Over Her Dead Body: Love and Affection in Japan Through Shadow of the Colossus

Miguel Cesar Rodo

You walk the empty stony shrine towards the central altar. There, immobile, you lay the body of your lover, lifeless, pale, but calm.

You are a young warrior who has travelled to these empty forbidden lands to amend the unjust world that took her away from you.

You are there to bring her back, no matter the consequences. You love her. And that is all that matters.

Shadow of the Collossus, ICO Studio, Sony PlayStation 2, 2005

This is the introduction of the 2005 video game Shadow of the Colossus by ICO Studio and directed by Ueda Fumito. The game tells the story of

Wander, a warrior whose lover was sacrificed putting him in a journey to the forbidden Ancient Lands where he has heard dwells a force, a spirit that can resurrect her. The quest is forbidden by the laws that bound the mortals and by the authorities of Wander’s world. But he does not care. Carrying the body of his lover, Mono, he is accompanied by his horse Argo, his sole companion in an adventure that will take them to transgress the most essential boundary of their world: the one that separates life from death. The theme, called Essential Boundary Transgression (EBT) has been a recurrent matter of exploration in Japanese history. The EBT in Japan appeared as late as the 711 C.E in the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) where the founder god Izanagi breaks the taboos of the netherworld while trying to bring his wife back, the goddess Izanami. Since then, the EBT has journeyed through different periods and media until, recently in the Second Lost Decade (2000-2010), it was incorporated and explored through different discursive media such as manga, anime, and video games. There, in the videoludic medium, Shadow of the Colossus (Shadow) stands as one of the most relevant engagements in the EBT. First, Shadow uses the EBT as the main dramatic tension that structures and moves the story forward. Second, the approach to the theme of life and death intersects with worries, hopes, and anxieties of twenty-first century Japan. Third, by thoroughly addressing the relation between game and player Shadow challenges ethical concepts of evil, moral responsibility, and the resolution of moral dilemmas.

However, Shadow uses the EBT not only as its main thematic framework but also as a canvas over which it challenges and interrogates universal and contextual worries of Japan such as the relationship between individuals and the community, the morality of modern individualism, and the risks of toxic love and attachment in contemporary times. The instability and uncertainty of love in contemporary times has been thoroughly discussed by philosopher Zygmunt Bauman in his book Liquid Love (2003). In his book, Bauman builds on his concept of Liquid Modernity, discussing the lack of solidity of current emotional bounds, relations, and attachments. Bauman argues that in contemporary times love has become extremely unstable, lacking the firmness of previous times. This is a characteristic of what he defines as liquid modern societies in which categories that used to be stable and firm dissolve their most essential concepts by constant challenge and interrogation by their postulates. This argument is shared by sociologist Berman (1982) who argues about a general liquefication of every concept, category, or ideal in contemporary times and how these are leading to an intense feel of uncertainty and ontological insecurity (Giddens 1991). This transformation can also be seen in the 1990s Japan, with the melting of its solid categories during the 1990s. This decade saw the end of the economic miracle and the shattering of Japanese trust in their present and future. Among these existential pillars the most relevant were internal national security, faith in the traditional family and education systems, and trust in the government, the companies, and the oligarchy—an alliance known as the Iron Triangle (Arai 2000; Chiavacci 2008). Of these institutions, the crisis of family, since 1945 now in the shape of the nuclear family, was among the most relevant for its central role as the representation of Japanese middle-class stability (Ochiai 2003). The general middle-class model was, together with the family model and the Japanese economic system, a prescriptive way of life of the country (Chiavacci 2007, 40-41). That model seemed to guarantee a sense of optimism, successful future, and the prosperity of future generations (Chiavacci 2008, 16). All these institutions and prospects collapsed by the end of the century, leading the country into a deep crisis that went far beyond the economic (Kingston 2010). Nothing was sure or stable anymore. Every ideal, concept, or category was apt to be interrogated and challenged, in the words of Gavan McCormack “[t]here is a whiff of late Tokugawa (1850-1860) in the air, of institutions grinding under the weight of their many contradictions, of economic, political, and social malaise deepening, with no obvious alternatives in sight” (2007,44). In that logic, Shadow proposed an exploration through the transgression of life and death of everything that seems pure, including, and especially, love and affection.

This is the central focus of this chapter, to study and discuss how the concept of love was approached, constructed, and challenged by Shadow of the Colossus through the videoludic medium. To do that this chapter is divided into three main sections. (1) The first deals with a brief literature review on the study of love and emotions in Japan, in video games, and, more particularly, in Shadow. This section also includes the theoretical and methodological approaches that guide my analysis of love and affection in Shadow. (2) The second section deals with the analysis of how Shadow proposes a triple meditation: about love, about the socio-cultural role of video games, and the possibilities and limitations of discussing such themes through this medium. (3) Finally, the last section proposes a discussion of the intertextual conversation on love that ICO studio proposed through its games Ico (2001) and Shadow. It also proposes some final remarks regarding the role the studio gives to love and affection in the Second Lost Decade of Japan.

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