they must follow, no matter how cruelly it may test them, because the alternative is disgrace or death.”

Already this essay has some issue in that they are focused on samurai rather than Asia, or even Japan, in general. This is fitting to their game focus. They can also be forgiven for giving the description of Western storytelling in this paragraph a single phrase while the rest is given toward discussing samurai stories. After all, their main purpose is to describe what defines Asian storytelling and thus what makes their game unique.

They go on to talk about the idea of what they call “samurai drama” where the hero is torn between their human nature and the expectation of perfection placed upon them by the society at large. They make specific commentary regarding stories where a character has to choose between love and duty, loyalty to a friend versus loyalty to a clan, receiving a command from one’s lord versus a command from one’s ancestors (or other divine power) and so on. Often these are cases where bushido demands that they show loyalty towards both sides of a conflict.

The next section is specifically focused on the hero in an Asian story. In this case they characterize the Western hero (though they do have an admission that they’re speaking of a Hollywood stereotype) as a “loner, powerful individual who defies authority and goes his own way, winning and triumphing on his own terms.” They compare this to Asian heroes whom they see as “people who uphold moral principles – the principles of their society – in the face of bitter adversity and even defeat.”  They make  a specific hero of Wong Fei-Hung who “uses his formidable kung-fu skills only when forced to do so by the villains – who are invariably corrupt, violent and immoral individuals…A far cry from the typical Hollywood rogue cop!”  After this they remind that not all Asian heroes are society insiders but may include outsider loners in a position where the authorities have become corrupt and moved away from their proper moral positions. They point out Lone Wolf and Cub as an example of this situation.

The next two bits are related and are about the role of death and tragedy in Asian storytelling. The implication is that in Western storytelling, that you are pretty much guaranteed that the heroes of the story will win and people will live happily ever after. As expected from a game that focuses on samurai, there is a great amount of talk about seppuku and give some details about it that many people might not be aware of, such as the fact that a samurai has to actually ask for permission to commit seppuku, they can’t just do it. Another thing they mention is the fact that in Western storytelling “usually depicts love as a completely positive phenomenon” as compared to Asian stories where they recognize love as a something that can be beautiful but where most love stories are also horrible tragedies.

The essay ends with the commentary that “[m]any of the greatest epics involve a hero whose suffering is derived from differences between his personal beliefs and those he is forced to adopt.” Which is a neutral statement as far as culture goes, it could be made about epics from any storytelling tradition, but the lead up makes the implication that these great epics tend to be Asian.

The problem with this essay is that it only works if you define Western storytelling as modern, Western action and fantasy stories. Even then, it only works with a narrow slice of those storylines.
For example, the issue of being individuals with a “specific role and duty” and the conflict of balancing personal beliefs with oaths of loyalty are driving themes with Arthurian myth. This is the central reason Camelot falls apart in most versions of the storyline because Arthur allowed his love of Guinevere and Lancelot to take priority over the laws of the society he had set (he allowed Lancelot and Guinevere to escape execution). This is also a heavy theme in Babylon 5 where all the main characters find themselves caught between what they feel to be moral and what is expected of their society. In the case of the EarthForce officers, it is pointed out that there are good and decent officers on both sides of the civil war, all of whom think that their actions are upholding their oaths to defend Earth Alliance from enemies foreign and domestic.

For that matter, one of the best known stories out of Japanese folk tales and myth is the story of Momotarou who is a boy born out of a giant peach and adopted by an old married couple. He up and decides one day to go to Onigashima and defeat the oni completely on his own authority. This is exactly what the essay is saying is typical of Western heroes and it is probably the most well-known and loved folk tale in Japan. Momotarou is not a samurai. He doesn’t have a specific code he has to follow. He just decides that what the oni are doing is wrong and decides to stop it and does so without slaughtering the oni but instead gaining their promises of good behavior. He very much is that lone adventurer that goes around defying the state of things and triumphing on his own terms. Nor is he alone, modern anime is replete with examples of the wandering adventurer who is free from any overhanging code beyond just what they believe is right. Likewise, this concept has been an archetype of Chinese heroic story-telling for centuries.

I am especially amused by the idea that Wong Fei-Hung is considered a “far cry” from the Hollywood cowboy cop. In Once Upon a Time in China and most of the Jackie Chan portrayals, Wong Fei-Hung would be a text book example of a rogue cop…if he ever had any sort of legal authority to equate him to a cop of any type. They make a point of showing that the villains in stories involving Wong Fei-Hung are “invariably corrupt, violent and immoral.” This is true of the cowboy cop archetype as well. The cowboy cop archetype is defined by a “screw the rules, I’m doing what’s right” attitude where the character is defying authority because the authority is corrupt or incompetent and extraordinary methods are necessary to handle some evil in their community. They are as often portrayed as pillars of the community as they are portrayed to be anti-social loners.  They fit almost exactly the description of the outsider who’s the only person doing good in a corrupt world as the essay points out for Lone Wolf and Cub.

Most Wong Fei-Hung stories end up showing him suffering under the rules and laws of the area until there comes a breaking point and he steps up to fix things. He is a vigilante leading an unofficial militia of trained martial artists. In addition, he is not always shown as being against Western influence and has been shown protecting Western doctors and priests. What he is placed against  is corruption and greed, whether it’s Western or Asian.

As to the concept of tragic love, this should be obvious where one of the most definitive love stories in Western society is Romeo and Juliet. Love is so recognized as a potential negative impact that in Greek myths it was symbolized as an arrow striking the heart. Love in Greek, Norse and Celtic myth is responsible for entire kingdoms and cultures being laid to waste. It is a staple of Arthurian storytelling ranging from Lancelot and Guinevere to Tristain and Isolde. Contrary to what many people think, the idea that love is the primary reason for marriage is a very modern one. Historically, marriage has been a matter of politics, commerce and survival. It is within the last century and a half that stories have started to predominantly move toward marriage being about love. The idea that love can be both positive and destructive can be seen in the Orpheus and Sigurd myths. This isn’t even something that has escaped such commercial and modern franchises as Supernatural and Batman, both cases where love is at the very least complicated and usually quite tragic.

The essay does make this comment toward the end “these sorts of situations…inject an emotional intensity and depth into the gaming experience that is seldom rivaled in a more Western-style role playing game.” I’ll agree to this, very few games get into this sort of storytelling, but it’s more due to the fact that most players are interested in a bit of light-hearted fun and escapism. For people that want to deal with emotional intensity, tragedy and conflict in their gaming, they will make it and it will have very little to do with whether the game is Asian or Western themed.  For example, the daughter of Loki with a touch of prophecy who knows that she is doomed to betray someone in her future, either her father or the world at large. Which is a position of doom that is characteristic of Celtic, Japanese and Norse storytelling.

I would love to see a good discussion of the differences between Western and Asian storytelling, but as of yet, very little of these discussions have produced anything more than shallow, easily discredited examples.


  1. Excellent essay. I find that the original attitude limits both the concept of Western story AND the L5R storytelling. It is perfectly acceptable for a GM to put together a classic 'western style' fantasy or a writer to put together a classic 'western style' story and make a great and very Japanese-esque storyline. Any adventure only takes a slice out of a person's life, not their whole life. The most Japanese 'theme' is that everything changes - all is transient. A literary arc or story can do go from 'down to up' and stop, as long as it leaves with the implication that things go down again after the story ends. European stories usually go to 'Happily Ever After'. Forcing those difficult decisions can be good story, but don't make good story on their own. Transience is the defining difference IMO.


    1. Actually, most European stories end with horrific or tragic results but modern versions of them tend to cut off with "happily ever after" to spare us the real endings of most of those stories.


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