Exploring KoF XIII dialogues: Mai and the Shiranui legacy
Even if you play KoF mostly for the competitive side of things and don’t really care about the game’s story, you must have at least spent some time in XIII’s Arcade mode to unlock Billy and Saiki. In the process, you may have read or skipped all the pre-match exchanges between every pair of characters that meets in the game’s Arcade mode.
Some of those conversations reference story elements from previous games, and not just from the KoF series, so new players might not be familiar with some of the referenced names and events. Since the stories and characters SNK has developed over the years are among the strongest aspects of their body of work, it’s worth trying to clarify some of them.
She doesn’t have a major role in KoF XIII’s primary story, but as a famous character she was heavily requested during XII’s release. Mai was therefore given considerable focus in XIII’s promotional materials, so she seems like an interesting character to start with.
In her match with Takuma, he mentions someone called Hanzo:
He refers to Hanzo Shiranui, Mai’s deceased grandfather, under whom Andy learned the Shiranui ninja arts in Japan. Not much is known about Hanzo’s life, although there’s a mention of a battle he and Jeff Bogard had with a young Wolfgang Krauser in the Fatal Fury timeline (which has a few differences from KoF’s – namely, the actual dates and passage of time matter more in that series).
The NeoGeo Battle Coliseum official site has a story section for each character, and for Mai it states that the Shiranui ninja arts have 400 years of history (translation available here).
A curious fact: over 400 years ago there was a woman called Mochizuki Chiyome – for a more entertaining look at her influence in Japanese history I recommend the Badass of the Week article about her, but long story short: she was a descendent of a ninja clan who recruited, trained and organized a network of female ninja spies and assassins, the accepted term for which is kunoichi.
Funny thing about the word kunoichi – it’s tricky to track its exact origin, but it’s interesting to notice it can be written using one character from each of the three Japanese character sets (maybe a way to obfuscate encoded messages?):
- く : “ku” in hiragana, generally used for native Japanese words
- ノ : “no” in katakana, generally used for foreign words
- 一 : “ichi”, the kanji for the number 1
If you draw them in order, but on top of each other you actually get the kanji for “woman” written in the proper stroke order. If you’ve played KoF XIII long enough, there’s bound to be something familiar about that:
There’s some extra information about that calligraphic pun and a few other things in this translation and trivia post at the Orochinagi.com forum. Check the entire topic if you’re curious enough about other bits of trivia.
As a side note, since I mentioned Chiyome Mochizuki above, there’s a character in the Fatal Fury series with the same family name, Sokaku Mochizuki: a religious man who fights and sometimes controls spirits, whose clan has some latent conflict with the Shiranuis according to a very small part of the Fatal Fury 3 story. This conflict hasn’t been heavily developed on.
Maybe an abundance of assassinations carried out by Shiranuis over generations left too many angry restless spirits behind for generations of Mochizuki priests to deal with? Curiously, religious education was one of the disguises under which Chiyome Mochizuki trained her agents, so maybe the SNK Mochizukis aren’t just priests, but also ninja rivals benefiting from an extra skill set, better PR and a good excuse to stay away from prying eyes? That wouldn’t be the only mystery the years without a new Fatal Fury have left without an answer.
But back to Mai and the dwindling Shiranui legacy. Maybe something about it didn’t sit well with some of its members by the end of the 20th century:
If you’ve read something about kunoichi like the ones that worked for Chiyome Mochizuki, you’ll be aware that most of their work outfits were more about concealment in public places, or about getting men off-guard so they’d more easily expose their secrets or vital organs. Mai is best known for wearing something in the second category, although there are several official illustrations of her in more casual clothing.
The King of Fighters Character Encyclopedia, released in the series’ 15th anniversary, has a lot of character-specific data, illustrations and rankings for things like ages and height, also includes this near the end:
I don’t think I need to state what is being ranked here, but Mai doesn’t qualify among the top 3 or top 5. The last time none of these characters were present in a mainline KoF game, allowing Mai to stand out based on measurements alone, was 2003, and she was left out of both XI (arcade version) and XII, at which point people noticed and complained.
Needless to say, the “traditional Shiranui uniform” makes enough of an impression that its content manages to draw attention away from characters with both greater measures in the area it emphasizes, and relevance to the actual KoF stories being told in most of the games.
Interestingly, of all of Mai’s appearances, the one where she uses a more conventional ninja outfit happens to be in the Days of Memories series of dating sims:
It’s interesting that Mai’s official profile implies some fondness for her grandmother, but there’s practically no mention of her parents anywhere, or for that matter, if they and her grandmother are still alive. One wonders if untimely demises deprived Mai of growing up without a couple of generations of perspective from older female relatives, seeing her grow into a young woman toward the end of the millennium as the role of women in Japan and the world saw some changes. In any case, Mai seems to hold traditional ways in higher regard than most:
Maybe over time most of the Shiranui women decided they would no longer take part in traditions that involved certain kinds of clothing and jumped ship, compromising their traditions’ future, but Mai decided that legacy was worth preserving and stuck with it, despite the problems everybody else sees with it. If that’s the case, then it’s no surprise she would hold on so hard to the one person who took the effort to seek out and learn from the Shiranui teachings.
In the Fatal Fury continuity, the Shiranui legacy has at least one more successor for a new generation, Hokutomaru, but the legacy remains fragile.
Perhaps that is why Mai insists on making it known through her infamous outfits – she’s not just physically fighting opponents, but also working to keep the history and relevance of her family’s legacy in the minds of a world that’s forgetting it, or at least disregarding ancient methods of assassination and espionage in a modern world of sniper rifles, drones and computer networks. Human nature doesn’t change nearly as much as technology does, and that also applies to getting people’s attention. Perhaps that’s the arena she’s fighting in.
Practically all games where Mai has a playable role take place in tournaments, where she’s expected to be seen, or are crossovers, where she’s expected to appear in her iconic outfit – that covers pretty much every KoF game and cross-company crossovers. Most Fatal Fury games are tournaments, but there’s at least one which is heavy on story developments but doesn’t involve a tournament: Fatal Fury 3 – in that game, she wears this:
It retains the general lines of her usual outfit, but the vest does provide some lateral coverage to her most famous assets, which is at least one step toward making her outfit a bit more casual as she travelled around South Town like most characters did. It may be worth mentioning that in that very same game, while everyone was chasing the Jin scrolls, Joe Higashi was still walking around town wearing little more than his trunks:
It seems that her outfit is directly correlated with her fighting game appearances, because for the Japan-only RPG The King of Fighters Kyo, she goes about her business in something a lot more discrete:
Right now, many people who care about these games are hoping for news about a KoF XIV, and when that’s discussed, a frequent topic is the discussion of 2D graphics, which SNK Playmore excels at, versus 3D, which has been adopted by virtually all of their fighting game competition with a considerable degree of success.
SNK Playmore’s recruitment page still mentions at least one opening for someone with 3D modelling skills, so 3D seems more likely, which opens some aesthetic possibilities, like alternative outfits for several characters (XIII did this too, but to a limited extent with specific characters). They have done interesting things with the concept in the past, particularly in KOF Maximum Impact 2, but Mai’s variations weren’t that different from each other in that game, give or take details like colors and hair length:
For now, we wait.