If you’ve played The Last Story, you’re well-aware of the white petals that drift in Lazulis City. Carried by the wind down a litany of paths and back-streets, the petals are simply beautiful.
But what do they actually signify? To the West, what may seem a cruel irony is in fact a celebrated, storied relationship in Japanese literature.
I’ll explain. Partway through the game, we learn that the white petals signify the land’s decay. Over the past decades, the earth’s decay has worsened, forcing Humans to grapple with declining natural resources, and presenting the Gurak with an unending famine.
It’s thus somewhat fitting that the Game Over screen features a never-ending stream of the white petals. It shoves your failure right in your face; civilization will perish because you failed. To a Western gamer, it might even be considered mocking to have such a pretty sight represent a fate so horrific.
But that’s not how the Japanese developer (Mistwalker) intended it. In Japanese literature, there’s a trope called “mono no aware”, roughly translated as the “sadness of things”. It points to an emotional catharsis of depression, typically at the sight of something beautiful. This is a major reason why sakura – cherry blossom trees – are so iconic in Japan. They embody the concept of mono no aware.
The pink petals of the sakura tree are beautiful. But at the point where they go into full bloom, the petals fall. They fall off the tree, and are carried by the wind. There is a beauty in the cherry blossoms, and to a Japanese mind, that beauty is augmented and reinforced by the sadness of its fate, by the transience of those petals. One day, they will fall off, and the tree will be left barren until the next spring. Yet in Japanese culture, that tripartite relationship between beauty, sadness, and transience is incredibly strong.
To a Western gamer, the truth behind the white petals in The Last Story is an unfortunate irony. To a Japanese gamer, the sad truth behind the white petals is the entire point.
There are a number of these tics that are more or less understood in Japanese culture – they have roots in literary tradition.
The river that divides Lazulis City has two purposes. On one hand, it is meant to evoke images of Paris, France, which is similarly divided by the Seine River into the rive gauche (left bank) and rive droite (right bank), each of which has a distinct flair and atmosphere. But in terms of Japanese literature, the river is a gateway between two realms.
Think of this: Although Zael and Co. stay in Ariela’s Tavern, which is south of the river, all of the plot exists in the North. The Castle is north is the river. And the river is much like a dividing barrier. When Calista runs away near the beginning of the game, she flees across the River, escaping into another realm to which she is a stranger. Remember when Calista takes food from the market and doesn’t know she’s supposed to pay for it? It’s a harsh reminder that she’s a stranger to the South ‘realm’, and she’s only truly comfortable in the North. When Zael breaks out of jail (the second time), he takes refuge south of the river, in Ariela’s tavern. All of the danger (Court intrigue, Jirall’s hatred, the Gurak invasion) – it all occurs in the North.
In Japanese literature, a river is seen as a boundary specifically between life and death. In The Holy Man of Mount Koya by Izumi Kyoka (pardon the lack of accent marks), the monk crosses a river and immediately flirts with death in a forest of leeches. He then is tempted by a woman seductress with a seemingly magical touch, before he finally resists and leaves, crossing back over the river and escaping to safety. That river is a boundary – between life and death, between the normal and the supernatural – and it parallels the situation in The Last Story. The South of the river is safe and normal, and the North is dangerous, plot-ridden, and full of temptation.
There are also a lot of Western elements in The Last Story. Much of the architecture is based on France and Italy. One of the central bridges that crosses the river in Lazulis City is almost identical to the Rialto Bridge in Venice, Italy.
Note: The Arganan Bridge is the same as the Rialto Bridge (picture below). In addition, you can see the drifting white petals in the video.
There’s a side-mission with a Haunted Mansion, a classic trope in Western stories. And even the nobility system of Lazulis City hews more closely to medieval knights than to the pre-Meiji Japanese hierarchy, with the Emperor at the top and traders/merchants at the bottom.
A lot of games have these cultural inspirations, and we never take the time to appreciate them. Video games don’t have the high standing of literature and film. Nobody is going to analyze games unless they care about them. If we want to see videogames take their place as a culturally-accepted art form, we need to have discussions on what the white petals represent, what the architectural inspiration is, and where the divide between Japanese and Western perceptions in gaming lie.
When Final Fantasy IX came out, did any Western publications note the huge literary, historical, and cultural background for why Princess Garnet cuts off her hair? (Something I can talk about later.)