For those of you unfamiliar with Atarashi Games, they’re an independent publisher of tabletop role-playing games, best known for a psychic schoolgirl adventure game called “Panty Explosion.” PE can be kind of dark, but despite the title it’s not particularly pervy or anything. It’s earned them all kinds of extra attention, though the objections have been mainly from men (including a guy who punched one of the designers in the head) rather than women. They also put out Classroom Deathmatch, which is basically Battle Royale with the serial numbers filed off. In short, not unlike myself Jake Richmond and his associates are fans of various kinds of Japanese media and generally like messing with people.
That’s why Atarashi Games is probably the only RPG publisher that would hold a contest to design a Japanese-style school uniform for them to use with their games. I urge those of you who have some artistic inclination to consider entering, but the focus of this blog post is on school uniforms as a cultural phenomenon.
Jake Richmond is an artist, teacher, game designer, and generally has a number of pursuits that take priority over being an anime fan. Anime and related media can be surprisingly subtle in terms of the visual elements they use. For Panty Explosion, Jake mostly did a bunch of relatively generic pictures of Japanese high school girls, with an emphasis on sailor fuku style school uniforms and in a realistic style. It works, though it gives the impression that the art is based off of stills of old Japanese horror films.
Western RPGs in general seem to have a hard time really getting the “anime” look down. Steve Jackson Games got one of their staff artists to fake it for GURPS Mecha, while Guardians of Order hired a variety of fan artists, sometimes with mixed results. More recently, Green Ronin did a Mutants & Masterminds supplement called “Mecha & Manga.” Some art was very good, and some of it was kind of iffy, but even the really talented artists produced a lot of pieces that were highly derivative.
Unfortunately, it seems like the folks doing art direction at RPG publishers tend to be unfamiliar with anime. Jake is a pretty talented artist, but (and I don’t mean this as an insult) he draws in his own distinct style, even when he’s drawing anime-inspired subject matter. That brings us to the topic of school uniforms. They’re ubiquitous in anime, but designing an appropriate uniform would require at a minimum broader knowledge of anime/manga/etc. than the people working on RPGs typically have.
Among Japanese otaku, school uniforms are one of many kinds of uniforms that are fetishized to varying degrees. Western pervs don’t really fetishize uniforms very much; People recognize a French maid costume as a fetish costume and have heard about guys who get off on Catholic schoolgirls in plaid skirts, but the people who are actually seriously into such things are relatively uncommon (Though I did stumble across a Norwegian man’s page of over 800 stewardess uniforms).
Of course, this is partly because Western uniforms tend to be simpler and more utilitarian than their Japanese counterparts. Certainly, you’d be hard-pressed to find an American uniform that requires a skirt outside of those Catholic schools we keep hearing so much about. Where American public schools have started instituting uniforms, they’ve been more like a color scheme for pants and a polo shirt than a distinct outfit, and they’re unlikely to ever be fetishized. We have far fewer women working in jobs where there’s an eye candy component (which is a good thing), so there are relatively few uniforms where the male and female versions are particularly different. Nurses, whether they’re men or women, all wear scrubs, one of the more utilitarian garments known to man.
I’m not about to pass judgment on either culture’s standards, but there’s a definite difference between how Japanese people and Americans relate to uniforms on several different levels. For someone like me or Jake, those school uniforms are essentially artifacts of a foreign culture, and while I have seen some in real life (I’ve been to Japan, though only for two weeks), they certainly aren’t as “real” to me as they would be to someone who grew up in Japan. Likewise, although it’s a little embarrassing to admit, I do like those navy-blue school swimsuits, but I’ve never seen one in person, to the point where they might as well be plugsuits for all the reality they hold for me. One of the intriguing things about fantasy is how much reality people actually want varies quite a bit. Some people want their fantasy material to be possible in real life, no matter how unlikely or contrived, while others specifically prefer things that are impossible.
In both anime and in real life, Japanese school uniforms have become considerably more varied and sophisticated, and supposedly some schools even count uniforms devised by a professional fashion designer among their selling points. Sailor fuku haven’t disappeared, but my impression is that you’re very unlikely to see anyone running around dressed like A-ko, especially in high school. There are many more variations with sweaters, blazers, etc., in addition to subtler variations on the sailor fuku theme. Anime and such have also brought us some outright absurd school uniform designs, like in Muv-Luv and Revolutionary Girl Utena. School uniforms have more grounding in reality than, say, a pink nurse uniform, but it still has a foot in the realm of fantasy, doubly so if you’re not from Japan or another country that has similar uniforms.
So if you’re wondering why Atarashi Games is holding a contest (aside from Jake showing a certain penchant for contests lately), school uniforms, as well as the cultural baggage surrounding them, are a more complex and varied than they might appear on the surface.
Guy’s Note: Jake Richmond is no stranger to this blog, and a two-part interview with him had been posted, the first part deals with Panty Explosion, and the second deals with Classroom Deathmatch and the upcoming Magical Land of Yeld (Final Fantasy meets Narnia).