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Video Games: A Cultural History - #8 Corruption And Public Contrition In 'I'm Sorry'

by Tim Clare

On October 12th, 1983, around 170,000 demonstrators gathered at 300 rallies across Japan, calling for the resignation of Kakuei Tanaka from the National Diet (the Japanese parliament). Tanaka had served as Prime Minister from 1972 to 1974, his popular image uncomfortably shadowing Nixon's until, after an investigation into his business dealings, he resigned rather than allow the treasurer of his controversial lobbying group (a woman who was also his mistress) to take the stand. It was not the first time his unscrupulous practices had landed him in hot water.

On December 13, 1947, he had been arrested and jailed on charges of accepting 1 million Yen in bribes from coal mining firms. After securing bail he was released a month later. When the Tokyo District Court found him guilty, he responded by filing an appeal, allowing him to continue campaigning for re-election to the Diet.

In 1976, two years after his ignominious fall from power, the Lockheed bribery scandal broke. It emerged that, after a substantial government bailout, failing US aerospace company Lockheed had undertaken a campaign of bribery to secure major contracts with foreign governments. Tanaka's office had received somewhere in the region of $2 million dollars in bribes. Tanaka, now a rank-and-file Diet member (albeit a hugely influential one), was arrested in July and, a month later, released on bail.

The Lockheed trial took a full 7 years to reach a verdict, when a three-judge panel found Tanaka guilty of having accepted colossal backhanders in return for seeing to it that All Nippon Airways, Japan's largest airline, purchased Lockheed's Tristar jets. He was sentenced to 4 years in prison - at which point Tanaka, being something of an old hand at this by now, posted an appeal and was released on bail.

True satire disingenuously accepts an opponent's ideology then advances it to its 'logical' conclusion, thus demonstrating its intellectual and moral bankruptcy. Like a well-executed Judo throw, it uses the weight of an antagonist's convictions to hurl them off-balance. The skill comes in making the transition from your opponent's stated position to your own repugnant distortion appear so seamless that your audience believe they are one and the same.

I'm Sorry was released in 1985. It's a Pac-Man style game starring a caricature of Kakuei Tanaka negotiating mazes, smashing open banks and collecting gold bars while being pursued by various opponents, including Michael Jackson, Carl Lewis, and Madonna.

For a novelty arcade game, it's pretty damn good. The levels are well-designed, the collision detection is reassuringly robust, and, when he's in a tight corner, Tanaka gets to punch enemies in the face, or whack them with the paper fan he was famous for tinkering with in court.

As sophisticated satire, however, it's pants. Although 'I'm Sorry' is a nice bilingual pun on the Japanese word 'Sori', meaning 'Prime Minister', that's about as complex as it gets. Of course, Tanaka's track record was so self-evidently appalling that it didn't require the talents of the satirist to expose his shortcomings. The mockery in I'm Sorry serves the same purpose as a lot of modern political 'satire' - it satisfies its audience's desire for justice by symbolically putting a public figure in the stocks.

The clear objection to this species of 'nonsense' satire, as opposed to 'classic' satire, is that, while the latter seeks to expose injustice, the former offers a palliative facsimile of justice - treating the symptoms whilst ignorning the cause. But nonsense satire's popularity is understandable - real life isn't fair, and high profile villains don't always get their comeuppance. It's art as meagre consolation rather than an agent of social change, and, as such, perhaps more realistic.

When, in 1987, the Tokyo High Court rejected Tanaka's appeal and reinstated the 1983 sentence, he immediately appealed to the Supreme Court and was, yet again, released on bail. He remained free until his death from a stroke 6 years later.