Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Rictus Grins, Cats, and Norse Mythology (Faxanadu and Felix the Cat)

How is it that a good game can be less of a classic than a mediocre one?

The first thing that we have to ask is this - is there anybody on the planet who has strong feelings in favor of Felix the Cat?

It seem to me a reasonable hypothesis that the answer to that question is no. It seems to me almost certain that there are actually more people who prefer having sex with each other while dressed as squirrels than there are people who have strong opinions about Felix the Cat. Felix the Cat is actually probably less popular than furries. He is also, to be fair, less unpopular than furries, but this seems to me beside the point. It is, generally speaking, bizarre for an iconic and recognizable character to be less popular than deviant sex acts involving fursuits. It is not as though most people would not recognize the iconic image of Felix the Cat, though it is perhaps odd that the iconic image of him is probably a wall clock. But despite being iconic, nobody cares. In fact, in a stunning failure of Internet, apparently nobody has ever bothered to compile a list of TV shows featuring the Felix clock (also known as the Kit Kat Clock), making it one of the most popular pieces of merchandising ever to have nobody give a damn about it.

Felix the Cat's complete lack of significant interest to anybody is particularly interesting given that he himself is a flagrant rip-off of Krazy Kat, who matters, quite rightly, to a fair number of people, and was himself ripped off for Fritz the Cat, who, again, matters meaningfully to a decent number of people.

All of which is to say that if you'd asked the video game playing population of 1992 to name properties they want video games to be made out of, nobody would have named Felix the Cat. It is, in fact, more or less impossible to picture a situation where someone would pick Felix the Cat out of a lineup of video games as the one they want to buy.

All of this is actually a bit of a pity, since as a game, Felix the Cat is a reasonably charming side-scroller. But this fact is more or less completely obscured by the yawning void of hollowed out cultural signifiers. In many regards, Felix the Cat serves as the antithesis of psychochronography. Psychochronography is based on the assumption that culture is primarily a material phenomenon, and thus thorough explanations of material cultural space and human interaction with the objects can provide an understanding of the larger culture.

This, however, assumes that there is some actual content to the objects. That they are not the sort of cultural abscess of, well, Felix the Cat. Psychochronography cannot function in the face of a cultural object that signifies nothing so much as its own irrelevance. Felix the Cat is, in effect, a symbol of death. No. That's not quite right - not because it overstates the case, but because it terrifyingly understates it. Death implies, at the end of the day, some remainder or corpse. Felix the Cat does not even provide that. Inasmuch as it leaves a corpse, the corpse demarcates not a remainder of cultural signifier but rather the complete collapse of culture into meaningless kitsch relic until, at long last, the clock on the wall no longer marks the passage of time, but rather the amount of time that has passed since the implosion of all things.

Compare, then, to Faxanadu. Faxanadu is not a great game. It's not particularly a classic either, although I'd wager it's more fondly remembered than the technically superior Felix the Cat. It's an action RPG, more or less in the vein of Zelda II. The controls are a bit ropey, and the graphics offer a muddy blur of unremarkable visual tropes, but neither of these facts are hugely distracting. Like Zelda II itself, it's tough to articulate anything that's specifically wrong with the game, but this manifestly fails to translate into actual quality.

What is remarkable about the game is its intense Engrishness. Which, given that Japan doesn't exist, makes sense. In an objective history, Faxanadu is a portmanteau of Famicom and Xanadu. The former, of course, is the Japanese equivalent of the NES. The latter is, in this context, a reference to Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu, which, as you might guess, is the second game in the Dragon Slayer franchise. So Faxanadu is sort of Dragon Slayer 2.5 - the Famicom counterpart to Xanadu.

Except that, in the US, this title is meaningless, not just because the Fa prefix doesn't signify Nintendo at all, but because Xanadu, and, in fact, the Dragon Slayer series as a whole just doesn't exist here. It was a series mostly on the MSX platform, which never really gained any ground in the US market. This is much of why I suggest that Japan does not exist - because the games we got from Japan are not Japanese in any meaningful sense. They are rather from Japan - games that emanate out from an inscrutable Other.

This is the manifestation of the Engrish. In a purely practical sense, this occurs because of the extreme differences between Japanese and English grammar and the fact that the low resolution of 80s television screens meant that text had to be comparatively massive to be read, meaning that verbosity was impossible. And so translations of Japanese games had to translate between two deeply incompatible languages and cultural reference systems without the luxury of using many words to do so. Ergo Engrish.

But from our perspective, the phenomenon was far more inscrutable. There was no reason why the games were translated as badly as they were because, for us, there was no Japan except as an explanation for the phenomenon of Engrish. Ultimately, the games were clearly translated to English, but not clearly translated from anything. Japan is nothing more than the name of the ghostly cultural formation that logically must exist to explain Engrish.

The result is... odd. In the case of Faxanadu, it means that there are clear trappings of Norse mythology -discussions of the root of the World Tree, elves, dwarves, and, most tellingly, a recurring imagery of wells. An expert in Norse mythology, which I, to be clear, am not, but unfortunately, the one I know wrote the last blog post, so I couldn't very well farm it out to her again, would readily recognize this.

Less clear is why Alfheim is now called Eolis, is at the root of the World Tree, why an apparently non-elven main character treats it as his hometown, or why the Dwarves arriving in town is basically the worst thing ever. (Actually, given the nomadic nature of Norse dwarves and the comments about how the Dwarves are stealing their resources, it's tough not to have that entire plot thread feel just a bit xenophobic with a slight hint of anti-semitism for flavor) Which is to say, these elements have somehow survived a double translation - into "Japanese" and then into Engrish - even if their actual signification has not.

Buried gods and secret histories, then. Comforting territory, albeit in the context of Faxanadu eerily post-apocalyptic. The world of Faxanadu, in fact, is one of the creepiest post-apocalyptic settings I've ever seen - pseudo-medieval fantasy that sailed past its apocalypse into crumbling disuse without anyone particularly noticing. The apocalypse that occurred in the crumbling and abandoned Eolis was a collapse of thing into ruin.

In other words, Eolis was eaten by Felix the Cat.

But this goes a long way towards explaining why Faxanadu is more fondly remembered. Because as mad as I may be (and I make no effort to pretend that I am remotely sane), at the end of the day, the ruins of buried gods and secret histories are far more appealing than the rictus grin of an abscessed signifier.


  1. For the record. I love Felix.

  2. I remember Felix the Cat from when I was a child -- the Joe Oriolo version in color -- the box my hand would reach for in West Coast Video when everything containing Muppets was already checked out and all of my other choices had been pre-nixed for me.

    I think I anticipated the lollipop from the jar on the counter (a very rare treat as I was seldom allowed sugar, but my mother was rarely present on video store trips) more than taking the video home and watching it.

    Felix's cartoons were ... disturbing.

    Not disturbing in the refreshing, mind-bending way of, say, Beany and Cecil; rather, it was disturbing how closely Felix the Cat cartoons resembled the actual play of a lonely, disaffected child with very few toys. Only the music of the nickelodeon in the background could have made Felix any more quaint, any more pitiable, any more resentful of the viewer's expectation of entertainment and novelty.

    My strongest memory of Felix the Cat was an episode where the Professor created a machine that liquified Felix, rendering him instantly helpless and immediately securing the Magic Bag that the Professor so desired. Felix tricks the Professor into reversing the process, ostensibly so he can demonstrate the Magic Bag's functioning, and of course escapes.

    This adventure demonstrated two things to my very young mind. First, the writers thought very little of their viewers; the Professor's machine was perfect, and he could simply have sent it after Felix again. The cat had no defense against it. The Professor could simply have built duplicate after duplicate and virtually guaranteed Felix's capture. Even at seven years old I immediately spotted this.

    Second, the Professor expressed his intention to use Felix's liquified body to avoid ever having to buy black ink again. While this may have been intended as a sly nod to adults that all the characters are made out of ink (much like "Out of the Inkwell," though odds are good that by the time this color cartoon was made painted cels were already in use) it struck me instead (again, at the age of seven) as true horror, driving home that the hero had lost not merely his Magic Bag, not merely his freedom, not merely his life, but even simple recognition as a living creature. If the Coyote ate the Road Runner, the Road Runner would in many ways REMAIN a Road Runner; his tissues and muscles would be broken down and become part of the Coyote, true, but it would only have marked a transition from alive creature to dead creature. The Professor's intention for Felix would have been an act of total erasure not possible in the physical world, a metaphorical and literal "rewriting" of Felix from an animated character to a stack of lab notes and personal correspondence. As the liquified Felix is still sentient, there may be reason to believe that his consciousness would persist on anything written with him. It is not merely living death within the storyline, but an actual metatextual death unique to a cartoon universe.

  3. I do not think that the writers of this line for an instant intended any of this. I do, however, think the fact that no one even winced at the line may be an indication of exactly how little thought and examination went into the making of Felix the Cat cartoons in the first place. By the time the character was resurrected in the 1950s for the filming of the adventures inflicted upon me, it felt like nobody involved in the production gave a tinker's damn about the results being anything more than merely marketable.

    I hope at some point to be able to see Felix's older cartoons, which (while still derivative in concept) apparently show a high degree of visual creativity. Of course, considering that Felix's first cartoon ends with his suicide, perhaps this depth of darkness has been with Felix since his inception.

    The game itself is far too easy, and the transformation mechanism of the Magic Bag less than clear. Most of the enemies seem to be redrawn versions of foes from other games (ex. a recurring foe that is blatantly a half-sized Koopa Paratroopa). Hypothesis: as with Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny, the video game license for Felix can be purchased for less than the price of a Coke and a ham sandwich, and using Felix was thus cheaper than paying an artist to draw a new character. There was, after all, at least SOME chance that Felix's face on the box might draw the attention of a parent (grandparent?) shopping for a gift.

  4. Also, I have been mispronouncing "Faxanadu" as "Fax-an-ah-doo" (instead of "Fah-zan-ah-doo") for my entire lifetime.

    I also wonder if there might be a bilingual pun involved (Faxanadu = "faux Xanadu").