Japanese game developers have proven that if any country loves the Devil, it is Japan. Judeo-Christian demons or their analogs have been thwarting players from 1985’s Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins to modern-day series like Devil May Cry. The Castlevania series has Dracula as its antagonist, who not only hob-nobs with foes like Beelzebub and the Grim Reaper but has a Romanian name that translates to “Son of the Devil.” Ignition Entertainment recently announced its latest game would be El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, a game that pits the player against fallen angels and is based around a book from the Old Testament. And just about every Japanese role-playing game features its own spin on the Biblical God versus Satan story.
But where did this fascination with Western religion come from? Very few Western games incorporate Japanese myths, so what do the Devil and Christian lore add to these games that Japanese culture does not? While some of its popularity can be attributed to the success of Western-developed RPGs such as Ultima and Wizardry in Japan, the Devil, and Christianity itself, also offers something that traditional Japanese legends and stories often lack – an epic struggle between good and evil. What’s even more interesting is how Japan has spun that story to fit its own history.
Much of our civilization is based off the traditions and societies of medieval Christian rulers. They themselves were influenced by the stories of the Bible, one of the cruxes of which is the struggle between good and evil, salvation and damnation. In contrast is Shinto, generally accepted as the oldest belief system of Japan. One of the most important differences between Christianity and Shinto is that Shinto does not focus on the personal relationship between humans and a god and does not have a central dogma for its adherents to follow.
Shinto is based around the concept of “kami,” spirits that share the world with humanity and can appear as rocks, rain, animals and other aspects of the natural world. In the Shinto world, even the smallest object may have a spirit, making it just as much a part of the world as humans. Mankind is not innately better than anything else in his environment, as opposed to Christianity where God gives humanity dominion over the creatures of the air, sea and “every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.“
Another good example of the differences between the two religions can be found in their creation stories. Christianity has God creating the heavens and the Earth in six days, creating a garden and creating man and woman, who ultimately give in to the temptation offered by Satan. Shinto has the husband and wife deities Izanagi and Izanami creating the world and Izanami giving birth to many of the world’s spirits. When Izanami ultimately dies in childbirth, Izanagi descends to the underworld to bring her back, but upon seeing her and realizing she is a rotting corpse, he flees and seals the entrance to the underworld with a boulder. Izanami, enraged, declares she will claim 1000 of Earth’s creatures every day, to which her husband replies that he shall create 1500.
The struggle between Izanagi and Izanami is not the battle between good and evil of Christianity, but the natural struggle of life against death. Both stories center around two conflicting forces, but while the Christian story is about salvation from demonic forces, the Shinto tale seeks to explain the natural occurrences of the world.
Compare the East and West cultural roots to early videogames. Nuance wasn’t a strength of 80s gaming technology, which is why stories were often told in broad strokes so that there would be a clear distinction between the player and his or her enemies.
Stories in early games often broke down into several archetypes: man vs. wild; man vs. man; man vs. ninjas; man vs. space aliens; man vs. royalty-stealing wizard turtles. These all play to the fact that every game needs an adversary, whether it’s the dealer or the dungeon master or the computer. And what better adversary is there than The Adversary himself? For the exaggerated, larger than life stories of early games like Final Fantasy and Castlevania, Satan and his counterparts were a perfect fit.
As the technology available to game designers became more sophisticated, the traditional good versus evil narrative in games began to change. Gone were the simpler stories of valiant heroes and despicable villains, replaced with games like Metal Gear Solid where authority was often and quickly abused and right and wrong were not always clear. The portrayal of religious characters changed with the times as well. In NES games like Castlevania II and Dragon Quest, priests restored players’ health and saved their games; in PlayStation games like Final Fantasy Tactics, priests were scheming politicians, hatching plans to resurrect the Devil. In Japanese RPGs in particular, a frequent archetype became “the evil church,” a fantasy religion closely resembling Catholicism that was often in league with the very demons it claimed to oppose.
The ultimate villain in many Japanese games stopped being just the Devil and came to encompass organized religion as well. How did Japanese games go from casting the Devil as an opponent of the church to one of its closest allies? An examination of Japan’s relationship with Western religions yields some striking similarities to videogame fiction. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europe began to set its sights on the Far East. This region was of particular interest to the Catholics, whose religion was undergoing a revival in Europe at this time after losing ground to the Protestant movement.
A Catholic group called the Jesuits quickly saw Japan as a new land to spread their beliefs, and found a willing ally in Oda Nobunaga, a Japanese lord who was engaged in a campaign to unify Japan’s then-warring provinces under his rule. Oda Nobunaga’s interest in the Jesuits was more political than spiritual, and their presence benefited him in two ways. First, Buddhisim had gained a great amount of political power and might oppose his bid to conquer Japan. Nobunaga hoped the Christian religion would help weaken it. Secondly, he wanted to open trade relations with the foreigners, and was especially eager to get his hands on a new type of weapon – the gun – that the Europeans had brought with them. Several daimyo, Japanese feudal lords, converted to Catholicism as a means to gain favor with European merchants. Some even had their peasants convert along with them.
However, many Japanese citizens of this period distrusted the European foreigners and saw them as detrimental to the proper order of society. The Christian concept of a church must have struck the Japanese as alien, as in Shinto there is no formal gathering place of worshippers. Shrines are established, but they are meant primarily to serve the kami. Many Japanese were also baffled by Christianity’s demand for them to turn their backs on the millions of different spirits of the natural world in favor of a single, distant god. In 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga’s successor, abruptly ordered all Christian missionaries to leave the country. He did not strictly enforce the decree, though, so as to maintain ties with European traders.
Though Japan’s ruling class did eventually adopt several European traditions, most notably fashion, anti-Western sentiment refused to die down among the Japanese. While there were certainly Christians in Japan who believed they were saving souls, many Japanese saw them as a foreign culture undermining their way of life. Christian priests and missionaries became associated with dark claims that were much more concerning to Japan than the priests’ Devil. Fears of Christians subverting the Japanese government came to a head in 1596, when, in a twist that would feel right at home in a Square Enix game, claims emerged of Japan-based Franciscan monks being used as spies by the Spanish government. This led to six Franciscan missionaries and twenty of their Japanese converts being rounded up and crucified outside of Nagasaki in 1597.
These numerous conflicts with Christianity shed some light on the trend of many Japanese-developed games – Grandia II, Alundra and Final Fantasy X just to name a few – ending with the destruction of an evil religion or deity. After these entities are destroyed, the world is returned to its natural order and humans are free to live their lives as they see fit. It is worth bringing up again here that Shinto has no centralized dogma that instructs its followers.
Hideyoshi died in 1598, and Tokugawa Ieyasu succeeded him as Japan’s leader. It was under Tokugawa that Christianity was formally banned from Japan, allegedly under information that Christian missionaries were involved in slavery, forced conversion of Japanese citizens and other activities that “undermined the empire.” Tokugawa’s rule led to a mass purging of Christianity from Japan, taking the lives of about five to six thousand Christians in the country. This persecution ended in 1640, by which time Japan had begun instituting isolationist policies and passing laws forbidding Japanese from leaving the country. The ban on Christianity was repelled in 1873 during the Meiji Restoration, a time when Japan was opening itself back up to the world.
Good against evil makes for a compelling story and a compelling game. The demons of early Japanese games were a result of the limited resources available to developers, but their modern games, starring lone heroes battling corrupt religions, reflect the unique history the country has with Christianity. Conflict is what makes a game, and conflict, like the Devil himself, can come in many, many forms.
Robert Stoneback is a freelance writer working out of the Philadelphia area. He is also a writer for the Web site www.PlayerAffinity.com.