Tokyo Tattoo Girls is a strategy game about dominating a Tokyo that has been decimated, then largely abandoned. The only people left behind are women with magical tattoos grouped into clans. They rule Tokyo, fighting for control in the hopes that a rumor that anyone who does manage to unify the 23 wards would be allowed to leave. A part of the game involves adding tattoos to the backs of heroines with the ability to boost Charisma and Threat levels.
This is very obviously fanservice. The women completely remove their tops and lie face down on a mat when you go to place these new tattoos. It is possible to zoom in and out to get a better look at these symbols as the player, a mystical tattoo master, adds new elements to the overall design. The closer you get to them, the more intimate their quips as you add such art becomes. But, while part of this attempts to get people playing by relying on the appeal of partially naked women, there is actually a serious element to Tokyo Tattoo Girls. The game relies on history and designs to offer depth people may not realize.
The women in Tokyo Tattoo Girls are each essentially gang leaders. You could consider them members of the yakuza. As anyone who has played any of Sega’s Yakuza games will know, members of these organizations can have elaborate tattoos on their backs, arms and chest. Around 720AD, tattoos began to be used as a sign of criminal behavior; people convicted of wrongdoings would be tattooed to show what they had done. In the 17th century, penal tattooing was even more prevalent and different designs had different meanings. Since members of the yakuza may have received such tattoos from prison stints, they would elaborate on these to further mark themselves, mark their status and note their courage.
This directly correlates to Tokyo Tattoo Girls. These young women are outlaws trapped in a dilapidated Tokyo. The only way their influence can spread is by acquiring new tattoos that make them more charismatic or threatening. Yet, the only way they can get these new tattoos is by proving themselves and becoming more famous and powerful. It is a constant cycle. They are marked for life as Tokyo denizens. But even so, these markings guarantee them a place in their society. They are a mark of upward mobility and success.
The imagery used in each heroine’s tattoo also call back to meaningful designs that appear in real-world tattoos. Karin represents Tama City and has an animal motif. She has a Chinese guardian lion tattoo. It is fitting because she actually has cat ears and a tail accessory on her belt, but also because it is a tattoo that signifies guardianship. Kayako is one of the most elegant heroines, one who has goals she wants to achieve. Her tattoo is filled with cherry blossoms, which represent a beauty that is short-lived. Chizuru appears to have an oni on her back, a reckless sort of ogre. This heroine is trying to make a better life for her and her brother, which means a tattoo that represents enforcing justice, like this one, works for her.
Yes, the tattoos on the backs of the women in Tokyo Tattoo Girls are there to look good. The mechanic is designed to give people a reason to enjoy a little fanservice as they improve their companion. But, there is a historical element to them. These designs can have deeper meanings. If people look deeper, they will see how much sense each tattoo makes and see how they connect to elements of Japan’s culture surrounding tattoos.