First of all, my Pinoy gamer siblings, CALM YOSELVES!
Ever since Namco Bandai first announced the addition of a playable character in Tekken 7 whose backstory includes hailing from the Philippines, Pinoys everywhere couldn’t help but create buzz around it. Some were happy, some excited, others opened a can of “Pinoy pride” while others met it with cynicism.
Josie Rizal, an obvious homage to Dr. Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, is a morena skinned lady wearing what seem to be a modified baro’t saya with a ribbon on her head. She fights with a combination of Arnis (a Filipino martial art) and kick boxing. Her short hair, long sandals and overall appearance don’t really scream “Pinoy” but that’s what the creative heads at Namco Bandai are giving us, so… Yay?
But before we go bonkers over being recognized as a race fit to be portrayed in an international video game franchise, remember that this isn’t the first time a video game character has hailed from the Philippines. Fans were quick to point out that Namco Bandai’s other fighting game franchise, Soul Calibur has already been sporting a Filipina since the second installment of the franchise which started in 1998 (We’re at Soul Calibur 5 now). GMA News was also quick to point out other video game characters with Filipino origins written into their backstory.
What many point out, however, is the way that Josie’s final product looks. There are no tell-tale signs to say she is Filipina save for some icons like the sun necklace and the red, blue and yellow of her costume. Even THIS isn’t new when it comes to Japanese character design.
Take Dhalsim from StreetFighter. He’s one of those characters introduced in the second StreetFighter game in order to give it an “Around the World” feel. Dhalsim’s back story is that he’s from India. No, Indians don’t look like that at all, but CAPCOM went with it anyway and not much was thought of it. T. Hawk also from StreetFighter is easily identified as Native American. Unlike with Dhalsom, CAPCOM, employed the use of easy signals to show the ethnicity of T. Hawk, face paint, tassles, a feather on his cap all scream about his character. Heck, even the name is a reference to his ethnicity. And then there’s Guile. CAPCOM just said, “Hey, let’s make an American character.” and so they made Guile. You fight him in the USA, he’s wearing an army fatigue and has a tattoo of the stars and stripes on his arm, so you know he’s American. But… why blonde and the huge hair?
Extra Credits did a video on character design and how not all uses of stereotypes are bad. What it boils down to is a respect for the culture being portrayed. While Josie’s character design is careful not to tread into insensitive stereotypes, the fear of offending a nation of people with easily hurt feelz has resulted in, well, a pretty generic character. But even then, this trend of designing bland Filipinos is not new to gaming.
In the movies, the Green Hornet’s sidekick was Filipino, a change made during WWII which had America and Japan declare war against one another and the Philippines was one of America’s allies. Nothing about him was Filipino except that declaration. Talim from Soul Calibur hails from somewhere in the Visayas. Pre-colonial Visayas is rich in icons and unique character, yet the result is… well… she’s a babaylan, so I guess the more fantasy-eque design can be forgiven. Other than the description, she doesn’t appear to be Filipina. The same cycle and treatment was simply given to Josie. Is it a problem? I wouldn’t think so. Is it an indication of a bigger problem? Definitely yes.
When we look through the slew of characters who hail from Japan, USA, Korea, Jamaica, Brazil or even Russia, by simply looking at them or watching how they fight, people easily see their ethnic origins. That’s because the game designers are familiar enough with these cultures and know how to where to place emphasis on them. A sumo, samurai, ninja, karateka or judo fighter immediately screams “Japan” the same way a G.I., blonde or boxer is for USA. Adding distinct fighting styles like Capoeira is a great allusion Brazilian origins the same way Wushu is to the Chinese. Then there are the stereotypes of flamboyant Spanish or European fencers and pirates that are a reflection of an image they have through literature. These distinct hints of culture and understanding thereof is missing with Filipinos. Game devs do not know what makes a Filipino a Filipino and have no plans to learn.
Right now, the most famous Filipino to the Japanese is a short playboy polyglot who so happened to be a doctor and our national hero. Trying to fit the image of Rizal into a fighting game seems ridiculous and it should, the man was better known for his pen than his sword. As Filipinos we know who are better models for fighting game characters, (Andres Bonifacio with his pistol and bolo, General Antonio Luna with his mighty mustache and saber, General Aguinaldo with his face on five peso coins) but the problem lies in getting others to know it. Game devs, like anyone who creates characters of foreign origins can only input what they know about that country and its culture. Maybe, just maybe, if we let Namco Bandai know what quirks can help Josie Rizal become more Filipina, they might reference the Philippines a lot more, opening up our colorful culture for the world to see (and play with).