Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 7

No character is truly original, none are pulled out from thin air, at least not the memorable ones. Gouki and Mr. Karate, the greatest "boss" characters from Capcom and SNK respectively, were inspired by mystical icons. To be specific the spiritual influences of Asian religions. These fighting game characters, their appearance, colors and even poses were based on the Nio. The Nio were the guardians of Buddha. They deterred evil man and demon from the gates of the afterlife and met the honorable ones as a friend when their spirit was ready to transcend this dimension. These figures could be found in temples as intricately detailed wooden carvings, some were life-sized and some were gigantic. They were also referred to as the the Benevolent Kings in other writings. The two most recognizable, the ones highlighted in manga and anime, being Agyo and Ungyo; the beginning and end, or "alpha" and "omega." The guardians were physically imposing figures, whose exaggerated muscles and proportions were meant to instill fear into those that would desecrate a temple. Although empty-handed in most representations they were nonetheless meant to be seen as fearsome warriors and masters of the martial arts.

Upon studying the statues, their origins and aesthetics we can see how the Nio could be incorporated into a fighting game. One of the most popular incarnations being Gouki / Akuma from Capcom's revolutionary Street Fighter series. Years later many of the fearsome elements from the Nio and earlier Vedic Traditions were pulled by Capcom once more to create the heroes and villains featured in Asura's Wrath. Given their importance in Buddhism and symbolically strong gestures they could not have been meant for anything less than "boss" status in their respective titles. The scowls, wide-eyes, raw power and menacing poses were universally understood even if their divine origin was not. All it took was for some artists to come along and update their designs, bring them into a contemporary setting.

The Nio are sometimes mistaken for another figure from Buddhism. Fudo Myo-o AKA Acala is known as the "Immovable One." The fearsome-looking demon is actually a protector as well. He burns away all impediments and defilement so that living beings can reach enlightenment. The blue skin is supposed to recall elements of the supernatural. Gods and demons are often presented with blue or red skin. Many Hindu deities were presented with blue skin as well and possibly influenced the creation of the Chinese and Japanese spirits.


While Gouki was based on the Nio, a latter version of the character introduced in Super Street Fighter IV was known as Oni (the Japanese word for demon). The supercharged, blue-skinned version of Gouki was undoubtedly rooted in the design of Fudo Myo-o.


Mr. Karate from the SNK King of Fighters universe combined the Nio influence with a Tengu mask. Masks were very powerful symbols of culture, every culture had a mask tradition and were recognized for their symbolic properties. When used carefully by a game designer they could make an ordinary character extraordinary. In Japan, and in some regions, masks had an important ceremonial position. Originally carved from wood and later turned into a paper-maché craft, Iwami Kagura masks, which were similar to the Tengu masks were used in a historical and folk context. They were most commonly used for Noh plays as great storytelling devices. Even those without an understanding of Japanese culture could still find time to appreciate the colors, design and craftsmanship that goes into these amazing masks.


The use of masks as a storytelling device is also something featured in theSichuan Chinese opera. Stories based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West often feature performers in full face paint, if not ornately designed silk masks. Some performers were able to switch masks in a fraction of a second as a magic trick. This centuries-old practice was fiercely guarded by the Chinese and the techniques of the masked performers were often handed down to members of the immediate family only through a rigorous apprenticeship. In similar ways certain forms of kung-fu were also only trusted to immediate family members. While the Shaolin were willing to train other monks in the art of self defense many kung-fu practitioners were much more secretive. Many forms died out and it took a long time for certain lineages to be taught to foreigners, if at all. The fighting game character Lee Pai Long was a masked performer and master martial artist. His father was a legend and trusted his only son with his arcane knowledge of medicine as well as the martial arts. In SNK canon Lee Pai Long was a minor character but his design influences were notable. His mask had the pattern of the Monkey King on it. He came from a tradition that predated the Tengu mask.


The word Tengu translated to Heavenly Dog, a Shinto god. Sometimes the tengu mask had a beak and made the wearer appear like a bird. The more common version has red skin and a long nose with certain phallic qualities. Yes, there were some tengu masks with long flaccid noses as well! The term tengu and the characters used to write it in Japanese were borrowed from the name of a fierce demon from Chinese folklore called tiāngoǔ. The tengu were mythical characters, spirits, animals, goblins and such that existed before Buddhism reached Japan. As was the case in other locations the Buddhists pulled mythology of the region and incorporated it into their stories. The tengu stopped being representatives of ancient animistic Shinto figures and were written as opponents of Buddhism but also sometimes protectors of it. This dual nature worked in the favor of the characters designed for fighting games. The character of Mr. Karate was the alias for Takuma Sakazaki. As Takuma the character was heroic, noble and very honorable. Mr. Karate by comparison was a brutal fighter that held nothing back and showed no mercy to his opponents. Takuma was based greatly on the Japanese karate master Mas Oyama. However as soon as he put on the mask he developed a completely new personality. The father of Lee Pai Long was Lee Gakusuo, he was the martial artist that left an enormous scar across the chest of a young and arrogant Takuma. Gakusuo was what Mr. Chen was to the legend of Mas Oyama.


As a design choice it was a bold move from the people working at Capcom and SNK to feature martial artists disguised as divine beings. Imagine what a spectacle a real fighter would have created if they chose to protect their identity, or create a new personae with a mask? What would have happened if Mas Oyama or Huo Yuanjia had returned from their self-imposed exile to fight foreign champions while wearing a mask? What if they shunned the fame and had shown up at fighting tournaments unannounced and disappeared as soon as they beat their opponent? Imagine what the reaction would have been if Bruce Lee had lived and caught anonymously instead of promoted himself and his philosophies on movie screens. The stories and conspiracy theories surrounding their lives would be even stronger today.

The most unique designs in the King of Fighters and Street Fighter revolved around a distinct Japanese aesthetic. The Nio figures, the tengu masks and classic theater all had a part in shaping the legacy of fighting games. To ignore the origins of these characters was to deny the reason why audiences were so attracted to them. Western fans of the titles that lacked an understanding behind the Eastern religions, customs and traditions still appreciated these unique characters. I would argue that Gouki, Mr. Karate and other characters like them inspired Westerners to study more about Asian cultures and religions. There was no doubt that they found some influences with their favorite characters as they progressed deeper into history. The foundation for the King of Fighters and Street Fighter series was planted at the start of the 20th century not in the middle of the century. Mas Oyama was a central influence to both games but there were Japanese legends that existed before he did. When the designers at Capcom and SNK studied these men they were able to work them into the canon of each series. The next blog will get to the roots of the Japanese masters.


  1. Oni in his Fudo Myo-o DLC costume:

    Glad you're back Mex! I greedily follow everi fightgame-related content you post!

    1. Great pic and very timely. I hope you enjoy the blogs!