Unsung Dreamcast Heroes: Captain Onishima

In the first of a new series here at The Dreamcast Junkyard, we thought it was about time we took a deeper, more humanistic look at some of the unsung and lesser celebrated players in the great library of Dreamcast-related characters and creations. The personas we all know, but who we don't necessarily love. The title 'Unsung Dreamcast Heroes' is a bit of a misnomer because it won't exclusively feature protagonists - indeed, this inaugural instalment actually profiles an antagonist of sorts - but hopefully we'll do it justice by bringing some of the lesser-known but equally important supporting cast into the spotlight. Right then - on with the show!
Jet Set Radio is easily one of the Dreamcast's most iconic titles. The premise is a relatively simple one, involving gangs of youths on motorised roller blades tagging turf and trying to evade the cops in the process. However, the cel-shaded visuals mask a fairly deep and involving yarn in which some pretty sobering themes are covered. These include the corporate censorship of freedom of expression; and an almost Orwellian vision of a near-future dystopia where everything seems fine on the surface, but once the scab of uniformity is lifted a whole underclass of festering all-out gangland warfare is revealed. Maybe I'm reading way, way too far between the lines when it comes to Smilebit's seminal skate and graffiti 'em up, but the fact remains that the city of Milwaukee tried to get the game banned back in 2000 due to the negative connotations of spray painting gang tags on urban street furniture. This is all academic in the grand scheme of this article though. The reason I'm writing all of this is because we need to examine one central character in particular...

Captain Onishima
Now, the popularity of Jet Set Radio has ballooned in recent times, and not least because of the number of people on Twitter calling for a HD remake or current-gen sequel. There actually is a HD remake for various systems like the PS Vita and PS3, but the overarching allure of Jet Set Radio (or Jet Grind Radio, if you're in the United States - quick fact, it's actually called Jet Grind in the US because of a band called Jet Set Satellite) is more down to the varied cast of cool as fuck protagonists and their spiritual leader Professor K, than anything else. Yes, the adolescent pranks and sick skating skillz of the likes of Gum, Beat and Tab are by far the most enticing thing about JSR. Furthermore, the ongoing turf war with the Poison Jam and Noise Tanks gangs is more than enough to make anyone want to get involved in this whole neon-hued, futuristic romp through Tokyo-To.
Naturally, the soundtrack that this whole saga is played out to creates a rich tapestry of memorable freeze frames in the mind: doing anti-gravity tricks in a storm drain while Hideki Naganuma and Richard Jacques' finest mixes blast through the speakers would leave an indelible mark on anyone's mind, but let's turn our attention to the main antagonist in Jet Set Radio. A man so hell-bent on stopping this immature masquerade that he'll revert to lethal measures. The man at the centre of the whole operation and tasked with ridding Tokyo-To of the menace of street gangs and graffiti and banging pirate radio choons once and for all - at the tax payer's expense, I might add. One Captain Onishima.
The manual of the PAL version of Jet Set Radio says this of Captain Onishima:

Height: 5ft. Shorty. With a five o' clock shadow, dirty hair and a creased suit, this joker's obviously been watching too many 1970's police shows. Watch out when he loses it 'cause he'll start shooting rubber bullets. His catchphrase is "I'm the judge and jury and I'm gonna send you down the river." Maybe the reason he hates young people so much is because of some past trauma.

So a fairly rudimentary introduction, then. The first time you see Onishima in Jet Set Radio is when he orders his squad of rank and file Tokyo-To officers in to apprehend you after a certain amount of time has ticked down in whichever level you happen to be covering with paint. He is the archetypal baddie, with his own brand of justice and an army of henchmen (aka the Tokyo-To police department) at his disposal. Later in the game, Captain Onishima reverts to his trusty side arm in an attempt to bring you down, but also calls in heavy ordnance in the form of police helicopters and armoured vehicles. But - and this is a big but - is he actually the bad guy here?
Nothing is ever really given away about Onishima's family life. Does he have a wife or kids? What's his drive for bringing down the GGs and the Noise Tanks? Does he play golf at the weekends at a luxury club outside Tokyo-To with the rich and famous (like Professor K)? Here's another theory: he's a cop. A salt of the earth cop who rose through the ranks to serve his beloved home town. He rose through the ranks, walking the beat and busting punks and now he's the Captain of the force in a fairly nice and well kept city.

Look at it from the point of view of any of the citizens who happen to inhabit Tokyo-To. A city with a wealth of public transport options, cycle lanes, clean pavements (sidewalks), a decent sanitation system and a working train network. Tokyo-To looks, for all intents and purposes like a pretty decent place to live. The only real criminals are a bunch of kids dressed in stupid outfits who like to dance on rooftops and spray paint stuff, for God's sake. The criminals in Jet Set Radio are the characters you play as. Gum and Beat and their ring leader Professor K...they are the real criminals here. As they blast around childrens' play areas and busy shopping districts, trying to evade the choking clouds of CS gas they bring with them...what are the bystanders doing? Just going about their daily business.
Picture the scene. You're just buying some mangoes from a market stall and then BAM! a prick on roller blades goes flying past, knocking over bikes, chinning your friend and stopping traffic, with 20 coppers running after him and then some prick with a haircut the 80s want back is firing his Smith & Wesson all over the place. Meanwhile, some random cretin in a pink leotard is dancing on a rooftop thinking they're Carlito Brigante because they spray-painted a love heart on the side of a bus (that incidentally, was full of well-behaved kids on their way to a nice, well-funded and respected school). It's not right mate - this is Tokyo-To, not Salford.

Onishima isn't flashy. He isn't suave. His physical appearance of unshaven and greasy-haired is a staple of down-and-out gumshoes like Columbo. He is the embodiment of every stereotypical superior in every cop show you've ever seen. The only stereotype not layed on him is that he's black...but let's not get into that shite. But the fact remains that he continues to chase these punks because he believes that what they are doing is wrong. Graffiti is a legitimate form of art and can be spectacularly beautiful and awe inspiring, but Onishima is doing his job. Plain and simple.
In closing, I'd like to put forward a hypothesis. In Jet Set Radio, the real hero is Captain Onishima. He is standing up for the rights of the people of Tokyo-To. He wants to maintain order because that's what he is paid to do. There is no murder or theft in Tokyo-To, there is just a pirate radio station and a group of kids who think defacing public property is a right...and it simply won't stand. Not on Onishima's watch, anyway.
He is painted as a villain in Jet Set Radio, but what do we actually know about Onishima other than his job title? Not much. But what we do know is that he will protect and serve his public and use excessive force with extreme prejudice. Sleep tight Tokyo-To, Captain Onishima has your back.

1 comment:

Mathew Singleton said...

I find myself enjoying just about anything you write, even if it's something I'm not interested in. Thank you!