Sunday, June 16, 2024

13 Sentinels and The Search for Non-Binary Romance

If you haven’t played Vanillaware’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim you should, before someone spoils it for you. It’s a unique game with a conceptual, puzzle-box storyline and fun if less focalized RTS combat. In the game, you play as 13 different mech pilots leading up to the final battle against waves of kaiju, who are set to invade a mid ‘80s city in Japan. 

Each of these characters’ individual storylines feel familiar, and intentionally so. Most draw on Blockbusters of the past and popular anime. Natsuno Minami, a sci-fi junkie and member of the track team, discovers a strange alien and decides to secretly house it despite a gaggle of government agents being on the lookout for it. (So, E.T.) Megumi Yakushiji makes a contract with a talking cat only she can see, and has to violently subdue “witches” in exchange for her lover’s safety. (So she certainly must have been inspired by Madoka’s Homura.) 

The story spans about a century’s worth of time, with some of the playable characters being refugees from both doomed pasts and futures. Two characters, Keitaro Miura and Takatoshi Hijiyama, come from Pacific War era Japan and are teen conscripts in the Japanese Imperial Army. Using the recently built Sakura High School as a base, a researcher named Professor Douji and his daughter, Kiriko Douji, were working on a project developing “sentinels,” the game’s take on giant robots.

Takatoshi soon learns Kiriko isn’t Professor Douji’s daughter, though, and that Kiriko isn’t her name. Her real name is Tsukasa Okino, who was assigned male at birth and donned a feminine disguise during his time in the ‘40s. All within Takatoshi’s prologue, he learns a great deal about one of the key members of 13 Sentinels’ supporting cast—Tsukasa is a pilot as well, and he was the creator of the sentinels in the first place. 

Takatoshi is madly in love with “Kiriko.” But Tsukasa assures Takatoshi that “Kiriko” never existed in the first place—Tsukasa was never a blushing damsel like he pretended to be, but instead is a self-professed non-binary time traveling genius. 

What makes Takatoshi’s storyline so interesting is that it isn’t much of a mystery at all, in comparison to the rest of the cast’s. Takatoshi’s story is a romance. Because of his association with Tsukasa, he already has most of the answers he needs to solve the puzzle. You aren’t able to access most of Takatoshi’s story until much farther into the game, due to his proximity to one of the most mysterious key players. 

His story, instead, is about coming to terms with his queerness and contending with loving Tsukasa. This isn’t always easy, and isn’t handled perfectly. Takatoshi often resists his feelings by lashing out and retreating into internalized homophobia. It’s a protracted arc that could have still been included with more rapid advancements in his vulnerability. That isn’t to say that Tsukasa isn’t a great character; in fact, he quickly became one of the standouts. Other than being an engineering whiz, Tsukasa has a stoic sense of humor and loves messing with Takatoshi. He teases him when he gets jealous (which he often does) and, at one point, is in a sexually dominant position while he analyzes Takatoshi’s emotions, realizing just how hot he is for Tsukasa. Tsukasa, usually calm and collected, is occasionally thrown off-guard by Takatoshi’s soft affection—it’s often the one thing he failed to account for. Later on, Takatoshi learns that in an alternate timeline, he and Tsukasa are actually a married couple happily in love. That Takatoshi beams with pride at his partner and is emotionally forthright about his dedication, something the Takatoshi we play as is never capable of doing. 

The problem lies in how Takatoshi’s feelings are portrayed, and the cold feet the writing occasionally gets when addressing it. For much of the game, Takatoshi insists he can’t be in love with Tsukasa, because he’s a man. Takatoshi is a hall monitor type and rigid about rules, and also comes from a mostly real world 1940s Japan. I wasn’t necessarily against Takatoshi unlearning his internalized homophobia as a narrative arc, but certain moments play into unfortunate transmisogynistic ideas of loving a queer bodied person. 

Jokes are often made about how riled Takatoshi gets when Tsukasa wears a girls’ school uniform, which increasingly happens even after Tsukasa abandons the Kiriko persona. I enjoyed seeing Tsukasa casually enter a scene wearing one; it starts making less and less sense why he would be wearing that outfit other than the fact that he (or Takatoshi) enjoys it. What bothers me is foreplay centered on the mystery of Tsukasa’s genitals, and the coyness in which they portray Takatoshi’s preference for Tsukasa in womens’ clothing and his disinterest when he is dressed more masculinely. You could easily read Takatoshi as bisexual (given he finds nearly every girl in the game cute), but the game fails to treat him as such and instead unwittingly paints his physical attraction to Tsukasa as fetishistic. 

Almost every character in 13 Sentinels is embroiled romantically with someone. With a few exceptions, nearly every character is in a committed heterosexual relationship by the end. Things are still awkward between Tsukasa and Takatoshi. Tsukasa seems tepid to pursue it farther than flirtation, and Takatoshi is implied to be interested in a relationship with a female character he is rarely on screen with. The reasoning for this is spoilery, but knowing context it’s even worse given the emphasis it gives on romance as necessarily leading to reproduction. It’s strange that, even in speculative fiction, finding an honest queer romance is so difficult—often these works are meant to critique structures and show the meaninglessness of modern life, so why prescribe so heavily to heterosexist performance? 

I wish Tsukasa and Takatoshi had kissed. None of the straight couples in the game do either, but there’s something so powerful about being direct with a queer romance, especially in a game that isn’t targeted to a queer audience. Given Atlus’s history with homophobia, it’d send a great message to queer fans that they do have a place in their games. Instead, they might be still left hanging at the periphery. 

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