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?

Tokyo’s Underground Cathedral

The Underground Cathedral Protecting Tokyo from Floods

Cecilia Tortajada recalls making her way down a long staircase and into of one of Japan’s engineering marvels, an enormous water tank that crowns Tokyo’s defences against flooding. When she finally reached the tank’s ground, she stood among the dozens of 500-tonne pillars supporting the ceiling. In the cavernous, shrine-like cistern, she felt humbled.

If Japan is a pilgrimage destination for disaster and risk-management experts like her, this is one of its main temples. The floodwater cathedral hidden 22 meters underground is part of the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel (MAOUDC), a 6.3 km long system of tunnels and towering cylindrical chambers that protect North Tokyo from flooding.

I have to admit that, even though I’ve known about this for years, I always assumed it was an urban legend. The way I’ve always heard people refer to this structure is Tōkyō no hashira (the Pillars of Tokyo), which sounds a little like a Legend of Zelda dungeon. It’s wild that this is real, and the photographs in the article are stunning.

The State of Airbnb in Japan

Nick Kapur has a great thread on Twitter about the controversy (or rather, the catastrophe) concerning Airbnb in Japan. This is something I’ve been following closely as it’s descended into true madness over the course of 2018, and Dr. Kapur gives an excellent summary of what’s happening and why it’s so upsetting. This perfect storm of xenophobia and irresponsible market capitalism is going to impact a lot of people, and it’s well worth taking a minute or two to read the thread all the way through.


As a grad student friend of mine wrote in response to a Facebook post on the matter, “The big issue that [Kapur] doesn’t mention is that Air BnB has been a lifesaver for foreigners doing research in Japan for less than a year. Almost all Japanese housing contracts are for two years, and most home owners don’t accept foreigners (often being openly racist about their preferences). This leaves students and other researchers with extremely overpriced long-stay hotels, or with share houses that offer a dormlike setting with little privacy, often questionable living spaces, and sometimes a complete unwillingness to communicate with foreigners.”

Tokyo Travel Recommendations

I recently shared a list of recommendations with a student who will be studying abroad in Tokyo this coming school year, and I thought I’d share it here as well!

Two Resources

Tokyo Trend Ranking
This is a free magazine that you can find in most stations of the Tokyo Metro. It comes out once a month and is filled with photographs and information about unique and popular restaurants and pubs and cafés, as well as seasonal special events throughout the city. Because it’s meant to promote usage of the Metro, it always contains illustrated walking tours focused on one or two specific stations. If you want to explore the off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods of Tokyo, this is a great resource!

Suica Card
This is a refillable prepaid train fare card, and it’s the first thing you want to get when you arrive in Japan. You should probably go ahead and get one in the airport as soon as you get off the plane. You can get one at the automatic vending machines next to train stations, and the process is super easy. Your Suica card will work just about everywhere in Japan, and you can use it in all sorts of places, from convenience stores to movie theaters. If you’re feeling hardcore, you can link it to your smartphone and your bank account.

Seventeen Places to Visit

Tokyo National Museum
This is the big museum of Japanese art and culture that you definitely want to see. It’s in Ueno Park in northeast Tokyo, not too far away from the zoo.

Shitamachi Museum
This is also in Ueno Park. It’s a small museum, just the inside of an old house, but you can walk through it and see how people lived during the first half of the twentieth century.

Edo-Tokyo Museum
This indoor museum is probably the best place to go if you want to learn more about the history of the city of Tokyo. The architecture is really cool, and it’s a neat space to walk around. It’s also not too far away from Akihabara.

Art Aquarium
Fish and art and over-the-top spectacle. It’s really close to Tokyo Station, whose interconnected underground shopping streets are another blitz of sensory overload.

Maruzen Nipponbashi Branch
In my opinion, this is the best place to go in Tokyo for English-language books. Most of the English books they stock come from the UK, and they tend to be of higher quality than American publications of the same titles. These imports are expensive, though!

Meiji Shrine
The main shrine buildings are well worth visiting, especially because someone always seems to be getting married there. More than the shrine itself, however, the huge forested park is a great place to take a long walk while surrounded by nature. All of this is free, but I highly recommend paying the 500 yen entrance fee for the Inner Garden, which is especially lovely. Meiji Shrine is a major tourist destination, though, so you want to go early in the morning (probably as soon as they open the grounds) in order to avoid the crowds.

Nezu Museum
If you start at Meiji Shrine and walk along the Aoyama-dōri boulevard through Harajuku, you’ll eventually get to the Nezu Museum, which houses a private collection of Asian art. Even if you don’t care anything about sculpture and ceramics, the estate garden is gorgeous, and teahouse café at the entrance to the garden is a beautiful place to drink tea and eat cake and feel super fancy.

Aoyama Flower Market Tea House
This café is in the neighborhood of the Nezu Museum, and it’s one of the most beautiful interior spaces I’ve ever seen in my life. You definitely want to get there when they open, because they get busy! They have tasty salads, heavenly parfaits, and delicious teas. If you can’t get a seat here, the entire neighborhood of Aoyama is full of trendy little organic restaurants filled with beautiful young people. Even going into one of the Starbucks in this neighborhood will make you feel like a rockstar.

Sunshine Aquarium
This large rooftop aquarium has no redeeming cultural value, but it’s a cool place to spend an afternoon. If you watch a lot of anime set in contemporary Japan, you’re sure to recognize the setting! The caretaker talks showcasing the animals are a lot of fun to watch; and, since they’re geared toward children, they’re also relatively easy to understand. The Sunshine City shopping complex contains a Pokémon Center, a Studio Ghibli store, a Shonen Jump store, and other pop culture outlets. It also contains a Tokyu Hands, which is a great place to buy just about everything. The Tokyu Hands fronts the main outdoor shopping arcade, and they host small indie craft fairs at the entrance on the weekends.

Cat Café Nekorobi
This is right behind the Tokyu Hands, and it’s a warm space filled with softness and light. In my experience, it generally isn’t that crowded; and, although the cats are standoffish (but what can you expect, they’re cats), the staff and the other patrons are very friendly. What you really want to take your time with is the guestbook, which is an ongoing work of art. Also, this is the starting point of Otome Road, which is where you go if you’re looking for pop culture goods targeted at a female audience.

Shoto Museum of Art
This is a neat little art museum in Shibuya with some really cool gallery spaces. They exhibit a lot of early modern (Edo period) and modern (Meiji and Taishō period) art alongside contemporary work, and the architecture of the building is quite interesting as well.

Shibuya Botanical Center
This is a warm and happy healing space full of greenery. The entire building is suffused with humidity, and there’s free tea on the top floor. This is a great place to learn the Japanese names of flowers and plants, and it’s also a wonderful place to take selfies or pictures with your friends in soft diffuse light.

Mori Art Museum
This museum has some really cool exhibitions, which feature everything from avant-garde architectural photography to the work of popular manga artists. The gallery spaces are located at the top of a huge skyscraper, so the views of Tokyo from the windows are incredible. It’s located in the Roppongi Hills shopping complex, which is super trendy and also home to a large movie theater that shows a lot of American movies with subtitles. TV Asahi also has a presence in the area, so you can sometimes randomly encounter live performances of various Power Rangers and Doremon characters if you go during the afternoon.

Oedo Onsen Monogatari
This place is ridiculous. It’s an onsen theme park where you can go in and take all sorts of baths and eat all sorts of snacks and drink all sorts of beverages. A lot of people visit with their families, so it’s a good place to chill out in a yukata and watch people walk by. It’s in Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, so it’s kind of a pain in the ass to get to, but there’s a huge mall called VenusFort nearby that has an Italian-themed interior. The mall is an experience in and of itself, and you can often see brand-new idol groups performing there on pop-up stages.

Ghibli Museum
110% worth the hype. When you first enter, you’re allowed to watch a screening of an original short film, and your “ticket” is a tiny animation cell. You’d think that this place exists solely to sell you merchandise, but commercialism isn’t really the focus, thankfully. Still, you probably want to get a ticket for early in the morning before the crowds gather. You can only reserve a ticket in advance (usually at least a week in advance) from one of the digital vending machines in Lawson convenience stores, but the process isn’t really that difficult. Because of the scarcity of tickets, this is something you can only do if you’re in Japan for an extended period of time, so you should jump on the opportunity if you’re interested!

Yokohama Museum of Art
The building is awesome, and the exhibitions are always fantastic. The reason you’d want to make a special trip out to Yokohama, however, is because the museum is part of the Minato Mirai waterfront area, which is a huge upscale shopping complex and gourmet paradise. You can find the same sort of pop culture specialty chain stores (like the Pokémon Center) that are in Sunshine City in Ikebukuro, but Minato Mirai is way more classy and far less crowded over the weekend. Also, there are a lot of restaurants in the Yokohama Chinatown that have branches in Minato Mirai, and it’s usually much easier to get a table here than it is in the main branches.

Meigetsuin Temple in Kamakura
Why go all the way to Kyoto when you can go to Kamakura? You’ll probably have to go through Yokohama to get here, but it’s really not that far away from Tokyo, and the train ride is lovely. I recommend getting off the train at Kita-Kamakura Station and then walking to Kamakura proper along the main road while visiting a few temples along the way. Engakuji and Kenchōji are the two most popular sites, but my favorite is Meigetsuin, which is known as “the hydrangea temple” because of its stunning mountainside walking garden. Due to the natural beauty of the area and relatively low rent, a lot of artists live in Kamakura, and there are all sorts of small galleries and lovely cafés in and around the city. Once the weather gets warm, you’ll notice that the lifestyle magazines in convenience stores start featuring Kamakura locations on their covers, and it’s well worth consulting one for recommendations!