Biohazard: A Theory

Let’s talk about Resident Evil — and not the movie series.

The name Resident Evil is very recognizable among gamers especially since it is a widely popular and ongoing series to this day. The critically acclaimed Resident Evil 7 was just released in January 2017 and there are a few more rumored to be in the works, including a remake of the classic Resident Evil 2 which was originally released for the first PlayStation home console.

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Resident Evil (which, truth be told, is kind of a strange name when you think about it) is actually known as Biohazard in Japan, where the series was born. In 1996 when the first game in the series was released, there was a band in the U.S. by the name Biohazard and game developer and publisher Capcom called for a name change to avoid confusion or copyright issues. That band is no where to be found now and in retrospect the name change was probably not needed — but the series is now known as Resident Evil in the west.

For those who may not know, Resident Evil is about a pharmaceutical corporation named Umbrella Corp. that experiments on humans and other animal subjects. Their infamous legacy began by creating deadly viruses that end up getting out of hand and spreading across the fictional city of Raccoon. The viruses kill and mutate their hosts into zombie-like creatures and other monsters.

Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the viruses unleashed on the public is how highly contagious they are. One bite or scratch can lead to infection which leaves you with a countdown until you become a zombie-like creature yourself. This virus concept is of course fictional but many fear for their lives everyday due to all sorts of viruses and diseases that exist in the real world. There are even viruses that are air-borne and the fact that we cannot see them is frightening all on its own.

As human beings, our lives are very fragile on this planet and many things that threaten our species have been caused by our own invention. There are many corporations out there that have caused much damage to the earth and the living creatures that reside here. Even with good intentions, we have produced negative effects. One example is CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) which was manufactured in an attempt to discover a chemical that was not harmful to humans, household materials and did not attract insects. It couldn’t be foreseen at the time, but now this compound is eating away at the thin veil which is our Ozone layer that protects this planet from harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun. We can partly thank the usage of this chemical for the ongoing global warming.

Conspiracy theories aside, most corporations do not manufacture their products with the intention of harming others. Freak accidents on the other hand have inevitably occurred over the past decades as well as decisions made my companies that in retrospect seem very neglectful. We can bring up numerous example from around the world but we are going to discuss Japan and some of the diseases that were caused by past ignorance and negligence.

In the 1950s-60s, the Japanese economy was on the up and up with many successful firms and corporations firmly taking root. Among these were Chisso Corp. and Showa Denko. They are both chemical manufacturers that played large roles in the chemical scares that began in the 50s and went on for many years. The highly toxic chemical methyl-mercury was the main cause of disease and death that brought tragedy to so many Japanese families across Japan, from Kumamoto prefecture to Niigata.

In Chisso‘s case (who only have themselves to blame), they are still well known for this event among Japanese households. For about thirty-six years (1932-1968) they released contaminated industrial wastewater that was consumed by sea life that in turn was consumed by the people in the area around Kumamoto. Japan is well known for its consumption of seafood, especially sushi and sashimi, so it is unsurprising to hear that thousands were infected by the disease now called Minamata disease with more than half of those affected perishing due to the complications that stemmed from it. The corporation ended up paying $86 million in compensation to the families that it affected but are perhaps still unforgiven for causing the loss of many priceless lives. To make matters worse, Chisso chairman Yutaka Egashira used Japanese mobsters called yakuza to threaten the patients of Minamata disease and their supporters. Even American journalists were battered by yakuza goons for publishing photographs and writing articles about their discoveries. Indeed, these events naturally led to much criticism and a dark association with corporations and how they affect the public.

Showa Denko caused a second outbreak of Minamata disease in Niigata prefecture around the mid 1960s. Again, this neurological disease was caused mainly by methyl-mercury and affected hundreds of Japanese citizens. Showa Denko responded by trying to discredit scientists and offer their own explanations for the disease. (This was also done by Chisso) The jig was up when the chemical was finally discovered in contaminated moss near the Showa Denko factory.

Minamata disease causes many distressing symptoms to occur in humans. In the worst of cases, insanity arrives before death approaches the victim. The disease not only affects humans but animals as well. There are several witness accounts of the neurological symptoms taking hold of other living things including cats near the water sources.

“…one cat ran into a small clay cooking stove containing burning charcoal. With the pupils of its eyes dilated, salivating, convulsing and uttering a strange cry, the cat breathed its last breath.”

For an eye-witness, the tight grip the disease can have on the brain of both humans and animals could be absolutely terrifying. Who or whatever was once there is now hijacked by the disease and they do not act like themselves anymore. Add to that the symptoms of ataxia, loss of peripheral vision, and damage to hearing and speech and the concoction is not only frightening but ultimately fatal. The death of cats and some dogs and pigs were so severe that before it was known as Minamata disease their apparent symptoms were called “dancing cat fever”.  Even crows were affected which were seen falling from the sky and running into trees and buildings. Insects appeared larger than they were, due to the contamination contorting them which led to implosion.

Due to these ghastly recordings of how these areas were disturbed and the issues of contamination remaining an important issue in Japan to this day is why I theorize that the team behind Biohazard was influenced by these events. These regions of Japan lived in fear for so long for their loved ones, their environment and the food they chose to consume — a true biohazard. The companies used shady tactics to silence the public and conceal just how badly they messed up which led to the distrust and rebellion against companies that had developed hazardous materials. While no experimenting on animals or humans took place (from what we know, anyway) Showa Denko did apply genetic engineering to the bacteria it used for fermentation. This also led to a contamination of tryptophan (an amino acid used in the biosynthesis of proteins) in the 1980s.

While there were no walking dead taking over Japan during these outbreaks, some of these symptoms gave you a dash of the look and feel. Involuntary muscle spasms, especially of the head and eyes, are both for the sufferer and anyone nearby quite alarming. Gait abnormality was also caused by the disease which causes the victim to deviate from a normal walking stance (gait). This was one of the most common symptoms since a neurological disorder could be most apparent in the way someone walks which could appear as a scissor walk, stumbling and dragging of the feet and sudden starts and stops. Peculiar slurs of speech and hand-writing also manifest themselves which reveal distorted thoughts and are recorded in uneven letters and even underlining.

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Patients also became unable to judge distances and ranges of movement which appeared as they were reaching out to nothing in particular or swinging their arms without any perceived order or reason. Along with these motions, dazed eyes and twisted hands and feet caused by this awful disease, I think the parallels to “zombification” are self-explanatory.

Along with Itai-Itai disease and Yokkaichi asthma these four illnesses (including the two mentioned above) are known as the four big pollution diseases of Japan. These diseases and tragic events live on from generation to current generation in Japan and you better believe the elderly which make up a vast amount of the population have never forgotten about Chisso or Minamata disease especially. With this err to caution in regards to such corporations being passed down, the creation and connection to the fictional Umbrella Corp. in the Biohazard series could have its groundwork based on Chisso. 

While the human accounts of what was experienced by some as a dive into insanity might be enough to draw a connection, the contamination of other wildlife also seem like an inspiration to the Biohazard series. Throughout the games, the player faces infected crows, cockroaches, spiders, dogs and even sea-dwellers like sharks and gators. Just like how methyl-mercury destroyed precious ecosystems and went up the food chain, the game’s T-Virus spread itself around with no limits. There was enough to go around Raccoon city and beyond.

Raccoon city was a fictional city set in the west and I would interpret this as a choice as to not be culturally insensitive. A Japanese corporation developing something that contaminated and killed dozens in a concentrated area could potentially be seen as a creation in bad taste. Setting it in the U.S. would disconnect it from reality for a Japanese audience which led to even more opportunities. Like the creation of S.T.A.R.S., reminiscent of American style squads of soldiers. Throw a heaping spoonful of the 1989 video game Sweet Home into the mix and you get what is now Biohazard. This survival horror series has gone on to inspire many more and has had elements of psychological horror and action over the years.

While Biohazard is a work of fiction, the Minamata outbreak was real, complex and some of its effects still live on. The losses were not only physical, but social and psychological as well and caused a ripple effect of fear that coursed through the victims and into the people around them, tragically far-reaching.

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