I am currently going through the process of working toward a career that will allow me to write about fiction films and video games in a professional sense. One my my key focuses is to investigate staples of classical mythology and folklore in video game narrative. It's come to my attention that it would be of advantage to me to get some of my work visible in public forum where it can be referenced, and viewed by interested parties. I can think of no better place to do so than here on Destructoid.
This is an essay I prepared for a class on Japanese Religion. The primary assignment was to attempt to milk some sort of topic out of Karen Smyer's wonderful book "The Fox and the Jewel."
(Smyer's Book - An excellent read for anyone with any interest in traditional Shinto)
Smyer's book is a fascinating investigation into the mysterious realm of Inari worship. Keeping in mind that this paper was written for a non-gamer to read, and that it had length requirements, I believe it came out to be rather good. Rest assured I could easily name 10 or 20 more games that would fit snuggly within my thesis. If you have the time, please read through and let me know what you think. I'd be delighted to discuss any thoughts my fellow gamers may have on my attempt at melding gaming with academia!
Of Life and Power:
A Look at Jewel Folklore In Japanese Developed Video Games
By: Chris Caskie
In her book The Fox and the Jewel, Karen Smyers investigates the fascinating and diverse topic of Inari worship in Japan. In her work, she describes an intricate web of interrelating beliefs, religious practice, and symbols. Inari is a deity that crosses the line seamlessly between both Buddhism and Shinto. Likewise, the two symbols most commonly associated with him, the fox and the jewel, are found throughout both Buddhist and traditional Japanese folklore. Jewels have many meanings. They can function as a granter of wishes, as a device to bestow power, or as a representation of life force itself. As Japan grew and matured with the rest of the world, these traditional portrayals of the valuable symbol have not disappeared. One very popular aspect of today’s Japanese culture that has embraced jewel folklore with open arms is the video game industry. Japanese developed video games often display a distinct emphasis on complex stories. Because of this characteristic, they have become a unique medium for cultural legends and tales to make their way into the modern spotlight. Through a look at Final Fantasy 7, Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and the Onimusha series, this paper will show some ways in which traditional aspects of jewel folklore have appeared in a very contemporary art form of Japan.
Two important meanings of the jewel described by Smyers are its connection to life and the earth. She explains that “spiritual power develops inside sealed containers that are simultaneously empty and full – rocks, gourds, earthenware vessels . . .” (pg 115). These objects are associated with the “womb or egg” like life giving qualities that jewels can possess (pg 115). Given this connection to life force and the fact that a jewel can be a natural, earthen object like a rock, or even a ball of fur, one can find a perfect modern representations in Squaresoft’s (now Square-Enix) Final Fantasy 7 and Gust’s Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana.
In Final Fantasy 7, the earth is kept alive by a powerful current of energy known as the lifestream. At times, this force accumulates in places and becomes solidified. This concentrated form of the Earth’s life-energy is a rare, transparent, spherical crystal called materia. Smyer’s states that a jewel “may be spherical or onion shaped” (pg 113). Materia are valuable and grant those who possess them assorted magical powers. Certain green orbs may give their holder the ability to heal wounds. This goes hand in hand with the tale of a life-restoring jewel that Smyers encountered in the Kujiki (pg 115). Red materia contain powerful mythical beasts that can be unleashed to do their summoner’s bidding. This is reminiscent of the way that that jewels may act as receptacles for the spirits of Kami themselves when they are used as a holy go-shintai. In these ways materia are jewels grant both life giving and destructive power. The power of these orbs, however, is not free. Their connection to the Earth itself makes abuse of them very unwise. When the evil Shinra corporation refines technology to manufacture materia, the effects are devastating. The Earth itself begins to die as its energy is slowly and carelessly sapped away. This link to the greatest giver of life, the world itself, is a powerful connection to the womb-like qualities that jewels are often credited with.
In the game Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana by the development team Gust, there is another use of the jewel that closely mimics that found in Final Fantasy 7. The story of this game follows a young alchemist who must befriend elemental spirits called mana along his journey. These entities reside in lush natural places closely tied to the element that they represent. In these areas the earth’s energy becomes so rich that it sometimes concentrates itself into crystals that are named after whatever mana they are born from (Red mana if they are fire elemental, Blue for water, etc.). As they appear in the common pointed “onion” like shape that Smyers describes, these objects are a clear reference to the traditional Japanese conception of the jewel. These various colored mana crystals are then used by alchemists to infuse their weapons and items with the corresponding spiritual and elemental power. So, in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, there is another example of the jewel being closely related to the life forces of the Earth, and acting as a tool to grant mystical benefits.
(A traditional coma-shaped Magatama jewel)
In Research and Development 1’s Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne one can find a jewel reference that is not hidden at all. Games in the Shin Megami Tensei series are well known for their intimate ties to Buddhist religion and philosophy, as well as a fascination with traditional Japanese portrayals of demonology and the undead. Players save their progress in “Karma Terminals,” and the soundtrack to the one of the later titles boasts tunes with titles such as River of Samsara. It shouldn’t come as a large surprise then that Nocturne would contain a direct reference to a symbol of spirituality found prominently in both Buddhist and Japanese lore. Smyers describes “comma-shaped” jewels called magatama (pg 113). In Research and Development 1’s game, sometimes a defeated demon enemy will drop such a jewel. The player can then consume this item if he wishes to gain the elemental properties of his foe. For instance, ingesting a Magatama from a fire demon will grant the player resistance to heat attacks, but weakness to water. This quality of the jewel is reminiscent of the almost vampiric characteristics that Smyers describes in a Chinese legend on pages 129 through 130 of her book. In the story, a fox in girl form kisses boys, and in doing so, passes a jewel back and forth between her and her victim’s mouth, and drains his life essence. The magatama in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne serve much the same affect, granting one the essence and abilities of the one whom they were once inside.
(An adorable Kitsune (fox) girl . . . harmless anime staple or vampiric she-demon? you decide!)
A very interesting aspect of the jewel that Smyers discusses comes from its etymological roots. One of the characters used for jewel is tama or tamashii, which the author reveals, “also means soul or spirit” (113). When one considers the symbol’s many ties to life-energies, this is a logical step. Smyer’s describes a number of legends in which the soul rises from bodies of the dead in a tailed, hovering, fireball like form. She also elaborates on a variety of different types, such as the aramitama, which is “violent, wild, raging, raw,” or its “tranquil and mature, mild, quiet” opposite the nigimitama (118).
In Capcom’s popular Onimusha series, this more obscure connection to the jewel is found prominently. In the games, the titular warriors embark on a mission to destroy legions of demons called Genma who delight in causing suffering all across Japan. The hero of each game is given a magical gauntlet by his spiritual forefathers that is capable of absorbing the souls of fallen enemies. As Genma are slain, wispy, floating, glowing orbs rise from their bodies in a variety of colors. Absorbing a red soul gives the warrior increased power and experience, green restores one’s health, blue replenishes one’s spiritual energy so that they can release magical attacks, and yellow transforms into gold. This is not unlike the legends that Smyers describes, where different souls have different natures. These functions in the Onimusha series also tie in with other prominent aspects of jewel folklore that have already been examined. The healing properties of green spirits are reminiscent of the life-giving qualities that were present in other examples. The effects of the red, blue, and yellow souls is the very same ability to grant power and wishes that was so prevalent in all the games that I have described and the legends that Smyers examined.
In the end, it is clear that Japanese and Buddhist jewel folklore is a broad and interesting topic. Like Inari, the deity that the symbols are commonly associated with, jewels can mean many different things. These objects can be tied to the natural power of earth, be seen as healers and givers of life, grant their holders power and wishes, or even transfer one’s very essence to an enemy. This brief investigation has shown that the prominent elements of traditional Japanese and Buddhist jewel folklore are not forgotten in today’s modern world. The stories created in the different video games described here have served not only to show these magnificent legends to a new generation, but they have breathed fresh life into the folklore. In its own unique way, the Japanese video game industry has strengthened the power of the jewel, by taking it in exciting new directions.
Smyers, Karen A. The Fox and the Jewel. University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu, 1999.