Death, Nature & Ihatovo Monogatari for the Super Nintendo

Posthumously famous Japanese writer and poet Kenji Miyazawa wrote a lot about space, but not space as we know it. Instead of the cold, isolating expanse of nothingness that we are familiar with, Miyazawa’s space is a flourishing, vibrant and surreal paradise; it is, quite literally, heaven. Pink flowers bloom on the rivers of the Milky Way, great constellations dominate the skyline, conversing with those who call out to them, and the ‘Galactic Express’ ferries its passengers to their final, idyllic resting place, reuniting them with those they cherished most. This imagery can all be found in Miyazawa’s most popular work (both in Japan and worldwide in translation) Night on the Galactic Express, the poignant tale of two young boys, Giovanni and Campanella, and their journey through the stars. Miyazawa’s prose, wonderfully translated by Julianne Neville, is simultaneously simple and textually layered, combining the enigmatic richness of poetry, with the moral clarity of the children’s fable (although to reduce what Miyazawa wrote to the label of ‘for children’ is doing his work a great disservice). Particularly moving is the way in which the author weaves religion into this story, combining his practiced Nichiren Buddhism with his respect and admiration for the virtues of Christianity. Heaven is always with us, and God is, perhaps, entirely personal.

Giovanni questions another passenger on the ‘Galactic Express’, a Christian tutor who drowned saving two children on the Titanic, asking him as he disembarks at ‘heaven’ ‘why do you want to go to a place like that? Who’s to say it’s the real thing?’. The tutor retorts that ‘maybe the God you believe in is fake’, which prompts Giovanni to exclaim that while he is ‘not quite sure’ of the kind of God he believes in, he does know it is ‘the one true God’. The young man agrees that there is only one true God, ending the conversation by telling the young boy that he ‘can only pray’ both Giovanni and Campanella are seeing him disembark ‘before that true God now’. This considered approach to religion, this open-minded exploration of individual spirituality and faith is incredibly moving. Written in 1927, Miyazawa’s sentiments are distinctly modern, striking an intellectual balance, which enhances the moral complexity of the tale. It is quite clear that Miyazawa was heavily influenced by the death of his beloved younger sister in 1922, and in writing about death, he wrestles with the concept of an afterlife — not just for his sister, but for humanity as a whole. No one is denied entry to paradise aboard the ‘Galactic Express’, there is a stop for everyone along the tracks of infinity, and there is always room amongst the stars.

Kenji Miyazawa dressed in a similar fashion to the game’s protagonist.

Death and religion, while central themes of Miyazawa’s oeuvre, are equally complemented by his affection for and preoccupation with the natural world. From a young age, the poet was uncomfortable with the way his well-off family treated the working farmers of Iwate (his hometown), and this eventually led to a rift between him and his father. Miyazawa went on to study and specialise in agricultural science, before becoming a teacher and eventually resigning from that post to pursue farming. As a farmer, Miyazawa used his scientific knowledge to help his fellow impoverished workmen, teaching them modern methods of cultivation. This respect for simple and pure living, for nature, is most apparent in Miyazawa’s fables (translated by John Bester as ‘tales’), which he consistently produced during his lifetime. Like most historical examples of the literary genre, these fables often include talking animals illustrating a moral lesson. These lessons, in Miyazawa’s case, act as a warning to those too eager to exploit creatures and the natural world for personal gain (Ozbel and the Elephant is a particularly clear example). Animals too, however, succumb to the human traits of vanity and self-importance in a few of the author’s stories. Miyazawa is primarily concerned with the pursuit of a selfless, noble and understated life — his definition of nobility hinging on the idea of service unto others. Characters within his fables are usually punished for lying, complacency, or ignoring those in need. This is not to say, however, that Miyazawa’s morally just characters are spared acts of cruelty. The author is acutely aware of the random nature of the universe and approaches it with a considered, sympathetic pen. Fables which some may accuse of being inconsequential, or pointless, often resonate with a deeper understanding of the natural world — sometimes things just happen and we, as humans, must accept that with grace and humility. The complex morality and depth of Miyazawa’s work seems the perfect fit for a video game, right? Japanese developer Hect certainly thought so.

An in-game map of Ihatovo and the surrounding area.

Released in 1993 (and fan translated in 2018) for the Super Nintendo, Ihatovo Monogatari is an adventure game that not only features Kenji Miyazawa as a central character but adapts several of the author’s fables and stories as chapters within the game. The player takes control of the nameless protagonist as he arrives in the peaceful, mysterious town of Ihatovo (named after Ihatov, the fictional utopia that appears regularly in the author’s work). Having no idea where he is, or why he is there, the player character talks to a few of the townspeople, before setting out to meet local hero, Kenji Miyazawa. The protagonist is then sent to meet Fazello, a character named after one of the schoolchildren featured in Galactic Railroad. Every important NPC within Ihatovo Monogatari shares a name with a Miyazawa character, even if their personalities or physical appearance are different. Fazello, for example, is a grown man within the game, who acts as a central, reoccurring guide for the player, giving them tips on where to go next. He also provides the player with the main quest of the game, to find Kenji’s seven journals and through their acquisition, meet the man himself. Miyazawa takes on something of a mythical role within Ihatovo Monogatari, always seemingly one step ahead of the player, just barely out of reach every single time. Other characters (animals included) speak of the man in reverent tones, building him up as an omnipresent force for good. His seven journals are treated as sacred tomes, and you are told early on in your journey that only one who is pure of heart can hope to obtain all of them.

As mentioned, each chapter is a retelling, or continuation of, one of Miyazawa’s stories. During the opening act of the game, the protagonist obtains the ‘shellfire’ (translated by Bester in The Tales of Miyazawa as ‘the fire stone’), an orb that allows him to understand and converse with animals; a skill that is implied to still be available to children (the pure communing with the pure). The ‘shellfire’ is lent to the player by Professor Ursus Spelaeus (literally cave bear), who retells the tale of Homoi, a young hare who is gifted the ‘shellfire’ for his noble deeds, an item that identifies him as leader of the animals. While young and inexperienced, Homoi initially proves a capable leader, but is soon manipulated by a clever fox and becomes corrupt and lazy, allowing the fox to do as he pleases. Despite eventually learning his lesson, the ‘shellfire’ shatters, blinding Homoi and removing itself from his ownership. That is where Ursus’ tale ends, as does the written fable, but Ihatovo Monogatari continues to flesh out the story in an interesting way. You proceed to discover that Ursus sealed the ‘shellfire’ away within a stone tomb, designating the very same fox that corrupted Homoi as permanent guardian. After the player obtains the orb, the fox is freed from his position and expresses regret for his actions, citing a change of heart. The player is then advised to place the ‘shellfire’ on Homoi’s grave (now deceased within the continuity of Ihatovo Monogatari), who appears to the player as a ghost and warns him to ‘not fall into the snares of [the] heart’ as he did, and to avoid ‘arrogance’ and ‘pride[fulness]’. This in-game continuation of Miyazawa’s fable feels considered and apt, a melancholy, yet hopeful conclusion to the tale of a young hare who, in some ways, felt too much too fast. The bitterness of death lingers over the chapter, but is sweetened somewhat by an understated optimism, the idea that with the passage of time comes both wisdom, healing and ultimately redemption. The ‘shellfire’ is an item that is kept by the player throughout the whole game, a reminder of Homoi, and a reminder to the player not to take their position in the world of Ihatovo Monogatari for granted — they must practice the virtues of patience and kindness.

Outside the train station of the titular town of Ihatovo.

Ihatovo Monogatari adopts a deliberate pace. Character movement is slow, accessing the inventory is a little laboured and text cannot be easily sped up. The player must be prepared to revisit the streets of Ihatovo and its surrounding areas multiple times. There are no battles, gameplay consists purely of character dialogue and the occasional use of key items, which can be found hidden within the game world (sometimes a little too well). The player usually cannot progress until the correct character has been addressed, and the way forward can occasionally become opaque. The player must remain patient and diligent when exploring Ihatovo — all rewards becoming apparent the longer you spend engaged in the game world. There is something to be said for Ihatovo Monogatari’s dedication to peaceful, non-violent gameplay and how that comes to act as a reflection of Kenji Miyazawa’s philosophy. In some ways, it would be so easy for developer Hect to have shoehorned in random battles to pad out the game’s length. There are more than enough strange talking creatures within Miyazawa’s work to string together a bunch of enemy encounters, but that would be entirely antithetical to the distinctly Buddhist principles of the author’s life. There is a great joy within Ihatovo Monogatari, a subtle joy that manifests through the simple acts of life; talking to people, helping those in need and watching time slowly tick by. Seasons change within the game, people come and go, some die, some move away, but the protagonist remains — a single, player-driven force of pure heartedness within Ihatovo, one that does not ask for anything in return for his good deeds. A great, resonant restraint manifests within the game, elevating it as a poignant piece of pacifist media.

This dedication to simple living is also seen in the game’s art direction. The sprite work and locations are often basic, perhaps underselling the rich, evocative locations often described in Miyazwa’s tales, but they are also pleasant and charming in their simplicity. The music, on the other hand, is outstanding. Composer, Tsukasa Tawada (perhaps best known for scoring multiple Pokémon spin-offs), delivers an achingly melancholy set of tracks that expertly evoke the underlying sadness and beauty of Ihatovo Monogatari. The theme of the main hub area, Town, is particularly compelling, acting both as a comfort — an audial representation of a safe, homely place — as well as a reminder of the inexorable passage of time. The final musical track, Exceeding Space-Time, is also a standout. Initially a menacing, uncertain melody, it builds (much like the finale of the game) into a sweeping, triumphant celebration of new beginnings.

A screencap from an animated adaption of Night on the Galactic Railroad.

The ending of Ihatovo Monogatari wraps the entire experience up succinctly and elegantly. After finding all of Kenji’s missing journals, the player is left a map by the author and instructed to meet him at the designated spot. The spot in question is actually the stone-pillar topped hill from Night on the Galactic Railroad, the same hill that Giovanni lay on before being transported onto the ‘Galactic Express’. Arriving at the hill, the protagonist is taken to an ethereal, cosmic void full of houses. All of these are occupied by characters you have met along your journey and even the dead are there to converse with you. The fox that was killed by the earth God for lying can be found in the house on the left; he no longer feels the need to tell tall tales about ‘German telescopes’, having found a suitable place amongst the stars. Ozbel, the man who unapologetically took advantage of the white elephant, is there as well — forgiven perhaps, for the sins he committed in life. Homoi is there, freed from his state of undeath. Most of these characters, some children included, board the ‘Galactic Express’. Kenji finally appears at this strange frontier and takes the player to the station. He thanks the protagonist for returning his journals and shows the conductor his ticket, before being let on the train. You, the player, do not have a ticket in your inventory, but try searching enough times and one, as if by magic, appears. Your ticket is like that of Giovanni’s, it is a ticket that will let you ride anywhere. Following Kenji onto the train, you say your final farewells to a lot of the central characters you met along the way, who are now, tickets in hand, moving on to better and brighter places. Some have already found their place, choosing not to board the train at all. Kenji does not know what you will find at the end of the galactic railroad, but claims that, whatever it is, ‘you will [both] find out together’. The game ends not with a bang, but with a wonderful, mysterious, life-affirming ascension into the warm embrace of Kenji Miyazawa’s space. After his death at the age of 37 in 1933, Miyazawa did board the ‘Galactic Express’, with a one-way ticket to wherever his beloved sister was waiting for him. Ihatovo Monogatari does a sublime job of proving that fact and allowing us a taste, like Giovanni, of that ‘feeling’ — that ‘feeling of soaring straight through outer space’.

The phenomenon called “I”

is a blue illumination

of the hypothesised, organic alternating current lamp

(a compound of all transparent ghosts)

a blue illumination

of the karmic alternating current lamp

which flickers busily, busily

with landscapes, with everyone

yet remains lit with such assuredness

(the light persists, the lamp lost).

Excerpt from Spring & Asura — Kenji Miyazawa

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