Fragile Beauty In Fragile Dreams, Part 1

Where there is a begin­ning, there will always be an end. All that pros­pers must decay.” —Zen, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth

Fragile Dreams. A 2010 video game whose title is loaded with mean­ing. The phrase sug­gests just how del­i­cate our lives and aspi­ra­tions are; how both could be robbed from us in an instant. Yet this is not cause for grief. If the word “dreams” is any­thing to go by, we still value dreams dear­ly, even know­ing that they might never come true. In fact, it could be their uncer­tain nature is what gives them value at all.

Even from the moment we first learn about Fragile Dreams, we can see how entrenched it is in Japanese aes­thet­ic. In some ways, this isn’t that sur­pris­ing. A game born out of Japanese cul­ture should, on some level, reflect that culture’s aes­thet­ic tra­di­tions. However, very lit­tle writ­ing on the game exam­ines it through such a lens. That is what this arti­cle aims to fix. By sit­u­at­ing the game in Japanese aes­thet­ic his­to­ry, we can bet­ter under­stand Japanese cul­ture and Fragile Dreams’ rela­tion to it.

In fact, doing so reveals that the game oper­ates on two dis­tinct lev­els. When we apply Japanese aes­thet­ics to the game’s world, we see Fragile Dreams try­ing to rec­on­cile mod­ern Japanese life with tra­di­tion­al Japanese thought. However, look­ing at the game on a char­ac­ter level com­pli­cates the aes­thet­ic. These ways of see­ing the world are not nat­ur­al, as Seto (the game’s pro­tag­o­nist) must spend the entire game learn­ing to appre­ci­ate the beau­ty that aris­es from a fleet­ing real­i­ty.


Understanding Japanese Aesthetics


Broadly speak­ing, Japanese aes­thet­ics (or at least the aes­thet­ics most com­mon­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Japanese thought) can best be under­stood as a com­bi­na­tion of Shinto appre­ci­a­tion of the nat­ur­al world and a Zen Buddhist insis­tence on the non-differentiating, ephemer­al nature of being. The lat­ter is espe­cial­ly impor­tant, as it is through Zen Buddhism’s insis­tence on change being the nature of all things that these aes­thet­ics arise (Parkes). According to Buddhist thought, all exis­tence is tem­po­rary. Things change or fade away before our eyes, and many of our pos­ses­sions will out­last us. Moreover, because every­thing has equal Buddha nature in the Zen Buddhist’s eyes (Saito 381), humans have no rea­son to believe they are any dif­fer­ent from these tem­po­rary objects. Thus, each of these facts alerts us to an ulti­mate truth: that our own lives are fleet­ing, and we can do noth­ing to change this.

Yet we are not sup­posed to meet this truth with pas­sive res­ig­na­tion or nihilis­tic despair. We have to remem­ber that Buddhism’s goal is to help us face and cope with these facts of real­i­ty. In reli­gious terms, real­iza­tion is a bridge toward let­ting go of desire, since ful­fill­ing our desires isn’t always pos­si­ble or even advis­able. For Japanese aes­thet­ics, though, the idea is that acknowl­edg­ing these facts of exis­tence is what allows us to appre­ci­ate beau­ty in the first place.

This beau­ty is often appre­ci­at­ed by turn­ing to the nat­ur­al world. The rea­sons behind the Japanese sen­si­bil­i­ty toward nature are numer­ous. Part of it derives from Japanese views on find­ing com­plete­ness through those around you rather than sole­ly through your­self. And accord­ing to pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy Yuriko Saito, this appre­ci­a­tion also finds its roots in Shintoism’s “appre­ci­a­tion of this life and this world” (381). Yet for the pur­pos­es of this analy­sis, the most rel­e­vant rea­son is that nature read­i­ly demon­strates Zen ideals of imper­ma­nence. In a world defined by change, any beau­ty we derive from that world must reflect this change. And because nature is a sys­tem in con­stant flux, Japanese artists and philoso­phers were often ready to use the nat­ur­al world to illus­trate their ideals.

However, their views on nature go beyond using the nat­ur­al world as a metaphor for beau­ty, and encom­pass draw­ing beau­ty from some­thing specif­i­cal­ly because of its con­nec­tion to the nat­ur­al world. For Japanese aes­thetes, the most beau­ti­ful arts would blend into the greater world around them. Anything that announced its pres­ence was con­sid­ered sim­ple, bois­ter­ous, and to be avoid­ed. (The con­cept of kire is a notable excep­tion.) Buddhist monks would often seek out objects that were in a less than ideal state because that imper­fect state reflect­ed that object’s being in the world (Parkes), and invit­ed inquiry more than an object in its ideal state would have (Saito 382). They would also look for objects that had been worn by age, like a bowl with a fine wood­en grain.

One con­cept for which these ideas are par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant is mono no aware. Often trans­lat­ed as “the pathos of things”, mono no aware is an appre­ci­a­tion for the mor­tal­i­ty of things, and a mourn­ing at their pass­ing. What’s inter­est­ing here is that rather than imper­ma­nence com­pris­ing the core of mono no aware, the truth is that it’s only a by-product of mono no aware’s true focus: loss and pass­ing. We feel emo­tion­al­ly stirred at a thing’s pass­ing, mean­ing that we draw value from things because of their abil­i­ty to leave us. If objects were to remain as they are for­ev­er, never pass­ing on, then we would lose all rea­son to hold them in our esteem. Not even life itself can escape this fact, as it is our own vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to death that “enables full enjoy­ment of life” (Parkes). Therefore, in terms of mono no aware, the best way to bring out something’s beau­ty is to remind us of its inevitable change or pass­ing.

This is best seen in one of Mizuta Masahide’s poems. Masahide was a poet who stud­ied under Matsuo Bashō. Upon find­ing his barn in ashes, he com­posed the fol­low­ing haiku:

My store­house burned down -
now noth­ing stands between me
and the moon above.
(Hoffman 23)

Mizuta begins the poem by acknowl­edg­ing the loss of his store­house. He doesn’t try to run away from the acci­dent, yet he doesn’t let it upset him, either. In fact, the destruc­tion of his store­house appears to be a lib­er­at­ing expe­ri­ence for Mizuta. The unex­pect­ed emo­tion­al shift in the sec­ond line tells us that he saw the store­house as an obstruc­tion that “stood between” him and the moon’s nat­ur­al beau­ty. With its destruc­tion, he is free from mate­r­i­al pos­ses­sion of the store­house and all the wor­ries it would entail. All Mizuta is left with is the beau­ty of the moon­light, some­thing he can never claim per­son­al own­er­ship over.

None of this is meant to say that per­fec­tion and ideals have no place in Japanese aes­thet­ics, or that Japanese thought is an undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed mono­lith that emerged from an intel­lec­tu­al void. Japanese aes­thet­ics as we under­stand it can be read as a polit­i­cal rejec­tion of con­tem­po­rary upper class ideals. Contrasting against the ascetic monks, mem­bers of the upper class indulged in a high­ly ide­al­is­tic aes­thet­ic that they import­ed from China. The upper class sought only the best, adorn­ing their domi­ciles with ornate tapes­tries and high qual­i­ty wares. Compare this to the aes­thet­ics that Buddhist monks devel­oped. Understood in this way, their aes­thet­ics invert aris­to­crat­ic ideals in favor of some­thing more pop­ulist and reli­gious. They wished to aban­don the earth­ly desires like those their patrons enjoyed, instead choos­ing a way of life mir­ror­ing that of the lower class­es. To this effect, monks would seek out less than ideal tools and abstain from clean­ing their uten­sils — just as the poor were wont to do (Saito 381).

However, we might also under­stand their belief sys­tem as embody­ing the very upper class ideals they sought to repu­di­ate. Turning to Saito again, she notes that many of Japan’s most notable aes­thetes enjoyed a high deal of priv­i­lege. They were patrons in Japanese courts, and they lived very com­fort­able lives. Indeed, it was their priv­i­lege and pres­tige that allowed them to aban­don alter­nate modes of under­stand­ing in the first place. In addi­tion, Confucian ideals of cul­ti­va­tion run through Japanese aes­thet­ic ideas, as one is not born fully appre­ci­at­ing the value of imper­ma­nence. One must be taught (pre­sum­ably by some­body already well versed in the sub­ject). In any case, it was Zen Buddhism’s reli­gious tones that served as the basis for later Japanese thought, and it is this lega­cy that Japan is often asso­ci­at­ed with.

This lega­cy is not a sta­t­ic one. As Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows” reveals, that lega­cy some­times found itself at odds with major his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ments. Writing in the early Shōwa peri­od (the 1930s), the nov­el­ist wor­ried about the impact Western tech­nol­o­gy was hav­ing on Japanese sen­si­bil­i­ties. In his own words, “[Western] machines are […] well suit­ed to the Western arts. But pre­cise­ly on this account they put our own arts at a great dis­ad­van­tage” (4). Where Japanese art stress­es a con­nec­tion with the nat­ur­al world and the frag­ile change that occurs with­in it, mod­ern sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy stand against that with their arti­fi­cial per­fec­tion. A clean porce­lain bath­room loud­ly announces its pres­ence, dis­tanc­ing us from nature and authen­tic real­i­ty in a way that Japanese bath­rooms wouldn’t. And mod­ern heat­ing sys­tems make con­cepts like com­mu­ni­ty, inti­ma­cy, fam­i­ly, etc. irrel­e­vant, as a suf­fi­cient­ly heat­ed house elim­i­nates the need for peo­ple to bond by gath­er­ing around a fire­place. Tanizaki wasn’t sug­gest­ing that we aban­don these mod­ern con­ve­niences for aes­thet­ic pur­pos­es; he rec­og­nized that as a futile endeav­or. Nonetheless, he strug­gled to rec­on­cile such con­ve­niences with Japanese val­ues.

Looking at his essay fur­ther, though, reveals that the two are per­fect­ly rec­on­cil­able. This is evi­dent as early as the begin­ning of the essay, where Tanizaki describes the beau­ty an elec­tric light can invoke:

Seen at dusk as one gazes out upon the coun­try­side from the win­dow of a train, the lone­ly light of a bulb under an old-fashioned shade, shin­ing dimly from behind the white paper shoji of a thatch-roofed farm­house, can seem pos­i­tive­ly ele­gant” (1).

The idea is to have both nature and tech­nol­o­gy work along­side each other to evoke the ideas of imper­ma­nence and fragili­ty. Nature’s role is obvi­ous; Tanizaki uses phras­es like “dusk”, “coun­try­side”, “old-fashioned shade”, and “white paper shoji of a thatch-roofed farm­house” to con­note not only the nat­ur­al world, but also things that reflect change. Dusk quick­ly turns into night, and an old-fashioned shade alerts us to its hav­ing aged. Yet technology’s role is not neg­li­gi­ble. The train win­dow frames this image for us, and the light bulb works with the shade to please the sens­es. Without them, we would find this scene more dif­fi­cult to appre­ci­ate. So as long as tech­nol­o­gy does not sup­plant the feel­ing of change and being in nature, it’s capa­ble of func­tion­ing with­in Japanese aes­thet­ic the­o­ry.



A World in Decay


One of Fragile Dreams’ most defin­ing fea­tures is its world, and one of the most defin­ing fea­tures of that world is the preva­lence of con­sumer cul­ture with­in it. As Seto explores the ruins of Tokyo, he walks through the rem­nants of that cul­ture, crawl­ing through an under­ground mall; wan­der­ing through an amuse­ment park; explor­ing a near­by hotel; and end­ing his jour­ney at Tokyo Tower, a pop­u­lar tourist attrac­tion. While these loca­tions cer­tain­ly rep­re­sent mod­ern Japanese cul­ture, the ideas they rep­re­sent are dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile with the Buddhist foun­da­tion to Japanese aes­thet­ics and phi­los­o­phy. As a reli­gion, Buddhism is devot­ed to the ces­sa­tion of desire, where­as cap­i­tal­ism is an eco­nom­ic sys­tem that relies on it. It’s a sys­tem that sells prod­ucts by per­pet­u­at­ing and cap­i­tal­iz­ing on desire. Thus both cap­i­tal­ism and Buddhism will encounter prob­lems try­ing to accom­mo­date the other, as they aim for mutu­al­ly exclu­sive goals. Moreover, many of game’s con­sumer sym­bols, like adver­tise­ments and Ferris wheels, would have been loud and arti­fi­cial at their prime — the very things Tanizaki crit­i­cized in his day.

Yet they are not at their prime. Thus, when we look at these sym­bols in con­text, Fragile Dreams’ world becomes a cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism. This is appar­ent on a lit­er­al level: the whole world’s in a state of decay. Surfaces show worn tex­tures from years of dis­use. Dirt and grime lit­ter the ground, and grass shoots up through the pave­ment. We can even see a tree pen­e­trat­ing the hotel, as if it’s say­ing “not even this place is safe from the rav­ages of time.”

However, Fragile Dreams’ cri­tique also func­tions on a deep­er ide­o­log­i­cal level. In cap­i­tal­ist thought, we’re meant to find com­fort through per­son­al own­er­ship, since if we didn’t, we’d lose much of our rea­son to par­tic­i­pate in the sys­tem. Yet in a world like the one the game presents, per­son­al own­er­ship means noth­ing. How can it? Most of human­i­ty has died, leav­ing very few per­sons to own any­thing. And even con­sid­er­ing just those sur­vivors, it’s unlike­ly that own­er­ship would bring them much com­fort. They have to think about their sur­vival, a goal these objects might not have been designed for. Those objects might not bring them emo­tion­al com­fort, either, as they stand a very good chance of out­last­ing their own­ers. (This point also dis­man­tles the idea of per­son­al own­er­ship.)

The var­i­ous Memory Items Seto finds prove that point well enough. Over the course of the game, Seto finds var­i­ous bro­ken items amid the wreck­age. When he takes those items to a bon­fire, he finds out what they are, and hears a short story regard­ing the item’s last owner. Examples of these sto­ries include:

There’s a con­sis­tent mes­sage run­ning through these sto­ries: one of unful­filled desire. The pro­tag­o­nists of these sto­ries regret mak­ing choic­es they can never fix, or they feel scared after hav­ing some­thing valu­able taken from them. They real­ize that their lives are short, and Seto sees that their wor­ries out­last­ed them.

While these sto­ries sit­u­ate their pro­tag­o­nists’ emo­tions with­in a Japanese aes­thet­ic of imper­ma­nence, we should also remem­ber the medi­um the game uses to relay those sto­ries, and the mean­ing such a medi­um imparts. The game relays most of these nar­ra­tives through some object the owner con­fid­ed in. They intend­ed to relieve their pain at least a lit­tle bit, but all we see is their emo­tion­al pain; we rarely see any kind of res­o­lu­tion. Therefore, the objects fail to serve their intend­ed pur­pose of con­sol­ing their own­ers. The cell phone’s story dis­plays this quite poignant­ly: while her intent is for the world to remem­ber her, the trag­ic irony of her sit­u­a­tion is that she leaves us noth­ing by which we can iden­ti­fy her. We don’t know her name or any details about her life, and it’s unclear if Seto can even access those details. All her story illus­trates is how insuf­fi­cient her pos­ses­sions are for sat­is­fy­ing her wants, even if she can never know that.

However, it’s impor­tant to note that this kind of dis­man­tling isn’t a capri­cious act on the game’s part. If we pay atten­tion to how the game dis­man­tles cap­i­tal­ist ide­olo­gies, we find that the strate­gies it uses allow it to reassert Japanese ideals in the mod­ern world. For instance, Fragile Dreams doesn’t depict a world that’s been instant­ly destroyed by some cat­a­stro­phe, but a world that’s been dete­ri­o­rat­ing for years. Glass Cage, the apoc­a­lyp­tic event that brought the world to its knees, occurred some time before Seto was even born, and in the inter­ven­ing time, nature has been slow­ly reclaim­ing the land.

Although nature’s dom­i­nance in Fragile Dreams com­ports with the Japanese appre­ci­a­tion for the nat­ur­al world, the game car­ries the con­cept a lit­tle fur­ther. The kinds of spaces that Seto explores would be famil­iar to con­tem­po­rary play­ers. Thus, the decay the these spaces exhib­it would tell the play­ers that the things they hold dear don’t exist on their own; that they exist as part of and are affect­ed by a larg­er sys­tem that the play­er must also be a part of. When under­stood in a nar­ra­tive con­text (which I will exam­ine soon), the game is telling us that we are sup­posed to draw beau­ty from these facts. Even the Memory Items echo this sen­ti­ment, as Seto finds them well beyond their prime — anoth­er strong con­cept in Japanese thought. By exam­in­ing the envi­ron­ments like this, we find that the game answers Tanizaki’s con­cerns by show­ing how we can rec­on­cile old thought with a mod­ern world.

[In the second part of this article, we turn from the world of Fragile Dreams to its protagonist Seto, and how he deals with loss and impermanence in his own life.]


Brian Crimmins

About Brian Crimmins

Brian Crimmins is a freelance games writer. Some of his writing deals with Japanese culture in games, but he tends to analyze older, less appreciated titles.