Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Jeunesse is Invading!
If you read any Japanese literature from the Meiji period--the late 1800s and early 1900s--it quickly becomes apparent that Japan's rapid modernization in the wake of the Meiji Restoration had a profound impact on the authors of the time. Again and again in the works of authors such as Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki appears angst about and ambivalence towards Japan's changing landscape, with new ideas clashing with old and (as a result of Japan's importation of knowledge and culture from Europe) Western thought clashing with Eastern. Many characters in the literature of this time period spend a great deal of time thinking about Japan's transformation and their place within it, sometimes celebrating the country's rapid growth and sometimes lamenting the perceived loss of traditional values and ways of life.
This concern with the costs and benefits of modernization was so profound that its influence did not end with the end of the Meiji period. Even long after Japan had joined the ranks of the "modern" nations of the world, the idea continued to appear in literature--to the point where it's still an exceptionally common theme in today's Japanese fiction. While the approaches to and details surrounding this theme have grown more nuanced over time--not always, for example, clearly delineating between old and new as pre- and post-Meiji--it is fairly rare for Japanese fiction to avoid the idea entirely, especially when an author is trying to do more than just entertain. The cost of modernization, as a thematic idea, is everywhere. You see it in both highly literary offerings--like Nasu Kinoko's novel Kara no Kyoukai and Atlus's video game Persona 4--and in relatively frivolous works like Capcom's Ace Attorney series and Level 5's Professor Layton games. You see it in popular works with mass appeal--like Kawahara Reki's Sword Art Online novels or Tanigawa Nagaru's The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya--and in relatively obscure series such as the P.A. Works anime Hanasaku Iroha and Ayatsuji Yukito's novel Another.
A Glorious Bundle of Contradictions
There are as many takes on this theme as there are authors who have written about it, and it's certainly not an idea that's unique to Japan, but Japan's rapid industrialization has both cemented this clash between new and old at the forefront of the nation's literary consciousness and provided a useful metaphor for the idea, in the form of the clash between Eastern and Western images. Often (though not always), when a work of fiction addresses the new-and-old dichotomy, it will symbolize the idea by contrasting Western clothing, music, traditions, and what-have-you with their Japanese equivalents. Kara no Kyoukai gleefully wraps this expected symbolism into its mess of often-indecipherable-but-wholly-purposeful paradoxes by twisting the usual symbolism of Japanese and Western objects and then blending the two.
The most obvious usage of this twisting of symbolism is in the attire of one of the two protagonists of the novel, Ryougi Shiki (pictured at left). Shiki always wears an elaborate kimono--a traditionally Japanese outfit that is now only worn in public for ceremonies and other special occasions. In this way, the reader is cued to expect Shiki to be a representative of the old and the traditional--but she is, in fact, the exact opposite of this. Her clothing choices are highly odd in the context of present-day society, and what is usually a symbol of comfort and traditionalism instead becomes a visual representation of Shiki's status as an isolated outsider within her community. It is the other protagonist, Kokutou Mikiya--who dresses in plain but thoroughly modern clothing--who embodies the calm normalcy typically associated with traditionalism.
In addition to this, Shiki often wears a red Western-style jacket over her kimono--which is even weirder than the fact that she's wearing a kimono to begin with--creating within Shiki's own outfit a clash of Eastern and Western, traditional and modern. The reason for this clash is too complex to examine in detail in this post--suffice it to say that paradox is an exceptionally important thematic idea within Kara no Kyoukai--but on the surface level, at least, this pokes at the concepts of old and new that have pervaded Japanese literature for the past 150 years or so. Judging by the strong Taoist themes that run underneath Kara no Kyoukai, this use of paradox is probably meant to imply that the distinction between old and new (and Eastern and Western) is fundamentally a faulty one, and that the old and the new are inextricably linked and not fundamentally different, which is somewhat of an unusual take, but not a wholly unique one--a similar argument, albeit approached from a difference angle, rests at the core of Sword Art Online. Regardless of what Nasu is trying to say with this contrast, identifying its significance requires being aware of the importance of the prevalence of the clash between modern and traditional in Japanese lit.
A More Traditional Example
A few weeks back, I wrote about Hanasaku Iroha, highlighting the variety of its characters and the thematic strength that results from that variety. With its wide age range and its traditional hot spring inn setting, Hanasaku Iroha brushes directly against the same sorts of concerns about modernization that Japanese lit has been tackling for the past century, but without the confusion and contradiction of Kara no Kyoukai's mixed symbolism. Hanasaku Iroha's protagonist is what I would describe (with a completely made-up-on-the-spot term) as a Tokyo Coffee-shop Romantic, a type of character that's fairly prevalent in popular Japanese fiction. This character trope--which also includes such characters as The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya's Haruhi and Sword Art Online's Kirito and Asuna--has two key components. First, the character is fascinated-bordering-on-obsessed with the novelty and color of the modern city, being familiar with the names and characters of various city locales and, of course, having a favorite cafe which the character frequents. Second, the character is optimistic about and excited for the future, actively working to improve the world around them and striving for seemingly impossible but highly aspirational goals.
Hanasaku Iroha's Ohana is a somewhat unusual example of this concept in that she begins the show by moving away from the city, to a small town and to the highly traditional environment that is her grandmother's inn, the Kissuisou. Although she has no say in the decision to move, Ohana isn't fundamentally opposed to this shift. She's pretty well-read--another common trait among the Tokyo Coffee-shop Romantics--and she views the old inn as an inspiring setting and an opportunity to learn and grow. Thanks in large part to her good attitude and hardworking nature, she quickly carves out a home at the inn and learns to love its storied halls, its colorful staff, and its traditional customs.
Calling Hansaku Iroha a celebration of traditional Japanese culture, though, would be a huge oversimplification. The most significant overarching conflict in the show is the Kissuisou's struggle to stay relevant in a continually advancing world. The modernism represented by the city is never far from the old inn, and most of the inn's employees continually work to innovate and grow into the future. The few glimpses we're given of the Kissuisou's past make it clear that, for all its traditional veneer, the inn has itself changed quite a bit over the years, and its long history makes it no less a part of the present day than anything in Tokyo is--which is challenging for certain members of the inn's staff to accept. The long tradition the inn represents is absolutely celebrated and valued in Hanasaku Iroha, but that tradition is always--always--secondary in importance to the lives of the people of the present day. The Kissuisou's goal is not to preserve history, but to make its guests happy and then to provide a family to its employees.
The ending of Hanasaku Iroha is brilliant in many ways, and it plays quite well into the modern-versus-traditional dichotomy. For all the best efforts of the inn's staff, the Kissuisou is ultimately forced to close. The Kissuisou is presented as a fundamentally good place, and watching it close makes the show's ending bittersweet, but Hanasaku Iroha is careful to ensure the ending is ultimately optimistic. The physical location that is the Kissuisou, and the tradition that it represents, is not nearly as important as the attitudes of the people currently acting on the world. While the Kissuisou is gone--along with the myriad other aspects of traditional culture it symbolizes--so long as its spirit is carried on, new things will replace continue to replace it, and those new things will themselves become representative of tradition to future generations. Hanasaku Iroha reminds us on multiple occasions that the Kissuisou was also new once. What seems at first novel and threatening eventually becomes old and comforting.
For a final example of how themes of modernization have influenced contemporary Japanese lit, I'll turn to a video game: Atlus's Persona 4. The game is rich with surface-level thematic ideas that like to throw themselves at you and obscure the more complex ideas hiding beneath, which creates somewhat of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it quality to the game's secondary ideas and concepts. This new-versus-old theme is one of those secondary ideas, and despite having played the game multiple times I did not catch on to the significance of this concept until an entirely unrelated experience I had a few weeks ago, in which I heard someone say a particular French word: Jeunesse.
The word was spoken in context of one of my classes--La Jeunesse is the French title of New Youth, an influential Chinese political magazine from the early 1900s--but when I heard it spoken, I was momentarily confused, as I thought I had heard Junes, the name of a fictional department store chain that plays an important role in Persona 4. The naming of Junes had always struck me as odd, as it looks like a pluralization of the English word June, and but it is pronounced "june-ess" (as opposed to the expected monosyllabic "junez"). It isn't any recognizable Japanese word or an obvious foreign word, so I was stuck with an apparent nonsense name.
Hearing the word jeunesse spoken solved the mystery: Junes is not English, Japanese, or nonsense--it's a corruption of French! Jeunesse would be rendered in Japanese as ジュネス (Junesu), which is then mis-romanized as "Junes." Mystery solved. There's no way of knowing whether the odd spelling of Jeunesse is intentional--to hide the original meaning--or unintentional--a mistake or miscommunication--but in either case, it's fairly safe to assume that this is the store's namesake. It makes even more sense when you consider the store's slogan in the original Japanese. While the localized English version is a more generic "Every day's great at your Junes," in the original Japanese, the slogan was (in English, amusingly), "Every day young life, Junes." Or, rather, "Every day young life, Jeunesse." The store is meant to be associated with youth, and its name literally means youth in French.
This namesake gives additional meaning to a concern that pops up throughout the game. Junes's recent arrival in the small, traditional Japanese town of Inaba leads to concerns on the part of the townspeople that the town will lose its character and traditions as a result of the influence of the new department store. Their concern is not entirely unfounded--several local business have had to close down due to competition from Junes--and this evolves into a representation of the theme of modernization. Junes--literally "youth"--represents modernity supplanting the tradition that is Inaba's local businesses.
Despite establishing this dichotomy, Persona 4 doesn't really take a stand on whether this modernization is good, bad, or somewhere in-between. Both Junes and the town's small businesses are portrayed generally favorably, but little attention is given to the actual impacts of the cultural shift caused by Junes. Persona 4's contention, rather, is that the fixation on the "dangers" of modernization is ultimately just an excuse to ignore the actual issues that face society. I'll refer back to one of my favorite obscure lines in the game: "Inaba is being invaded by the country of Junes!" While I've historically read this as a play on Junes's functional similarity to Norway in Hamlet (a reading I still maintain), I now think it also reflects on this theme of negativity towards modernization. Persona 4 criticizes not modernization or traditionalism, but rather the concern about modernization. In blaming Inaba's problems on Junes--or on jeunesse, youth and modernization--the people of the town fail to see the actual problems that face the town, and as a result they overlook the things they might be able to fix themselves and fall into a pattern of lazy acceptance.
Persona 4 doesn't push this idea particularly far, but it foreshadows the central theme of Persona 5 to a degree, as Persona 5 revolves around the dangers of sloth and the importance of taking action to remedy the things that are wrong in the world around you. It's possible that this was an idea Hashino (the director of Persona 4 and Persona 5) had sometime before or during Persona 4's development but that he wasn't yet ready to build an entire game around until Persona 5. You can arguably trace the idea in Hashino's earlier works as well, but it's much clearer (and more aligned with the form it takes in Persona 5) in Persona 4. It's interesting to me that this central theme of Persona 5 emerges in Persona 4 in conjunction with the age-old theme that is modernization, almost as if a well-trod and well-established thematic concept is used to lend weight and legitimacy to a somewhat more unique idea.
A Practical Idea
The legitimacy piece, I think, is particularly important. Japanese literature has historically been clearly divided between "serious" literature and "popular" literature. It wasn't until the past twenty or thirty years--largely thanks to authors like Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana--that the barrier between the two has started to blur somewhat, with popular fiction drawing on subject matter and thematic ideas historically reserved for intentionally serious lit. Incorporating such an established theme as modernization creates a mental link (even if a subconscious one) to the great Japanese authors of the past century and might make it easier for some readers to get past the ostensibly pop-fiction subject matter of works like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and treat them with the same care and attention they might otherwise reserve for Soseki and company.
This could also serve to explain the predominant stance on modernization that contemporary Japanese lit tends to take: the traditional is good, but the modern is good, too, and they can coexist. Kara no Kyoukai, Hanasaku Iroha, and Persona 4 all make similar arguments in this regard--albeit in wildly different ways--and in many ways it serves as a form of self-defense. If modern things and traditional things can be equally valuable, then today's literature can be just as important as the great literature of the past, even if contemporary lit takes a drastically different form that may not seem to be acceptable according to traditional views of what serious literature "should" be.
While the Meiji Restoration is long past, Japan continues to be a country where rich tradition and extreme modernism exist side-by-side, which leaves modernization as a rich and enduring theme in the popular literary consciousness. Even aside from its practical implications, it's not at all surprising that this thematic idea appears as often as it does in contemporary literature.
If you've played a role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons--or one of the many games that takes influence from D&D--you're likely familiar with the concept of classifying characters along a two-axis alignment system. In the context of D&D, characters are placed along two axes: lawful-neutral-chaotic, and good-neutral-evil. There are nine total classifications that result from this, each taking one descriptor from the first axis and one from the second to create labels such as "Chaotic Good" or "Lawful Neutral." This is often somewhat of an oversimplification, but it can serve as a nice (or at least interesting) heuristic when looking to understand the motivations and behaviors of fictional characters. Villains, in particular, are usually pretty easy to place, falling under Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, or Chaotic Evil. Lawful Evil characters operate within or make use of an existing organizational framework in order to accomplish selfish or corrupt ends, which may be because the person is evil and is taking advantage of an otherwise-neutral system--if you've played Ace Attorney, think of Edgeworth's mentor, the corrupt prosecutor Manfred von Karma--or because the system itself is corrupt (for which the textbook example is Darth Vader). Neutral Evil characters are the Moriarty figures, villains who will do whatever they need to do in service of their selfish objectives, first using the rules of society to their advantage and then ignoring them when they become inconvenient. Chaotic Evil characters are the traditional destructive villains who are enemies of society and often kill indiscriminately--think the Joker, from Batman.
The most intriguing villains, though, tend to be those who don't fall along the Evil spectrum. Sometimes you have situations, like in The World Ends With You, where most of the "antagonists" are actually good people who just happen to be brought into conflict with the protagonists due to situational factors. Sometimes you have antagonists who fall under the umbrella of Lawful Neutral who only fight against the heroes because the heroes are trying to bring about change or rebel against established norms. These sorts of villains often offer a richer complexity than the typical straight-up-evil baddies, which tends to make them more compelling overall. This isn't to say, of course, that evil characters can't be engaging--there are countless examples of great evil villains--but non-evil antagonists take a bit more thought to write and often end up with more meat as a result.
My personal favorite subtype of the non-evil villain is the Chaotic Neutral criminal mastermind character, exemplified by Durarara!!'s Izaya Orihara and 428: Shibuya Scramble's Alphard Alshua. These characters draw some influence from the popular conception of James Moriarty--Sherlock Holmes's arch-nemesis--in that their activities center around unreasonably complex webs of scheming and manipulation that only at the end of the story unravel and become apparent (meaning the stories in which they appear often have mystery elements even if they aren't truly mysteries). The key difference between an Alphard and a Moriarty, though, is that the Alphard-type character is not necessarily operating strictly in his or her self-interest. Where a Moriarty has some clear self-interested motive behind his scheming--usually monetary gain, though sometimes acquisition of power or the elimination of a threat--an Alphard's goals are more complex and often involve a mix of outcomes that can be seen as either positive or negative depending on perspective. Alphard herself, for example, is working for the CIA during the events of 428, trying to gain possession of a newly developed antiviral and to destroy a stock of a virus that the CIA fears will be used for of bioterrorism purposes. Alphard is not concerned with the morality of her actions or goals so much as with her own perfectionistic desire for success, so while her goals are arguably good, the brutal efficiency of her planned methods involves a few specific innocent casualties, which is what ultimately draws her into conflict with the game's heroes and casts her as a morally ambiguous antagonist.
Essentially, where the Neutral Evil antagonist is self-interested, the Chaotic Neutral antagonist is Machiavellian. From the perspective of an Alphard-type character, the ends always always justify the means. The ends may be good, bad, or neutral--and will often be a mix of all three in the course of a single narrative--but the means employed will invariably bring the antagonist in conflict with the heroes. It is the antagonist's methods rather than their goals that make them a villain, as opposed to the traditionally "evil" villain whose methods are meant to lead to an inherently unacceptable end. This distinction produces a number of fairly consistent (and highly interesting) dynamics in stories involving these characters.
Always at Center Stage
The inherent complexity of Chaotic Neutral characters means they require a great deal more narrative attention than traditionally evil villains. In a Sherlock Holmes tale, for example, Moriarty may be the source of the mystery, but Sherlock (or sometimes Watson) is always the central focus. The story revolves around how the detective or the hero unwinds the villain's plot and saves the day. Chaotic Neutral antagonists also often have a "Sherlock"--a mortal enemy of sorts--but that enemy is rarely the focal character. When a story is built around an Alphard, that character tends to be the central figure. These sorts of stories often have not one but multiple heroes who shift in and out of focus as the antagonist's scheming impacts different groups. 428, for example, is told from multiple different perspectives, switching back and forth as the game goes on. At the center of each of these otherwise-disconnected stories is Alphard, manipulating the events of the game from the shadows. Even the final stretch of the game, which ostensibly focuses on Canaan, the Sherlock to Alphard's Moriarty, provides much more characterization for Alphard herself than for Canaan. In Durarara!! as well, the novels feature very large casts pursuing disparate goals, but at the center of each character's story is Izaya, directing everything to come together to a single point.
This is not to be confused with stories that feature an antagonistic hero--think Death Note or (for a Western comparison) House of Cards, which tell their stories from the perspective of the bad guy and document the character's rise and inevitable fall. An Alphard-style antagonist is truly an antagonist, and although the character will often narrate portions of the story (usually toward the end, when the plot is being unraveled for the reader), most of the narrative is told from the perspective of those combating the antagonist's schemes. This dichotomy, in which the central and most important character is not the narrator and in fact gets very little true "screen time," tends to make for highly engaging reading, as the key figure is characterized primarily indirectly and in bits and pieces, forcing the reader to draw conclusions and piece the overall story together on his or her own. It takes a seriously skilled author to make this work well, and when it does work it's a ton of fun.
Ambivalence and Mixed Success
An important outcome of the Chaotic Neutral antagonist's goals being truly neutral rather than evil is that the antagonist does not necessarily have to lose. The appeal of the manipulative villain lies in uncovering his or her brilliant plans and discovering how seemingly irrelevant events or details play into the antagonist's hands. When the antagonist is evil, this almost always ends with the detective solving the case and stopping the antagonist right at the last moment, as the villain's goals cannot succeed if the ending is to be satisfying to the reader. While this is a staple of detective fiction, it does slightly undermine the charisma of the antagonist. We expect the bad guy to lose, and he usually does, but it weakens his characterization as a brilliant, nigh-flawless tactician.
With a Chaotic Neutral antagonist, however, some or all of the antagonist's goals may be allowed to succeed. It is fairly typical in this sort of story for a scene or two of falling action to be devoted to the antagonist detailing which aspects of his or her goals were successful and which weren't, and in almost every case the antagonist is partially successful. This strengthens the argument that the antagonist is a notch or two above the rest of the cast. The parts of the antagonist's plan than would have had devastating human consequences fail, but the core goals tend to be successful. Amusingly, this means stories with Chaotic Neutral antagonists tend to have win-win endings as opposed to the win-loss endings necessitated by evil villains. The heroes win by averting whatever disaster the antagonist would have caused, while the antagonist also wins in that he partially accomplishes his goals. It becomes possible in this way for the reader to root for both the heroes and the villains, looking for ways the bad parts of the antagonist's schemes can be edited or averted without losing the potential good that might be brought about. This is something that's highly unusual in the genres in which these sorts of villains usually appear--mystery, sci-fi, and the like--as these genres tend to present their stories as zero-sum games in which either the heroes or the villains will win, and in which either side succeeding means the other fails. The idea that everyone can come out ahead is a surprisingly hopeful one in a type of story that tends to focus on the darker sides of human nature.
A side-effect of this is that in some cases there's room to wonder whether the ultimate win-win outcome was intentional on the part of the "antagonist." 428's Alphard makes it pretty clear at the end of the game what she did and didn't intend to happen--and her ideal outcome would have been worse than the game's actual ending--but with Durarara!!'s Izaya there's a bit more room for interpretation. Izaya's motivations are often (though not always) left somewhat ambiguous, with the best insight we're given into his motives usually being his self-professed love of humanity, which manifests itself in odd ways. Izaya's introduction--the first scene in the novels in which he appears--takes the form of a vignette highlighting one of his "hobbies." He prowls message boards frequented by suicidal individuals, offers to meet up with them to encourage them to act on their ideations, and then, on meeting them, talks them out of their suicidal impulses by describing in excrutiating detail what the likely outcomes of their suicides would be, all while claiming to support them in the endeavor. The scene itself is irrelevant to the actual plot of Durarara!! (which is fairly rare--most of Durarara!!'s seemingly-irrelevant scenes fold back into the main plot), but it characterizes Izaya perfectly. He's highly manipulative, his methods are highly questionable, and he exhibits a deep understanding of but a callous disregard for what other people think and feel--and yet, his scheming almost always results in a net positive for those involved.
Izaya is clearly the primary antagonist in Durarara!!, as most of the series' problems can be traced back to him, but he simultaneously serves as the series's hero in some respects. The bad things that happen would not happen were it not for Izaya, and yet the same can be said of most of the good things that occur. The question becomes how much of this is intentional, and you can make arguments various ways, but regardless of what you conclude, the ambiguity makes Izaya a highly interesting character. Reading the novels, you sometimes want Izaya's plans to fail, and you sometimes want them to succeed--and often those feelings arise at exactly the same time. He is the driving character behind the plot, and while it's hard to identify which of Durarara!!'s many characters is meant to be the protagonist, it's very easy to identify which has the most impact on the story.
Characters like Izaya and Alphard are appealing largely because they are rounded enough as to be open to interpretation. In a typical good-versus-evil story, the plot focuses on how the hero foils the villain's plan. In a bad-guy protagonist story (like Death Note), the plot focuses on how the protagonist's plan is foiled. Chaotic Neutral mastermind villains force a hybridization of these two approaches in that the plot remains focused on the antagonist figure rather than on the hero or heroes, and yet most of the story is not told from that character's perspective. This challenges the reader to reconcile different (and often conflicting) pieces of information about the antagonist, and it often blurs the line between "action-thriller" and "mystery." Like in the Death Note style, the story progresses as the antagonist reacts and adjusts his intricate plan in order to achieve his goals, but like in the traditional mystery style, the reader only sees the outline of this plan as it evolves and changes, forcing the reader to develop his or her own theories as to what's going on until it ultimately becomes clear.
In 428, Alphard describes her plans as "perfectly imperfect," noting that she plans around having to adjust on the fly and leaves wiggle room in her schemes to allow for an intentional degree of error and surprise. Not only does this make her less susceptible to the unexpected, but it also makes it difficult for her enemies to determine what is and is not part of her plan. Most of what happens in 428 is planned by Alphard, but not all of it is, and the faulty assumptions that result from incomplete data make piecing together Alphard's plan a much more involved--and fun--process than solving your typical murder mystery. While this perfect imperfection may be Alphard's calling card, it really does encapsulate the modus operandi of the Machiavellian Chaotic Neutral villain. The same sort of thing happens with Izaya's plans in Durarara!!, and the resulting fuzziness leaves a lot of room for interpretation and contributes to the charm of this type of antagonist.
The Chaotic Neutral villain is simultaneously brilliant and flawed, superhuman and human, threatening and magnanimous. They are just as likely to cooperate with the heroes as to kill them, shifting allegiances quickly and misdirecting the reader time and time again, but always they work towards clear and sometimes well-intentioned goals. While their degrees of antagonism and degrees of success vary wildly by work, they are almost always highly compelling characters, generally standing out as the most engaging members of their casts.
Derailing the Trolley Problem
In 2008, the game development company Chunsoft (best known for the likes of Dangranronpa and Zero Escape) released an odd visual novel called 428: In a Blockaded Shibuya. The game was unusual in many ways. For one, it was released on the NIntendo Wii, which is not a console known for visual novels, and for another, almost all of the game was rendered using photography rather than illustration. The game was exceptionally well-received on its release, and it has the distinction of being one of the few games Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu has given a perfect 40/40 score. Unfortunately, in 2008 there was little appetite for visual novels in the west, so between that and the game's general weirdness, 428 was never released outside of Japan.
That changed about a month ago. In early September, the ten-year-old visual novel was re-released for PC and PS4. and--perhaps due to the growing popularity of visual novels in the US--it was finally localized, with the title 428: Shibuya Scramble. I took this as an opportunity to play the game I'd heard so much about, and I'm pleased to say it largely lives up to its reputation. The usage of photography (and especially the lighting) is excellent, the game's musical score is fantastic, and the writing is a lot of fun.
On its surface, 428 is a cross between a mystery and a farce. The game mostly follows five main characters as they go through a single day, each with a clearly-defined goal. The player can make choices for each character, which in turn affects what happens to the other four characters, so in order to avoid bad ends and solve the overarching mystery the player must guide each of the characters such that they don't get in each other's way, gradually building the right sequence of coincidences to guide the cast to the conclusion. When the right choices have been made, the resulting series of misunderstandings, near-misses, and lucky breaks represent farce at its best, with all the humor it entails, but the mystery elements are no less important--as much as I enjoyed the farcical elements and the comic relief, it is the gradual unraveling of the antagonist Alphard's master plan that provides the most overall entertainment.
428 is full of quirky characters, amusing diversions, and subverted tropes, and the game is clearly meant first and foremost to entertain, but there is still a consistent thematic undercurrent that runs across all five of the game's main storylines--specifically, a rejection of the logic and assumptions that underline the Trolley Problem and its variants.
What's the Trolley Problem?
What with its prevalence in ethics and psychology classes and the recent popularity of Trolley Problem memes, odds are pretty good you've heard of the Trolley Problem before. For those who haven't, though, a brief explanation is necessary.
At its most basic level, the Trolley Problem is a thought experiment that goes something like this: an out-of-control trolley is running down a track towards five people. It will kill the five people if it hits them, and the five people cannot leave the track. You have the option to pull a lever to divert the trolley to another track, where a single person is similarly stuck, killing the one person in exchange for saving the five. Do you pull the lever?
There are, of course, multiple equally-valid answers to this question, but the most common response is the Utilitarian (or Consequentialist) one, which says that you should pull the lever because one person dying is preferable to five people dying. Pulling the lever minimizes the overall harm done, and therefore it is the "good" choice. There are also a wide range of variations on this problem, bringing in different situational factors to apply different philosophical or psychological principles, but the core premise is (usually) the same: you can take action and kill one person, or stay inactive and allow multiple people to die.
Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes
There are a number of issues with the Trolley Problem, ranging from it's lack of applicability to normal day-to-day decision making to the almost inevitable panic that such a situation would bring on were it actually to happen, but 428 addresses one of these in particular: the Trolley Problem assumes that there are only two options, and that either option is 100% guaranteed to result in a horrific outcome.
The real world is (thankfully) a lot more nuanced than that. If one were in the actual situation described by the Trolley Problem, one could a) try to stop the trolley, b) try to clear the tracks, c) get someone else to help, or any number of other possible responses. Which of these is feasible would depend on the exact situation, but the absolutist case imposed by the problem is so absurdly unlikely that it is ultimately meaningless.
...Or, at least, it should be. The problem with framing things in a context similar to the Trolley Problem is that it can lead to some unsafe assumptions. The Utilitarian answer to the Trolley Problem relies on the principle that one should minimize the overall suffering experienced. This results in the implicit assumption that some suffering is unavoidable and therefore acceptable, which can lead to viewing the intentional killing of one to save five as not only preferable to allowing the five to die but rather as actively virtuous. Which is kinda messed-up.
This absolutist thinking is ultimately what drives the fundamental problems in 428, and the game's heroes spend much of their time fighting against it. On three separate instances, certain characters attempt to kill one or more people in order to "save" a larger group, and in each instance this behavior is clearly and unquestionably morally wrong. Occasionally you'll see the Trolley Problem's alternatives framed as "easy but wrong" (not pulling the lever) or "hard but right" (pulling the lever). 428 argues that the "easy but wrong" choice is accepting either of the Trolley Problem's alternatives at face value, while the "hard but right" choice is finding a third option that does not minimize suffering but rather eliminates it entirely.
The Transplant Problem
One variant of the Trolley Problem, sometimes called the Transplant Problem, supposes that five people need transplants of different organs in order to survive, and a doctor has the ability to kill one healthy person to harvest the necessary organs to save the five. The outcomes in this case--kill one to save five, or allow five to die but do not kill the one--are the same as the Trolley Problem (although reactions to this one tend to be somewhat different). 428 sets up almost this exact problem and uses it to demonstrate the foolishness of the thought experiment.
In 428, the sister of one of the major characters is in need of a heart transplant, but she has a rare blood type and as such donors are exceptionally hard to find. Her father, along with a detective who happens to be an old family friend, learns of another healthy person with the same blood type. The father asks the detective to kill the healthy person so that the daughter can receive the transplant she needs, and the detective agrees to do so. The aforementioned major character spends most of the game helping the targeted girl escape from the detective, even though the girl's death could save the character's sister (along with another patient who needs a different organ and has the same blood type).
By the logic of the Trolley Problem, killing the healthy girl to save the two patients is arguably the "right" choice, but in 428 the father and the detective are clearly (and rightfully) portrayed as antagonists. This problem does not take into account the feelings of those who would receive the transplants--who would certainly not in good conscience accept the sacrifice of the healthy girl--and it ignores other possible ways to save the sick individuals. The decision to pursue the healthy girl is made out of desperation, not out of a Consequentialist desire to do what's right. The ostensibly correct answer to the thought experiment seems to immediately become wrong when the people involved have names, faces, and lives surrounding the decision itself.
The Quarantine Problem
The second instance of Trolley Problem logic comes late in the game, when it is revealed that one of the major characters has been infected with a virus that has a 100% mortality rate. There is an antiviral that can cure the disease if it is administered within 12 hours of infection, but as soon as symptoms start to appear the infected person has no hope of survival and becomes extremely contagious, and the antiviral is locked away in a place that would be nearly impossible to reach in time.
The immediate response of the Japanese government is that the infected girl needs to be quarantined in order to protect the people of Tokyo. If quarantined, the girl will certainly die, but at least the virus will not spread. One person will be sacrificed, but millions of others will survive. Again the outcome is essentially the same as the Trolley Problem, albeit with inflated numbers--take action to kill one, or stay inactive and allow many to die.
428's major characters reject this logic, prioritizing getting the antiviral over quarantining the infected character. The characters feel so strongly about this that several of them disobey direct orders from their superiors in order to make it happen. From the removed, outside perspective of the government officials, there are only two choices: quarantine and the death of one, or no quarantine and the deaths of many. With the actual situational context, though, those involved understand that so long as there is a possibility of averting disaster entirely, that possibility is worth pursuing. They are, fortunately, able to give the infected girl the antiviral, saving both her life and the lives of the people of Tokyo. Had they accepted the absolutism imposed by the Trolley Problem, they would not have been able to accomplish this.
The Terrorism Problem
The final character who attempts to impose the logic of the Trolley Problem on a more complex world is 428's main antagonist, a Palestinian-operative-turned-CIA-agent named Alphard. In the lead-up to the events of 428, the aforementioned deadly virus has been weaponized by certain terrorist groups, and the US government fears it will be used in an attack on a major city. A small private pharmaceutical firm based out of Japan has been working on creating an antiviral, and it has recently finished development. Alphard is sent as a spy with three key goals: 1) to retrieve the antiviral for the US government, 2) to destroy the samples of the virus held in Japan, and 3) to keep her identity and her connection to the CIA secret.
To be clear, Alphard is not a good person--if I were to describe her alignment along the traditional scale, it'd probably be Chaotic Neutral--but her goals in 428 are ostensibly for the greater good. The US wants access to the antiviral so that it can react to a potential bioterrorist threat, the existence of the virus is inherently dangerous and it should be destroyed, and Alphard cannot act as effectively if her identity and her affiliation are known. The problem is Alphard's methods. She is obsessed with success, at one point noting that she sets unreasonably high standards for herself, to the point where failing to successfully complete even one aspect of a mission feels to her like a complete failure. She is entirely Machiavellian, not driven by any considerations of right or wrong but only taking the actions necessary to achieve her current goals.
This all leads her to be completely willing to sacrifice the lives of a few innocent people in order to accomplish her task, and her superiors with the CIA are willing to turn a blind eye to Alphard's methods given that their counterterrosim goals are highly likely to avert many more deaths than Alphard's scheme would cause--if her plan went flawlessly there would have been exactly five deaths, and that was seen as an acceptable level of collateral damage. The logic here is the same: sacrifice the few to save the many.
Ultimately, Alphard succeeds at her first goal and half of her third, but the only ones to die are some of Alphard's co-conspirators. The virus is not destroyed and several characters learn what Alphard looks like, and Alphard views this as a failure on her part--and, indeed, it feels as if the game's heroes emerge victorious--but this effectively just amounts to the creation of a third alternative for Alphard and the CIA, in which the many are protected (through the acquisition of the antiviral) without any sacrifice of innocent lives. In this, again, the absolutism of the Trolley Problem is rejected, although Alphard herself is unable to see it.
So Where Does this Leave the Trolley?
The Trolley Problem is still an interesting thought experiment, and it serves as a useful tool for explaining certain ethical and philosophical principles, but, as 428 demonstrates, it isn't really very useful for modeling real-world behavior. In some cases, it can actually do more harm than good, as the Trolley Problem's framing discourages looking for creative and better solutions. 428 is ultimately an exhortation to think creatively when presented with a problem, as in the complexity of real-world issues there are almost always more choices beyond whether or not to pull a lever.
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.
In about two weeks, a Nintendo Switch remake of the 2008 game The World Ends With You will be releasing, so in anticipation of that, this week's (and probably next week's) post will center on the original game. The World Ends With You (hereafter TWEWY) is one of my all-time favorite games--it was my favorite until Persona 5 showed up--and every time I revisit it (as I do every year or so) I discover more hidden within the game's masterfully-crafted story.
The opportunity for depth and discovery that TWEWY provides is largely a result of the structure of its narrative. The game's plot operates on five concurrent, vertically stacked layers, with the protagonist's story--the central focus for most of the narrative--directly in the center. This allows for both a redundancy that reinforces the game's major themes and a variety and flexibility that allows the game to explore sub-topics from different angles. It also makes for a thoroughly engaging story, as threads from each layer weave in and out of the overall narrative, bumping against the other layers in ways that at times resemble the structure of a farce (albeit with less humor than might be implied by the term). There is something inherently entertaining about seemingly unrelated plot threats suddenly interlinking and influencing each other--just look at Narita Ryougo's series Baccano!! and Durarara!!--and TWEWY executes this with aplomb. Nothing that happens on any of TWEWY's five levels is irrelevant, and the events of one plot line gradually ripple out to affect the others, often in surprising ways. The intentionally-built story line is highly satisfying as entertainment even before the thematic depth creeps in.
This structure is meant to represent the chaotic energy of a large city--and specifically of TWEWY's setting, Shibuya--as an enormous number of people who will likely never know each other's names constantly brush shoulders and make decisions that impact one another's lives in ways that are impossible to see from an individual perspective. I always find it fascinating when the setting of a work is itself a character, and TWEWY goes to great lengths to characterize its setting. Shibuya, one of Tokyo's three city centers, is the backdrop for the chaos that is TWEWY's narrative, and the seemingly isolated lives of the game's diverse characters all meld into the personality of the city in order to tell what is ultimately a focused and crystal-clear story.
In enumerating TWEWY's five parts, it's best to start not from the top or the bottom, but from the middle. The game follows Sakuraba Neku, a teenager who recently died under mysterious circumstances. The ostensible premise of the game is that Neku (and others who died young due to accidents, violence, disease, etc.) are participating in what's known as the Reaper's Game, an event in which the players are tasked with completing a mission each day for seven days in an attempt to demonstrate that they are worthy of being given another chance at life. Those who show that they have something worthwhile to contribute to society are returned to their lives, while the rest are "erased," or permanently killed. Players are in teams, and if any player successfully completes the days mission, all surviving players advance to the next day. Throughout these days, the rank-and-file reapers test the surviving players, erasing those who fail their trials.
Viewed linearly (rather than vertically), TWEWY is a play in three acts. Each act is ostensibly marked by the character with whom Neku travels--his partner changes between each act--with the first, a bubbly and outgoing girl named Shiki, bringing Neku out of his misanthropic shell; the second, a snarky know-it-all named Joshua, challenging Neku's long-held worldview and values; and the third, a good-hearted but weak-headed skater who goes by Beat, pressing Neku to put his newfound positive worldview into action. Neku begins the game exceptionally cynical and isolated--the game's opening monologue features Neku expressing his disdain for and his disinterest in other people and contains the striking phrase, "I've got my values, so you can keep yours, alright?"--but as the game progresses he becomes gradually more positive about the world around him and more willing to engage in it. The game's evocative title is a line spoken by Neku's role model, a businessman-slash-artist-slash-hobbyist-cafe-owner name Hanekoma Sanae. Hanekoma encourages Neku to reach out to others and to move beyond his comfort zone, embracing the conflict that adventurousness inevitably brings, in order to broaden his horizons and learn to appreciate the world around him. "The world ends with you" in that the world as you perceive it only stretches as far as you push it, and Neku's mental transformation as he comes to adopt this mentality is the core of the central level of TWEWY.
I really like the title "The World Ends With You." Its meaning is surprising, and the shift in thinking from assuming the title refers to some sort of apocalypse to realizing it is meant as encouragement to live a better life mirrors the shift in Neku's thinking across the course of the game. That said, the original Japanese title is a bit more fitting in terms of the context of the game as a whole. The original title was すばらしきこのせかい (Subarashiki Kono Sekai, It's a Wonderful World). This was changed for the English release due to concerns about the similarity of the title to It's a Wonderful Life. The Japanese title is somewhat broader than the English one, and it encompasses all levels of the game's story, rather than just Neku's.
Dancer in the Street
In TWEWY, the participants of the Reaper's Game--the recently dead--exist in the same space as the living, and they can see and hear everything that happens in the world of the living. The living, however, cannot see the game's players (although the reapers can choose to make themselves visible). The "missions" assigned during the Reaper's Game are usually related to the lives of living people, tasking the players with helping the living through certain emotional crises or pivotal career moments, among other things.
As a result, the lives of the extraordinary ordinary people of Shibuya become the second layer of TWEWY. Standing beside TWEWY's sci-fi premise are ordinary people with real-world problems, and these characters track throughout the entire game, growing and changing across the game's three acts. These mundane character arcs ground the rest of the game and are meant to connect the themes and concepts expressed in the higher three layers to everyday life even outside of the game. Among the reapers and the players are plenty of larger-than-life personalities and thoroughly entertaining characters, but it's the common people in TWEWY who are the most compelling, at least in the you-want-them-to-succeed sense. From the nervous young professional who develops a taste for entrepreneurship only to overextend himself and confront the value of failure, to the close friends who struggle to reconcile after a mutual miscommunication, to the proud old ramen shop owner competing with a trendy new chain, these characters convey a surprising amount of emotion in a relatively short amount of time, often without ever speaking directly to the game's main characters. By paralleling the sci-fi struggles and their thematic ideas in these brief, mundane, slice-of-life dramas TWEWY attempts to convey that the ideas expressed throughout the entire game are applicable to reality.
Similarly, the lowest of TWEWY's five narrative levels is the ebb and flow of Shibuya itself. This layer is somewhat nontraditional in its narrative structure. It has no named characters, no clearly defined enemies or obstacles--it is just popular opinion and thought in reaction to the events of the game. At any time during the game, Neku can stop and read the minds of passersby. The thoughts of the individuals wandering around Shibuya change over the course of the game, and, just like Neku on the central layer and the living people on the second layer, Shibuya's nameless inhabitants also grow and change as a collective whole, becoming more positive and active as the game progresses. If you pay close attention you'll see some of the same nameless individuals reappear on later days, and you can track how their thinking about their lives and problems changes.
There is even a buildup of tension to an ultimate climax on this amorphous narrative level. As the game goes on, due to the events on the highest of the five levels, the people of Shibuya gradually stop thinking for themselves. Their thoughts begin to converge, and the color, diversity, and vibrancy that makes Shibuya what it is is lost. The game's climax resolves every narrative level except for the second (which finishes earlier), and by the end of the game Shibuya has returned to its usual cacophonous self.
TWEWY's fourth level is just above the protagonist's, and it is both the second-most focused of the layers and the only one with a significant number of scenes dedicated specifically to it rather than viewed through the Neku's eyes. This is the level of the rank-and-file reapers, struggling to complete their jobs as best they can while wrestling with the uncertainty caused by the actions of the characters in the levels directly above and below them. While there are a number of named reapers (and a plethora of unnamed reapers), the key players here are Uzuki and Kariya, a pair of seasoned-but-low-ranking reapers who are good enough at their jobs that they can afford to spend time talking about their perceptions of the world around them and their interpretations of the events of the game.
Uzuki is a highly ambitious woman looking to move up the ranks of the reapers, and she is somewhat overzealous in her work as a result. She's also one of the most impressively-written characters in the game. When she is first introduced, her actions make her seem absolutely despicable. The rest of the game is spent building player sympathy for her, demonstrating why she behaves as she does until she ends as one of the most likable characters in the game. Kariya, by contrast, is an older reaper--just how old, we don't know--who has refused promotion multiple times due to his love of Shibuya and his preference for being out walking its streets. The opposite of the achievement-driven Uzuki, he enjoys his life as he lives it and is not even slightly ambitious, much to the consternation of his superiors, many of whom are likely less qualified for their jobs than he.
The final layer--the fifth and highest--relates to a wager between the Composer, who oversees Shibuya as a whole, and the Conductor, whose job is to execute the Composer's vision in overseeing Shibuya. The Composer claims to have lost faith in the people of Shibuya and says he wants to essentially tear it down and start over. The Conductor vigorously disagrees with this, asserting his faith in the goodness of the city. The Composer makes the Conductor a bet that essentially amounts to the Conductor being given the space of a single Reapers' Game to demonstrate that Shibuya is worth saving. During that game, the Composer will temporarily abdicate his position and appoint a proxy to play the game in his stead. If the proxy wins the game and the Conductor fails, the Conductor will be removed from his post and Shibuya razed. If the Conductor wins the game, Shibuya remains and the Composer himself will cede his position.
This wager is not revealed until the very end of the game, but its effects are felt throughout, and it is every bit as important to the overall narrative as Neku's personal struggles. The terms of the wager, and the extraordinary circumstances it brings to the Reapers' Game, shape the behavior of the reapers (on the fourth layer) and the players (on the third layer), which then impacts the living people touched by the game (on the second layer) and the culture of Shibuya as a whole (the first layer). Although the Conductor's well-intentioned but misguided efforts to bring Shibuya under his control fail, the string of actions and interactions the wager sparks ultimately solve the very problems the Composer was worried about, transforming the worldviews of the cynics of Shibuya, and the Composer decides not to raze the city despite winning the bet.
There are multiple ways to read this wager--and some players will vehemently argue that the Composer, rather than the Conductor, is the true antagonist of the game--but I believe the entire chain of events is intentionally planned by the Composer. We are told in what is essentially an afterward (written by Hanekoma, Neku's eccentric role model) that the Composer has "a certain degree of clairvoyant foresight," which implies he may have been able to anticipate what would have resulted from his threat to the Conductor. It is ultimately the shock caused by this highest narrative level that leads Uzuki to rethink her priorities, Neku to transform his worldview, and the people of Shibuya to embrace the diversity of their city.
Despite the accessibility and approachability of its central narrative, The World Ends With You is an exceptionally complex game. The game's core thematic ideas emerge from the fault lines between the five layers of storytelling that interweave to form the game's plot, meshing with the subtly pointed lyrics of the 2008-pop-inspired soundtrack, the graffiti-meets-comic-book forced perspective art style, and the brilliantly unique Stride Cross battle system to form a unified whole that combines every element of game design in pursuit of a single vision in a way very few games are able to do. The Switch version will likely have to simplify this, but in the original DS game, the battle mechanics involved controlling one character on the top screen of the system with your left hand and doing something entirely different with another character on the bottom screen with your right hand--at the same time--which itself plays into TWEWY's concept of interlocking lives and tangentially connected stories playing into each other. When I say every element of the game contributes to the overall concept, I do mean every element.
For all of its complexity, TWEWY is a remarkably focused work. Its many and various threads point in a single direction: that the world is a good place, and that you should go explore as much of it as you can. The game finds myriad ways to reach that same endpoint, and rather than muddy the message with excess, every layering of ideas reinforces the core argument.
I'm very much looking forward to revisiting Shibuya when The World Ends With You: Final Remix releases for Switch on the 12th. It's truly a masterwork of a game.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition