Disrupting the Heroic Narrative

I spend a lot of time talking about the character Ganondorf in the Legend of Zelda games as a symbol for the disruption of monarchies, with “monarchies” serving as a cipher for “entrenched power structures based on arbitrary hierarchies of privilege.”

A response I occasionally get, especially on Tumblr, is the assertion that the people who worked on the Zelda series couldn’t possibly have put this much thought into suggesting that Ganondorf is a figure of resistance because they’re Japanese. According to this line of reasoning, Japanese developers wouldn’t hint at the necessity of challenging authority because Japan is a constitutional monarchy.

Japan is indeed a constitutional monarchy, but Japan is also a modern postindustrial society with a highly sophisticated media culture and an enormous population of roughly 126.4 million people. As with anywhere else in the world, it’s impossible for a generalization about the political views of a population of that size to be accurate.

In addition, many progressive thinkers in Japan have been highly critical of Japan’s imperial household and its symbolic role in enabling some of the darker chapters in Japan’s history.

To give an example, Junichiro Tanizaki, often celebrated as one of Japan’s greatest twentieth-century writers, translated The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese during the Pacific War as a form of protest, as the eleventh-century court romance suggests that the imperial line is very much “broken,” as well as undeniably human.

More recently, Kenzaburo Oe, who received the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature, has been a vocal critic of the emperor system and the role of the United States in maintaining it. Haruki Murakami, who is often dismissed because of the popularity of his novels despite being an extremely political writer, has published an extensive body of work challenging Japan’s imperial legacy and advocating resistance against the shadowy forces that allow its ideology to persist into the present.

What I’m trying to say is that stories about toppling monarchies aren’t rare in Japan.

Although Nintendo has frequently been used by Japanese officials as an instrument of international soft power – Shinzo Abe wearing a Mario hat to announce that Japan would host the 2020 2021 Summer Olympics, for example – Nintendo is an international corporation and no more an arm of a national government than the Disney Corporation is a mouthpiece of the American state. Moreover, like Disney, there are hundreds of artists and writers working at Nintendo, and the views of the individuals creating the media licensed by the company may not align with the company’s brand image. In the case of Nintendo in particular, a lot of the key players in Shigeru Miyamoto’s generation don’t make any secret of the fact that they belonged to various counterculture movements when they were younger.

What creators working for these giant publishers do is what artists have always done – they tell stories that will appeal to a broad audience on top of stories that are much more serious and subversive. For example, Lilo & Stitch is about “ohana means family,” sure, but it also sets up a real conversation about the various “aliens” who have come to the Hawai’ian islands and how these flows of people and culture have affected the native population. In the same way, the Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon games are about stopping bad people from hurting animals, but they’re also about how economic development impairs local communities in Hawai’i, not to mention how many of the research foundations that come to the islands to “protect nature” are just as bad as the corporations. These secondary stories aren’t hidden or otherwise kept from the audience, they’re just more apparent in the details of the story and setting than in the main narrative.

So, while the Legend of Zelda games feature a mix of Arthurian legend and Tolkienian fantasy that informs their easily digestible stories about “brave heroes saving our sacred land from evil forces,” they’re made by intelligent adults who are entirely capable of using themes relating to “empire” and “divinity” and “heroism” to offer critiques regarding what this sort of mentality actually does to individual people and entire nations. Even if these games aren’t directly addressing Japan’s imperial legacy – and there’s no reason for them to do so, because not everything coming out of Japan needs to be about the Pacific War – adding this sort of political and emotional complexity to the story is just good art.

I’m not denying that there are clear undercurrents of nationalism in the Legend of Zelda games – and sometimes, as in the case of Skyward Sword, giant waves of nationalism – but I think this is endemic to the heroic narrative that structures the gameplay of the series. The archetype of “the brave hero who fights to defend their homeland against malevolent outside forces” goes back to the earliest recorded human stories, of course, but I think the nationalistic elements of this narrative have been emphasized by the cultural context that shaped the heroic fantasy that directly inspired the Zelda games.

Specifically, the Zelda series gets a lot of its DNA from popular Japanese fantasy epics of the 1980s, including Guin Saga and Record of Lodoss War, which were inspired by Robert E. Howard and Dungeons & Dragons, respectively. There’s no small amount of Lord of the Rings in the mix as well. Nationalistic ideologies from WWII and the Cold War are therefore built into not just the dominant tropes but also the fundamental structure of contemporary heroic fantasy, including many video games.

I think it’s fair to argue that the Zelda series has challenged this narrative, however. For example:

– The hero is deeply traumatized by what he was forced to do (Majora’s Mask)
– We should look at this from the perspective of the bad guy (The Wind Waker)
– It’s possible that our homeland is just as evil as our enemies (Twilight Princess)
– The bad guys are just like us and deserve sympathy (A Link Between Worlds)

I loved Breath of the Wild but was disappointed by its story, which felt incomplete to me. For example, why would the Hyrulean royal family ban technology? What inspired so many people to defect from the Sheikah and establish the Yiga Clan? If Ganon was once a person, how furious and tormented by pain would he have to be for the Calamity to take the specific form it did? Where are the old temple “dungeons” that are present in the other games? Why is the player never allowed to go underground?

The way the game brushed off these types of questions did indeed feel like an excuse to suggest something along the lines of “Hyrule never did anything wrong and is an innocent victim of malicious foreign powers,” a narrative that has disturbing echoes in real-world political ideologies.

Removing (most of) the shadows cast by the heroic narrative made Breath of the Wild’s story seem curiously flat, especially given the relative depth of previous games in the Zelda series. That’s why, when I first saw the trailer for the sequel, my immediate thought was, “Good, so we’re finally going to get the rest of this story,” which has a great deal of unexplored potential.

In any case, the games in the Legend of Zelda series are interesting and complicated, and I think it’s a shame not to give the creators who make them credit for the full range of storytelling they’ve put into their work.

If nothing else, I think it’s always worth challening the assumption that any given person or group of people has no choice but to think or behave in a certain way because of their race or nationality. After all, if someone named “Hayao Miyazaki” can make bold statements about the evils of authoritarian regimes, who’s to say that someone named “Hidemaro Fujibayashi” can’t also tell nuanced stories about the human cost of the narratives used (and misused) for the purpose of maintaining political stability?