This year I’ve allowed myself to enjoy anime again. After growing up on a strict diet of Shonen manga and anime through middle school and high school, I had started to find certain sexist tropes grate at me. The sensually drawn female characters with unrealistic figures became offputting to me. During 2009-2010, there was the beginning of the pushback against the male gaze (even though that wasn’t a term yet) especially in video games. Characters like Lara Croft were redesigned and booth babes were phased out at shows like E3. I had only begun to think critically so I didn’t have the toolset to diagnose exactly why this was bad. I knew it was dehumanizing to women, but I hadn’t figured out that it’s the lens on women that was the issue. Characters can be sexy and powerful but I was still figuring out how to differentiate. Complicating my understanding was the male lens especially when used to prop up comedy. I really hated when comedy relied on characters being perverted as it usually came at the expense of a female character. Jokes about stealing panties and spying on women pushed me away from shows I loved. I appreciated Dragonball Z had levity but when it centered around Master Roshi trying to get Bulmas panties, I immediately wanted to turn it off. Video games weren’t exactly safe either; I loved playing Persona 4 at this time but I had a hard time stomaching your male party members passes at the female party members (looking at you Yosuke and Teddie).
Obviously, this isn’t just a common occurrence in anime and Japanese media. I turned a blind eye to a lot of the major studio comedies that I grew up with and past “sex” comedies that are really just excuses for men to treat women badly and still end up with them. Discrimination against women is a global occurrence especially back home. I’ve worked to refine my critical lens towards anime and found so much more enjoyment coming back to it. Faye is an absolute badass in Cowboy Bebop and she does all while sporting booty shorts. I can still enjoy the adventures of Naruto even if I wish Sakura could be written with more independence. There’s still bad out there (I will never read Sword Art Online and I won’t be going back to Persona 4 for a litany of other reasons) but that doesn’t mean the entire industry is a trash fire. Learning where my personal threshold is and better understanding how to hold both positive and negative opinions of media has been a blessing. I’ve come a long way from that younger man who didn’t understand feminism and appropriate jokes so it sucks to play something that feels stuck in my past. There’s a regret stewed in there and I can’t help but feel negative towards something that seemingly revels in that type of gendered humor. While I would write this off in the past as “cringey” I can now identify that feeling as sexist, or at least immature at best.
AI: Somnium Files rides a really tough line. On the one hand, you have a pulpy mystery filled with unique characters that holds just enough secrets on all of them to keep you engaged and guessing motivations. On the other, you have incessant sex jokes about leering older men. The game’s tone is goofy for one; it’s very much a comedic game outside of the gore and crime scenes. As a visual novel, you’ll be clicking around backdrops during the scenes where you are questioning or interacting with a character to move the plot forward. Interacting with the environment will result in conversations between characters, an inner dialogue between your characters Date and his linked AI Aiba, or an inner monologue. There’s plenty of sight gags that don’t revolve around women and lots of bits around characters misidentifying objects in the environment, for example looking at a chair and thinking “jellyfish.”
More often than not though, there’s a woman or a depiction of a woman that has to be called attention to. The problem is with Date as a character; he’s overly self serious, like how you’d expect a grizzled police detective to be, but the game also wants to poke fun at him. He rarely knows all the answers and is never really seen as a true authority figure when he visits places. Those details can be funny, but the game really likes to drive home that Date is always fucking horny. There’s lots of environmental gags that drive this in. At one of the locations you visit, Matsushita Diner, there are beer ads on the walls that trigger Date to drool over. Visiting the Lemniscate modeling industry, there’s an attractive receptionist that you can interact with. At first Date only ogles the receptionist from afar remarking on how big her breast size is. The more you click, eventually Date only sees two boobs behind the desk. I promise you that description is funnier than wasting your time clicking over and over. The kicker to her character is that she’s exactly the vapid arc type that you’d think the game would paint her as, so therefore she’s not really a person?
Date is constantly chastised by Aiba for being horny, especially when interacting with characters (this is made all the more complicated by Aiba presenting as female). There’s a weird joke about Date using X-ray vision to examine a hostesses literal bone structure that had my eyes rolling just as hard as Aiba’s. That’s where the game tries to tell you it’s in on the joke too. Aiba is supposed to be the mouthpiece for the player; don’t you also think Date’s pathetic for his one track mind? It’s made much more complicated and problematic when Date is a 35 year old examining an 18 year old waitress.
Most of this can be skippable as it’s not necessarily required for you to interact with everything in the environment to progress. There’s still plenty of this type of humor though interceded between characters. Date will sometimes comment on his boss’ appearance, named “Boss.” Don’t worry though, Boss is also very horny which leads to a really cringey and gross workplace sexual harassment joke. This is much harder to stomach after years of Me Too and all of the recent video game industry harassment outages.
In most conversations, other characters pick up the slack. The character Iris, who has a career as an internet idle, draws tons of attention from the other male characters. All of these men are adults (the youngest being Ota who’s 24) while she’s 18 finishing up high school. This could be seen as a sly commentary in the idle industry in Japan, except it never digs into how Iris really feels about all of the unwanted attention. We get the idea that she is very good at brushing men off but we never hear from her about how the industry affects her. Instead we get jokes where a 40 year old accidentally motor boats his friend instead of Iris, a holdover from the time when gay panic jokes were in vogue.
There’s the problem really; women are not real characters they are platforms to ogle at and spin riffs on male horniness. There’s many instances of men talking about women’s body types which we definitely do not need more of. And the game doesn’t really hold them accountable; it’s all rendered harmless. It’s position on make obsessiveness is “aren’t they all just scamps?” It’s dated bro culture at best.
While horniness is reserved for cisgendered women, body jokes are directed at trans women. The game’s lone example is Mama who runs the bar Marble. She’s overall a great character and there’s a warmth in her conversations with Date as they are old friends. The game is really trying to shine a positive light on LGBTQ people; there’s even an appendix entry which basically reads “we love all gender and sexual identities” which is hokey but well meaning. Unfortunately, Mama is a target for a lot of fat phobic jokes. Anytime you interact with the fridge behind Mama, Date always “confuses” it for Mama or makes some reference to them being sisters. It’s hacky at best and really undercuts a great character.
The comedy really brings down an otherwise fun game. It really takes me out of the game when I’m trying to solve a story beat but then am greeted with a joke about boobs every other second. It’s aggressive and sophomoric in a way that could be handled better. I found myself comparing it a lot to the Phoenix Wright games and how much better it handles its humor. There, jokes about chasing women are largely relegated to Larry and he only infrequently appears across the games so you aren’t constantly barraged with the same type of joke. There are female characters that are meant to read as beautiful and sexy, but aren’t being reduced down to “boobs” by the main characters. While the Phoenix Wright games are no paragon of feminism, they at least regard women beyond their attractiveness to men.
The sophomoric humor brings me right back to the qualities that pushed me away from anime. There’s no equity between the two binary genders on display; men who ogle and trick women and women who are naive or play dumb to the advances. It doesn’t mean that the women can’t be strong but we don’t get any meaningful pushback on the men. It’s very much a “boys being boys” sort of mentality that I can’t stomach anymore. I just can’t find the enjoyment in men ogling women and women pretending to be naive. It’s an avenue for comedy that actively pushes me away.