Fragile Beauty In Fragile Dreams, Part 2

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.


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.