Thursday, April 25, 2013

Bayonetta and Camp

This post is a walk-through of the development of my thoughts regarding the video game Bayonetta.

Part 1: Parody

I don’t think anyone would dispute that Bayonetta is over-the-top.

Bayonetta Trailer

The game combines “hyper cool” combos/moves that only require button mashing with a “hyper sexy” main character whose stilettos are guns and whose outfit is composed largely out of her hair, and an objective to kill angels all set to a poppy, up-beat soundtrack. The target for enemies is a set of red lips, and when you successfully perform a move in the tutorial, the game praises you with “Cute!” and “Beautiful!” Bayonetta catwalks down the aisle of a train in a cutscene on the demo.

Any qualms I had about another buxom femme fatale was assuaged by the realization that this was a parody. The game is just too much to be taken seriously. A heavy reliance of tired stereotypes about femininity, hyper-sexualization to ridiculousness, and the intentionally provocative charge of killing angels with combo moves that require skill a novice could muster are all tongue-in-cheek. Bayonetta playfully critiques elements commonly found in “those other games” (and real life): the conflation of sex and violence, a heroine in a sexualized outfit, a heroine who is only her sexuality and is constantly reconciling the whore/Madonna paradox, endlessly bloody and graphic combos, the unabashed t and a shots.

One reviewer said they felt uncomfortable because the game seems to encourage objectifying Bayonetta (positioning her in suggestive poses and moving the camera around), and yet sets her up as a strong, independent, angel-slaying badass in the plot. That this tension was obvious in this game is part of what makes it an effective parody.

Part 2: Author’s Intent

Later, J. pointed me to some comments the developers made in regards to the creation of  Bayonetta. In creating the game, they decided to start with focusing on "her femininity and sexuality” and built the character around that. They achieved this in part by incorporating a butterfly motif with Bayonetta, a symbol typically considered “girly” but also is associated with female genitals. Other elements include the use of flowers, a focus on her shoes, and her (sexual) dress and comportment. One developer, Kamiya, said that the theme of the game and the power behind Bayonetta’s attacks is "sexiness."

Aside from the focus on sexuality and femininity conceptually, there was also a focus on these aspects of the character’s visual design. Kenichiro Yoshimura, who worked on the games images, said in regards to Bayonetta: "I really wanted to get Bayonetta's backside perfect. I guess I am into that sort of thing..."

Thank goodness Kenichiro Yoshimura spent hours toiling over that perfect butt, am I right?

 While there is not anything wrong with being “into that sort of thing,” or even creating a sexualized woman character, the creator’s commentary reveals a level of objectification.

These comments make me question whether or not Bayonetta really is parody. By focusing in on the character’s “femininity and sexuality” to an extreme, instead of other real aspects of her character, the development team did just what one needs to do in order to transform a character into campy parody. Unintentionally.

Part 3: Cross-Cultural Camp

But then it dawned on me that this game was made in Japan. There are numerous examples of Japanese games that when brought to the USA have elements that are “lost in translation.” Is Bayonetta one big misunderstanding?

I kept asking myself, if the “authors’ intent” was to pull off hyper-sexy fighting fuckdoll “with an air of mystery,” why could they not see that they were plunging head-first into camp instead? One answer is that “camp” is a culturally specific category. It is worth looking into whether or not “camp” as an aesthetic even exists in Japanese culture, and if it does, how congruent the Japanese ideas of camp are with the United States’ ideas of camp are.

Part 4: What does this mean?

So, how does someone make sense of this? How much does authors’ intent matter when it comes to interpreting a game? How about cultural origin? If this game was not created as parody, but instead as an attempt at more sexist BS in the video game industry, does that undermine any empowering interpretations of Bayonetta, or create a hierarchy of meanings?

Personally, these realizations left me feeling conflicted over what had at first been a very tidy categorization of the game. At the same time, the United States has been creating “local” meanings for imports for years, and I don’t think Bayonetta is any different. I don’t have a problem continuing to enjoy the game as parody (in the United States at least?). However, the only remaining qualms I have surround the prospect of knowingly financially supporting an endeavor that was potentially at its root a sexist one.

- A.

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