Living the Live A Live Life: Part 4 (Kung Fu)

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     Cube                                   Akira
            Sci-Fi                                 Near-Future

Kung Fu Master                Sundown                     Masaru             
      Wǔxiá                          Western                   Present Day    

Oboromaru                            Pogo        
Bakumatsu Period                     Primeval         

This is a continuation of my previous breakdown of the Super Famicom release and fan translation of Live A Live, in preparation for the upcoming remake. The first part (the caveman Pogo) can be found here, while a list of all parts can be found here. As for today, we’ll be talking about the kung fu master’s chapter.

Promotional art for the kung fu chapter, drawn by Yoshihide Fujiwara.
The character artist for this chapter is Yoshihide Fujiwara. He’s responsible for martial arts shо̄nen manga Kenji, as well as the Virtua Fighter manga.

This chapter follows an aging kung fu master, known simply as 老師 (rо̄shi), which means ‘old master’ in Japanese. Nearing the end of his life, he finds 3 disciples to inherit his martial art, one of whom will become his successor. It’s a pretty cool chapter, in my opinion, because the paths of each inheritor result in different scenes playing out in the chapter’s closing act.

Being set in ancient China, as well as focusing on kung fu, this chapter has a particularly pervasive localization roadblock. Despite being a Japanese game, it features terms that are not natively Japanese, but invented to look like Chinese. Contrasted with simple loanwords—a concept familiar even in Germanic and Romance languages—Japanese people are able to look at these obviously non-Japanese words and get the gist of both their meaning and reading, even if they don’t know Chinese at all.

A Peanuts comic strip in which Lucy attempts to diagnose Linus with various phobias.
A similar concept in English is classical compounds; words formed by combining Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes.

Since they’re kinda similar to classical compounds themselves, I think I’ll use those to coin a term for these constructs: sinologisms, from the ‘sino-‘ prefix meaning ‘Chinese’ and the ‘-logos’ suffix, meaning ‘words’. This chapter is full of sinologisms, and the best way to localize them is quite contentious. Indeed, while I do not speak Chinese at all, I have strong feelings on the best way to preserve this sensation for Western audiences.

For Aeon Genesis’ part, their initial translation of Live A Live received quite a bit of scrutiny online. In response to the criticisms, they decided to do a second pass, and released the “2.0” version of the patch. One of the things done in this pass was soliciting the help of someone fluent in Chinese to render the sinologisms as transliterated Mandarin Chinese, rather than Japanese. They used the Pinyin romanization system—which I will also be using with the help of this Chinese-to-English dictionary. Their intent with this was surely to preserve authenticity and a sense of “Eastern-ness” in their localization, just as the Japanese writers intended to add authentically Chinese flavor to their work.

A screenshot of the Aeon Genesis version of the master's movelist.

I touched on this briefly in the previous chapter, but I think this comes at the cost of mechanical clarity. An English-speaking player is going to have difficulty memorizing over a dozen moves in a language they do not understand, and the move descriptions are sparse enough that they don’t help much. From a playability perspective, I think it must be done sparingly.

Beyond that, a second problem with this is that the transliterations are toneless. If you know even less about Mandarin Chinese than I do, let me explain to the best of my ability. You may be familiar with tones in the form of things like acute accents (é) or macrons (ē), which help a reader understand a written word’s pronunciation. For example, Pokémon features an acute accent, so the reader knows to pronounce it the Japanese way (“po kay mon”), as opposed to “poak mon.” Properly transliterated, any Chinese text would feature not only macrons and acute accents, but also grave accents (è) and carons (ě) in nearly every word.

Without hanzi (the meaning-rich Chinese characters kanji descend from), the reader relies entirely on tone to determine meaning. Even a native speaker of Chinese would not be able to discern meaning (or even pronunciation) from a toneless transliteration alone. As Twitter user @withoutdoing points out, tone can make the difference between praying for someone’s good fortune (祈福, qífú) and bullying them (欺负, qīfu). I’m not sure if omitting tones was done for technical or stylistic reasons, but given that AG was able to implement unique fonts for every chapter, I can’t imagine space for text sprites was that much of a concern.

A screenshot of Assassination Classroom in which teacher/assassin Irina Jelavić is stabbed by the mispronunciation of the end of her name as bicchi.
An example of the dangers of sloppy transliteration, Assassination Classroom‘s Irina Jelavić gets pretty upset if you mispronounce the last 3 letters of her name.

With both of these points in mind, I think transliteration was the wrong choice. If a native Chinese speaker can determine neither meaning nor pronunciation by looking at the text, it may as well be completely made-up as far as English-speaking players are concerned. There were other ways to preserve the impression sinologisms made on Japanese players, and they would have been much more playable.

A screenshot of the Live A Live remake's version of the Shifu's abilities, which feature flowery names like Tiger and Dragon's Rebuke.
By contrast, the remake translated the meanings, without regard for preserving the readings. The localized names are poetic in a way characteristic of kung fu movies, and, at a glance, easier for the player to remember.

With generalities out of the way, let’s get into specifics. Once again, the meat of what’s interesting this chapter are character names, abilities, and items, though the story is a bit meatier, too. To start off with, let’s look at our protagonist for this chapter, the kung fu master. Ordinarily, a chapter would open with naming your character, but in this one, it’s the martial art that gets named, instead.

A gif showing the opening of the chapter, with the master training on a mountaintop.

Immediately, there are some points of contention. In Japanese, we are greeted with the sinologism 心山拳, which Japanese users might read as shinzanken. It consists of the characters for ‘heart’, ‘mountain’, and ‘fist’, in that order, and that’s about all the information a Japanese player gets. Using Pinyin, it’s read as xīnshānquán, so AG opted for Xin Shan Quan.

Previews and the demo have shown the remake switched from Heart of the Mountain Fist to Earthen Heart Fist, two different interpretations of the relationship between ‘heart’ and ‘mountain’. I consulted with a native Chinese speaker I know, and his conclusion was that it would be using ‘heart’ metaphorically as ‘core’. Consequently, his translation would be something like Mountain Core Fist. That being the case, I think HotMF was actually the best translation of this technique.

As we touched on earlier, the aging kung fu master is known simply as rо̄shi in Japanese, a word that literally means ‘old master’ or ‘old monk’. In the 1.0 release, it seems AG thought this was actually a name, likely owing to townsfolk calling him rо̄shisama, or “honorable old master.” To that end, they referred to him as ‘Rou’.

Dragon Ball's Master Roshi, as he appears in the Arc System Works fighting game Dragon Ball FighterZ.

In actuality, rо̄shi is a reference to the teacher Lǎozǐ from Journey to the West. Lǎozǐ uses the hanzi 老子 (again rо̄shi in Japanese) which also means ‘master’, but is translated as a name in most English adaptations. Dragon Ball‘s Master Roshi uses the same kanji as LAL‘s, is also a reference to JttW, and also has a title, not a name.

In the 2.0 patch, ‘Rou’ was corrected to simply be ‘Master’. With the remake, we now have ‘Shifu’ as the official localization. Shifu is a different, Mandarin term, but it carries a similar meaning: literally ‘skilled person’, essentially ‘master’.

A screenshot of the 2022 action game Sifu.
I wonder if the existence of Sifu, a recent action game using the same term, had any influence on that choice.

The master starts with an incredible roster of moves, so we’ll only take a look at the more interesting ones to keep this article’s length in check. In addition, I want to showcase a few ways to preserve the sense of authenticity the sinologisms would have given the Japanese audience. As with previous articles, we’ll show the Japanese release’s text, followed by AG’s, then my suggestions last.

Long Hu Liang PoWan
Lónghǔ Wrist Break

Bai Li Dao Yi Bu Jiao
Thousand Miles, Single Step

Monkey Fist
Monkey Fist

The master assumes a fighting stance and makes several motions with his full body before striking the opponent.
The first two kanji are ‘dragon’ and ‘tiger’, which are often paired metaphorically as two equally-matched, powerful opposing forces. Preserving “wrist break”, I think it’s fine to leave the animals transliterated.
The master delivers a quick kick to his opponent.
Lit. “A single step on a hundred ri road,” with ri being an ancient Japanese unit of distance equal to ~2.5 miles. The Chinese proverb about consistency producing results is obviously being evoked, here.
The master delivers a slow, deliberate fist strike to his opponent.
While AG’s translation is perfectly fine, there’s nothing differentiating the structure of this move’s name from Xin Shan Quan, so it’s strangely inconsistent, in my opinion.

As you can see, there’s a couple ways to preserve the sense Japanese players get from sinologisms while still remaining legible to the reader. Evoking well-known Chinese proverbs, kung fu tropes (Animal Body-Part), and even a compromise between translation and transliteration are all perfectly suitable.

The last two moves of the master’s I want to go over are 老狐の舞 (rо̄gitsune no mai) and 不射の射 (fusha no sha). These two moves are unmistakably Japanese. As a matter of fact, the の (no) character both moves contain is often suggested as the easiest character to look for to tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese, as in this article by Mato on Legends of Localization.

A photo of a food shop in Hong Kong using the の kana to give itself a more "Japanese" feeling.
In Chinese, の is used to give goods and stores a “Japanese” feel, as seen at this food shop in Hong Kong. Sort of the opposite of the purpose of the transliterations.

Since the names are are absolutely, unquestionably Japanese, they don’t convey the same authentic Chinese feeling the sinologisms do. You may, then, be surprised to learn that AG’s patch transliterates these moves as LaoHuZhiWu and FushaNoSha, respectively. This choice was utterly baffling to me when I first encountered it, but I’ve come to understand it more since discovering it.

In the case of LaoHuZhiWu (from rо̄gitsune no mai), the Japanese text means ‘Dance of the Old Fox’. The Japanese character no was converted to Zhi by AG. This was the strangest choice of the entire patch to me. While the inconsistency remains, I at least found some thread of explanation for the conversion. The Chinese 之 (zhi) is a possessive particle essentially equivalent to the Japanese の (no). So, at the very least, there is a logical connection between the two readings. Beyond that, I have no answers.

For FushaNoSha, we can be more forgiving. Taken literally, 不射の射 means something like ‘arrow without arrow’, and is a counter the master is able to perform only at great distances. Initially, I was equally confused as to why AG chose to transliterate this move, and especially as to why they didn’t convert の’s reading to 之’s for consistency. The answer is pretty straightforward, though: Fusha no Sha is a reference!

A screenshot of an old master performing the fusha no sha technique as seen in the stop motion animation adaptation linked later in the article.
The old master of Fusha no Sha, performing the eponymous technique.

Fusha no Sha (also known as Shoot Without Shooting) comes from 名人伝 (Meijin den), a short story by Nakajima Atsushi from the 1940s. In it, the protagonist wants to become the greatest archer in the world, and trains for decades to reach his goal. Training under multiple masters, he eventually learns to “shoot without shooting”, a technique characterized by firing a projectile without a bow or even an arrow. Eventually, he forgets what a bow is entirely and passes away, creating a tradition of non-violence in his village.

While I’m not sure it was considered by the creators of Live A Live, the story is an interesting choice of reference in this chapter. Nakajima was known for writing stories which gave readers a warm nostalgia for classic Chinese literature, particularly during the second Sino-Japanese War/World War II, when Japanese/Chinese relations were very poor. The story is adapted from classical Chinese writings, and was itself adapted by a Chinese studio into a short stop-motion film in 1988. The film ends with a reminder that we live in an atomic age, and that unity between nations makes great things possible. Since the story seems at least partially intended as an allegory for true mastery being characterized by peacefulness, it’s fairly heartwarming to see China and Japan borrow from each other repeatedly in this way.

Anyway, the choice to simply leave this move as transliterated Japanese could mean that Aeon Genesis got the reference, and decided to leave it intact. I still think I would’ve gone with the translated title, but, given the other transliterations, it’s a matter of personal preference and consistency.

Anyway, heading down from the mountaintop dojo, we have our choice of which of the three disciples to recruit first. To save some time later, we’re going to head into the bamboo forest to meet the disciple there. On our way, we’ll collect a few herbs I’ll talk about later, but first, an encounter with a bandit!

Rei's introduction in the bamboo forest, as seen in the Japanese Super Famicom version.
Bandits are generally pretty terse, but it’s still unusual for a female character to speak in such a masculine way. AG conveyed this with a bit of a Southern accent and being incautious with pronunciation.

After pummeling our prospective pickpocket, she joins up with us, vowing to become strong enough to best us in the future. Her name is given as レイ・クウゴ (Rei Kūgo). Her surname, Kūgo, is an anagram of Gokū, the Japanese name for Journey to the West‘s Monkey King, Sun Wukong. As a matter of fact, her first attack, 猿拳 (saruken, Monkey Fist), is named for a real-world martial art that is itself named for Sun Wukong.

As for Rei, the reference is actually threefold! First, Bruce Lee’s surname, 李/Lǐ. Young Bruce Lee serves as the foundation of Rei’s character, with his cocky attitude. Second is Rei, the 南斗水鳥拳 (nanto suichо̄ken) user from manga Hokuto no Ken. Finally, Tekken‘s Lei Wulong, who had first debuted shortly before LAL‘s release. For the latter pair, we’ll have to look at their abilities to fully understand how they’re a reference.


Waterfowl Kick

Snake Form Fist

Rei jumps around the opponent several times with incredible height, unleashing several blows.
Literally ‘southern Dipper waterfowl fist’, HnK‘s nanto suichо̄ken utilizes many dramatic flips around the opponent, particularly in the hien ryūbu technique.
Rei spins in place three times and unleases a speedy kick from a distance.
Named for one of the five wǔxíng styles used by Lei in his Tekken 2 debut, this technique features much of his trademark spinning.

Aside from the usual note on transliteration, I don’t have many thoughts on AG’s patch, here. I do think these references would be hard to translate, considering the lesser popularity of these franchises in the current-day West, so the remake’s decision to respectively translate them as Kingfisher’s Tantrum and Serpent Strike are understandable. The immense Hokuto no Ken fan in me wants the reference to be a bit more clear, but I don’t see a way to do it while maintaining any sort of consistency.

Moving on, we head to to ユンファ (Yunfa), a market town named for actor Chow Yun-fat, who appears in many martial arts-related films, despite having no formal training. There, we meet the dine-and-dashing disciple サモ・ハッカ (Samo Hakka), who joins us after pay his restaurant tab (or teach him a lesson at the school of hard knocks).

Samo's introduction, as seen in the Japanese Super Famicom release of Live A Live.
Samo’s speech is simple, to reflect his low intelligence. He also uses the チ (chi) sentence-ender, which gives an impression of being mouselike and small, ironically contrasting with his large size.

Like our first disciple, Samo’s name is a reference to actor Sammo Hung, a martial artist who has appeared in films like Enter the Dragon and Ip man. Interestingly, while AG preserved the reference with the name Sammo, the remake sidestepped it, renaming the character to Hong. Because the name Sammo is a bit more unique than the other disciples’, I assume this was done out of fear of litigation.

Continuing a different pattern, the surname Hakka is a reference to Cho Hakkai, the Japanese name of Zhū Bājiè. Bājiè is a pig-like, lazy degenerate from Journey to the West, who goes from a villain to begrudging ally of Sun Wukong. In keeping with this, Samo has a strong gluttonous streak. His gluttony is so strong, in fact, that all of Samo’s abilities are named for foods, usually Chinese delicacies. Let’s take a brief look at them:

kuma no te
Bear HandFrom the traditional delicacy xióngzhǎng (lit. “bear paw”), which has fallen out of fashion as bears are legally protected.
Twice-cooked pork
Essentially a Chinese version of chili consisting of beans & peppers made into a paste. Often an ingredient of other recipes, like hotpot & mápó tòfu.
Known in the West as its literal translation, “bang bang chicken”, its name comes from the fact it is tenderized before cooking.
Pig’s FeetUsed in many Chinese dishes, known in the West as “pork knuckle” or “pig’s trotters”.
Probably most recognizable to readers as ‘bell peppers and beef’ due to Cowboy Bebop‘s banter, pepper steak consists of green peppers and strips of beef in a thick, seasoned soy sauce.

I think it’s easy to see that the theming is completely lost in AG’s translation. Since there’s an English name for most of these iconic dishes, a literal translation would preserve the references easily. As previously stated, toneless transliteration makes the names nonsense, even to native Chinese speakers. The remake uses a fairly-straightforward translation, with the only major change being ‘Bear Paw’ to ‘Bear’s Claw’, evoking a type of donut that is more easily recognizable as food to Western audiences.

We’ll round out our article by visiting the final disciple in his hometown of ウォン (Wong/Won). This town is suffering from a stomach bug epidemic that is targeting the elderly, and it’s up to the master to help. Earlier in the chapter, I noted that we have been gathering some herbs in the mountain, and they’ll come in handy here, as they’re the cure to the townsfolks’ ailments.

When helping the townsfolk, they’ll often reward the master with an item. Usually this is a healing item, but one of them is a bit strange: ナマズヒゲ (namazuhige). Literally translated as ‘catfish whiskers’, the headgear evokes what the West refers to as a Fu Manchu mustache, after the books and movies that popularized it. While both Aeon Genesis and the remake use ‘Catfish Whiskers’ as the name of this item, the latter has the advantage of longer item descriptions, so it at least makes it clear they are not literal whiskers.

The eponymous Dr. Fu Manchu.
It’s pretty easy to see how ‘catfish whiskers’ developed into slang for this, huh?
The master confronting Sun Tzu and his cohorts.

In any event, after healing the townsfolk, the master is once again pickpocketed! Following the thief, we learn he is only stealing at the orders of local ruffian 孫子王, or Sun Tzu Wang. The boy tells Sun Tzu he will no longer steal for him, even if Sun Tzu does his worst. Confronting Sun Tzu in the boy’s place, the master tells him that despite his gang’s great physical strength, the boy’s strength of character is true strength.

Sun Tzu is obviously a reference to the strategist of the same name, a point reinforced by the fact we later acquire the Japanese version of The Art of War as an item in the chapter. The AG patch decided to go with the Pinyin transliteration of his name, Sun Zi, which, while consistent and more accurate to modern transliteration of Chinese, unfortunately obscures the reference a bit. I think this is a bit of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, but the name is definitely more recognizable as Sun Tzu, and that’s what I’d prioritize.

Anyway, Once Sun Tzu is defeated, the boy pleads to join our dojo, and we oblige. Our newest disciple is named ユン・ジョウ (Yun Jyō). Yun takes his given name from Yuen Biao, yet another martial artist/actor. While the romanization of Yuen may confuse you, both are written ユン in Japanese. As for his surname, it is once again taken from Journey to the West. This time, his namesake is Sa Gojyō, the Japanese name for Shā Wùjìng.

All three disciples’ namesakes study under a single master in Journey to the West. As the final disciple, Wùjìng undergoes the least development from training, and is the weakest of the three. Accordingly, his victories must often come from outsmarting his opponents, rather than overwhelming them. This is reflected in Live A Live; Yun has no remarkable stats, save for his considerable IQ. Further, his moves are the plainest of the chapter’s four playable characters, being simply 突き (tsuki, thrust) and けり (keri, kick).

The remake's localization of Yun Jou's moves.
Yun’s remake techniques have a more flowery naming scheme.

As I touched on briefly in Masaru’s chapter, the remake’s localization team decided to punch up Yun’s moves significantly. There’s nothing inherently wrong with punching up, but sometimes it can be done to the translation’s detriment. In this case, the impression given by the Japanese version of Yun’s moves stands in stark contrast to the others’. The master’s techniques are as tropey as can be, Rei’s evokes the most legendary martial arts manga in history, and Samo’s are delightfully thematic. Yun’s are plain, single-word descriptions of generic attacks, and that is intentional. I think this is a significant misstep in what I consider to be an otherwise excellent localization.

With that, we close out the first half of our coverage of this chapter. While I was very critical of AG’s localization here, I think it bears re-emphasizing that, aside from a few key points, it is a valid stylistic decision made with intent. It just happens to be one I philosophically disagree with. There were few outright errors made in this chapter, all things considered.

Anyway, we’ll be back in a couple weeks with the other half of this chapter and a full comparison to the remake, with the spoiler gloves off, so don’t forget to follow on Twitter if you want to know when that goes up. But before that, the next part sends us to America, and checking in with Old West cowboy The Sundown Kid. We’ll discuss Legends of Localization‘s concept of “reverse localization” that he used when translating the chapter, and take a look at the history of cowboy movies in Japan. In addition, the far-future Sci-Fi chapter, focusing on the robot Cube will be included, as the two settings alone aren’t meaty enough for two articles. お楽しみ下さいませ!

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