Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
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.
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition