Some say that most Japanese role-playing games always have you killing God. When I hear this in corners of the internet, I think of characters like Final Fantasy VI‘s Kefka and Radiant Historia‘s Heiss, antagonists who wanted godly power to either destroy the world or remake it entirely. Before playing the mobile port of 2009’s The World Ends with You and encountering the character Joshua, I might’ve believed that it wasn’t possible for a character to both embody and subvert the “kill the God” trope in JRPGs.
Then again, The World Ends with You isn’t a traditional JRPG. For one thing, it’s heavily inspired by the contemporary setting of Shibuya, a district of Tokyo, Japan. Not to mention the game is actually set in a parallel version of Shibuya, called the Underground (or UG for short). The game’s protagonist, anti-social teen Neku Sakuraba, awakens in the UG with no memory and is forced to survive a week as a Player in the Reapers’ Game with his first game partner, Shiki Misaki. Joshua comes into the picture as Neku’s second partner when Neku is forced to play another week.
Although Joshua becomes Neku’s second partner during week 2 of the Reapers’ Game, Joshua’s condescending attitude and secretive nature make it hard for them to get along. Yet, the two of them not getting along seems to be exactly what Joshua wants, especially since Neku is slowly changing his views about people around him. At this point in the game, Neku has started to learn that opening up to others can enrich his life. This is especially notable given that Neku is dead and playing the Reapers’ Game for a chance to return to life.
Joshua has an ulterior motive in The World Ends with You, and it seems as if Joshua wants Neku to survive the Reapers’ Game but not return to life. As someone who enjoys playing JRPGs where the characters get stronger while developing strong bonds, I found Joshua annoying at first. Though as I spent more time with Joshua, I started to see him as a more pessimistic version of Neku with a snarky sense of humor. This makes Joshua’s toying with Neku all the more shocking and sinister when Joshua is not only revealed to be an antagonist, but also the UG’s Composer — the big bad in charge of the Reapers’ Game.
Joshua’s motives as an antagonist and the Composer are complex. Prior to becoming Composer, Joshua could actually see the Reapers’ Game as a living person where others couldn’t, and this caused him to feel lonely and alienated. Since Joshua had a crappy human life and is implied to have killed himself to purposely enter the Reapers’ Game, it is clear that Joshua has serious issues that became worse when he ultimately became the Composer.
While the Composer is never clearly stated to be a god, Joshua’s bright white true form, his ability to make up and bend the rules of the Reapers’ Game, and his judging the Player’s worthiness to return to life suggest godly qualities. He takes on the human appearance of a teenager to illegally break the rule of the Reapers’ Game and become Neku’s partner.
To see if the real Shibuya deserves to exist, Joshua made a deal with his second-in-command, Megumi Kantanji, and murdered Neku to enter him in the Reapers’ Game and select him as his Proxy (i.e., chosen one). If Neku could survive the Reapers’ Game and defeat Megumi, the real Shibuya would be saved. If not, Shibuya would be destroyed. Neku was selected because it was assumed that his anti-social attitude would bring out the worst of Shibuya and justify its destruction.
By having godly qualities and a motive to destroy Shibuya, Joshua appears to be no different from other JRPG antagonists. Yet Joshua differs from them because he offers Neku a gun and one final test. If Neku shoots Joshua first, he can become Composer and decide Shibuya’s fate. Of course, poor Neku can’t go through with it since Joshua was his game partner and Neku came to trust Joshua despite everything he did. Moved by Neku’s growth, Joshua decides to spare Shibuya and restore Neku and the game’s other main characters back to life.
Since playing The World Ends with You, I have yet to come across another JRPG where you “don’t kill God.” I have also yet to meet another character quite like Joshua: a condescending main character and lonely god antagonist who wanted to destroy the world until one person made him spare it. Love him or hate him, Joshua was an intricate character who represented what happens when you give up on humanity and the world around you.