The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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RapeLay: Sleazier than any Hollywood horror film?

March 11, 2009 |  3:37 pm

I know that Hollywood is obsessed these days with buying the movie rights to the latest violence-strewn video game, but I'm pretty sure that the industry's cool hunters will be able to draw the line at RapeLay,  the underground Japanese video game that has already been barred from Amazon and EBay, but is available online with a couple key strokes and the click of a mouse.

The premise of the rape-simulator game is chilling, even more chilling than Eli Roth's vile "Hostel" horror series: A man stalks a young girl on a subway train, eventually cornering her in a station bathroom or a park (with the help of male friends), prompting a series of interactive rape scenes.

RapelayNot being much of a gamer, I would've never realized this sort of scenario existed if it weren't for a fascinating Slate post about RapeLay and the eroge Japanese video game phenomena by Leigh Alexander, a female video game journalist who writes the Sexy Videogameland blog. But what makes the story especially worth reading is the way Alexander analyzes how the game's premise -- that rape victims could possibly enjoy being attacked -- is embedded in the sexual repression of the Japanese culture.

As Alexander explains: "It's an old cliche, that the more repressed a society, the more extreme its pornography -- but more upsetting than RapeLay is the social environment that birthed it." She explains that in Japan, there is a virtual epidemic of chikan -- subway perverts -- especially in major cities where trains are so crowded that predators can easily conceal their crimes. According to one 2004 survey, 64% of Tokyo women reported that they'd been groped on a train. Alexander writes: "Not only is RapeLay rooted in a social illness that's embedded in Japanese society, it's just one game in a niche industry that's more closely related to the porn business than to the video game world. Risque PC games, or eroge, are big business in Japan, and legions of Japanese software-development houses are devoted to churning them out."

As a gaming enthusiast, Alexander clearly has a libertarian attitude about the dissemination of offensive video games like RapeLay. She sees the game as deeply disturbing, but views any political outcry against it as grandstanding, especially since it's not available in brick-and-mortar stores -- and is all but impossible to block online, thanks to the usual crew of software pirates and copy-protection hackers. I'm not so sure that outrage, even from grandstanding politicians, is always a bad thing, since at least it stirs up a legitimate debate about how far we're willing to let entertainment go down the slippery slope to blood-soaked mayhem and pure pornography.

What Alexander provides is a cool dissection of the game's cultural roots, a dissection I wish we saw more often about our own all-American horror and slasher films. If anyone has any answers to this question, I'd love to hear it: What is it about our culture that propels young moviegoers to horror films, eager to see their peers maimed, menaced and tortured by a variety of despicable perverts and villains?

Alexander's story also serves as a timely reminder that every country seems to spawn its own unique variety of cultural ill. In Japan it may be illicit sex. Here in America, it's nihilistic violence, which is so pervasive in our movies -- with another round of horror films due out later this year -- that we hardly notice it anymore. As troubling as it was to read about RapeLay, it was also a cautionary jolt for those of us who too often tend to ignore the images of violence that so fully inhabit our everyday world. As a serious gamer, Alexander is refreshingly free of any broad-stroke indictments. But her sober reportage was still a kick in the head. Whether its the exploitation of women or red-blooded American violence, the ugliness is there -- just because we close our eyes doesn't mean it will go away.

Image from the box cover art of the Japanese PC game RapeLay