“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.
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.]
- tri-Crescendo. Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. Version 1.0. 9 Mar. 2010. Video Game.
- Hoffmann, Yoel, ed. Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. North Clarendon: C.E. Tuttle, 1986. 23. Print.
- Parkes, Graham. “Japanese Aesthetics.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 10 Oct. 2011. Web. 4 Aug. 2015. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-aesthetics/index.html>
- Saito, Yuriko. “The Japanese Aesthetics of Imperfection and Insufficiency.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 55.4 (1997): 381–2. Web. 4 Aug. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/430925>
- Tanizaki, Jun’ichiro. In Praise of Shadows. New Haven: Leete’s Island, 1977. 1–4. Print.