|Created by Ichirō Sogabe, October 1997||Translated by @obskyr, April 2020|
The venerable RPG Maker Dante98: the very first official version of RPG Maker, for the good old PC-98. Between 1995 and 2001, Enterbrain, the company behind the software, famously held a huge annual RPG Maker game-making contest with their parent company – the Ascii Entertainment Software Contest – in which winners could receive up to 10,000,000 yen (~10,500,000 yen; ~100,000 USD in today's money). The most notable winner, in retrospect, was the horror adventure cult-classic-cum-genre-progenitor Corpse Party. You might've heard of it!
What's not as famous, though, is that this grand contest wasn't the only one of its kind. Between 1997 and 2002, Enterbrain also held a monthly contest for smaller games with smaller prizes to match, via a site called the "Internet Contest Park"; colloquially known as "Conpark". A contest for small, experimental games, with a focus on ingenuity, creativity, and heart… It was special.
I first found out about Conpark via the website of Sasuke Kannazuki, the creator of the cult classic RPG Maker title Moon Whistle. Back in the day, being an RPG Maker enthusiast, he occasionally reviewed games seen on Conpark – and two decades later, I stumbled upon those reviews. Finding out about this cultural treasure trove – oodles upon oodles of forgotten Japanese-only video games, made in the visions of singular enthusiasts, all buried beneath the sands of time – I found myself hungrily digging through the archives; living this cultural past that I never knew existed. When the dust settled, my interest had solidified most for one game. A game with strikingly stylized aesthetics. A game with an emotional premise. A game that I somehow felt compelled to translate, so that it may be experienced by people in another place; in another time.
That game was Azusa 999. Submitted for the October 1997 edition of Conpark, it netted its creator Ichirō Sogabe 68,000 yen (~71,000 yen; ~654 USD in today's money) at the ripe old age of 19. Though it was seemingly developed in only two months (his previous winning entry, CLOCK, was in August of the same year), this story about death and an otherworldly train was immensely well-received, and is beloved by the precious few who know it.
When asked for a short comment upon winning the prize, Sogabe wrote:
Originally, the game's title was "Asuka 999"… It wasn't until after I'd sent it in that I noticed that the pop song was called "Azusa #2" and not "Asuka #2"! So in the end, I changed it. In any case, I'm very thankful.
The title is, as explicated above, a reference to the 1977 pre-J-pop humdinger Azusa 2-Gō ("On Azusa #2, at 8 AM on the dot, I depart from you"). The "999", one can imagine, is straight from Galaxy Express 999, a peerlessly influential manga and anime that similarly is about a mystical train. The Azusa #2 – the train on which you tearfully depart from that which pains your heart – and the Galaxy Express 999 – the train not of this world. Combine the two, and you get Azusa 999… both in name and in concept.
When I decided to translate Azusa 999, I had not yet played through the story in its entirety, and I had no experience with PC-98 hacking. I did, frankly, not know what I was getting into. This project that I thought would be "free of hacking" ended up luring me into 22 total hours of assembly hacking, and half that to program tools – not to mention that the story was longer and made me far more uncomfortable than I had expected. If I'd known these things in advance, I would probably not have decided to translate it. But… I'm glad I did, for here is a fascinating, storied, unique work that deserves to be shared – and it was translated and released precisely because I let passion get the better of me. And therein lie the fan translator's greatest assets: boundless enthusiasm, and a lack of common sense.
In English for the first time since its creation over 20 years ago, have this poignant look into Japanese indie game history on me.
Little did I know when I started translating Azusa 999 that it, despite its short length, and despite being two decades out, would be packed with references to the Japanese '70s. With these notes, you won't miss a single one of them!
Cultural note #1: Railways ↩
The titular Azusa 999 is owned by JR – Japan Railways – a conglomeration of railway companies in Japan that work under the same name. "Ishizuchi" is the name of the train service, and exists in the real world – it's a "limited express" train, which means that it only stops at certain stations and goes generally fast. It can be seen running the length of Shikoku, the smallest of the main four Japanese islands.
Ishizuchi wasn't chosen at random, either – Ichirō Sogabe is from Aichi prefecture, which is also on Shikoku. The stations listed are all actual stations along the Yosan line, which the Ishizuchi service runs on. Of special note is Doi, a town that… doesn't exist anymore! It was merged with neighboring towns to form Shikokuchūō, a still-small-but-somewhat-more-respectable port city.
The particular train "Azusa 999" actually almost exists! "Azusa" is the name of a train service operating around Tokyo, and is the entirely existent train referred to in the pop ballad that inspired the game's title. In reality, however, the highest-numbered Azusa is #36.
Cultural note #2: Hikaru Nishida ↩
Hikaru Nishida is a cutesy Japanese celebrity who runs the full gamut: she's released countless singles and albums, appeared in both movies and TV dramas, and even… translated some novels from English to Japanese! The hint here, "curry", refers to a series of commercials she appeared in for Curry Marché, one of many brands of pre-made curry roux sold in Japanese supermarkets.
Incidentally, it's customary in Japanese media to avoid invoking trademarks and names of real people in various cheeky ways. One of the more creative is to spoof them (à la "WcDonald's"), but the most common is to simply censor part of the name, so that it's still recognizable to those who know it. It's questionable whether this is needed, legally speaking, or if it even makes a difference, but symbolic censorship such as this is a playful cultural staple either way. Azusa 999 goes one step further in cheekiness by providing hints each time.
Cultural note #3: Seirogan ↩
Seirogan is the name of a Japanese stomach medicine, the active ingredient of which is the tar-based chemical "wood-tar creosote". It first hit the market in 1902, when it was developed to combat typhoid. It didn't get the name "Seirogan" until 1904, during the Russo-Japanese war, when it was administered to soldiers daily to combat an unknown disease: the name literally means… "pill for conquering Russia"! The "disease" turned out to be vitamin B deficiency – the soldiers were exclusively being fed white rice as a luxury to boost morale – so the drug was ineffective, but Japan winning the war prompted the medicine to be culturally ensconced as "the cure-all that won the war".
The "bugle logo" in question is the logo used for that original Seirogan to this day. It's inspired by the bugle used to signal mealtime for the Japanese Imperial Army. Originally, "Seirogan" itself was a trademarked name, but both the name and the packaging design were legally genericized in 1974, leaving the original company with nothing but the bugle logo to set themselves apart.
Cultural note #4: Phonecards ↩
Payphones in Japan, and some other places in the world, support using something called a "phonecard" – a card you charge with money and swipe in lieu of inserting coins to call. Mobile phones made phonecards largely a thing of the past in most of the world, but in Japan, phonecard culture – including things such as limited-edition phonecard designs based on your favorite media properties – persisted well into the noughties.
The posters with phone numbers stuck around the phone are, as you may expect, advertisements for phone sex lines or scams of various sorts.
Cultural note #5: Tough-Man ↩
Shirō Itō is an old-school Japanese comedian who made a name – a big name – for himself in the '70s. Among his early output, something that made a particularly big impact was his work as a member of the comedy troupe Tenpuku Trio ("Capsize Trio", named as such to be "one step beyond" the existing Dassen Trio; "Derailment Trio"). One of his biggest, most lasting hits was Densenman, a comedy variety show with the eponymous Densenman ("Power Line Man") – a parody of current tokusatsu heroes like Kamen Rider and Super Sentai – as its mascot. The hero's theme song was based on Antagata Doko sa ("Where Are You All?"), an old nursery rhyme.
In the '80s, while Itō was still a big name in the public consciousness, he was asked by the beverage manufacturer Yakult to appear in a series of commercials for their new energy drink (in the classical sense – we're talking medicinal-looking bottle and purported health benefits) Tafuman ("Tough-Man"). To capitalize on his fame, they used the opening line of Antagata Doko sa, which was associated with Itō at that point, and changed the "doko sa" to "Tafuman", resulting in the jingle "Antagata Tafuman?" ("Are you a Tough-Man?").
We now have all the pieces to make sense of this reference. "Are you a Tough-Man?" is the jingle from these commercials, the hint "Power Line Guy" refers to Densenman, and the hint "capsize thrice" to the Tenpuku Trio – and Shirō Itō is the thread that holds it all together.
Cultural note #6: Monkey ↩
The nature of Monkey was… irrepressible!
Journey To the West: one of the most influential works of classical Chinese literature… no, one of the most influential works of literature to ever have existed. In 1978, this fictionalized account of a Buddhist monk's pilgrimage received a groovy update in the form of Monkey, a Japanese TV show that became a national smash hit before being dubbed in English and doing well for itself in the West too. Equally smashing of a hit was its unbelievably funky theme song, Godiego's Monkey Magic, which made classical literature not just palatable, but cool. "Born from an egg on a mountaintop / The punkiest monkey that ever popped".
The posters in the train advertise the TV show, with the hints referring to its theme song and various names of the show's characters. In the Japanese version, the characters were simply named as they were in the 16th century novel, but in the English dub, they were renamed in a simpler fashion – with names like "Monkey", "Pigsy", and "Sandy".
As an aside, when writing the hints, Sogabe apparently misspelled Sandy's name, and quite severely so: the character's actual name is 沙悟浄 ("Sa Gojō", in Japanese), and in the original Azusa 999, it's instead written as "些伍丞". While these three characters would be read out loud the same way, not a single one matches, and more impressively, they're all non-standard (i.e. not jōyō)! How he managed to write these three obscure characters in place of the more common ones of the correct spelling… is a mystery.
To get the low-down on Journey to the West and its far-reaching effect on pop culture, I recommend watching this excellent video by the YouTube video creator Gaijillionaire.
Cultural note #7: Mizu-yōkan ↩
Yōkan is a sweet, thick jelly flavored mainly with anko – red bean paste. Mizu-yōkan, lit. "water yōkan", has a higher water content, and thus a subtler flavor. It doesn't look like much, but it's quite delicious and quite refreshing.
Cultural note #8: Nausicaä poster ↩
The poster in Miyu's room is for Studio Ghibli's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which places her story in 1984. It's based on actual posters that exist, too! The "Seven Days of Fire" are the apocalyptic event that sets the stage for the film's story.
Cultural note #9: Hinomaru bentō ↩
Kaoru's and Miyu's matching lunches are so-called hinomaru bentō – "circle-of-the-sun boxed lunches". They're simply lunch boxes stuffed with alabaster rice and a single crimson umeboshi (sour pickled plum) placed smack-dab in the middle, to resemble the hinomaru – the Japanese flag. An austere meal that required few resources – and a patriotic one at that – it was promoted during World War II by the Japanese state, and as such has the image of "wartime food"… but occupies a quaint, nostalgic niche in culture all the same.
To Japanese schoolchildren, they're the equivalent of the West's soggy sandwiches: a simple, unexciting lunch that a parent made when they, weary from the plight of parenthood, couldn't be bothered to make more than a quick meal that at least fills the stomach.
Hit me up!
If you've read this far, you and I are of the same kind. I'm sure you'd enjoy following me @obskyr on Twitter! I tweet about all sorts of strange and interesting things: video game history, fan translation, ROM hacking, hardware modding, Japanese, linguistics… Likewise, if you have any questions or comments about Azusa 999, its history, or its translation – or if you just wanna talk – ask me there! Or, if you'd rather, e-mail me. For now, I'm off to work on whatever my next project is.
Oh, and if you ever come to ask yourself the question, "should I jump in front
of a train"…