Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Shinto and Alien Influences in Final Fantasy VII

If you’re asked to contribute an essay to Final Fantasy and Philosophy, you are immediately faced with a problem straight out of game theory: Do you write about Final Fantasy VII, by far the most well-known game in the franchise, or do you write about one of the other installments? Writing your essay by itself, picking Final Fantasy VII is a no-brainer, but there are other contributing authors, a dozen or more of them, and they’ll also want to pick Final Fantasy VII. If you went with Final Fantasy IX to make your point, you’d probably have that whole game all to yourself, and your essay would be burned into the memory of all FFIX fans. But what if everyone else thinks the same thing, leaving FFVII vacant, or even just underpopulated? After all, if there’s only one or two other FFVII essays in the collection, yours could still stand out. And if everyone avoids FFVII for fear of the competition, you could have that sweet, sweet FFVII turf all to yourself. But what if half the other authors decide to take that same gamble? Then you’d be better off staking a unique claim to FFIX again.

Jonab Mitropolous took the gamble of writing for FFVII and lost, submitting the fourth (and counting) essay rooted that talks mostly or exclusively about that game (and I’m being generous in not counting Objectification as one of them, since it discusses FFVII, VIII, and IX – and gets VII and VIII confused with each other). Special shout-out to Greg Littman, who did the smart thing and drew from just about every main line game in the series, thus guaranteeing that he’d have an exclusive claim to whichever game the other authors didn’t land on.

Jonab argues in this essay that JENOVA, the evil alien entity seeking to annihilate all life on the planet, is analogous to western influences on Japan. He also asserts that the Shinto religion/culture that gave rise to this depiction totally isn’t xenophobic, you guys. You can’t really have a culture that depicts foreigners as world-devouring aliens and claim it’s not xenophobic. The analogy between JENOVA and western influence is pretty much completely unsupported to begin with (it pretty much begins and ends with “they’re both some kind of outsider”), but the weird doublethink that 1) JENOVA represents western influence but 2) the game is about (among other things) Shinto’s adaptability and ability to incorporate new thought into itself without abandoning old traditions hangs over the entire essay like a specter. JENOVA is not negotiated with. It is pure evil that corrupts everything around it and both it and those who serve it must ultimately be destroyed. The essay even specifically highlights later on that JENOVA is a source of corruption that turns everything exposed to it for too long into a tool of evil. You can’t reconcile that with JENOVA being a metaphor for western influence and the ultimate point being Shinto harmonizing with (rather than being radically, xenophobically opposed to) foreign influence.

Basically, the whole essay just free associates between plot elements of Final Fantasy VII and cultural elements of Shinto, completely ignoring things which very obviously don’t fit and even forgetting its own metaphors halfway through. It does the same thing to Japanese history, strongly implying that the militarization of Japan in the 20s and 30s was a result of a failure to keep out western influences, but Japan’s xenophobia was never stronger than in the years during and immediately before World War II, when they were raping Nanking and all. The essay tries to attribute this to western influence, but it’s not exactly out of step with Japan’s long history of militant xenophobia leading up to that point. Quite contrary to the essay’s implication that the Expulsion Edict of 1825 was the first time Japan had tried to close itself off from outside influence, but Japan closed itself for the first time in the 17th century under the Tokugawa Shogunate, 150 years before then. In the 1850s when the United States showed up with a few gunboats full of diplomacy, the reason why this relatively small flotilla was able to intimidate an entire nation into (briefly) reversing their centuries-long policy of total isolation because their cannons were far more modern and thus had much better range and could bombard Japanese ports with impunity.

Like, look at this:

As three different forces (Lifestream, Meteor, and Holy) converge, the same image of Aerith’s face from the beginning of the game flashes across the screen, suggesting that the way of the Earth (as Aerith’s name shares a phonetic correspondence with the word Earth) mediates this convergence. We see her mediation, like Shinto, is not articulated but simply lived.

Aerith is supposed to represent the Earth because her name kinda sounds like the English word “Earth,” and the mere presence of her image at all is supposed to imply a mediation (rather than conflict) between powers that up until now had very clearly been split into good (Lifestream, Holy) and evil (Meteor), this mediation apparently being “not articulated but simply lived” because there is no dialogue that would, y’know, lend any credence at all to this interpretation.

This whole essay is just Jonab Mitropolous free associating from the contents of Final Fantasy VII to the conclusion he wants to push, and no effort is made to actually chain a coherent line of reasoning from one to the other.

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