Third Essay: Xenogears and the death of God

Twenty years ago Squaresoft Inc. a Japanese videogame company famous for games such as Final Fantasy, Chrono-trigger, and Saga Frontier, released Xenogears for the Sony Playstation. Written by Kaori Tanaka, wife of the game’s producer, the game faced production issues since the beginning and launched incomplete; its second disk more an artsy re-imagination of a game rather a game in its own right. Xenogears also faced a crisis in its translation, two translators quitting because of its religious undertones and its translation director calling it “the project from hell.” (Honeywood, 2011) Almost banned in the United States of America and Europe for its critique of religious institutions the game eventually reached audiences an quickly became a cult classic, revered by many as the all-time best video game role-playing game of all time.

Xenogears told the story of painter, martial-artist amnesiac Fei Fong Wong, who arrives to the village of Lahan after a near fatal accident only to discover he is the spiritual descendent of a millennial warrior destined to fight and defeat “God”, freeing humanity from its bondage and ultimately freeing as well the “Wave Existence” a supra-dimensional being from which life and creation emerged.

Taking its cues from Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the bible, and the science fiction genre in general, the game presents profound religious themes head on, being the final boss and root of all evils God itself. Let us, then, explore the act of killing God as one of liberation in the face of necessary societal change. Let us explore Japan’s post-war narratives.

Where does the post-religious shift and the desire to “kill God” come from in a once Theocratic nation such as japan? Why was this the theme of Xenogears and why did this game become a cult classic despite the many issues it faced in its production, translation and release? At heart, why would the Japanese want to kill God?

To understand this we have to go back to 1945 and the concept of Discontinuity. Simply put Discontinuity for the Japanese meant “the sudden shift from a sprawling naval empire to a defeated nation, from a top down hierarchical Theocracy to a western democracy. (Pause and Select, 2016)

Japan faced its reconstruction and reconceptualization by force and expressed it in the riots and political movements of the 1960s, at once ideologically charged with sights in the future and desperate to preserve the better angels of their past. It also made this evident in its apocalyptic art. “This was the age of Godzilla and Hibakusha Literature; stories of those who survived the bomb.” (Pause and Select, 2016)

Apocalyptic literature of this kind continued through the 1970s and up to the 1980s, a good example being Katsushiro Otomo’s Akira; the story of a psychic awakening that destroyed Tokyo near the turn of the century and threatens to destroy the world thirty years later. As Motoko Tanaka states in his paper of 2014, Apocalypse in Contemporary Japanese Science Fiction, “…the reason apocalyptic imaginations became powerful and widespread in the 1970s and 1980s is because many people longed for the complete destruction of the existing order rather than for reform and adjustment.” A new mode of thought included, of course, a reconceptualization of the Theocracy that ruled the nation for so long and which ended when two bombs exploded in the homeland.

In 1998 Xenogears presented the death of God as the necessary step to take in order for a new prosperity to arrive. This of course was not the only reason for Xenogear’s desire to kill God as a solution to humanity’s struggles.

On 20 of march 1995, a religious fundamentalist group known as Aum Shinrikyo, released impure sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing twelve and injuring thousands. Its leader Shoko Asahara, promoted the idea of world-death though the use of modern technology. Like Robert Jay Lifton says in his book, Destroying the world to save it, of 1999, “For the first time in history, end times religious fanaticism allied itself with weapons capable of destroying the world and a group embarked on the mad project of doing just that.”

Added to the tribulations of the decade were the Kobe Earthquake of 1995 and the Asset Bubble Burst of 1986 to 1997. The first hit the Hyoko prefecture leaving fifty-two hundred deaths, thirty-thousand injured, three hundred thousand homeless and a hundred and ten-thousand buildings damaged. The earthquake was the most devastating “act of God” since 1922, demonstrating “a cruelty of nature” and a impotence on the part of mankind that permeated into the literature.

The second, the Asset Bubble Burst, presented a failure of the very institutions that were once upheld as the pinnacles of a new age. The economic pillars erected by neo-liberal policies once bringing prosperity were now the source of despair and pointlessness. (Lamarre, Kono, Shinji, 2011)

Destruction, religious fanaticism, natural disasters and economical downfall were the backdrop for Tetsuya Takashi’s inspirational apocalyptic story of Xenogears. The God of his past, the Kami-sama, was dead (in substance if not in form), and its replacements were antagonistic to a population that wanted and needed to adapt to their new westernized self-construction. Spirituality was a downward spiral into religious madness, nature was a dangerous mistress and the economy was treacherous and deceptive. Those who worked hard for the promise of a future saw their efforts vanish into hopelessness.

What is the answer then to all this? Well, Xenogear’s bold move to kill God and be free, independent and fully responsible for the good and the bad in life. Kaori Tanaka, main writer of the story was eventually ousted from the company and her works have been suppressed from companies as Square-Enix and Monolith Software, where she once worked and excelled, and there’s a high probability we will not see her work again… lest there be another near-apocalypse to justify it.

Daniel T.

Bibliography:

  1. Howard, C. (2014) The ethics of Sekai-kei: Reading Hiroki Azuma with Slavoj Zizek. Science Fiction Film and Television, Liverpool
  2. Klausner, S (2015) Ōtomo’s Exploding Cities – The Intersection of Class and City in Ōtomo Katsuhiro’s Works Before, During, and After the Bubble Economy in Japan, Writing Visual Culture.
  3. Napier, S. (1993) Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira, Journal of Japanese Studies Retrieved from: https://ay12-14.moodle.wisc.edu/prod/pluginfile.php/282861/mod_resource/content/1/Napier%20on%20Godzilla.pdf
  4. Pause and Select, (2016) Understanding Disaster, Part 2: Evangelion and the world Apocalypse. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCKZQphDyLY&t=556s
  5. Pause and Select, (2016) Understanding Disaster, Part 3: Akira and the Postmodern Apocalypse. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5XeDQ6sb2g&list=LLhr44eVEUqzvGPaQzhE3PQw&index=29&t=0
  6. Takahashi, T and Tanaka, K. (1998) Xenogears, Squaresoft Inc. Japan
  7. Tanaka, M. (2014) Apocalypse in Contemporary Japanese Science Fiction. Palgrave MacMillan, New York
  8. Tanaka, M. (2014) Apocalypse in Contemporary Japanese Science Fiction, Palgrave MacMillan, New York