Suburban Decay | Yuuyami Doori Tankentai

For Japan, the 1980s was an era of boundless financial optimism, and at the heart of it all was real-estate development. While it is true that post-War reconstruction saw a significant amount of expansion, the bulk of Japanese building occurred during the 1980s. Speculation and lax economic policy led to a rise in land prices and a subsequent economic boom. The uneasiness about Japan’s place in the world that characterized previous decades gave way to hope for what prospects the future held for the country. The suburbs, at the heart of these developments, came to represent the prosperity and potential associated with that decade.

But the boom could not last—the bubble burst and Japan slid into a recession, widely known as “The Lost Decade”. If the 1980s was a symbol of what the country could achieve and the prosperity it opened up for the middle class, then the decade that followed exemplified both a loss of innocence and of the kind of prosperity many may never know. The suburbs went through a similar transformation as real estate prices plummeted during the lost decade. Today, factors like stagnant prices and an ageing population doom Japanese suburbia to a slow extinction.

The city can only mislead, confuse, and present a series of limitations

Yuuyami Doori Tankentai (Twilight Investigation Squad) was released in late 1999, well after the effects of this economic downturn became known. Even eighteen years after its release, the game is still notable for how realistically it portrays the lives of average Japanese youth. Although the game follows three Japanese teenagers (Kurumi, Nao, and Sango) investigating paranormal activities in their spare time, the actual supernatural presence in the game is understated. There’s usually a more mundane explanation behind a given rumor, and in any case the game devotes more energy to representing the protagonists’ reality.

In Yuuyami, the supernatural serves as a window into much larger issues. Like many horror stories, the rumors the game tasks the player with investigating usually emphasize setting things right where they once went wrong. And at least within these self-contained stories, things can often be set right. But what about those things that can never be put back the way they once were? How do these people live with a reality they have no power to restore or effect change for the better? This is what lends Yuuyami most of its emotional weight. The game’s true horror lies not in the rumors the main cast delves into, but in the reality they experience on a daily basis.

Although it’s never directly stated, it’s heavily implied that Hirumi City (the game’s fictional setting) was born out of the 80s economic boom. It’s clearly meant to embody at least some of the same optimism that decade was known for: the construction of new housing on the outskirts of town being a notable sign of the tail end of an economic boom. In fact, this boom might have served as the protagonists’ parents’ motivation for moving to Hirumi so many years ago. At the same time, it’s clear that any prosperity the town may have once experienced has long since vanished. Where the town’s few factories were once engines of economic activity, these buildings have fallen into such disrepair that it’s hard to tell what exactly they were once used for. They’re now known for their broken windows, crumbling concrete, and their empty forms devoid of all life and activity. In the world of Yuuyami these structures linger long beyond their obsolescence and there’s little that can be done to change that. It is suggested that nobody is interested in turning these rotting plots of land into something better; and perhaps that nobody has the money to make such a thing happen.

Some areas are so open that they draw attention to their own emptiness, both spatially and socially

The Hirumi City we’re left with is one caught in an identity crisis. Hirumi speaks not to the growth it hopes to represent, but to the urban decay and lost innocence it currently struggles under. Furthermore, the cast comprises three teenagers in the late 1990s. Although this suggests their journey to adulthood mirrors the contemporary changes in Japan’s outlook on the world—the innocence and hope of childhood giving way to uncertainty—the lack of a prior original uncertainty implies a few things. The change in Japan’s international position that the 80s brought, the game posits, fundamentally changes what that uncertainty means; enough that any guidance one could glean from the historical record may not apply to the current situation. How long either Japan or the characters will be left directionless is also ambiguous, although it’s clear their problems extend well beyond the current moment.

In any case, Nao and company’s emotional outlooks coincide well with what the space around them has fallen into. Very generally Hirumi’s environments connote alienation, lost futures, and a lack of control over one’s life. The specific details Yuuyami imbues those environments with tend to specify these motifs. Some areas are so open that they draw attention to their own emptiness, both spatially and socially. Others opt for a more claustrophobic extreme. Here the emphasis lies in forcing the characters to confront that which the world wants to hide and which they cannot handle: a dark silhouette of one of the characters, a noose, an eerie little girl, a strange man who casually walks off screen to murder a dog. (The rumors, being activities that make the characters explore Hirumi, function in a similar way. Supposing these rumors serve to reflect various shades of Hirumi’s history, then time and again that history poses a serious threat to the protagonists.)

Alternatively, we might also consider how the main cast navigates the city. Yuuyami’s linear presentation of environments forces us to perceive the world along street lines, but it doesn’t provide much in the way of understanding this kind of world. As Hirumi only exists as a tangled web of streets and alleyways, it can’t provide the guidance the main characters need. Known only as a lack of prospects in the modern day, the city can only mislead, confuse, and present a series of limitations.

A world that’s always gazing back at you, judging you without ever disclosing that judgment

School life only compounds the issue. Hallways and classrooms to encourage socialization replace the city’s muddy streets. Unfortunately, few of the main cast’s peers are willing to reciprocate. In fact, those peers do everything they can to maintain distance (physical and emotional) between themselves and Kurumi, Nao, and Sango. This only reinforces the feelings of alienation, loneliness and estrangement the three feel throughout the rest of their lives. The pressure eventually mounts; the inability to fit in and the lack of other options in life hardens into despair. Sango in particular struggles with this. The tight window boundaries that frame shots of her home life, perhaps meant to connote intimacy, now evoke feelings of claustrophobia: the walls closing in, reinforcing Sango’s powerlessness before the problems in her life, leaving her no other choice but to wallow in her own suicidal thoughts.

Through her, we realize several important truths about Hirumi and the historical situation it was meant to represent: That the success this world was built on was built for others before Hirumi’s youth to enjoy; that by ignoring significant problems (interpersonal difficulties, growing inequality) in the interest of maintaining a comfortable status quo, those who created this world left its people unable to understand, much less respond to, those problems when they inevitably surface; that this material wealth has created new problems that the new generation must deal with; and that the world these characters inhabit has not furnished them with the tools they need to properly work through any of these issues.

Hirumi’s suffocating atmosphere hits a peak during Yuuyami‘s most distinctive moments: the panoramic 3D scenes. While most of the action is presented from the side, certain moments require that the characters stop and look around the immediate area. To the player, this means they’re given a complete 360 degree look at a world composed of various photographs stitched together into a single environment.

Yet during these scenes all our attention converges on the individual these environments dwarf. What one immediately feels is discomfort from having been stripped of power. The panoramic view connotes space but at the cost of depth, creating an air of the unreal, the unfamiliar, and the immediate. One might call these scenes lonely if not for the omnipresent feeling that one is being watched. Several of the rumors even play with this. A ghost or a child has the freedom to move about an area you can only stand in (forcing you into a reactive stance as you try to see where they ran off to). At other times, these panoramas are imbued with the ominous notion of a world that’s always gazing back at you, judging you without ever disclosing that judgment. Hirumi is a world that strips those living in it of their power, rendering them objects given to the whims of an unseen Other.

Alienation, lost futures, and a lack of control over one’s life

Or rather, such a world is inherent to suburbs as a whole. That these panoramic scenes are composed from photographs renders bare what we’d already known about the game: that its setting was sourced from real locations in Japan. Yet I haven’t been able to find any information regarding the game’s development process, meaning it’s impossible to know the specific history attached to any of the locations photographed for the game. Thus it can be said that Hirumi comes to represent every small suburb in Japan because of its ability to stand in for any one of them. The many issues troubling this city can’t be dismissed as temporary or local in nature. Each dark tunnel, each decrepit warehouse or apartment complex, each eerily empty street – they point us to a Japan that is no longer able to support itself under the weight of its past success. As players we’re left to question what value if any that temporary success carried if those born during it are left little to hope for because of it.

For Yuuyami Doori Tankentai, such issues are thorough, systemic in nature, and far more deeply rooted than the momentary crisis that brought them to the surface. Moreover its pervasive sense of realism forces us to confront what its setting would otherwise have us ignore. The intervening years between now and the game’s original release saw Japan recover from its recession, but Yuuyami still reflects the uncertainty of the era of its creation. It sees the decline of urban spaces like Hirumi as inevitable, but suggests nothing of what might follow.

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