Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Last week I wrote about The World Ends With You's narrative structure, and this week's post will be a continuation of that TWEWY focus in anticipation for the Switch remake this Friday. While last week I gave an overview of what TWEWY is and how it works, this week I'll be delving into one of TWEWY's many thematic ideas--one I actually had not noticed until I was talking about the game with a friend of mine about two weeks ago. If you haven't read last week's post, it may be helpful to give that a look before reading this one, as I'll be operating on the assumption that you already have a basic grasp of TWEWY's premise and concepts.
For a game that's ostensibly about an antisocial teen's journey of personal growth, TWEWY has quite a bit to say about corporate culture and organizational structure. The hierarchical structure of the reapers and the motivations that guide their behavior closely resemble real-life corporate structures, and the problems and strengths that emerge from these structures in TWEWY serve as direct commentary on existing social structures. To use the delineation I established last week, this mostly takes place on the fourth and fifth layers of TWEWY's narrative--specifically, the lives of the rank-and-file reapers, and the wager between the Composer and the Conductor.
Gotta Meet Those Quotas
TWEWY has several notably shocking and memorable scenes, the earliest of which also serves as the introduction to the corporate structure parallels. One of the reapers--Uzuki--confronts the protagonist, Neku, for the first time at the end of the game's second chapter. TWEWY begins more-or-less in medias res, and it moves at a breakneck pace until after this particular scene, so this isn't far into the game at all. Uzuki offers Neku a challenge, saying that if he wins, she'll let him out of the game, but if he loses, she'll kill him on the spot. Neku accepts--Uzuki's challenge seems like a faster way of resolving the situation than playing in the week-long Reaper's Game--and Uzuki tells him he has one minute to kill the girl he's been traveling with.
Neku is, understandably, stunned by this. He is forced to make a snap decision between preserving his own life or protecting a relative stranger--and he does choose to (attempt to) kill the person indicated, telekinetically strangling her in a scene that (probably intentionally, given the creative director's apparent fascination with classic sci-fi) makes Neku look a lot like Darth Vader.
This scene serves several purposes. On the central narrative level, it characterizes the protagonist as self-interested to the extreme as he carries through on the negativity he expresses throughout the early portion of the game. It marks the lowest point in Neku's character arc, and it serves as a reference point for all of his future growth. It also establishes Uzuki as a key antagonist and as a generally despicable person. While there are other characters who emerge as more serious threats, none of them approaches the level of evil Uzuki exhibits in this one scene.
That second purpose is the more intriguing one in this context, because Uzuki is, in some ways, the "heroine" of the fourth narrative layer. From Uzuki's perspective, she's just doing her job: to test the people trying to earn a second chance at life, and to erase those who don't earn that second chance. Additionally, we later learn that each of the "harrier" reapers--the reapers who actively engage with the players rather than just managing the operational components of the game--is judged on the number of players erased and has a set quota they must meet. A reaper who abandons his duties and fails to erase the requisite number of players may himself be erased.
There's a lot to unpack here, but it becomes clear as time goes on that the question of whether Uzuki is a bad person is not so black-and-white as it initially seems. Her behavior at the end of the second chapter is inexcusable, to be sure, but with the broader context of the norms of the organization in which Uzuki works, it is quite easy to see why she would behave as she did: a combination of obedience to authority and drive to be successful at her job led her to push beyond the accepted means of accomplishing her task and engage in unethical behavior. This relates to the concept of strain, which I'll get to in a bit.
Fortunately, the scene has somewhat of a happy ending, as one of Uzuki's direct superiors--Sanae Hanekoma, whose role is the functional equivalent of the chair of the board of directors to the organization that is the reapers--appears and warns Uzuki that what she was doing was not sanctioned by the organization. In other words, he tells her she is behaving unethically. She is somewhat irritated by this, but she does give up and move on, and neither Neku nor his partner dies.
Revolving Door of Executives
There is a clearly-defined organizational hierarchy among the reapers. At the top of the hierarchy rest the angels, who represent shareholders in a company (in what is perhaps a tongue-in-cheek play on the term "angel investors"). The angels take a generally hands-off approach to running the Reaper's Games, despite technically being the top of the organizational power structure. They leave the actual management of the reapers to their chosen representative, the Composer, who represents the CEO of the organization. One of the angels, the Producer--representing the board of directors--oversees the Composer's actions and has authority to intervene if he thinks the Composer is not acting in the interests of the angels. The Composer is primarily responsible for long-term, overall strategy for the reapers (and Shibuya as a whole), while his direct subordinate, the Composer, serves as the primary point of contact for reapers working in the field. Beneath the Composer is the Game Master, who handles the individual details of each Reaper's Game and to whom the rank-and-file reapers report.
The Composer's absence for the duration of TWEWY leaves somewhat of a power vacuum and results in much jockeying for power among the high-ranking reapers. Three separate characters occupy the Game Master role throughout the game, and each represents a different type of executive, each with different strengths and weaknesses.
The first Game Master, a large man named Higashizawa Yodai, is obedient and by-the-book. He doesn't question the orders given by the Conductor, Kitaniji Megumi, which makes him the least interesting of the executive characters. His rigidity means the Reaper's Game as he runs it is the smoothest and the closest to what it "should" be, but it also paves the way for later problems introduced by the scheming of the other executives. He is ultimately a neutral force on the organization, neither helping nor hurting it, which is not good enough in a particularly trying time. He is erased--fired, essentially--fairly early in the game, due to his underwhelming performance.
The second Game Master is the most interesting of the three. Minamimoto Sho looks the youngest of the executives, and he's best known for blending a high-level knowledge of mathematics with the appearance and demeanor of a countercultural, rebellious street thug. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he's a fan-favorite character. From an organizational standpoint, he's noted to be exceptionally good at his job but also exceptionally bad at working with others. He's the innovative, experimental leader who gets easily frustrated with bureaucratic structures and traditions, and his unwillingness to work within the established system is his most significant flaw.
For reference, he spends a large portion of his time in charge building modernist sculptures out of garbage and leaving them around Shibuya. There's no driving purpose behind the sculptures--they're just who he is.
While Minamimoto is not fully aware of the circumstances surrounding TWEWY's unusual Reaper's Game, he is aware that things aren't quite right in Shibuya, and he sees an opportunity to seize power for himself. He spends most of the game planning what is essentially a coup, thinking he can overthrow the Composer and take over the position, redesigning Shibuya and the organization that is the reapers to match his own radical ideas. His peers are (understandably) not especially fond of him and they generally work to undermine his scheming.
Interestingly, the Producer and the Composer are both entirely aware of what Minamimoto is planning and don't seem to mind. The Composer appreciates Minamimoto's inventiveness, and although he eventually is forced to halt Minamimoto's scheming, the Composer does not punish Minamimoto for what he was trying to do. Minamimoto is, in fact, one of the few executives to survive the drastic restructuring that takes place as a result of the Composer's bet. The Producer, similarly, notes in the game's epilogue that he had planned to support Minamimoto's coup if the Composer decided to follow through on his stated plan to raze Shibuya. The implication of this, it seems, is that a certain degree of innovation--of willingness to challenge existing procedures from the inside--can be valuable, at least in moderation.
The third Game Master is a woman named Konishi Mitsuki, whose core goal is personal power. She seems to care little for the overall goal of the reapers, and like Minamimoto, she spends much of the game scheming. Unlike Minamimoto, however, Konishi's desire for power is based purely in ambition rather than out of a belief she could improve the organization, and she technically acts within the established rules of the reapers. She upholds the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law, crafting her Reaper's Game such that she has the flexibility to carry out her own plans to boost her standing within the organization. Like Higashizawa, she is erased, penalized for her poor leadership.
Much of the behavior of the characters in TWEWY can be explained through Robert Merton's strain theory. Strain theory essentially argues that certain social structures (such as, in this case, the organizational structure of the reapers) can lead people into unethical behavior. Society imposes certain goals and also offers a fixed set of legitimate means to reach those goals. When the legitimate means available are not enough to reach the imposed goals, this creates strain.
In the case of the rank-and-file reapers, such as Uzuki, the goals are fairly clear: contribute to the organizational mission of testing those who died untimely deaths, fill your quota of erasures, and move up the ranks of the organization. The legitimate means are detailed with surprising clarity in the game, and they primarily center on assigning tasks to the players, such as helping particular people or fighting off creatures called Noise. For Uzuki's desire to quickly ascend the ranks of the reapers, these legitimate means are insufficient, and she is somewhat frustrated with her inability to move faster, which leads her to target Neku as outlined earlier. While Uzuki remains responsible for her actions, it is the strain produced by the organization that leads to her behavior, and her gradual redemption comes largely through her seniors reframing the goals of the organization such that they no longer seem unattainable.
In Merton's concept of strain, there are five ways to adapt to strain-filled situations: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion. Uzuki's initial reaction falls under innovation--using unapproved or unconventional means to reach socially-accepted goals. Konishi can be viewed as what someone like Uzuki could become without intervention, as she pursues power and success in much the same way, bending the accepted rules in order to reach her goals. Higashizawa, by contrast, falls into the pattern of ritualism, accepting less than he might otherwise want to achieve in exchange for staying strictly within the confines of what is expected of him.
Minamimoto is again the most interesting of the bunch, though. On the surface, he would fall under the category of rebellion, as he spends the game rejecting both the goals and the legitimate means prescribed by the reapers, wanting to replace the old organizational structure with a new one under his leadership. His inclination towards the unusual is, however, tacitly sanctioned by the organization's leadership, implying his revolutionary behavior is itself considered to be a legitimate method of pursuing the larger organizational goal of serving the people of Shibuya and bettering the world as a whole. Minamimoto is portrayed as an antagonist, and he eventually pushes his experimentation too far, but there are times in which that sort of experimentation is itself legitimate.
Promoting Ethical Behavior
If there is a takeaway from this facet of TWEWY's narrative, it is that organizational structures can themselves promote or inhibit the ethical behavior of the members of the organizations, and that ethical leadership often comes from the top. This is not a new idea, but it is an idea that is surprising to see in an urban fantasy action RPG. Refocusing the ethical behavior of the reapers is one of the Composer's key goals in his wager with the Conductor, and it remains an important thematic concept throughout the game.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition