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some writing on FF7's real-world significance

ReGiNaLd

Rookie Adventurer
AKA
too many names
hello - my first post here.

I have written a very long script about the significance of the the name "Sephiroth", as in, why the creators opted to use this name, and what did they mean by it.

Of course, at this point everyone knows about the kabbalah connection. There have already been some interesting articles posted about it here and elsewhere. But I wanted to go in a different direction and ask: what the Japanese creators of this game (amongst others) were trying to say about the real world that we live in, by invoking this term from Jewish mysticism? For instance, what philosophical themes does it evoke? What is the history behind them? What, if anything, does this imply about the political message of this game (beyond facile liberal vs. conservative type of discussions)? Finally, why would Japanese video game makers be interested in esoteric themes from more of a Western setting?

However - I don't really know what to do with this article now I have written it! It's not high-level enough to try and publish in an academic journal. But its also too high-level to make into a simple video series or similar.

So my questions to all of you are the following:
1) is this remotely interesting?
2) what should I do with this piece of writing?

Thank you in advance.
 

Ghost X

Strike
You're not leaving yourself many options. What can you do but post it here :monster:. Not sure what post length limits exist, but if it is too long, you can always do multiple posts.

Coincidentally, I came across some writing on the topic in the last week, but it was guess work, iirc, and I don't think the author concluded anything about real world commentary. Just that it was used as a means to write the story. I've no clue what developers have actually said, if anything, about it. I think any use of Western stuff by Japanese people could easily be explained as basically the reverse of Western interest in Japan: An interest in different cultures, unless there is deeper intentional meaning attached, etc.

Anyway, I'm curious of your take.
 

ReGiNaLd

Rookie Adventurer
AKA
too many names
When I say "long" I mean like 10,000 words long. It's really not the kind of thing that would work as a forum post, or even as a series of them. Initially I had the idea to make it into a several part video series or podcast. But once I had written it I realised it might not work so well in that format!

I knew that there were some longer-form essays published on the website here so I approached Lex to pitch the idea to him. He suggested I post here to see how much interest there was.

The level it's pitched at is for people who are maybe interested in philosophy or theology (and a little medieval history) , but who might not have studied it. The idea is to encourage people to look into such things for themselves.

As for my "take" - well, all such efforts are bound to be interpretive. Of course, the developers of the games do give some clues in their interviews, and also through other games you can make inferences about the context and meaning of what we see in the game.

But no, there isn't any smoking gun where the developers say "we are saying x about politics or religion". After all, they had a game too sell, and they are/were trying to sell it to an (American) audience who may not be receptive to being bashed on the head with the game's message(s) in that way. In my article I deal with some fairly "thorny" topics that FF7 brings up, topics I doubt the developers would have wanted to highlight too obviously in interviews.
 

Juge_F_G

Rookie Adventurer
When I say "long" I mean like 10,000 words long. It's really not the kind of thing that would work as a forum post, or even as a series of them. Initially I had the idea to make it into a several part video series or podcast. But once I had written it I realised it might not work so well in that format!

I knew that there were some longer-form essays published on the website here so I approached Lex to pitch the idea to him. He suggested I post here to see how much interest there was.

The level it's pitched at is for people who are maybe interested in philosophy or theology (and a little medieval history) , but who might not have studied it. The idea is to encourage people to look into such things for themselves.

As for my "take" - well, all such efforts are bound to be interpretive. Of course, the developers of the games do give some clues in their interviews, and also through other games you can make inferences about the context and meaning of what we see in the game.

But no, there isn't any smoking gun where the developers say "we are saying x about politics or religion". After all, they had a game too sell, and they are/were trying to sell it to an (American) audience who may not be receptive to being bashed on the head with the game's message(s) in that way. In my article I deal with some fairly "thorny" topics that FF7 brings up, topics I doubt the developers would have wanted to highlight too obviously in interviews.
I love the idea. As for the amount of words, maybe a pdf file is a good option. That way it is possible to download it, and the word limit won't really be an issue. I would be interrested in reading it!
 

ReGiNaLd

Rookie Adventurer
AKA
too many names
Thanks!
Of course, whoever is interested in reading it is welcome to ask, I don't mind distributing a pdf or similar - though its still a bit draft-y just now. PM me if that's of genuine interest.

I suppose what I'm asking is: what is the best way to make it accessible to the largest number of people?

My current idea is to post it in a blog, and to make recordings of it for people who would rather listen as a podcast (though I think the latter might be more use a sleep aid!)

I suppose I could just post links here when I've done that.
 

Elkazor

Lv. 25 Adventurer
AKA
Cinder Wing
A very interesting writeup!

I have some thoughts of my own on the topic.

Multiple Japanese stories in media in the 90s used Kabbalah mysticism and symbols in their works. It is not at all unique to FFVII. It was a common theme in a lot of Japanese media of the time.

Evangelion used it. The Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series used it. Xenogears used it. A major theory I have for why these themes kept popping up in the media of that time is that Y2K was right around the corner, and there was a huge boom in stories that had existential themes about humanity as a whole and how it was evolving into a new millennium.

Why Japanese stories had a particular interest in the Jewish Kabbalah in particular is an interesting question that I think warrants a separate discussion.
 

ReGiNaLd

Rookie Adventurer
AKA
too many names
A very interesting writeup!

I have some thoughts of my own on the topic.

Multiple Japanese stories in media in the 90s used Kabbalah mysticism and symbols in their works. It is not at all unique to FFVII. It was a common theme in a lot of Japanese media of the time.

Evangelion used it. The Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series used it. Xenogears used it. A major theory I have for why these themes kept popping up in the media of that time is that Y2K was right around the corner, and there was a huge boom in stories that had existential themes about humanity as a whole and how it was evolving into a new millennium.

Why Japanese stories had a particular interest in the Jewish Kabbalah in particular is an interesting question that I think warrants a separate discussion.
Yes, I have a bit of a theory on this. It should be a bit clearer by the end of part 3 (I'll put part 2 up on Friday).

Basically, as far as I'm concerned, it has to do with Japanese developers coming to terms with Western religious themes, especially after ww2. I'm not an expert by any means however. I'm only vaguely familiar with evangelion, bezerk, etc. Hate to say it but I'm really not into anime/manga!

It is very strange though, how so many games around that time seem to have loads of stuff about kabbalah/gnosticism/alchemy, or else Freudian/Nietzschean/Jungian themes. Not what you'd immediately think to put in a cartoon or video game...Why would they be into that stuff all of a sudden? I'd like to know others' thoughts, or any research you know of.
 

Elkazor

Lv. 25 Adventurer
AKA
Cinder Wing
The only theory I have as to why there was a particular interest in Jewish mysticism is some kind of prolonged Japanese guilt about siding with the Nazis in WWII. Which led to an increase down the line in Japanese interest in Jewish concepts.

I have no idea how accurate that actually is though. Just speculation.
 

ReGiNaLd

Rookie Adventurer
AKA
too many names
The only theory I have as to why there was a particular interest in Jewish mysticism is some kind of prolonged Japanese guilt about siding with the Nazis in WWII. Which led to an increase down the line in Japanese interest in Jewish concepts.

I have no idea how accurate that actually is though. Just speculation.
It's difficult to prove such things, since all we have to go on is what the game's text says, and what the developers say publicly. I'm not sure it's possible to generalise how all Japanese people feel about their role in ww2.

But we can, at least, say that there's some ambivalence there for the FF developers. On one hand, we get all these storylines about accepting different people and cultures (ffx in particular). On the other, we get a number of games in which the main antagonist is basically Jaweh/Jehova (Jenova/Sephiroth, Yu Yevon) or some other thinly disguised version of monotheistic God.

I have a lot more to say about this in the essay though, so you'll have to wait!
 

Elkazor

Lv. 25 Adventurer
AKA
Cinder Wing
Yes, I didn't intend to come off as generalizing with that comment, it was just all I could think of. Though, when you brought up the amount of Japanese games that use elements of monotheistic religions for various commentaries, that is probably another likely connection as to why Jewish symbolism is used often as well.
 

Rydeen

The Sauce™
Re: The reason for Japanese interest in Kabbalah. I'm not an expert, but I've always had an interest in religion and spirituality, so here's my idea. Kabbalah is a highly philosophized and esoteric offshoot of Judaism. Some important themes include paradoxes, the flow of "energy", meditation, multiplicity within oneness, and reincarnation, which are also important themes in many Asian traditions, such as Daoism, Hiduism, and Buddhism (though not really Shintoism, ironically), and in a fair amount of Asian fiction. Being foreign to Asia, it has an "exotic" appeal, while retaining a level of commonality that may draw the interest of an Asian writer. Carl Jung had a broad appeal. He was kind of a Unitarian and seemed to want to tie all spirituality and folklore together under the umbrella of human psychology, and was heavily influenced by Hinduism in particular.

In the context of FFVII, on a surface level, Sephiroth's name makes sense. Sefirot represents "totality" and all of its manifestations. Which is what Sephiroth is going for. :monster: Whoever thought of it probably thought it sounded cool as well, and the rest is history.
 
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ReGiNaLd

Rookie Adventurer
AKA
too many names
Re: The reason for Japanese interest in Kabbalah. I'm not an expert, but I've always had an interest in religion and spirituality, so here's my idea. Kabbalah is a highly philosophized and esoteric offshoot of Judaism. Some important themes include paradoxes, the flow of "energy", meditation, multiplicity within oneness, and reincarnation, which are also important themes in many Asian traditions, such as Daoism, Hiduism, and Buddhism (though not really Shintoism, ironically), and in a fair amount of Asian fiction. Being foreign to Asia, it has an "exotic" appeal, while retaining a level of commonality that may draw the interest of an Asian writer. Carl Jung had a broad appeal. He was kind of a Unitarian and seemed to want to tie all spirituality and folklore together under the umbrella of human psychology, and was heavily influenced by Hinduism in particular.

In the context of FFVII, on a surface level, Sephiroth's name makes sense. Sefirot represents "totality" and all of its manifestations. Which is what Sephiroth is going for. :monster: Whoever thought of it probably thought it sounded cool as well, and the rest is history.
Yes, obviously Jung was a big influence for a lot of games during the PS1 and 2 era - Silent Hill 2 does this the best (can't believe I only got round to playing that game last year...). As for FF7, I guess we see Cloud confronting his shadow during the Mideel/lifestream section, and Aeris/Aerith seems to play the archetypal role of the anima.

Honestly I'm not fond of Jung though: having read a certain amount of his work he seems like a moraliser rather than a psychologist. I also don't have much time for "perennialism" in religious studies (i.e. the idea of a perennial philosophy that is common to all religions and cultures across history) though its an interesting historical point of view, I suppose.

in reply to your actual point: I seem to recall reading - i think it somewhere on this website in fact - that there's a clue to the kabbalah thing in northern cave, as there's an enemy there that is a reference to David Bowie. The author speculates that Sephiroth's design draws on the whole "thin white duke aesthetic" (though actually I think that's more like Rufus) and that it refers somehow to a lyric in a Bowie song "from keter to malkuth" (I paraphrase). It's a believable theory, although there are quite a few logical leaps that we have to follow to get there. It also still doesn't explain what was so appealing about kabbalist references in general (whether it came through Bowie, D&D or elsewhere). That's what I've tried to address toward the end of my essay.
 
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Nandemoyasan

Standing guard
AKA
Johnny
You know, it might have been something as simple as Nojima wanting to make a bad guy for his story, observing that Gods are powerful, that the last bosses of FFV and FFVI were approaching something Judeo-Christian themed, and that Judeo-Christian teachings are Monotheistic (they teach that there’s only one God, that is), and that any usurpment of that metaphorical throne is seen as a sort of complete rejection of all that is good, in those teachings. The logic from there, then, would be saying “This is how I can show that my bad guy is really really irredeemably bad.”

Shinto Buddhism teachings tend toward an indifferent and impersonal God, when they approach anything resembling a God at all. The highly personal and involved nature of the Judeo-Christian representation of God means that this being is very emphatic about what He considers right and wrong.

First commandment of the ten is almost always translated as “You shall have no other Gods.”

…So Hojo naming his genetically engineered “God” something like “Sephiroth,” for example, is Hojo’s way of spitting in God’s face and daring Him to smite his creation.
 

ReGiNaLd

Rookie Adventurer
AKA
too many names
You know, it might have been something as simple as Nojima wanting to make a bad guy for his story, observing that Gods are powerful, that the last bosses of FFV and FFVI were approaching something Judeo-Christian themed, and that Judeo-Christian teachings are Monotheistic (they teach that there’s only one God, that is), and that any usurpment of that metaphorical throne is seen as a sort of complete rejection of all that is good, in those teachings. The logic from there, then, would be saying “This is how I can show that my bad guy is really really irredeemably bad.”

Shinto Buddhism teachings tend toward an indifferent and impersonal God, when they approach anything resembling a God at all. The highly personal and involved nature of the Judeo-Christian representation of God means that this being is very emphatic about what He considers right and wrong.

First commandment of the ten is almost always translated as “You shall have no other Gods.”

…So Hojo naming his genetically engineered “God” something like “Sephiroth,” for example, is Hojo’s way of spitting in God’s face and daring Him to smite his creation.
Thank you for some excellent points!

Yes, indeed, I recall that the design for Sephiroth was as simple as Nomura wanting to have a "cool" looking character. I think they also said somewhere that they wanted the visual relationship between Cloud and Sephiroth to be something like Musashi Miyamoto and Sasaki Kojiro, historical Japanese figures (according to wikipedia: 'Kojirō was known for wielding an oversized nodachi (Japanese greatsword) called a "laundry-drying pole" for its length') - there is a statue of them engaged in combat somewhere that the FF7 designs are somewhat based on.

On the other hand, the "killing God" trope in FF5, 6 and 7 obviously comes from somewhere. It's clear to me that a lot of these Japanese developers have been reading Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, etcetera... I'm not really an expert on Shintoism, so I can't comment on that, but it does seem like there's an ambivalence about monotheism in these games. It also occurred to me recently that the section of the Kalm flashback where Sephiroth descends into the mansion and refuses to speak to anyone is quite similar to the story of Isaac Luria (i.e. the Lurianic Kabbalah guy) secluding himself and refusing to speak even to family members for a period. Not sure how much of this was deliberate or intentional but there's certainly a lot there.

As for the story, I can't remember if it was Nomura, Nojima or one of the others who said it, but I recall something about them wanting to have a character that the player would be chase for the majority of the game (or at least the first half). There is more than a hint of Frankenstein in FF7s story: just like the protagonist of that book, we spend a large chunk of the game chasing a genetically modified monster across the globe, one whose motivations only become perspicuous to us slowly over the course of the story. Frankenstein and his monster are examples of the Romantic trope of the doppelganger, where two opposed characters are, in some sense, identical; similarly in FF7 we have Barrett making a comment at some stage about Cloud being Sephiroth's "shadow" or something to that effect.

And finally, yes, you are right about Hojo. Again, the Frankenstein connections are strong. Hojo might be considered an example of the Romantic "over-reacher" character trope, someone whose creation is "hubris", a crime against God, the gods, or nature.

I would love to know if anyone can shed any light on Hojo's name. Where did they get that from/what does it mean? Most of the other names in the game seem to have some significance, so...
 

Nandemoyasan

Standing guard
AKA
Johnny
On the other hand, the "killing God" trope in FF5, 6 and 7 obviously comes from somewhere.

You’re making this way more complex than I think it was.

To challenge the player, they have to keep making the enemies stronger and stronger as the game continues.

…nothing is stronger than a God, so…

I don’t see any real use in speculating on cultural paradigms that may or may not have been in existence in Japan in the 80s and 90s, when your key questions are about the ideas of a highly localized group of D&D and manga/anime nerds which happened to make video games for Squaresoft. You’re elevating this to an intellectual level that makes more of it than I think there was.
 

ReGiNaLd

Rookie Adventurer
AKA
too many names
There is as much or as little point as you personally care about. After all, why study anything made by foreigners? Or people from the past?

There is no "cultural paradigm" as such; like you say, this was a highly localised group who represent no one but themselves. I'm not interested in making any broad generalisations about the cultural milieu in general, only about the people who made these things. Why were these "nerds" making these things the way they made them? I don't claim to know this, I'm just pointing to inferences we can draw from the material which is at our disposal.

And so we come to the are weirdly specific names/ideas/ things drawn on (Sephiroth, Heidegger, the promised land, tifa/aerith, etcetera) in this game. They could have just called the bad guys Tom Dick or Harry after all without altering the story or the gameplay...but they didn't.

You may be correct that there's nothing more to it than "this sounds cool, lets put it in the game". I'm simply pointing to other possibilities.
 

Nandemoyasan

Standing guard
AKA
Johnny
I don't want you to feel too attacked, here; goodness knows there's enough spiteful mud-slinging going on on the internet since it became a thing in the late 80s. I just feel that if intellectual discourse is to indeed be intellectual, then Occam's Razor* ought to be applied as liberally as it can be.

Otherwise, you end up going down all kinds of rabbit holes that can lead into tangents of logical thought that loop inside out on each other, or worse, go nowhere. Utilitarianism is big for me; "how useful is the thing," is what I tend to ask about just about everything.

*"The simplest logical explanation is often the correct one."
 

ReGiNaLd

Rookie Adventurer
AKA
too many names
No, that's fine. I believe people shouldn't engage in such discussions if they're not prepared to take criticisms or defend their ideas.

I assume we are talking about the same questions (i.e. what does all of this kabbalah stuff mean in the context of FF7)? Occam's razor is well and good, but only if there is actually an explanation (an answer to the question above) to begin with! The way I see it, there are three possibilities:

1. (least likely) I am correct, and I'm so correct that I was somehow able to read the minds of the developers, even though I didn't think that was what I had done.

2. (more likely) You are correct, and the stuff in this game is as simple as game-design principles (the final boss has to be godlike in order to pose a real challenge), plus the developers being D&D nerds who heard about kabbalah and thought it sounded cool. But even then, the terminology and concepts they have borrowed come from somewhere, and have a real-world meaning and history outside of the game and its development context. So that is still interesting and worthwhile to know about, I think (see below).

3. (most likely) we are both incorrect, it's neither just game design, nor are the developers of the game intending to say what I think they are. But even then, just because someone doesn't intend to say something, it doesn't follow that they haven't effectively said it. As I say at the beginning of the essay, I'm not principally concerned with the author's explicitly stated intentions, but with what we can draw from the text itself. And, in fact, Square have deliberately cultivated this ambiguity in their games as part of their marketing strategy for a long time now. I don't remember the interview, but I'm sure Nomura has talked about this as part of how they make FF games so vague/symbolic, because it encourages such a huge level of player engagement ("did everyone die at the end of FF7?" "Is Tidus alive somewhere at the end of 10?" etcetera). After all, what are we doing right now?

As for utilitarianism, I (very clearly) have less fondness than you, I think the world would be a very boring place if we only valued things according to Bentham's "felicific calculus". I'm not sure I would want to live in a world where every decision boiled down to "is this useful?" or "does this please the most number of people?". But even if we do accept your position, we don't always have the foresight to see what positive or negative effects every action will have in future. Neither of us have a full idea what benefit/harm people will get from reading my essay.

But this isn't a philosophy forum so I'll leave it there.
 

Nandemoyasan

Standing guard
AKA
Johnny
Utlitarianism is a design thing

Writing has to be designed like any kind of art

…I might have spent too much time thinking about three minute pop songs in my life

I am very very tired lol
 
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