It's becoming increasingly difficult to escape Japan's influence on American pop culture.
Maybe your daughter has become attached to Hello Kitty. Your little brother may be hooked on manga. Perhaps you can't get enough of those creepy horror movies, like "The Ring" and "The Grudge," based on Japanese thrillers.
Video games are to blame.
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For a few generations now, video games have been a Trojan horse for Japanese culture in the United States.
Peculiarly Asian characters — ninjas, samurais, wide-eyed talking animals — have become familiar to kids who grew up playing "Final Fantasy" and "Pokemon."
Even a seemingly Western espionage game like Hideo Kojima's "Metal Gear Solid" bears an unmistakable Japanese flavor.
The success of those titles has opened the door for games with an even more pronounced Japanese accent. Put down that sudoku puzzle and join us on our journey east.
—"Okami" (Capcom, for the PlayStation 2, $39.99): The protagonist of "Okami" is the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu, who takes the form of a white wolf as she comes to rescue Nippon from a horrible curse.
The Asian influence goes beyond the story, though; "Okami" is presented in a graphic style inspired by the ink-and-watercolor art of old Japan. It's unlike anything you've ever seen in a video game, and it's breathtaking.
"Okami" also uses calligraphy: To solve puzzles or defeat monsters, you frequently have to pause the action and use a "celestial brush" to draw a simple icon.
The overarching goal is to defeat an eight-headed serpent named Orochi, but along the way you'll meet dozens of villagers who need your help, with missions ranging from the mundane (digging turnips) to the majestic (slaying demons).
The overall design of "Okami" — from the lush landscapes to the lifelike animation of Amaterasu — is so refreshing that you'll want to take the time to discover all its secrets. Four stars out of four.
—"Rule of Rose" (Atlus, for the PlayStation 2, $49.99): The school of Japanese horror represented by "Rule of Rose" will be familiar to fans of "Silent Hill" or "Fatal Frame."
That is, take an attractive, mostly defenseless heroine and drop her into a hellscape of unspeakable depravity.
Here, a "timid, unlucky girl" named Jennifer (who looks kind of like Sarah Michelle Gellar) stumbles across a clan of nasty children who call themselves the Aristocracy of the Red Crayon.
With help from her dog, Brown, Jennifer is forced to help the Aristocracy in some kind of cryptic scheme. The atmosphere is enjoyably creepy, and the story is perverse enough to pull you along despite some frustrating game mechanics.
Everyone and everything in "Rule of Rose" moves very slowly — just waiting for a door to open will try your patience — and Jennifer's halfhearted attempts to fight off monsters are just pathetic.
I'd rather see "Rule of Rose" boiled down to a two-hour movie than endure its lackluster gameplay. One-and-a-half stars.
That's changed lately with the success of the Nintendo DS, which has delivered translations of such off-kilter gems as "Brain Age," "Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney" and "Electroplankton."
The latest spicy dish from Japan is "Cooking Mama," which shows you how to prepare 76 different culinary masterpieces.
You use the DS stylus to simulate slicing, kneading, peeling, mashing and other kitchen chores, each of which is a minigame in itself.
Screw up and Mama's eyes burn with fire; succeed and she gives you a medal.
It's charming and fun in quick bursts, with a lot of appeal for casual gamers. But it doesn't get any more challenging once you learn the basic techniques, reducing its long-term entertainment value. Two-and-a-half stars.