The Blend of East and West in Red Steel 2
Revolvers and katanas. Gunslingers and rōnin. Bandits and ninjas. With the expansion of popular culture in both the US and Japan over the past decades, and a broader set of exchanges in cultural production between East and West, it’s become somewhat common to combine Western tropes with Japanese tropes in fiction.
We can reflect on the films of Akira Kurosawa, for instance: this legendary filmmaker was said to have been deeply inspired by the westerns of John Ford to imagine his own cinematic tales in post-World War II Japan. Kurosawa thus applied a large, complex array of western-type elements of story and mise-en-scène to his period films (jidaigeki) such as Seven Samurai or The Hidden Fortress. Another one of Kurosawa’s most popular films, Yojimbo, even goes so far as to depict a lone rōnin pitted against two rival gangs ruling over a desolate village, with the action captured in wide framing and the sets filled with a striking imagery of dust and wind. It’s hard not to see the visible homages to the stylistic codes of the western in this now-classic samurai adventure film.
Yet these fictional works, in their combination of Western and Japanese tropes, usually ground their narratives firmly in one of those two settings, while relying on the other setting in a more subtle manner and for different storytelling purposes. Indeed, to depict how the characters behave with one another and move within their environment, these works are generally anchored in a predominant logic that belongs to one setting — with visible allusions to that setting’s social organization, cultural practices and modes of conflict — and use the other setting as more of a complementary tool to enrich the work’s narrative scope and aesthetic presentation beyond the confines of its main setting. Rarely do we see a story that perfectly combines both sets of tropes to create an inherently plausible and seamless experience.
This is precisely what makes Red Steel 2 such a unique game. Not only does it succeed in providing a breathtaking combination of Western and Japanese elements in a video game — hence incorporating these tropes into a stunning interactive experience that makes it very different from a film or a TV series — but it also succeeds in presenting a world in which these tropes perfectly coexist within the logic of this fictional setting. Through its highly skillful blend of the Wild West and feudal Japan, Red Steel 2 thus turns out to be a very identifiable adventure: the player can indeed find a strong incentive to actually care about this game by developing their own personal connection with its story and aesthetics.
Back in 2006, Ubisoft had capitalized on the Wii’s launch by producing Red Steel, an ambitious combination of first-person shooter and hack-and-slash gaming set in an urban Yakuza environment, with a gameplay that aimed to blend gunslinging and katana-swinging by utilizing the Wii’s innovative motion-sensing capabilities. However, this was during the experimental phase for third-party developers interested in the Wii, and the game, despite its ambitious scope, turned out to be an embarrassing mess with sluggish and highly unresponsive controls.
The production of Red Steel 2 thus came at a very encouraging time in contrast to its predecessor, following the revelation of the Wii MotionPlus attachment in 2009. The Wii MotionPlus significantly amplified the system’s motion-sensing capabilities, which allowed for much more responsive controls and thus much more immersive gameplay. As a result, Ubisoft apparently seized its chance to try its FPS-with-swordplay idea a second time.
To further separate itself from the misfire of the first Red Steel, the studio created an original universe that, at its core, aimed to combine Wild West gunslinging with Japanese samurai swordfighting. As the game unfolds, this seamless combination of East and West becomes more and more observable with the introduction of each new character, location or plot element. The identification of each character by their name, physical appearance and occupation, and the identification of each location by its aesthetic construct, thus manages to constantly keep the player on their toes as they delve deeper into the game and further explore its mixed narrative and aesthetic designs.
Set in a vast, scorching desert reminiscent of the American Southwest, the game follows a nameless warrior, a member of a clan of sword-slingers called the Kusagari, as he returns to the town of Caldera after a five-year banishment. But the hero finds Caldera in flames, ravaged by a gang war between the Jackals, a motorcycle gang of thugs and scavengers, and the Katakara, a ruthless clan of sword-wielding outlaws. The hero also learns that the entire Kusagari clan has been wiped out by a mysterious warlord named Shinjiro, who aims to seize the hero’s legendary sword, the Sora Katana, for his own nefarious purposes. As the last of the Kusagari, the hero must rely on his katana and his revolver to face down the clans that are terrorizing Caldera and stop Shinjiro’s ominous plans.
A diverse group of supporting characters accompany the hero in his quest. Among them are Jian, the hero’s old swordmaster; Tamiko, a computer-savvy technician and former member of the Kusagari’s research division; Judd, the gruff yet dependable sheriff of Caldera; and Songan, a roguish businessman who owns a fight club in Caldera’s underworld. The game also moves on to new locations in its second half, taking the hero aboard a night train across the desert, leaving him in a seedy ghost town overrun by Jackals, and finally taking him to the ancient mining community of Rattlesnake Canyon for his ultimate showdown against Shinjiro.
The story of Red Steel 2 thus seems rather straightforward, setting the hero on a quest across a vast desert world to encounter a variety of antagonists until the climactic face-off with the villain. The themes of the story also seem rather simple, with the hero bent on avenging the demise of the Kusagari and defending the hidden power of the Sora Katana from Shinjiro’s evil ambitions. Yet the true strength of the game lies precisely in the ways in which it builds up its story and aesthetics through a gripping, plausible and, above all, selective combination of Western and Japanese storytelling elements.
At its core, Red Steel 2 relies on a highly visual and exotic perspective of the Wild West and feudal Japan, which is based on a diverse array of popular impressions we have of these two vastly different and yet, at the same time, strangely similar settings. The western genre is very much grounded in images such as the lone, taciturn fighter who attacks first and asks questions later; the wild, desolate backcountry and lonely ghost towns; the gangs of bandits riding across the desert and bullying the local folk; and, of course, the general atmosphere of lawlessness and survival of the fittest. The modern “samurai” genre, in its own unique brand of storytelling, can actually evoke some of the western’s tropes — including the solitary hero pitted against a bunch of seedy outlaws or the setting of the story in a bleak, deserted village — but, obviously, is also grounded in a set of tropes that are specific to the setting of feudal Japan, such as clans warring against each other and the struggle for ancient honor. One can already detect a conceptual pattern of interconnected resemblances and differences in the storytelling dynamics of these two genres, as per the popular impressions related to their fictional definitions.
However, Red Steel 2 doesn’t delve into the deeper, more complex factual realities of the Wild West or feudal Japan. The game doesn’t mention bushidō — whether in the ritual of seppuku or in the ideation of the katana as the soul of the warrior — nor any type of social organization reminiscent of medieval Japan. In its representation of the Wild West, the game also refrains from mentioning a federal government aiming to conquer the frontier and bring civilization into the wilderness, or any type of federal law enforcement or indigenous population struggling to defend its territory. Arguably, such simplicity in the game’s use of Western and Japanese tropes could be subject to criticism, as some might accuse it of depicting both settings in a superficial, underdeveloped way.
Yet the game actually benefits from the relative simplicity of its genre-bound influences, as these storytelling decisions prevent an overdose of exposition, an excessive amount of world-building, or a perfect degree of accuracy that may be at risk of compromising the quality of the overall experience. The narrative is made more believable by relying on direct, popular objects of identification for both the western and “samurai” genres, subsequently building its own world upon these founding images and being able to maintain an inherent logic to it all.
The question may then arise as to precisely why the world of Red Steel 2 works. The answer essentially lies in the method of the game’s combination of tropes. Rather than mixing the Wild West and feudal Japan into every single one of its characters, locales or plot elements (which would obviously be a recipe for disaster), the game allows both sets of tropes to stand on their own, but alongside each other and always within its narrative and aesthetic space.
The first half of the game takes place entirely in Caldera, which serves as a nexus on which to focalize the game’s mixed aesthetic design and its resulting narrative plausibility. Divided in an upper and a lower city, Caldera turns out to be a much more diverse location than those that appear in the game’s second half. The town’s mixed urban layout, which goes back and forth between the wide dusty streets of a Western town and the dense passageways of a Japanese town, is contrasted to its much more western-inspired outskirts, where the player comes across lonely train depots, water towers, telegraph poles and railroad tracks stretching far into the desert.
In comparison, the second half of the game initially seems a bit simpler in its blend of tropes. After losing track of Shinjiro during the warlord’s escape by train, the hero stumbles into an abandoned ghost town filled with gunslinging Jackals: a sequence which chiefly fits into the western’s aesthetic codes. However, after the hero travels by train to Rattlesnake Canyon, the game quickly returns to a more mixed aesthetic design, with high temples built up vertically along the barren cliffsides, and Japanese-style stone stairs and pathways criss-crossing into the farther reaches of the canyon’s western-style mining facility.
Even when it ventures into chiefly Japanese aesthetic territory for some of its set-pieces, including the hero’s first fight with Shinjiro at the Kusagari Temple and a lengthy sequence in the water gardens of Caldera, the game shows impressive accuracy in recreating the architectural look of medieval Japan. The player comes across vast courtyards filled with stone lanterns (tōrō), Shinto-inspired pagodas and halls topped with gabled roofs, wooden fences (tamagaki) bordering the courtyards and buildings and, of course, the arched gateways made of stone or wood (torii) that stand over the stone passageways leading to each of these locations. With leafy trees blowing in the dusty wind, and the warm light of the setting sun shining down on these desert-bound Japanese-inspired locales, these sequences truly provide some of the game’s most awe-inspiring moments.
Ultimately, the game’s mixed Western and Japanese aesthetics work because they all exist autonomously and alongside one another at the same time. This quote from Jason Vandenberghe, the game’s creative director, can serve as proof of this approach: “What doesn’t work is to take those Western and Eastern elements, and sort of mix them into one thing. What does work is to say: here’s Joe’s bar and grill and here is Ming Pow’s sushi’s place. It’s not a Western-looking cowboy katana; it’s a katana, and a revolver, and they’re clearly in their own place.”
This means that, as they walk across Caldera or trek up the jagged cliffs of Rattlesnake Canyon, the player can quickly and seamlessly move from a western ambience to a “samurai” atmosphere, and vice versa. It wouldn’t feel strange for the player to roam the dusty streets of Caldera and gun down a few Jackals along the way, then step into the Kusagari Temple and spar with a few Katakara high in the pagoda or down in the courtyard, then run across the roofs of the town and arrive at the train depot before the villain can flee into the desert. The game’s inherent combination of tropes really works that well, providing a completely believable and uniquely immersive experience.
What’s even more surprising is that the game doesn’t limit its blend of East and West to its initial genre-bound conception. It also seeks to simultaneously imagine a past and a future for its world and bring these two timespaces together, thus grounding its combination of tropes into a much larger spatial and temporal logic. As seen with the hi-tech billboards and Japanese neon signs scattered on top of Caldera’s buildings, or the electronic command stations and radio towers spread out across Rattlesnake Canyon, the game goes beyond merely blending the Wild West and feudal Japan within their past settings. It aims to create a universe with an entirely original history and sense of human evolution, in which the past and the future seem to converge into the hero’s present adventure. As a result, the game fundamentally seems to combine the Far West of the past with the Far East of the future, resulting in a narrative and aesthetic experience that is much more open to interpretation by the player.
For what is it that makes the game’s story and aesthetics so gripping and identifiable for the player? To begin with, the game arouses the natural fascination towards the East that many of us feel in the West. We naturally feel intrigued by Japan due to its foreign customs, its striking architecture, its dynamic history or its vibrant cultural life. This may explain why Japanese cultural production — whether in the form of cinema, poetry, theatre, manga, anime, video games, etc. — remains so popular in the West, for Western audiences may find themselves in a perpetual learning curve towards Japan, a country they’re simply unable to fully understand all at once. In that way, by taking the aesthetic codes of the “samurai” genre and fusing them with those of the western genre, Red Steel 2 directly attracts our basic attention towards Japan and channels our interest in Japanese storytelling through the lens of the western, a genre that is somewhat more graspable for many of us.
The role of the western genre in the game’s appeal must then be mentioned. After the golden age of the western from the 1930s to the early 1960s, the genre floundered in the US but was significantly revised in Europe by now-iconic filmmakers such as Sergio Leone. From the 1970s onward, westerns would retain this revisionist approach in demystifying the Wild West and challenging the traditional conventions of the genre. The past 20 years or so have led to a much greater effervescence in the western’s cultural scope, between striking neo-westerns such as Unforgiven and The Hateful Eight and breathtaking western-inspired contemporary stories such as No Country for Old Men, Wind River and, of course, Breaking Bad. The western has thus come to represent a set of ideas, locations, characters and goals that has become ingrained in the West’s collective imagination. By blending Western audiences’ aforementioned interest in Japanese storytelling with their even more perceptible fascination for the western, Red Steel 2 arguably represents a winning formula in terms of bilateral cultural appeal between East and West.
However, this doesn’t fully explain what would interest the player in the game’s mixed aesthetic designs in the first place. What allows the player to identify with the game and form a personal connection with its story and locales, in my opinion, lies in their own personal values and life experiences and how those personal objects of identification can be associated with the game’s blend of Western and Japanese storytelling elements. This enables the player to reach a common ground for truly understanding the game and finding their own individual affinity with it.
We’ve all been through moments of solitude, frustration, resentment and isolation towards others, yet have hopefully developed values of resilience, curiosity, open-mindedness and creativity in the process. These personal experiences can thus be connected to the types of stories that consequently appeal to us in terms of plot, setting and characterization, which the western and “samurai” genres can fit in very vividly. Red Steel 2 thus manages to satisfy our expectations and desires as players by relying on both genres to uniquely and seamlessly create its own world, and then populating this world with storytelling elements that are directly identifiable for the player.
The average player would want to travel across an epic desert world and feel its blend of East and West. They would want to play a hero who wields both a katana and a revolver, defeating enemies with both combat methods before moving on with the quest. They would want to feel the grit and tenacity that would be needed to survive in such a rough yet exotic land. They would want to exist as the heroic figure in this environment, living on within this striking world in which the western and “samurai” genres manifest their richness alongside each other. With the increase in intertextuality and the blend of cultural influences that has become associated with contemporary popular culture since the 1990s or so, Red Steel 2 completely asserts its existence and its own world-building logic, thus compelling the player to embrace it and develop their own individual “narratives” as they discover the game itself.
Red Steel 2 is definitely a one-of-a-kind interactive adventure. This game truly defies any preconceived notion that we may have of combining the western and “samurai” genres into a single work of fiction. The world of the game is so meticulously elaborated, so focused on making its combination of the Wild West and feudal Japan feel just right, that it can allow the player to directly immerse themselves into its narrative and aesthetic designs and find their own connection with the hero’s epic adventure. Those images of a lone hero wielding a katana inside a desert pagoda or slinging a revolver in dusty neon-filled streets will surely never be as eloquently recaptured by any other game.