Note: this essay contains SPOILERS! Lots and lots of spoilers.
Imagine a nation where one woman held absolute authority, where noblemen plotted for the right to marry a ten-year-old princess, and where sons of the royal family are all but ignored by the masses because they have no political power. Now imagine that you were the firstborn prince of this nation. Imagine it’s your kid sister the nobles are pursuing and it’s your parents they are plotting to kill. Throw in the looming threat of a civil war, 108 recruitable characters, and a handful of magical Runes of Great and Terrible Power™ and you have the basic premise of Konami’s Suikoden V.
Suikoden V is, unsurprisingly, the fifth main installment of Konami’s criminally underrated Suikoden series. I like to define Suikoden like this: it’s where Final Fantasy meets Pokémon meets chess meets the Four Great Novels of Classical Chinese Literature. It has everything: action, fantasy, drama, intrigue, strategy, comedy, and a Gotta Catch ‘Em All™ gimmick that will have you running to Game FAQs every time you see a character with a portrait. In other words, they’re pretty much the greatest JRPGs EVER.
The games build on each other, with characters and events mentioned in one game often carrying over to the next. For example, The Queendom of Falena, first mentioned off-hand as part of a minor character’s backstory in Suikoden II, is later reintroduced as the primary setting for Suikoden V. While each game can be played as a standalone adventure, it’s Suikoden’s strong sense of continuity, along with its colorful cast of characters and sophisticated storytelling, that gives the series its charm.
As this is the Internet, an inherently interactive medium, I’ll leave you to Google the Suikoden series and to read up on as many (or as few) details from the various games as you see fit. Go ahead, take a couple minutes to check out that Wikipedia article.
Finished? Alright, let’s get down to some good old fashioned literary analysis!
There are a number of ways I could analyze Suikoden V. I could look at its political themes, its construction/deconstruction of gender, its secondary messages of environmental conservation and racial/biological diversity, its layered critique of the use of military force from within a highly militarized system, the (relative) depth of (some of) it’s many (many, many…) characters, its inclusion of not-quite-subtext/not-quite-textual homoeroticism* (which is to say nothing at all of this scene)—it is a good game for literary analysis.
Of course, if I tried to do all of that, I doubt I’d ever get to write about anything else. I also probably wouldn’t get to spend much time outside. Nerd stereotypes aside, I like spending time outside.
So let’s break this up a bit. Starting with the second half of this post, I’ll be posting
a three-part an occasional series focusing on those first two critical lenses: politics and gender. Why those two, you ask? Because how many stories can you name that take place in a Queendom? That’s what I thought.
Part 1: The Suikoden series and Strong Female Characters
The Suikoden series has a long history of strong female characters. Some of these women, such as Oulan from Suikoden II, clearly fall into the Badass Action Grrl trope: they’re there to kick ass and take names, additional personality traits be damned! Fortunately, most of the women in Suikoden—at least the ones who are important to the plot—have a bit more dimension to them. Characters like Odessa Silverberg, Nanami, Lucia, and Chris Lightfellow are physically strong, yes, but they also have goals, flaws, interests beyond fighting, relationships with characters other than the game’s main protagonist.** In short, they belong to that rare category of “sympathetic, well-developed characters who just so happen to be female.”
“But wait!” you might say. “Your analysis is about gender and politics in Suikoden V. Why are you talking about women in other Suikoden games?” Well, as any gamer will tell you, you can’t have a plot without exposition. I mention the women of Suikoden to bring up an important point: compelling, well-rounded, non-hypersexualized female characters in mass media tend to be the exception, not the rule.
Consider Shana Mlawski’s Female Character Flowchart or the egregious lack of any halfway decent superhero movies with a female protagonist. Consider some of your favorite movies, TV shows, and video games from the late ‘90s/early 2000s (for comparison: the original Suikoden was released in 1996; Suikoden V came out a full decade later), then think about whether or not they pass the Bechdel Test. Consider also that old standby command for most traditional RPG heroines: “Stand in the back row and cast Cure!”
The Suikoden series is unique in that its female characters have been varied and (again mostly) well-rounded from the start. Unlike the Final Fantasy series, whose female characters have gradually increased in complexity over time, the women of Suikoden have always been a diverse lot, reaching well beyond the tropes used in most JRPGs (e.g. Healer, Summoner, Love Interest, Damsel in Distress). Suikoden women are magic-users AND fighters. They are army leaders, soldiers, politicians, royalty, military strategists, and pirates. Some are business-owners, innkeepers, chefs, and performers. Others are wives, mothers, and students. These women are also flawed: they are at times arrogant, power-hungry, passive-aggressive, aggressive-aggressive, klutzy, batsh*t crazy.
Let’s look at one character as an example. At first glance, Chris Lightfellow (pictured above), one of the three main protagonists of Suikoden III, shares many characteristics with the archetypical Mary Sue: she’s beautiful, strong, preternaturally talented, beloved by all. What saves her from being a Mary Sue, at least in my mind, is that she has depth. She makes mistakes, she gets angry—she kills with very little remorse. Moreover, Chris is not motivated by a love interest or a desire to prove her own awesomeness; rather, it’s her own internal conflict—her insecurities about leadership, her growing frustration with the government she’s sworn to serve, and her desire to find her long-lost father, who abandoned her when she was a child—that cause her to grow and to change.
Also, she is by far the WORST magic user of the three main protagonists. A great fighter, a great character, but she seriously sucks at magic.
Chris highlights many of the strengths of the Suikoden series: she is powerful but flawed, morally ambiguous*** and capable of great personal growth. Most importantly, she is a compelling enough character to carry her own story.
Granted, not every female character in the Suikoden series has this same level of complexity. Most of the recruitable (read: optional) Stars of Destiny in each game tend to fall flat in terms of characterization.**** Still, the majority of the plot-significant characters in Suikoden—both women and men—have been consistently balanced, complex, and interesting. Gender informs the characters of Suikoden; it does not define them.
Next time: A Monarchy of Their Own.
EDIT: For a more in-depth character analysis of Chris Lightfellow, as well as a better explanation of how each Suikoden game builds upon the legacy of its predecessors, check out this article here.
*Yes, I’m implying that Lelei and Lucretia are lesbians. Deal.
**Fun fact: Suikoden V is the first game in the series in which the protagonist has a canon love interest. Before that, the closest they had were a handful of characters who would flirt with each game’s protagonist. Well, that and a bit of subtextual/open to interpretation HoYay in I and II.
***Suikoden III has a unique story structure in that the same events are shown from three different perspectives. While Chris is the hero of her own adventure, she effectively serves as the villain in the early chapters of another protagonist’s story.
****To be fair, this is equally true of both male and female Stars of Destiny.