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Monday 25 December 2023

Miskatonic Monday #250: Japan – Empire of Shadows

Despite its popularity in Japan, it is surprising that there is so little support for it as a setting in Call of Cthulhu. Barring Secrets of Japan from 2005, which was a modern-set supplement, most of the handful of scenarios set in Japan have been placed their tales of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying firmly in the feudal period, so enabling the Samurai, the classic Japanese warrior to go up against the Mythos. For example, ‘The Iron Banded Box’ from Strange Aeons II and ‘The Silence of Thousands Shall Quell the Refrain’ from Red Eye of Azathoth. Incursions into Japan in Call of Cthulhu’s classic period of the Jazz Age are almost unknown, Age of Cthulhu VI: A Dream of Japan from Goodman Games being a very rare exception. It is a trend that continues on the Miskatonic Repository, Chaosium Inc.’s community content programme for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Here, A Chill in Abashiri – A 1920s Taisho-Era Japan Scenario is the exception alongside titles such as Thing torments poet, Daimyo calls on greatest help, Will the players fail? and After the Rain. Even Japan has its very own supplement devoted to the Taisho-Era of the nineteen twenties and nineteen thirties, in the form of ‘クトゥルフと帝国’ or ‘The Cthulhu Mythos and the Empire’, published in 2011 by Kadokawa. All this changes with the publication of Japan – Empire of Shadows: A Call of Cthulhu sourcebook for 1920s Imperial Japan.

Japan – Empire of Shadows: A Call of Cthulhu sourcebook for 1920s Imperial Japan presents a massive guide to Japan and her empire during the nineteen twenties and the beginning of the nineteen thirties. It includes a history of Japan, a guide to her peoples and their culture, a gazetteer of her major cities and locations across the empire including dozens of maps, discusses Occupations and skills for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition for the period and setting, examines the Mythos in Japan and her empire, and gives three narrative threads that throughout the book and around the empire. Primarily, it explores a country that has only been open to the rest of the world for seven decades. It is a country driven by conflicting drives. The drive to embrace the modern world whilst still looking to the past. The drive to emulate great empires such as that of Great Britain, but angry at the efforts of other world powers to curtail its road to greatness. This has fuelled a sense of resentment and frustration, which has led to the rise to nationalism and some terrible acts and attitudes upon the part of the authorities. The authors of Japan – Empire of Shadows do not shy away from addressing these issues as they arise in the course of the book and does so with sensitivity and sensible advice.

Japan – Empire of Shadows begins with an overview and a look at investigating the Mythos in period and setting, bound as it often is with or taking advantage of the greed and politics of the worst of mankind. It lays out the foundations and origins of Japan and its deep connections to the Mythos as lying long ago in the rise and fall of the lost continent of Mu before discussing the role of the Investigator in Japan, both Japanese and foreign-born, suggesting reasons as to why the latter might have come to Japan, Occupation by Occupation. In terms of Occupations, Japan – Empire of Shadows only adds the two new ones, the Martial Artist and the Resistance Fighter. Instead, it primarily discusses the roles that existing Occupations play in Japan in the period, making minor adjustments and adding the Japanese Etiquette skill. It also discusses the role of the Japanese Investigator in terms of gender, class, and ethnicity, noting that like in the USA of the period, they are the reasons given for discrimination in the period. However, such attitudes are not reflected in Japan – Empire of Shadows. Where the changes to Investigators in Japan – Empire of Shadows are relatively minor, the changes to skills are slightly more extensive. These are oddly listed in an appendix rather than after the Occupation descriptions at the front of the book, and are primarily led by Japanese Etiquette and how it works, including the use of honorifics and visiting cards, cultural practices such as the removal of shoes, bowing, and the polite lie. Japanese Etiquette will significantly feature in all three scenarios in the supplement and being able to observe cultural norms correctly will ensure that the Investigators get access to places they would not normally. The Japanese language is discussed as is its relationship to Naacal, before the supplement expands upon unarmed fighting specialities, both armed and unarmed.

Japan – Empire of Shadows shines though, in discussing Japanese Investigator motivations and the outlook of the Japanese in general. These include the acceptance of the fragility of existence, a collectivist ideal that places the survival of the group over the individual, and the moral justification of a lower rank person overthrowing or disobeying a person of higher rank. These provide a basic attitude that the player can use as guidance when attempting to roleplay an Investigator whose culture with which he is unfamiliar. These are bolstered by a general acceptance of the occult and more particular, the Kami, as their presence in Japan is more than mere folklore.

For the Keeper there is some quite lovely advice on how to set the scene for her Investigators. In particular, ‘The Sounds of Japan’ presents the reminiscences of film director Kurosawa Akira as to what his childhood sounded like, and this description can be used to help bring the world of Japan to life, at least aurally. This addition is indicative of the range of research that authors of Japan – Empire of Shadows have engaged in to add further verisimilitude to the setting, and again and again, small details like this help bring the Japan of the Taisho period to life.

Almost two thirds of Japan – Empire of Shadows is dedicated to three big chapters which in turn form a gazetteer of the capital city, Tokyo, then other cities in Japan, and lastly, the cities of the Japanese Empire. First, it spirals out from the Imperial Palace, looking at city ward after city ward, describing building after building, person after person of note, and more. So, in the Kojimachi Ward, this includes Tokyo Central Day, the Japanese Tourist Bureau, Tokyo Station Hotel, the Imperial Retail—noting that foreign embassies where based there following the Great Kanto Earthquake that destroyed many buildings, the Museum of Arms, the British Embassy, the Tokyo Geographical Society, Prince Fushimi’s Estate—the estate of Admiral Fushimi Hiroyasu, cousin to the Emperor, Peeresses School for Girls, the German Embassy, both the Future Imperial Diet Building and the temporary Diet Building, Radio Station JOAK, Hibiya Park, the Peers Club—a private members club, the Metropolitan Police Headquarters, the Imperial Theatre, the Mainichi News Building, Hogaku-za Theatre—converted into a film palace by Paramount Pictures, and more. There is a wealth of detail here given to every building and every location, many with floorplans and NPCs. These can be generic, like the Tokkō Special Higher Police Officer, a member of the secret police, or specific, all the way up to Crown Prince Hirohito and Crown Princess Nagako and other members of the Imperial family, who are often at odds with each other in terms of politics, what they believe to be the best future for Japan, and the factions they align with.

Throughout, and in addition, ‘Kaidan: Mysterious Stories’ presents traditional ghosts stories that the Keeper can develop into scenarios that her Investigators can look into and these again, are tied to particular locations. These are not the only scenario hooks in the three-part gazetteer in Japan – Empire of Shadows, but the others are more of a problem in terms of their accessibility. Too often they are specifically written into the descriptions, such as the plan to broadcast a performance of The King in Yellow on Radio Station JOAK, such that it is difficult to separate the hook from the description. Having presented and explored the eight wards of Tokyo and its outskirts, the supplement spirals further out, from Hakodate and Sapporo on Hokaido in the north to Nagasaki in the south, presenting each city in the same format as the various wards of the capital. Then it whirls away from the shores of Japan to examine the various ‘Cities of the Empire’—the book noting that this is a controversial term—including Seoul and Heijō (Pyongyang) in Korea, Vladivostok in Russia, Shanghai in China, Taipei on Taiwan, and even the island of Ponape. In many cases, this is the first presentation of these cities in roleplaying—at least in English—let alone for Call of Cthulhu. The most familiar city here will be Shanghai, having already been given a rich and deep treatment in Masks of NyarlathotepThe Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, and The Sassoon Files, but understandably, the approach here is from a Japanese point of view.

As well as the sections of ‘Kaidan: Mysterious Stories’ boxed text that appear dotted throughout all of this, there is not one, but three other important series of sections of boxed text, each a different colour, that also appear in the three gazetteers. These are parts of three narrative threads with run throughout the three chapters, each following the plot of particular scenario and where they appear, making use of the specific location that each box appears next to. What the authors of Japan – Empire of Shadows have done here is not include three separate scenarios in their own chapters at the end of the book, but literally threaded them throughout the chapters, ‘The City of Tokyo’, ‘Other Cities in Japan’, and ‘Cities of the Empire’. It is a clever idea, but it has its consequences as well as its benefits. Obviously, it specifically ties the narrative threads of each of the three scenarios to their particular locations via its layout so that the Keeper has both thread and location close together and thus easier to use together. On the other hand, the layout, with sometimes three boxes of text—one for each thread—on a single page, makes the layout cluttered and because the threads are so strongly tied to their locations, it is not necessarily easy to grasp the narrative for the whole plot because it has been broken up and spread throughout the book.

Now Japan – Empire of Shadows does attempt to ameliorate this issue. An overview of the supplement’s three narrative threads is given, including a Keeper summary, staging suggestions, historical notes, Mythos background, suggested means of involving the Investigators, and lists of the NPCs involved, handouts, and specific locations. These of course, would have been included at the beginning of a scenario anyway, and whether the format, which again, though clever, really makes the job of the Keeper any easier is debatable. The three are ‘Upon a Stone Altar’, ‘Color from the West’, and ‘Kamuy of the Northern Sky’. ‘Upon a Stone Altar’ concerns an expedition to the strange island of Ponape in the Japanese South Seas Mandate in search of evidence of a highly advanced, prehistoric civilization. When Imperial factions take an interest in the expedition, the Investigators find themselves taking a journey aboard an experimental submarine into Japan’s deep past to lost continent of Mu to confront a dark god. ‘Color from the West’ turns a classic Mythos creature—a Colour Out of Space—into an industrial, political, and experimental nightmare as the Investigators travel to Korea to locate the source of a mysterious coal that glows even when it is not being burned and seems to have a horribly deadly effect when actually burned. The investigation is hampered by the fractious politics in Korea where a resistance has arisen to throw out the Japanese occupiers and the authorities work to suppress dissent. ‘Kamuy of the Northern Sky’ involves a frothy mix of ancient pyramids, Antarctic explorers, native Ainu hunters, Russian mystics, and lycanthropy as the Investigators attempt to find a missing para-historian and prevent the resurrection of an ancient god. One thing that is notable about all three scenarios is how they are not only woven in and around the various cities and locations within across Japan and beyond, but also how they are woven around the lives of real historical figures. There are some that the players and their Investigators will be very surprised to meet. The scenarios themselves are all good with interesting backgrounds and lots of historical detail.

The last few chapters of Japan – Empire of Shadows presents a who’s who with ‘Citizens of the Empire’, including the good, the bad, and the Gaijin, all with Mythos connections big and small; a history of Japan that runs from millions of years ago to the beginning of the nineteen thirties; and a solid overview of the country’s culture, infrastructure, major organisations and institutions, and more. It is also here, penultimately, that Japan – Empire of Shadows explores the Mythos in Japan and her territorial possessions, and her myths in general. It highlights how Japan already has its own myths and legends, often connected to Shintoism. Numerous creatures taken from Japanese folklore described and given stats, such as Bakemono, Gaki, Kappa, Oni, and Tengu, as are numerous Chinese creatures. Some of these, like the Kappa and the Kitsune, actually inflict no Sanity loss! Also discussed here is how occult research, including psychic research, is conducted in Japan along with several sample occult tomes.

Here though, Japan – Empire of Shadows is at its weakest. Its treatment of the Cthulhu Mythos is hit and miss. Where it succeeds is in its practical application of the Mythos, in the three narrative threads which wend their way through much of the book. Where it fails is in the theoretical application, in the supplement’s discussion of the Mythos in Japan. It is understandable that a strong emphasis should be placed upon Japan’s own folklore, but in the process it all but ignores the possible presence of any other Mythos creature in Japan or Japanese held territory or any cult—domestic or foreign. Some creatures like the Mi-Go and the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath appear in hooks in some locations, and there is a discussion of the Black Dragon Society, but that is all. Now it could be said that this leaves plenty of room for the Keeper to create her own, but some pointers would have been would have been useful…

Lastly, a set of appendices provide lists of equipment and their prices, stats for weapons both those of feudal Japan and the firearms of modern Japan, details of transport to and from and in Japan—covering air, sea, and land, a list of inspirational media (which highlights the lack of gaming material relevant to the period), and all of the handouts for the supplement’s three scenarios. Here too are the supplement’s new skills and a set of six pre-generated Investigators. The latter are mostly Japanese and include a female archaeologist who has studied abroad, a female linguist, a male explorer, a male Shinto priest who has knowledge of several folklore spells, and a female journalist. The exception is a male Korean, a former soldier turned bodyguard. These are all designed to complement each as a group. It would have been perhaps useful to have had a foreign-born Investigator included in the mix.

Physically, Japan – Empire of Shadows is presented in swathes of colour supported by a profusion of period photographs as well as pieces of art. This is alongside the numerous maps of the various cities in the gazetteer and floorplans of various buildings throughout the empire. However, this does give the supplement a rather busy look so that there often a lot to take in from one page to the next. Japan – Empire of Shadows is well written and an easy read from start to finish, but the content of the book could have been better organised, ideally to put all of the background material together in one place and all of the Occupation and Investigator material together for ease of reference and use.

Japan – Empire of Shadows: A Call of Cthulhu sourcebook for 1920s Imperial Japan is without a doubt the definitive guide to Japan in the late Taisho and early Showa periods, for both general roleplaying and Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying. The wealth of detail in this volume is genuinely amazing and presented at a level that is accessible and usable by the Keeper. Although understandably not as ably produced as Regency CthulhuJapan – Empire of Shadows is as good as what was the best Call of Cthulhu supplement of 2022, opening up a very different world to the Cthulhu Mythos and making it accessible to play and explore. Japan – Empire of Shadows: A Call of Cthulhu sourcebook for 1920s Imperial Japan is both a standout title from the Miskatonic Repository and a superb piece of work and research that is undeniably the best release for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition in 2023.

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