Wednesday, September 15, 2010
The Wall Street Journal is reporting (here) that the town of Atami, a city just outside Tokyo once popular for weekend getaways, is now doing everything possible to attract a new breed of tourist. With real marriages dwindling, Atami is "trying to attract single men—and their handheld devices. In the first month of the city's promotional campaign launched July 10, more than 1,500 male fans of the Japanese dating-simulation game LovePlus+ have flocked to Atami for a romantic date with their videogame character girlfriends. The men are real. The girls are cartoon characters on a screen. The trips are actual, can be expensive and aim to re-create the virtual weekend outing featured in the game, a product of Konami Corp. played on Nintendo Co.'s DS videogame system." LovePlus+ offers players a variety of virtual female high school students to romance. The first version of LovePlus was published in 2009. The game attracted attention when one of its players married one of the characters. Reuters has a video report on the wedding here.
The game is programmed to have the virtual girlfriend sulk if the gamer cuts down on his time playing the game and begins to enjoy the holiday without her. Yet at the same time, the gamer has total control over the virtual girlfriend and can switch her off if she becomes troublesome. The WSJ seems amused by this, stating this kind of thing could 'only happen in Japan.' But of course that's completely untrue.
Robert Browning's famous poem My Last Duchess (1842), apparently inspired by a sixteenth century portrait of Lucrezia de' Medici (1545-1561), deals with a duke preparing for his new wedding. The duke describes to a guest how he shut down his 'last duchess.' The duke was modeled on the fifth Duke of Ferrara (1533–1598), who married Lucrezia when she was 14 (1558). He abandoned her for two years; then she died mysteriously at age 17 (1561). Browning has the duke say in the poem that Lucrezia was flirtatious; she had "A heart how shall I say? too soon made glad, Too easily impressed." When her flightly lack of respect and fickle love for the duke and others became evident, he gave orders - and all her smiling stopped. In the poem, her portrait is hung behind a velvet curtain. The duke will allow no one else to lift the curtain - so now Lucrezia smiles only for him, and solely when he wills it. Browing later remarked that he meant to imply that the duke had had Lucrezia killed. The text of the poem is here; you can listen to an audio file of the poem being read here.
In these cases, the transition from real to virtual involves male power and control over the female as much as it involves a frozen feminine perfection - in the eyes of the beholder. The original mythological template for the virtual girlfriend is the Greek myth of Pygmalion, the classic story of a Cypriot artist falling in love with a statue of a girl he has created. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Pygmalion prays to Venus to make the statue into a real girl. Venus grants his wish; a ring is put on the girl's finger, and the sculptor marries his creation, meaning he finally gets to have sex with her. The statue is a metaphor for our ideals and intangible creative impulses, as much as it is a symbol of the strange masculine perceptions of, and love of, feminine beauty.
One memorable treatment of the same story is the late Dennis Hopper's character Feck and his love of a blow-up sex doll, Elie, in the classic grunge movie River's Edge (1986). The movie is full of repeated imagery of dolls associated symbolically with a dead girl's body. Strangely, River's Edge was modelled roughly on a real 1981 California murder case. Like Ovid's classic story and Browning's poem, this treatment suggests that the transition from real to virual love, or the converse shift from virtual to real, can end happily or badly. But both involve an ominous flirtation with immortality: in one case, the fake girl becomes real and the man marries her by virtue of his immortal love; in another, the real girl becomes an artistic creation, a fake, but she lives forever in that form. These stories always include a transition from life to death and back again, with love and art as the triggers or catalysts.
LovePlus+ is typical of the turn of the Millennium: a classical idea, reborn in the Renaissance, revived through the convergence of neo-classicism and Romanticism in the nineteenth century - is reborn again via the Tech Revolution into our virtual worlds. This is a reimagining of Retro-Futurism or Paleo-Futurism, in which very old themes are radically reborn, almost unrecognizably, into a tech-driven reality.
For my other posts on Love in the New Millennium, go here.