The Japanese Demoscene: A Personal & Cultural Voyage

日本におけるデモシーン:今までの一般的な経験&日本のデモシーン文化の新しい体験より

(Thank you to Satomi for the translation above!)

INTRODUCTION

Okay, I need to let you in on a little secret. I mean, it’s not a secret that’s kept under lock and key or anything, but it’s something that more people need to know about.

In the vast expanse of our world, few subcultures are as niche and, frankly, as cool as the Demoscene. To put it simply, it’s a vast network of underground international artists, programmers and musicians who spend hundreds if not thousands of hours on ‘productions’, as they’re called. These works of dedication and passion are little computer programs that hold within them a dazzling array of sight, sound and a staggering amount of technical genius. This is because these files can be heavily compressed with no loss in perceivable detail and can be as tiny as 4 kilobytes or smaller! To put that in perspective, many of the early Atari 2600 games (which fit into only 4 kilobytes) looked like this:

Screenshot from Yars’ Revenge (Moby Games)

While some demoscene ‘prods’ that fit into the same space can look like this…or better:

Screenshot from the group RGBA’s Hoody, released in April 2020 for the release party, Revision (Pouet)

See that image above? That was generated by my computer. It made a whole procedurally generated image that’s that detailed in less than 10 seconds and with such a small amount of space that would make most modern programmers weep.

It’s truly unbelievable. Beautiful, even! If I were to describe the way I feel about this to you in person, you would likely see me grinning from ear to ear as I talk about it. But I’m not talking about RGBA’s Hoody today. No, instead, I want to tell you about the Japanese Demoscene as, up until now, I’ve had little experience with it.

So let’s take a trip together and explore it, if only for a little while. And who knows? Maybe that’ll inspire you to look around at this stuff for yourself.

A BIT ABOUT ME

Before we begin though, I’ll give you a few pointers (literally) about myself, just so you know my background:

  • Born in Australia to two white parents – one born in Australia, the other in England
  • Middle-classish – basically well off but don’t have a lot of money to spend on luxuries
  • Love my gadgets and technology – have my own proper gaming rig now
  • Been on the Internet since a very early age – seen all sorts of niches, subcultures and weird stuff
  • Like to indulge in my more ‘Otaku’ side here and there – have a long read and watch list for anime and manga that I’ve been meaning to get around to…eventually
Seriously, I have a note-taking app for it and everything.

SOME ISSUES & CONCERNS

The reason I tell you about all this is that, hopefully, it should give you a good reason as to why I’m into this nerdy tech-focused niche and why the Japanese Demoscene interests me greatly. Though I am loathe to admit that I come to the table with my preconceptions of what Japanese prods will look like.

“Will they have a lot of anime-looking characters in them? Will they have more traditional aspects of Japan like images of Mt. Fuji or pagodas?”

It’s far from a charitable and nuanced view of Japan nor is it one that I particularly like having. It’s almost subconscious and one born from the cultural flow that has engulfed the world for years now that, as Swedish Anthropologist Ulf Hannerz describes it, acts as a “constant alternation between externalisation and interpretation, with the flow passing from person to person in a constant process of distribution and transformation…”

Media is a constant state of transformation and re-transformation as it makes it’s way around the world, and each new person views the media through new ideas. An unfortunate side effect of global flow is the growth of potentially harmful stereotypes (like the ones I mentioned before). I ‘think’ them without any real thought going into it like it’s pre-programmed into me (Heh, get it?). But it’s one of the things that, as a newcomer and researcher of this subset of a subculture, I have to recognise that I’m bringing to the table.

The first major Japanese release party, 2chparty, that Pouet has on record. (Pouet)

As Professor Christiane Kraft Alsop writes, this kind of self-reflexivity (looking inwards to challenge things about yourself) allows me to assess my “frame of mind, [my] power position in the network of cultures, about the ways in which [I] produce knowledge, and about [my] notion of center and periphery…”

There’s one more problem though. A lot of the websites, documents, groups – by their very nature – are hard to find for an underground scene. And, with the Internet being the Internet, some of these things can disappear quickly. The original website is long since dead and the archive versions you can find at archive.org are few and far between. Plus, they’re all in Japanese which I don’t know how to read.

It’s all just dead links,

upon dead links,

upon dead bloody rotting links.

But like I said, I’ve been on the Internet for years. And I know where to look.

A DIVE INTO SOME JAPANESE DEMOS

NOTE: A huge reason for this project being possible at all is the Hugi Magazine Issue 32 diskmag from 2006. A diskmag is essentially an electronic magazine that often has added visual effects and music. This issue in particular has a section on the Japanese Demoscene that provided a critical starting point for exploring the scene as well as acting as a primary source for the time period these prods were made in.

Demo by Volvox (2005)

A lot of cubes. Just…floating around. No music. And then it just…ended. I thought immediately how bizarre this was. Looking at the prod’s page on Pouet.net, it has 2 likes and 3 dislikes. I can’t help but agree with the general sentiment that it felt very unfinished, like it was still in development. We’re starting, in a sense, quite sadly as this is one of the last major projects from the Japanese demoscene (although I use the word ‘major’ very loosely). Nothing about it stood out to me in any particular way, but I’m including it here as it was the first one I looked at.

Super Reality by Golden Weeds Project (1995)

Seems to be, by some people’s reckoning, the first major demoscene prod out of Japan. Quickly, much more so than before, I’m immediately transfixed. I watch as seemingly letters tumble through a void of stars and darkness. This is replaced by a low poly spaceship flying through a trench. “It’s like a bizarre intersection of Star Fox and Star Wars.” Even the music seems inspired by the retro games of yesteryear. I feel a weird pang of emotion, as if it’s second-hand nostalgia for a time I didn’t grow up in.

These thoughts continue to cross my mind as it barrel rolls through the scene before fading into an image of the Japanese Rising Sun flag with text onscreen that I can’t understand. This is accompanied by a twisting image of the prod’s developers’ names: the names of people that I don’t recognise, the names of people I’ve never met. But I once again think to myself: isn’t it still beautiful? Or at the very least impressive?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I look at it now and think, “Well it looks kinda lame.” But then I remember, “Oh yeah, this came out in 1995 and was made by a group of enthusiastic hobbyists – presumably, in their spare time. It’s reflective for me to think that the effort it took to create such hardware-pushing effects back then is child’s play today. The endless march of technological progress is both shocking and awe-inspiring at the same time.

Minimal by Radium Software (1998)

Stepping forward a few years from Super Reality, we have Minimal. A world surging with shifting blue patterns and, as the name implies, an emphasis on minimalism – which almost runs counter-intuitive to the core philosophy of demoscene productions. As Australian writer Bruce Isaacs notes, these works are “always busy with movement in which backgrounds and foregrounds coalesce into an organic whole. Images shift comfortably between mechanical and organic shapes, blending lights and colour, stretching frames, perspectival coordinates and point of view…”

It makes sense – much of the European demoscene evolved from a rebellious underground group of people who ‘cracked’ video games and allowed for the early proliferation of digital game piracy. In making these cracks, they would show off their prowess “by appropriating the opening page of a copied game…” with a litany of sight and sound that bombards the viewer with the names of the people responsible for the game you obtained not-so-legitimately.

So why? Why was the Japanese demoscene so seemingly understated? With each one, I was wondering about the reasoning behind these aesthetics. Was I just looking in the wrong place?

And then I had an epiphany. I had been looking at it all wrong, from an Australian’s perspective. The reason why the Japanese demoscene seemed to run counter-intuitive to the demoscene was because the ethos of the demoscene runs counter-intuitively to Japanese culture.

While areas of Japan like Akihabara are stacked to the rooftops with aggressive neon lights and interwoven signage, much of Japan still has its roots in minimalist architecture that “upholds design principles that use natural materials, clean lines, and straightforward construction or cuts…” There’s no over-detailing or obsession with intricacies like we see in the Gothic Revival and Neoclassical architecture of older European palaces.

As a result, by pushing against the standards of the European demoscene, it made the Japanese demoscene shine all the brighter for me. It “convey[s] the spirit of Japanese culture…” better than any attempt at emulating the European styles ever could. It put into perspective everything I had seen. Why the prods seemed unfinished or too ‘basic’ to me, why I felt so underwhelmed by them all. A combination of the Japanese demoscene not being popular in general and my own preconceptions of what a prod should look like set me up for failure. Well, failure to fully understand properly anyway.

CONCLUSION

On that bombshell of a realisation, I want to end this piece with some words of encouragement as well as a call to action.

First, please check out some of these demos for yourself. What I looked at here is only a small sliver of what is admittedly already a small group of productions. You can find a list of some Japanese prods here and here. And, of course, by all means explore outside the Japanese demoscene. Some of my personal favourites include Desert Dream by Kefrens, Second Reality by Future Crew and .kkrieger by .theprodukkt.

Desert Dream by Kefrens

Oh yeah, and about that call to action. The main reason we can still talk about the Japanese demoscene today is because of the tireless efforts of the people who run websites like Pouet.net, Scene.org and Archive.org. Their archiving of all this content made this project.

Second Reality by Future Crew

One of the biggest, most damaging myths that still prevails in the Internet Age is the idea that everything stays online forever. And that is categorically untrue. The Internet is a fragile chain of hardware and software with little bridges linking to other bridges. Over time, these bridges will collapse one by one without proper conservation, as has happened for many long-dead websites. Don’t let your digital content be the next victim.

.kkrieger by .theprodukkt.

Otherwise, we might lose our digital history. And unless we put in the effort, we don’t have a backup.

~Timothy Cuff

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