One of the things I love about Japanese popular media is its willingness to create manga, anime and visual novels about all manner of subject matter — not just “safe”, predictable options that we see all the time.
As such, when the prospect of taking a look at LAMUNATION!, a visual novel that appeared to mostly be about fizzy pop, reared its head, I was more than happy to take a closer look — particularly given the track record of the localiser-publisher Love Lab, who we’ve previously seen here on MoeGamer with the beautifully presented, Ishikei-illustrated, polyamory-themed visual novel Love³ -Love Cube- and Shade’s highly enjoyable (and exceedingly sexy) Bullet Girls Phantasia.
And with that in mind, I was particularly delighted to have the opportunity to chat with Meru and Blick from Love Lab and find out a bit more about the game, Love Lab’s approach to localisation and some of the challenges they encountered with this peculiar project! Grab a bottle, chug it down (don’t forget to go “Pwaaaahhh!!” afterwards, this is non-negotiable) and let’s get started.
Let’s start with a bit of simple background before we jump into LAMUNATION! itself: who are Love Lab and where did they come from?
“Love Lab is a Japan-based localisation and publishing company established a few years back by me,” explains the company’s CEO Meru, who you should absolutely follow on Twitter if you want to talk visual novels and localisation. “I’m a Japanese-English translator myself, and I set up my own company because I was eager to have more control over projects and wanted to be involved in the entire localisation process, from license acquisition to release.
“So far, we have worked on translations for titles such as Bullet Girls Phantasia, Earth Defense Force 4.1 Wingdiver The Shooter, Last Cloudia and more,” she continues. “LAMUNATION! is our first venture into publishing, and we have been overwhelmed by the positive response so far.”
LAMUNATION! is a slice-of-life visual novel in which jacuzzi-loving protagonist and inadvertent gay icon Luna hangs out with his twin sister Corona, his longtime friend Lamune (heir to the local lamune soda factory) and their mutual friends Iris and Rayla, twin girls who run the local American-style restaurant, the Cherry Crown Diner. Depending on whose narratives you choose to focus on during a playthrough, a lot of other things unfold, too — but we’ll get to all those sweet treats when we examine the story in more detail.
The game was developed by an outfit called White Powder, a relative newcomer to the world of visual novels — though writer Kepposhi has been working in the business in various forms since 2008. LAMUNATION! was White Powder’s first (and, to date, only) Japanese release in 2016 — and it made quite the impression thanks to its somewhat unconventional way of doing things.
But what the hell is it?
“LAMUNATION! is for anyone who wants to switch their brain off and enjoy some crazy, nonsensical comedy,” explains Meru. “The game definitely doesn’t take itself seriously, so it’s the perfect game for when you’re feeling a little down: you can dive into the story at any point, kick back at the Cherry Crown diner with Luna and the girls, and be smiling in no time.”
All sounds like textbook slice of life, so far, doesn’t it? A nice, comfy game where you can just enjoy yourself without thinking too hard, and where the guy probably gets at least one of the girls in the end. So how did the Japanese audience respond to it on its initial release?
“The original release in Japan was like Marmite – people either loved it or hated it,” admits Meru. “Apparently a lot of older, more traditional eroge fans were turned off by the fact that the male protagonist can be quite ‘feminine’ while the heroines are the more dominant characters, often cursing and displaying most ‘unladylike’ traits! However, it appealed a lot to younger fans and also to women! I also think this makes it well-suited for international audiences and VN fans who are tired of the same old tropes.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. While tropes have their place in media and aren’t inherently “bad” in their own right, it’s hard to deny the appeal of works that deliberately subvert expectations and perhaps invert what are regarded as “traditional” character roles in this sort of thing. Here in the West, we’re seemingly a little more accustomed to that sort of thing than some of our friends in Japan are.
It takes a lot to make your stereotypical high school romance stand out these days — and, as Meru is fond of pointing out on Twitter, said setting can make it a pain in the arse to release internationally on Steam, too, particularly if there is explicit, erotic content — but do something a little bit unconventional with your characters, and you’ll immediately get noticed. Even if that means those with more “traditional” tastes might not know what to think!
What exactly is it that makes LAMUNATION! particularly interesting, then? I was curious as to what attracted Meru to this release in the first place.
“I love how vibrant the heroines are,” she tells me. “It’s a refreshing change from some of the more shy, submissive types you often see in moege. And, while the game is mostly about silly, mind-numbing fun, there’s actually a twist I didn’t see coming that pulls things together!
“The soundtrack also features some banging electro beats that I can’t stop listening to,” she adds. I can confirm the infectious nature of said beats; they are indeed banging. And, conveniently, the soundtrack is available as DLC. Who’d have thought it?
So how did a game like LAMUNATION! end up coming West — particularly if it seemingly divided opinion back home?
“Interestingly, the project came about via Twitter,” explains Meru. “The game had been on my radar for a while and I was following the creator. One day I saw him tweeting about a certain other company, who are notorious for their terrible machine translations, contacting him about licensing the game. I jumped in to give him some info on their shady practices, while also being open about the fact that I ran a localisation company myself, and it just snowballed from there.”
Truly a modern-day lov– err, business story, then. And this is good — while some companies out there are more than happy to churn out machine-translated versions of games and visual novels from Asia in an attempt to make a quick buck from the international market, it’s pretty rare that the international audience they’re attempting to court will respond well to them. Everyone has a voice these days, thanks to social media — and it doesn’t take long for news of lacklustre, low-effort or nonsensical translations to spread.
“I worked very closely with the original developers during the localisation process,” continues Meru. “While we were given free rein over the translation, they provided a lot of support with programming and graphical assets. The writer, Kepposhi, has been extremely positive and active with his promotion on Twitter, and it’s been wonderful to work with someone so enthusiastic about getting their game out to international audiences.”
Meru and her team very obviously care deeply about what they do, then, and quite rightly believe that their human touch to the whole process provides a considerably superior alternative to machine translations. It may take longer to get an English language game out if you have someone painstakingly translating it word by word rather than feeding it into Google Translate (or equivalent) — but the result is inevitably better — both for those who will eventually be enjoying the game for themselves, and for the original developers.
I was curious to find out what Love Lab’s approach to the localisation process was. Meru mentioned that they were given “free rein over the translation”, but did that mean they made substantial changes to the original script, or did they take a more literal approach?
“My philosophy is to create a product that remains true to the spirit of the original, while being a natural and entertaining read in English,” she explains. “I operate from the perspective that it’s impossible to replicate the exact same experience in translation, simply by virtue of the fact that it has been translated; the new work will always be coloured by the unique attributes and constraints of the language it has been translated into. I believe that works in translation should be viewed and enjoyed as their own individual products.”
I personally agree with this, which is why it’s hard to get too upset over high-profile accusations of “censorship” when certain games come West with edits made in the name of complying with either local laws or platform holder requirements. If I want to play the original game in its original form, I can make the (admittedly not inconsiderable) effort to learn Japanese and play that original version, which still exists; so far as I’m concerned, though, the version we get in the West is very much its own distinct, discrete thing that has its roots in the original material, but which should always, always be evaluated and enjoyed on its own merits alone.
Things, of course, get a little murky when we consider cases where the overall meaning or context has obviously been changed considerably from the original text — but to be perfectly honest, this is pretty rare in the world of gaming, and is usually met with sufficiently negative reception in other forms of media for localisation companies to consider re-translating for subsequent releases. Funimation’s reference to the “GamerGate” controversy in its dub of the anime Prison School is a good example; for the home video release back in 2016, this reference, which was already dated thanks to GamerGate’s heyday being 2014, was removed and replaced with something rather more generic and timeless. The right choice, I think we can all agree.
This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t make any changes to the original text, however. Early English localisations of Asian visual novels and video games often tried very hard to take an overly literal approach to localisation and often ended up having quite a strange, unnatural tone as a result. This brought us everything from Final Fantasy VII’s famous “this guy are sick” to the rather awkward delivery of Kana Little Sister’s original translation (since updated with new version Kana Okaeri) — though in neither case was it jarring enough to prevent the games in question from becoming genuine classics.
“I think one of the worst things you can do is make the [localised] text feel stilted in an effort to remain ‘true’ to the source text, as you’re really doing quite the opposite,” muses Meru. “If it reads fluently and eloquently in Japanese, then you’re doing the original text a disservice if you turn it into cardboard in English.”
Japanese, for those who haven’t taken the time to study it, is a language with a significantly different structure to English. This means that there are certain things — perhaps most notably for a game like LAMUNATION!, things like puns — that don’t translate directly. When you encounter a situation like this, then, those who are working on the localisation have to make some judgement calls — and when that happens, you unfortunately tend to run the risk of upsetting someone in this day and age. Everyone has a voice, remember.
“I dislike the manufactured debate around ‘localisation’ versus ‘translation,'” says Meru. “What many people point to as localisation actually falls under the umbrella of translation. There are many different approaches and philosophies when it comes to translation, and many of them are not literal. Following a principle of more liberal, meaning-based translation is still translation.
“For example, I often hear people complain about characters using American slang, because they wouldn’t use that in Japanese,” she continues. “Well, firstly, they’re not using any English words in Japanese at all, because they’re using Japanese! Secondly, you need to find a way to represent the character’s traits and quirks in the target language, so if you have a character who uses a lot of slang, you need to find an equivalent in the target language. This will often default to American slang because a) it’s the most widely understood due to the global influence of American pop culture and b) most Japanese-to-English translators are based in the US.”
There’s also the matter of cultural references that simply aren’t relevant to an international audience; while keeping these in may lead to greater “authenticity”, replacing them with something more appropriate for that international audience will make the work as a whole more accessible.
Blick, also known as H. Anthony Israel, is the man responsible for LAMUNATION!’s English script. He’s an experienced translator (with a particular affinity for puns, according to Meru), having worked on Steins;Gate, Root Double, Valkyrie Drive, Sharin no Kuni, Gal*Gun 2 and Kotodama: The 7 Mysteries of Fujisawa in the past — and as such, he’s well familiar with this sort of thing and how to handle it.
“There was one scene where Corona and Iris do impressions of Japanese Pro Wrestler Antonio Inoki,” he explains, reflecting on LAMUNATION!’s heavily publicised use of memes and cultural references. “His catchphrase is ‘Genki desu ka!?’ [literally “how are you?” or “are you okay?” — Terry Bogard would be proud], but I localised it to John Cena’s ‘You can’t see me.’ It’s followed immediately by a reference to the TV show 24 in the original Japanese text, so you can’t see it unless you look for it.”
Memes are a bit of a dirty word when it comes to localisation for some people. There are a few reasons for this, the main one being that their inherently transient nature means that inserting them into a localisation instantly dates that localisation, much like the aforementioned GamerGate reference in Prison School. Imagine coming across something like a doge meme twenty years from now; chances are it’d feel a bit weird or perhaps even come across as a mistake.
This viewpoint is working on the assumption that memes are being inserted by the localisation company, of course. LAMUNATION! is a bit different, though; writer Kepposhi is, as it turns out, a huge fan of Western media and popular culture, so a lot of the cultural references and memes found in LAMUNATION! were already present in the original Japanese text from 2016. One might argue that this would date the original text — but enjoying the game in 2020 at the time of writing, many of these references are still fresh enough in everyone’s memory to remain both relevant and amusing. The right memes endure for a lot longer, after all!
Then there are localisation challenges that are just… one-of-a-kind. And if any kind of project is going to throw up something a bit weird for the team to have to deal with, it’ll be something like LAMUNATION! Blick has a story to tell in that regard, too.
“One unique and rather specific challenge was a single scene where a one-off alien character speaks in a sequence of dots and dashes,” he explains. “As I suspected, it was Morse code, but rather than the familiar English Morse code, it was the Japanese Wabun code.”
Wabun code, for the unfamiliar, is a variant of Morse code where the patterns of dots and dashes represent the sounds of the Japanese kana syllabary rather than the Roman letters we use in English.
“In effect,” continues Blick, “I was translating from Japanese Morse code to Japanese, to English, to English Morse code. I hope at least some people recognise these lines as Morse code and appreciate the effort!”
It’s clear that a lot of care, attention and love went into LAMUNATION!’s localisation, and we’ll doubtless see some more specific examples when we examine the characters and narrative in more detail next time. For now, though, I was curious to hear what’s next for Love Lab now that LAMUNATION! is safely out the door and seemingly being enjoyed by a decent number of people here in the West.
“Hopefully more VNs!” she says — and going on the strength of LAMUNATION! so far, that’s something we should be looking forward to. Meru says that, were money and licensing shenanigans no object, she’d love to tackle Flying Shine’s 2005 utsuge Swan Song, a deeply challenging work which is about six survivors of a devastating earthquake. Only time will tell if she and Love Lab will ever get that opportunity; fingers crossed.
But there’s more.
“We’re also moving into publishing R18 doujinshi,” she adds, “so stay tuned for that!” A full announcement about this is apparently coming very soon at the time of writing. You heard it here first. Maybe.
“I’m so thankful for all the support our release of LAMUNATION! has received,” Meru concludes. “I hope to be able to continue growing the company and publishing more VNs and doujins for fans around the world to enjoy.”
If Love Lab keeps putting out good quality work such as the titles we’ve seen here on MoeGamer in just the last year or so, they clearly have a bright future ahead of them. So please, join me in raising your beverage of choice and bellowing a hearty and joyful “Lamunation!” for the cameras — and next time we’ll delve more into what this chaotic insanity is really all about.
Thanks to Meru and Blick from Love Lab for their help with this article — and for the review copy of the game.
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