Hello TAY. In honor of the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts attempting to explain Shenmue, the kickstarter and why it means so much to me and many others. Hopefully someone reads this and finds it interesting enough to, if not back the Kickstarter at least go back and try the games. We are down to the final few days so if you have forgotten to back the game, please consider it. Today I will discuss the unique, magical feeling that Shenmue elicits due to its Eastern religious roots.
In the early days of gaming following the great American video game market crash, a production and hardware vacuum was created waiting to be filled. With their strict quality standards, marketing and talent, Nintendo easily filled that void and established themselves as a monopolistic player in the Japanese and American video game markets. With this monopoly, Nintendo applied their paranoid fear of offending potential customers to every development studio that wanted their games released on the system. Even today, Ubisoft puts giant disclaimers begging consumers not to be offended by religious depictions in Assassin’s Creed games.
When Nintendo consolidated their strict standards in list form,a standard was set which developers began to follow not just out of practicality but also out of habit. While a lot of these rules made sense — Nintendo didn’t want people going after them for over-the-top violence or sex — some of their restrictions on religion seemed a bit much. Why remove crosses from tombstones or change holy water to fire bomb? For awhile, religious imagery in games was relegated to incredibly poor unlicensed games meant to exploit the religious demographic or chapels where the “priest” would revive your characters. Despite religion forming a large basis for the development the world’s cultures, game developers seemed afraid to build from that perspective.
I grew up in a religious household and started going to Catholic starting in the 7th grade. Around that time, I began to become an atheist but because of my environment I have always had an interest in religion in general. Even as a non-believer, I’ve always felt that understanding religion is an important part of understanding people in general.
When Shenmue was released my mind was blown. Shenmue, in my opinion, has the most realistic depiction of religion I have ever seen in video gaming. Shenmue I and II are loaded with little touches that point to the religious beliefs of the people within its world.
Religiously, Japan has always been a society in which two religions, Shinto and Buddhism, have coexisted. Shinto is an animistic religion that is considered to be the native religion of Japan which provides a basis for a lot of Japanese folklore and spirituality. If you’ve seen Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, you can get a good picture of the sorts of gods or kami that come from Shintoism. Buddhism, on the other hand, is a more philosophical religion which encompasses all of the belief systems that descend from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Both of these religions are well represented in the first Shenmue.
Ryo comes from a Buddhist family. Like most practicing families in Japan, the Hazuki household features an altar room complete with a Butsudan that you can pray at.
Similarly, a site that most players of Shenmue are well acquainted with is the shrine in which the orphaned kitten lives. This shrine is a typical inari (fox-god) shrine. These sorts of small shrines are littered all over Japan and are quite beautiful and worth visiting if you ever get the opportunity. This shrine isn’t just an appropriate location to store a recovering animal, however. What’s interesting about the shrine, to me at least, is that if you wait at it, you can see locals come to it and pray appropriately at the shrine. I’m having trouble finding a video of it happening in the game but this is how it’s done.
But, if Shenmue’s approach to religion was purely superficial, I don’t think I’d find it interesting. Instead, the story of Shenmue is rooted in the religious background of the culture in which it is set. Just as, in a lot of Western fiction, there exists a hero who must make a self-sacrifice to bring salvation to its world (a very Christian concept), Shenmue is built around Eastern religious concepts like karma and wu wei.
I think karma is a very misunderstood concept in Western society. Karma doesn’t necessarily mean that if someone commits bad deeds they will be reincarnated poorly or the world will get its revenge. Karma, which means action, is the religious equivalent of conservation of energy. It is the idea that our thoughts and actions shape us as people and set into motion the thoughts and actions we will have in the future. Thus, if I commit bad actions and think bad thoughts, I am likely continue to do so.
There is this idea in Hinduism and Buddhism that karma is a wheel or cyclical. This imagery is with us from the beginning of Shenmue. When Lan Di confronts Ryo’s father, he asks “Do you remember Zhao Sun Ming?” Zhao Sun Ming is Lan Di’s father who he believes was killed by Ryo’s father. Whether this is true or not we do not yet know but what is obvious is that Lan Di and, later, Ryo are being guided by their karma to seek out revenge.
This quest for revenge is the key conflict that drives Shenmue’s story. Ryo follows Zen Buddhist tradition which in Japan is associated with the warrior class. As a Japanese warrior, he is compelled to get revenge for his father and master. This is best exemplified in this powerful scene in which Ryo is meditating to prepare himself for possible death.
However, from the moment of his father’s death, Ryo’s world is telling him to be more reflective. Ryo’s father’s last words are “Keep your friends, those you love, close to you.” Unfortunately, Ryo seems incapable of heeding his father’s wishes.
It’s not until Shenmue 2, when thrust into the foreign world of Hong Kong, that Ryo begins to reflect. Ryo’s single-mindedness is interrupted when, lost and without money, Ryo starts to rely on others to survive. Eventually, Ryo arrives at the Taoist Man Mo temple which gets Ryo to start reflecting on himself.
Towards the end of the game, we finally meet Shenhua Ling, who ultimately I think is the main character of the series. Shenhua has the unique power to get Ryo to calm down and reflect. I believe that she is a sort of Boddhisattva, an enlightened being who’s purpose is to liberate others from their karma. There’s a lot about her design that reflects this as well. Although this isn’t the case in her present Kickstarter image, Shenhua has elongated earlobes that tend to signify wisdom and enlightenment. She wears simple orange clothing similar to what you would expect a monk to wear. There’s a lot about her character that make her special and I’m sure everyone who’s played to the end of Shenmue 2 feels similarly about her to the way I feel.
This religiousness goes beyond characters, environment and narrative. What I find most interesting about Shenmue’s gameplay is how effortlessly it weaves meditation into the game. I think some people complain that Shenmue is a game that features a lot of mundane, repetitive tasks. By, breaking up the exploration and fighting with simple tasks like moving crates from outside the Harbor Lounge to Warehouse no. 3, punching trees or catching falling leaves, Shenmue is forcing you as the player to calm down, breathe and reflect. Without knowing it, Shenmue is getting the player to perform a meditation. Ultimately, this is yet another little touch that contributes to the overall uniqueness of Shenmue. While open worlds are commonplace nowadays, no world, open or otherwise, is quite as real as Shenmue’s.
As we begin to look forward to Shenmue 3, which I still can’t believe is coming, the thing I am most excited about isn’t the exploration, the Virtua Fighter inspired FREE battles, nor taking on the Chi You Men, it is that I will once more set out with Shenhua and reflect on the nature of life. As we journey with Ryo, it will not be until Ryo and the player reach inner peace that we will be able to act effortlessly and defeat Lan Di.
If you found this interesting, you might consider reading my other Shenmue articles.