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Monday, November 11, 2013

How does your beam katana swing?: gender identity and sexuality in No More Heroes - part one: Shinobu and the 'Other M syndrome'

I love Suda51 games – more than most, in fact, No More Heroes being chief among them. I’ve played both titles multiple times through, and find they still hold much of the strange charm that emanates from the melding of toilet humor, pop culture references, and emphasis on artistic drive as they did the day I first popped these discs into my Wii. But playing these games over a few times has led me to look for all sorts of little easter eggs and hints at connections between characters and plot points. My college senior thesis explored The Legend of Zelda franchise as a modern, interactive take on classic medieval fantasy literature, and ultimately I decided I wanted to do something similar with No More Heroes.

What follows is the first of a series of short articles I will be posting that explore the gender roles and sexuality of various characters within the NMH titles. Some of what I will be covering deals with information that is explicitly stated within one game or the other, while other portions are pulled from my own personal speculations and fan theories. To that end, I hope these articles will retain a decent balance of feminist literary critical theory and Freudian literary critical theory with the more free-form speculative elements. I don’t consider this to be my most scholarly work in terms of its formatting, but I do hope it will spark some conversation and perhaps inspire others to explore games like No More Heroes in an in-depth manner.

For the sake of keeping these articles in focus, I won’t be covering any of the Bizarre Jelly girls, as I consider that to be more of a commentary on Japanese entertainment and otaku subculture than I do about the presentation of women in the fictional realm of Santa Destroy. The individuals I ultimately intend to cover within this series include: Holly Summers, Alice Twilight, Jeane, Sylvia, Shinobu, Letz Shake, and Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii. Depending on how much I diverge from my original game plan in certain portions of these mini-articles, however, I may expand this project to accommodate other NMH characters as well. Fair warning: as the No More Heroes titles both bear 'M' ratings, there may be adult language and/or content referenced in these articles, as well as spoiler content for anyone who has not yet completed the games.

Shinobu and the 'Other M syndrome'


Shinobu’s transition from the first game to the second suffers from a seemingly backwards progression. Here is a character that was once strong and independent that has now pulled a 180 and plays two very conflicting roles. In No More Heroes, Shinobu was perhaps one of the strongest opponents Travis ever faced. She was introduced in a very dark fashion, as Travis has to wait to battle her until she’s finished killing a handful of her classmates in cold blood, so it’s pretty clear from the get-go that’s she’s not meant to be a hero or heroine in any traditional sense of those words. But she did have conviction – the entire fight with Travis was centered around her belief that Travis was responsible for her father’s death, an act for which she sought revenge. Upon victory, Travis spares her life, only cutting of her hand and leaving her without closure, though he does confirm that he knew Master Jacobs and respected him but was not responsible for the man’s untimely demise. Despite that, she still comes to Travis’ aid during the final fight against Jeane, returning the favor and saving the protagonist’s life.

Fast-forward two years later to the events of Desperate Struggle. A few hours in, Shinobu makes her return as Travis’ apprentice and Sylvia’s sword-for-hire. While she certainly seems to have honed her skills in the years between, having bested combatants in Asia and becoming a fast, agile, and lethal assassin, Shinobu clings to Travis and tries to put the moves on him. She never refer to him by name, only by the title of ‘master’, going so far to say that she will do whatever her master wants.

At the same time, Shinobu now dons a black dress with a flowing scarf that prominently displays her cleavage. NMH2 even applied some jiggle physics to her character model – nothing to the extreme of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball, but even so, Shinobu wore a school uniform in the previous game with a sweater tied around her waist. It wasn’t revealing, it wasn’t tight against her body – it was surprisingly non-sexualized for a trope that is so easy to turn to as sex symbolism in anime-inspired works. To top it off, Shinobu’s save screen in NMH2 was that of her taking a shower – sure, the toilet paper still covered her hindquarters as it did Travis’ junk, but it left far less to the imagination as she was otherwise completely naked while Travis simply dropped his trousers.

That’s not to say that other ladies in the No More Heroes universe haven’t been similarly scantily-clad – Jeane wears a tight, short-cut MMA outfit, Holly Summers wears a bikini with a vest strapped with grenades (though her fight does take place on a beach, so it’s not exactly outlandish for the setting), and Sylvia dons little more than a trench coat, a prominently displayed lacy black bra, booty shorts, and stilettos while it is snowing in Santa Destroy. Meanwhile, Dr. Naomi apparently received some noticeable breast work between games one and two, and Alice Twilight, despite not being treated to the same jiggle physics and in-your-face camera shots as many of the games’ other females, is still decked out in an odd combination of a bikini top, long sleeves (sans the actual shirt), and short shorts beneath ass-less chaps. Though Bad Girl and Margaret Moonlight both wear far less revealing outfits, their clothing serves fetishism quite blatantly (even if there are a few fetishes sort of hodge-podged together).

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