In the first part of this article I discussed some elements of Japanese aesthetic philosophy regarding loss and impermanence, and how the world of Fragile Dreams forms a critique of contemporary capitalism. I continue my analysis here with an examination of the protagonist’s own relationship to these issues.
Learning to Love Life: Seto
If Fragile Dreams uses its environments to celebrate Japanese aesthetics, then it uses Seto, the protagonist, to complicate them. His character arc echoes the Confucian idea of cultivating an ideal self that’s implicit in Japanese aesthetics, by depicting his struggles to accept the loss and death he faces. It all begins with the death of the old man who took care of Seto. He digs the man a shallow grave, but not because of any ill feelings on his part. While he never learned the old man’s name, the two spent years together, and as he wanders their empty home, Seto can easily recall the time they shared together. In fact, we can infer that the old man personally taught Seto to read Japanese, judging by the ease with which he reads Tokyo’s many posters and graffiti. The old man even mentions in his death letter that the two didn’t know each only because “[he] didn’t open his heart up to [Seto] more” (tri-Crescendo). In addition, Seto closes the scene by expressing his immediate concern: that he is “truly alone in the world” (tri-Crescendo). These words imply that Seto valued the old man’s presence, as it helped abate his fears of being alone.
This also hints at the true reason why Seto can only bury a shallow grave: the emotional difficulty in embracing this loss as a natural part of life. Seto is aware of the gravity of his situation: not only has the only person he’s ever known died, but so has his current way of life, as he will have to leave the observatory in search of something else. He might even be thinking about his own mortality; the watery light pattern that plays over his narration is the same that plays during a game over (i.e. when Seto dies). Yet Seto cannot find beauty in life’s transient nature. This isn’t meant to suggest that he should find joy in the old man’s death. Rather, he’s so pre-occupied on his loss that he’s unable to draw a connection between the impermanence of life and its being valued in the first place.
Any mentions of impermanence at this point in the story reveal Seto’s negative thoughts on the matter. For example, he opens the game with the words “At the end of a summer that was all too short” (tri-Crescendo). On one level, these words indicate his wishes that the summer had lasted longer. Yet on another, they connote loss. This is a consistent theme throughout Seto’s opening narration, implying that he can only perceive change and passing on painful terms. We might also draw connections between the youthful connotations of summer, Seto’s adolescence, and the death of his caretaker.
His youth is important to remember, because it contrasts him against Japanese thinkers who have espoused aesthetics. Figures like Mizuta Masahide were experienced poets who had spent years studying Buddhist principles. Seto is only fifteen years old, and his education was informal. Thus, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that he denies the loss he has suffered. Writing on the nature of the impermanent, Buddhist priest Yoshida Kenkō comments, “How is it possible for men not to rejoice each day over the pleasure of being alive? Foolish men, forgetting this pleasure, laboriously seek others” (Parkes). This is the exact action Seto takes, as after reading the old man’s death letter, he decides to leave the observatory in search of survivors.
The message the old man hopes to communicate is to avoid his mistakes and appreciate life, but that this can only be done against death (rather than through it) presents problems. The opportunity the old man presents Seto stands counter to the problems he faces; it replaces the old man’s absolute death with somebody else’s potential life. So by embarking on a journey in search of survivors, Seto avoids accepting death (and thus change) as an inevitable part of life. His motivations for leaving only exacerbate the matter. Seto leaves because the survivors represent the possibility that life continues on elsewhere, and that he can cure his own loneliness. In a world where death and change are certain, Seto’s desire to seek out others is a temporary solution, at best. Thus, if we interpret the old man’s death as an opportunity for Seto to appreciate life’s transience, then we must also interpret the possibility of survivors as an opportunity for Seto to deny that very same transience.
Seto’s denial is best illustrated through his interactions with Ren, a silver-haired girl who appears to Seto very early in the narrative. She runs from him the second the two meet, and he only gets brief glimpses of her throughout the story. He follows her by the drawings she leaves in her wake, and when the two finally cross paths, it’s only for a short period of time. While the story uses these facts to code her character with impermanence and uncertainty, this isn’t the meaning that Seto reads from her. Upon first meeting her, he remarks, “On my journey through the world, all the people I thought I saw slipped away like they were just a mirage. But that girl… her cheek was warm to the touch” (tri-Crescendo). So for him, Ren represents life and stability. She is the anchor against which he can verify his own experiences as real. Yet the irony is that is in worrying about whether his experiences are real, he fails to appreciate them for what they are.
In any case, Seto’s denial is an important first step toward embracing life’s changes. One reason is that his travels expose him to a world coded with decay and natural beauty. More than that, the time he spends with other people shows him how it’s possible to appreciate things for their temporary nature. The first person to show him this is PF, a robotic assistant that Seto attaches to his back. The two grow close to each other as they explore the underground mall in search of Ren. However, their journey together is very brief: at the end of the day, PF’s battery drains, effectively ending her life.
Her character, imbued with mono no aware, serves as a model for how Seto can find beauty in a transient moment. Granted, he doesn’t draw a causal link between the two yet; his burial of PF contains several parallels to his burial of the old man. But her death allows Seto to form an association between beauty and impermanence in a way that his time with the old man never could. Their relationship isn’t marked with the same emotional distance. They bond over a number of events, like watching the summer fireflies, finding a pristine origami swan in the ruins, and watching the sun rise over a nearby train station. And they’re more emotionally open with each other, too. Where the old man struggled to share his most intimate with regrets with Seto after knowing him for fifteen years, PF has no problems telling him about how much she loved talking with him, despite only knowing him for a day.
This brings up the impact her passing has not only on Seto, but on the nature of their relationship. PF’s death brings their relationship into focus, and shows that despite its brevity, the two could grow very close to each other in a short time. Their time together closes with Seto telling her his name for the first time. In doing so, he acknowledges the finality of the moment and closes a gap that had existed during his relationship with the old man.
The two themes that emerge from Seto’s time with PF — death and its relation to mono no aware — carry throughout his encounters with other people. Chiyo demonstrates this the best by bringing the two into focus for him. When the two characters meet, Seto initially sees her as the ghost of a bratty little girl who demands that he does the impossible. But as he continues to fulfill her requests, he eventually learns the reality of the situation: she is an old woman on her death bed. Chiyo leaves Seto with these final remarks:
The day will come when your journey will end as well. Your greatest adventure will be over and you will make your way home. However, your journey will not be complete. The days will still go on for you. One after another they will pass, until you’ve had enough of the monotony. No new discoveries will await you. You’ll watch the sun rise and set. That’s all your days will have to offer. That’s the moment when you’ll realize the truth. The sunbeams, the wind rolling over the tall grass, the idle chit-chat with friends…These were the gems of your life. Then your heart will be carried off by the gentle, caressing breeze and it will sparkle like a jewel, fade, and grow cold. (tri-Crescendo)
Of particular interest is Chiyo’s recurring use of natural imagery. Whenever she cites said imagery, she’s careful to associate it with something we’d already view on positive terms. She says that Seto’s heart will “sparkle like a jewel”; she calls the breeze “gentle and caressing”; and refers to the sunlight through the poetic term “sunbeams.” In doing so, she creates an association between the natural world and beauty. Moreover, all the examples she cites are of fleeting moments. A jewel does not sparkle for very long, and idle chit-chat with friends doesn’t last long, either. So if we consider this in light of her earlier associations (and given the fact that this is all the same imagery, it’s well within our ability), then we see Chiyo develop a causal relation between life’s brevity and our valuing it. The seeming persistence of life’s monotony in the earlier part of her speech would suggest as much. All this situates Chiyo’s words in the tradition of mono no aware.
Yet a closer analysis shows that this tradition did not come naturally to Chiyo. She frames her experience as though it were a revelation: that only after a lifetime of monotony did she learn what truly makes life worth living for. It’s a small detail, but one that has a profound impact on Japanese aesthetics within the game. If mono no aware did not come naturally to Chiyo, then for all its value, it is ultimately something that must be taught.
Indeed, her own life suggests that mono no aware could be a psychological state of being rather than something inherent in life’s experiences. She was able to view the same natural phenomenon (sunrise/sunset) at least twice in her life but have greatly divergent reactions to them at different times. In her youth, she viewed the sun’s movement as a dull monotony. It is only on her deathbed that she can finally appreciate it as a liberating event. That realization didn’t come to her in a moment; she had to cultivate it over an entire lifetime of thought on the matter. In relaying her message to Seto, Chiyo helps him through the process of appreciating life’s transitory nature, and hopes to shorten the time necessary to learn it.
Whether or not Seto learns the lesson in the short term is difficult to know. However, the arc behind the gameplay suggests that he does slowly come to appreciate life’s temporary nature. As Seto explores Tokyo’s ruins, he frequently encounters “malicious thought entities”, or the violent negative thoughts that remain from those who passed from this world. Left to their own devices, they’ll assault Seto and kill him before he can find Ren. So he has to fight against them and grow stronger (level up) with each encounter. In one sense, the malicious thought entities’ very existence contradicts Zen doctrine, albeit to illustrate some larger points. Although they imply some sort of afterlife beyond this one, the quality of that afterlife illustrates just how unpleasant such an existence would be. All that remains of them are their negative emotions; all they can do is lash out at those still among the living.
Yet in a larger sense, Seto’s confrontations with the malicious thought entities also represent an acceptance of death’s inevitability. Given how Seto begins the story unable to accept death, it only makes sense that the malicious thought entities (markers of death) start the game invisible, although no less detrimental to Seto’s well-being. It’s only by shining a flashlight on them that he’s able to fight them in the first place. Or looked at a little differently, the very act of focusing one’s attention on them weakens them to the point that Seto can deal with them. Given the immediate danger the malicious thought entities pose to Seto, this is something of a necessity on his part. However, there’s something to be said for tying a leveling system to Seto’s bouts with the malicious thought entities: it implies that he becomes stronger as a person only by conquering the negative emotions associated with death.
In any case, we do know that he eventually does learn it later in life, because we can see it in practice through his flashbacks. At certain points in the story, stylized cinematics will play to summarize Seto’s thoughts on the latest story arc. We know that these are flashbacks because the first of these cinematics opens with “I was fifteen years old at the end of that summer” (tri-Crescendo) — it’s even implied that this older Seto is on his deathbed.
By examining these flashbacks, we see that Seto’s thought has come to resemble that of previous Japanese thinkers. He makes a strong connection between a thing’s impermanence and its beauty, frequently referencing the two in the same breath. When looking back on his meeting Ren, he remarks, “The brief moment we shared transformed me to my very core.” And when reminiscing about his time with PF, he says, “The little time we spent together shone brilliantly like a light in those darkened days of the past.” (tri-Crescendo). Even the visuals reflect his change in thought, as their striking natural imagery bears many similarities to the natural imagery that Chiyo evokes.
But if the content of the scenes suggests a link between impermanence and beauty, then their very format erects a strong causal relation between them. Fragile Dreams presents these scenes as Seto’s memories, meaning that he is looking back on them as events in the past. By virtue of their being in the past, he must acknowledge that these moments are fleeting, as they have already passed from this world. However, he consistently uses these fleeting moments as an opportunity to see the value of his life. Even when remembering the death of a close friend (that continues to pain him as he remembers it), he ends the scene by saying, “Even though memories are often fleeting, all I need to do is close my eyes and your face appears, clear and forever young” (tri-Crescendo). Seto’s ability to accept loss and derive joy from it calls to mind how Mizuta Masahide reacted upon finding his barnhouse in ashes.
On first glance, it’s easy to see what a strong foundation Fragile Dreams has in Japanese thought. When we look at that foundation in greater detail, though, we find that its relationship with that thought is not passive; it’s active, and it often challenges its own ideological roots. The setting, in referencing Tokyo’s capitalist imagery so heavily, implies that the Japanese aesthetic might be incompatible with a modern world. Seto himself only amplifies that message as he struggles to grasp the fundamentals of Japanese thought. Yet in spite of all the ways Fragile Dreams complicates these ideas, it’s still highly sympathetic toward them, because for all the problems it raises, it’s just as quick to suggest solutions. The world, in spite of its modern features, still has a place of Japanese conceptions of beauty. And for all Seto struggles to understand mono no aware, he still accepts it in the end. Fragile Dreams ultimately shows how Japanese ideals still have a place in the present. It just takes a little work to apply them to our lives.
- tri-Crescendo. Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. Version 1.0. 9 Mar. 2010. Video Game.
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