River City Girls and the San Fransokyo Aesthetic

River City Girls is a new game in the aged genre of the side-scrolling beat-em-up, and a role reversal of the classic damsel-in-distress story. As friends Kyoko and Misako, the player sets out to rescue their boyfriends by clobbering everyone in their way. As suggested by its title, it’s a sequel of sorts to the classic NES game River City Ransom, which is itself a heavily localized version of the Japanese Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari from the Kunio-kun franchise. Because River City Girls aims to be a successor to both River City Ransom and Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, it takes cues from both the former’s American-esque “dudes with attitudes” style and the latter’s Japanese “yankee delinquents” presentation, resulting in a fascinating mashup of both aesthetics.

Rather than lean in one direction or the other, River City Girls mixes things up. The game takes place in “Cross Town” (from River City Ransom) but the boyfriends’ names are “Riki” and “Kunio” instead of “Ryan” and “Alex.” Japanese street gang figures (banchou) roam the street at the same time as cheerleaders. Kyoko wears a letterman jacket on top of a school uniform while Misako’s takes cues from Japanese fashion, and they both kind of resemble Powerpuff Girls in a way that calls to mind the anime adaptation Powerpuff Girls Z. A story cinematic shows the girls in an American-style school cafeteria.

Some Double Dragon characters even make cameos (Double Dragon was originally developed from the original Kunio-kun engine but with more international appeal). While those games always took place in the US, River City girls specifically uses the Double Dragon Neon versions of the characters, a game that was much more American-facing than Japanese.

The result is that Cross Town comes across in the same vein as Big Hero 6’s “San Fransokyo” and Hurricane Polymar’s “Washinkyo”—a place that’s both Japanese and American at the same time. I can only guess at the reason behind this decision, but I imagine it has to do with the fact that both River City Ransom and Kunio-kun are beloved in their respective regions. There’s a certain generation of Nintendo fan that holds the game River City Ransom in high regard. One part beat-em-up, one part adventure RPG, there really wasn’t much like it back in 1990. Kunio-kun, in turn, has starred in many, many games over the years, and he was a company mascot for Technos Japan. River City Girls aims to please both audiences, and maybe even poke fun at those bygone days of extreme localization.

Because River City Girls is this deliberate combination of Japanese and American, it also begs comparison with another piece of media heavily inspired by manga and retro gaming: Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley. In fact, Scott Pilgrim is itself heavily influenced by River City Ransom, as indicated by one of the comics’ characters crying “BARF!” as they’re hit, and the Scott Pilgrim video game being a beat-em-up. The senses of humor found in River City Girls and Scott Pilgrim, while not wholly identical, are similar in their irreverence and fourth-wall breaking one-liners. There’s even a boss fight in River City Girls against a musician just as there’s one in Scott Pilgrim. At the same time, enough time has passed that Scott Pilgrim (itself a love letter of sorts to the NES era of gaming) is old enough to be a nostalgia trip for fans of comics, video games, and other media. That, in turn, makes River City Ransom an even more distant memory in the collective video game and pop culture fandom.

River City Girls is an entry into a genre whose heyday has long since passed that uses 2D sprite graphics and playful animations. In taking from the late 1980s of both Japan and America, and filtering them through a contemporary lens in an age where “anime-influenced” works are more common than ever before, RIver City Girls ends up feeling somehow both extremely current and incredibly nostalgic, instantly dated yet also timeless. It’s an aesthetic I can get behind.

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Before San Fransokyo, There Was Washinkyo from Hurricane Polymar

BIG HERO 6

When watching the Disney animated film Big Hero 6, one of the first things that stands out is the city in which the characters live: the portmanteau of “San Fransokyo.” How it relates to either San Francisco or Tokyo remains a mystery, but it’s probably meant to pay tribute to both Disney’s own American origins and the inspiration Big Hero 6 takes from Japanese media.

However, Big Hero 6 hasn’t been the only work of fiction to combine American and Japanese cities. One such work is an anime that dates back to the 1970s: Hurricane Polymar.

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A series by Tatsunoko Production, the same studio responsible for classics such as Gatchaman and Casshern, Hurricane Polymar comes from that same era and young Amano Yoshitaka-derived aesthetic sense. A mix of Inspector Gadget, Bruce Lee, and Superman, the series takes place not only in the capital of “Washinkyo” (Washington DC + Tokyo), but in the country of “Amehon” (America + Nihon [Japan]).

I think it’s fun to imagine what an actual “Amehon” would be like, or where it would come from. Would it literally be the US and Japan deciding to be one nation? Would it be some strange alternative universe where they were the same land mass all along? Would anime fans who despise American culture and love Japanese culture be more at home, or would the appealing “foreignness” of Japan be lost in the process? Going back to anime itself, could Hurricane Polymar himself be considered a blend of American and Japanese superhero tropes and qualities, similar to how the characters of Big Hero 6 occupy a similar category?

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Step 1) Kung Fu, Step 2) Transform into Submarine: Hurricane Polymar

There are about three weeks left in the Hurricane Polymar DVD crowdfund project and out of all the anime on Anime Sols, I think it’s a show especially deserving of attention. It’s fun, it’s wild, and somehow despite the clearly older animation doesn’t feel all that dated.

Some people might be more familiar with the Hurricane Polymar OVA from the 90s, and though I’ve never seen it myself I’ve been told that it is kind of a drab affair. This original 70s Hurricane Polymar TV series however is anything but mundane. In fact, although it’s called Hurricane Polymar, the Japanese used to write “Hurricane” actually means “Shattering Backfist,” while the opening is so vibrant and energetic that I think its style alone is reason enough to at least check out the first episode.

The actual premise is fairly silly but in a delightful way which still leaves plenty of room for action. The main character is Yoroi Takeshi, an assistant for a bumbling yet cocky detective named Kuruma Joe who proclaims himself to be the “Next Sherlock Holmes.” Every episode they fight a different animal-themed criminal organization, and Takeshi, under the guise of a simple yet loyal apprentice, secretly helps the detective’s investigations more than the detective himself realizes.

When things call for some martial arts violence, however, Takeshi can transform into the mighty Hurricane Polymar, who chops and kicks and creates illusions while somehow fitting the word “hurricane” into Bruce Lee-style WATAAAAAAs.

Rounding out the cast are the narrator (a dog), and Nanba Teru, who is perhaps the most stylish female character ever. Actually, like many old Tatsunoko Pro shows, the character designs are by Amano Yoshitaka, best known for his work on Final Fantasy.

Hurricane Polymar essentially acts as a mix of the comedy of Inspector Gadget, the secret identity shenanigans of Superman, and a Hong Kong kung fu flick. It’s not the kind of anime that has a really dramatic impact or a fantastic ongoing story, but it doesn’t really need it either. What Hurricane Polymar excels at is being supercharged entertainment, the kind of thing where you watch an episode just to get invigorated and ready to tackle the world. In fact, it might not be good to watch too many episodes in a row, as you might get too hype.

If you decide that you are so capable of handling Hurricane Polymar that you actually want a physical copy of it (and live in the United States or Canada), you can contribute to the Anime Sols crowdfund.