Shenmue: Locations and Themes / 6th of August 2014
Much has been written about Shenmue, I myself have written several articles on the subject, typically calling for a third entry into the series or wondering why the HD versions of the games that we all want are instead left in limbo. There have been appraisals too, of course, but this time, I want to look at something completely different, I want to focus on the locations that the games are set in, and look at a common theme that runs between both of them. This will be by no means as in-depth a study as one could complete on the subject, I may look at comparing the virtual setting against the real world one, but ultimately this will remain more of a personal account, my own interpretation of how these settings came to feature in the games, which will obviously leave them open to being erroneous, but in such an event, I can only hope that you will forgive me, just this once…
The immediate focus of the player, upon setting foot in either of the two Shenmue games, is surely drawn towards the astounding quality of the visuals, which, despite the shortcomings of the Dreamcast hardware, were a marvel to be seen. The level of slowdown was obviously an issue, but putting this aside, the traversable map in either game was beyond impressive, particularly in Shenmue 2 where the world had grown almost exponentially, and without too much of a drop in detail. On top of this, the setting was more varied, as Ryo moved from the Hong Kong harbour area through Kowloon and eventually on to the Guilin area of China, where he would at last meet Ling Shen Hua, a character prominently displayed in even the earliest of demo footage from the first game. Interestingly, the game eschews the bright lights and skycrapers of Hong Kong for a dingy, darker side of the city populated with some of its poorest inhabitants. Much like the original game, there is an almost David Lynch-like element as both settings feature seedy underworlds bubbling away beneath the surface of the quaint, everyday life on top; the darker side is a world of smuggling, violence and murder, and it is a world that we have thus far only been able to scratch the surface of.
An interesting note about the original game, is that it is set within a hamlet of traditional Japanese culture, with Ryo himself being brought up, perhaps-to a certain extent-alien to the American cultural invasion of the country. An aspect of the game that was severely diminished in its US and European localisation processes, wherein the Coca-Cola branded vending machines were removed due to licensing constraints. Regardless though, Shenmue itself is a struggle with commercialisation, and as much a testament to the creative processes as it is signpost for the changing face of human civilisation and the loss of cultural identity, itself a theme reprised in the game’s sequel. The areas depicted within these two games, particularly Shenmue 2, are not intended to be accurate replications of the real world locations, but rather vehicles to carry the theme of change, of areas struggling in the face of external pressures and influences. The areas of Hong Kong that are represented in Shenmue 2 were being torn down to make way for the towers of glass and steel that make up the sprawling metropolis that now stands there today, but even in Suzuki’s idealised vision, the eighties ethos of greed is good claws at the hearts of communities as tradition is swept aside in the name of progress, leaving individuals and communities struggling to understand who they are.
The first area of Shenmue 2 that players encounter is Hong Kong’s harbour district, which is connected to the rich and exciting Golden Quarter by the brownstone buildings of Queen’s Street, this connecting road is designed to reflect the influence of Britain upon the area, and is of course based loosely on the real Queen’s Road, which was a series of interconnecting thoroughfares that the British built between 1841 and 1842 with assistance from several hundred Asian workers originating from Shenmue 2’s main area, Kowloon. The walled city featured in the game was still standing in the real world at that time, an area officially known as Kowloon City, which underwent a dramatic facelift in the early nineties as the densely packed tower blocks gave way to the bright lights and chic modern architecture of a city reflecting in it the changing face of modern China. Kowloon is the last area of Hong Kong that Ryo travels to before leaving for Guilin, and reflecting the region at the time, it is both densely populated and visibly poor, a haven for criminal activity. The walls of the city literally and figuratively cut off Kowloon from the rest of the world, creating a society in and of itself that feels as though it is a world away from the streets of Hong Kong, but this change of scenery is not quite as severe as the one that would invariably follow that.
China, much like its neighbour Japan, is an interesting country for its ability to evolve into something that can reside at the cutting edge of technological and societal progress, and yet simultaneously maintain a strong sense of cultural identity, standing astride the present with one foot placed firmly in the past. Introducing Guilin displays that multifaceted side of the country, it is entirely rural, a region of dense woodland and crystal clear rivers, and perhaps most of all, it an area still dominated by mysticism whose supernatural beliefs are reflected in the stone mirrors that they create there. In actuality, Guilin is a city within the mountainous landscape of the Guangxi region in southern China, its name is a reference to the bounty of sweet osmanthus trees that grow within the boundaries of the city itself, making it a place of great beauty and a popular attraction in mainland China. One could imagine that Yu Suzuki chose the area as playing such a pivotal role in the story due its wondrous, indescribably beautiful landscape, and its ancient cave formations (primarily Seven Star Cave) that were undoubtedly a direct influence upon the setting for the finale of Shenmue 2.
Naturally, the whole Shenmue saga is centred on a tree, one found in the Guilin area both in the game and in the real world, what some don’t know is that it is in fact a peach tree, and that when the trees bloom in March in the Dalin Mountain Peach Garden, a great festival is held in its honour. In truth, the arrival of the peach blossom is celebrated throughout the country, much in the same way that the Japanese celebrate the cherry blossom in what is known as Hanami, a traditional Japanese custom that typically takes places around the same time (though such celebrations can take place anytime between January and June). This has consistently led me to assume that Suzuki was presumably captivated by the similarities, as much as the differences, between both Chinese and Japanese cultures, and that he wished to express this through the medium of his game. Whether it was intentional or not, this was a marvellous achievement for Shenmue’s narrative, which had clearly managed to move far beyond the typical kung-fu revenge story set-up and establish itself as being, potentially, a work of genuine depth. It is therefore rather saddening that we may never have the opportunity to see just where Yu Suzuki had intended to take us.
There can be no doubt that across the many chapters of its story, and years of its timeline, the thus far unpublished Shenmue narrative would have presented Suzuki with the opportunity to reflect in it yet further the changing face of society, to portray a world now eschewing tradition and community in favour of the alienation that globalisation has brought us. Today, we live in a world connected through technological innovation, and yet it has left us all utterly, and undeniably alone, and that is a feeling that our hero, Ryo Hazuki, is not entirely unfamiliar with.