Tokyo Tattoo Girls (Review)

We don’t generally think much about tattoos out west, but in Japan there’s still a significant stigma around them, because for the longest time tattoos meant yakuza. You had one, you were one in the eyes of most people in decent society, and that was the end of your change to be taken seriously in non-criminal circles in Japan. It’s an attitude that’s fading because modern kids love their tattoos, but to this day, if you’ve got a tattoo, then you’ll be denied entry into any number of hot springs and resorts throughout Japan if you’re not able to cover it up.

So within the context of Tokyo Tattoo Girls, the fact your role in the game is as a tattoo artist covering these girls with ink is not just a weird bit of fetish fanservice, as some might interpret it to be. It actually represents a subversive, deeply underground part of Japanese culture that is very much like the western underground punk or grunge movements; the deliberate appropriation of symbols and things that “decent” people find distasteful for the purposes of their art. Sushi Typhoon has players give power to their characters by embracing these underground movements and providing tattoos for the girls, which really talks up the game’s transgressive spirit. It’s so important to the game’s thematic core, which is why it’s also so incredibly impressive that the team recruited a genuinely famous Japanese tattoo artist, Koji Tanaka (he has worked on The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift, and other films that required traditional Japanese tattoo art), to ensure that all the ink designs and colours are properly authentic and fit with the theme. I almost wish I was playing the PC version of this game instead of on my relatively small Vita screen, so I could fully appreciate in the incredibly detailed art and designs that you can ink onto each girl’s back. 

Those tattoos - and much of the game’s art in general - is also strongly reminiscent of ukiyo-e art in terms of visual design. Ukiyo-e is one of Japanese most treasured contributions to the art world, and whether people know it by name or not, most would recognise the distinctive art of woodblock prints if they saw it. There’s nothing inherently underground about it, of course. The Great Wave of Kanagawa, the iconic art work by Hokusai, is an example of ukiyo-e, and it's as non-controversial as the Mona Lisa, as far as art goes. But ukiyo-e is also used for the visual art found on Hanafuda cards. Hanafuda is a card game of chance that, historically, has had the same connections to the yakuza that poker had with the mafia. The only difference being that those associations between the yakuza and Hanafuda have persisted on far longer - even a generation or two ago there were people that would not allow their kids to learn Hanafuda because of those associations with yakuza. 

In the context of a game about gangs vying for dominance over Tokyo, the ukiyo-e aesthetics resemble more the Hanafuda of old than The Great Wave and the great respect the mainstream art community has for the ukiyo-e art style in general. It is, again, underground and grungy, and the game simply wouldn’t be the same depth of cultural impact were a more realist - or even modern anime - direction taken. 

Tokyo Tattoo Girls is undeniably beautiful to look at, but at the same time in contrast to the “high art” approach to ukiyo-e in games like Okami and Oreshika, this one has a edgier, or seedier tone to it. I mean that as seedy in a good way - it's bold, and stark, and the way it's used reinforces the game’s B-exploitation themes. And that, too, fits with a separate ukiyo-e tradition, quite aside from both Hanafuda and the Great Wave. At a point even before the yakuza, ukiyo-e was the art style of choice to depict brothels and other underground nighttime activities. It was an erotic art style, too, and that's why it works so well when used as the basis for tattoo art.

The only disappointment to the art is the characters themselves are rendered with a modern anime aesthetic. There’s no clash between these characters and the ukiyo-e approach to the tattoos and the game’s map, but it does hurt the consistency of the game somewhat to have these two very different art styles sitting on top of one another. But then, the way women are depicted in ukiyo-e would not longer be considered attractive and sexy by modern standards, and the spirit of ukiyo-e requires that the women be seen as beautiful, so in a way the game’s aesthetics are still keeping to theme, even as they break with tradition. 

Further reinforcing the underground themes of the game are the characters themselves. The game (and I’ll get onto the gameplay soon, I promise) divides Tokyo into 23 wards, and tasks you, in that role of tattoo artist to one of six characters, to take control of the wards away from the boss of each. This is something only people who have been to Tokyo can really understand, but within real-world Tokyo, each district genuinely has its own subcultures, and you really can almost draw hard borders between them. The anime otaku go to one place, the aspiring pop stars another, and the train fans a third place. Fashionistas go one place, while one suburb across you're in a poorer where the punks live up to their violent reputations. And, again, there are hard lines between them that rarely cross. In Tokyo Tattoo Girls, each ward’s leader represents that real-world area’s dominant subculture… once again reinforcing that this game is playing heavily on the underground heartbeat and clannish nature of Tokyo city life

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