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The Note: Author’s tool, author’s weapon

In a series of interviews from Cloud Message1 A promotion compilation book from late 2008 covering several then upcoming Square Enix titles with art, game screenshots, interviews and preview articles for these games., the interviewed creators were asked to give an item they frequently use for their work, one that would characterize their work. Final Fantasy scenario writer Kazushige NOJIMA chose a note book which he uses to write down ideas for his stories. Obviously it truly symbolizes the work of the author and from the title of his 2009 game Sakura Note we can tell how important the note is for NOJIMA as the canvas of the stories he writes. The note probably holds similar importance to most people involved in writing, may they write games, or more traditional word based media like novels or comics. Same is actually true for other artists working with the pen, like the artists of comics for example.

Editor TORISHIMA tells freelance writer HORII about the game programming contest at Enix.

Contest Winners

Games originally didn’t even need any writing so it is no surprise that some of the writing expertise used in games borrows from earlier media like comics. Yūji HORII, one of the few game writers broadly known by name in Japan and the inventor of Dragon Quest, started his career as a freelance writer for the manga anthology magazine Weekly Boys’ Jump. He also was an aspiring programmer and when an ad for a game programming contest ran by Enix was placed in Jump, HORII entered with a tennis game and won one of the three awards. Another award winner, Kōichi NAKAMURA, was to become at first HORII’s rival and later his partner on later games published by Enix, among them Dragon Quest. Jump editor Kazuhiko TORISHIMA, who had told HORII about the contest at Enix, was coaching Akira TORIYAMA at the time, the author of the immensely popular Jump series Dragon Ball, and TORISHIMA suggested that TORIYAMA should do the character and monster designs for the new game Dragon Quest. So two of the key figures that contributed to Dragon Quest‘s success were of Jump descent and it was Jump writing and Jump art that would define the series. In a way, Jump was the cradle were Dragon Quest was born.2 From the 1990 Making of Dragon Quest manga by artist Shōtarō ISHINOMORI and writer Hiroyuki TAKIZAWA.

Meeting Akira TORIYAMA

So games and comics aren’t that far divorced in their subject matter and style and I want to compare two works from recent years of these two fields in their treatment of the note as a symbolic item. The worlds in Jump stories are often completely original and fantastic, but when they are set in the real world something quite normal becomes attributed with magical powers or takes on a fantastic dimension. In Yūgi-Oh, trading cards not unlike the ones used by the young readers of Jump summon real magical creatures. Soccer players in manga may use trick shots not unlike the spectacular hissatsu waza (special moves) of fantastic martial artists. And Hikaru is trained in the game of Go by the ghost of his deceased grandfather.3 Hikaru no Go is a collaboration by writer Yumi HOTTA and artist Takeshi OBATA, who would later also draw Deathnote and Bakuman.

Warning: The following paragraphs contain spoilers for Deathnote by Takeshi OBATA and Tsugumi OHBA.

Deathnote follows this pattern by giving a supernatural quality to a note book. Usually belonging to grim reapers who use it to feed on humans by writing their names into it, thus ending their human lives when their time comes, it is dropped into the human world and found by Light YAGAMI, son of a police officer and a high school and soon to be university student. Light actually thinks he can use this note for good and starts executing fugitive and convicted criminals. It’s not unheard of Jump heroes to kill villains, but when a real life character who could be one of the readers of these comics does it, in a realistic setting and also in a way that would most of the time be judged as needlessly, seeing most of his victims are already in prison, we immediately have to question Light’s status as a Jump ‘hero’. He is more of a villain actually and the way the story develops confirms this assessment.

Writing fates

Deathnote is maybe a bit too dark and mature for the magazine it ran in, which despite the broad age range of its readership is primarily aimed at 10 to 14 year old boys, but it fits many aspects of the usual Jump formula which makes it an intriguing series. The question is, what kind of profession is given the fantastic ‘hero’ treatment in this example? First guess might be the usual detective or police officer, given the way Light is portrayed. But writing in a note isn’t characteristic of detective work, even though Light thinks like a detective. Rather he is a kind of author who pens people’s fates, just not as fiction and only the last thirty minutes of it. He basically is a crime novel author who decided that instead of letting innocent victims die and spending hundreds of pages of a detective catching the criminal and bringing him to, as Light must think, much too light justice he instead creates an utopia of absolute ‘justice’, where for a change the villains die, but also the investigators turning against Light and trying to safe the criminals. Some readers will still sympathize with Light despite the obvious ethical problems with accepting his childish ideas of justice, but it is the controversial character of Light that is illuminating to both the comic genre and human nature. We sometimes crave easy solutions to complex problems and Deathnote reminds us there are no easy solutions. Light instantly becomes what he claims to be fighting, a murderer.

Warning: The following paragraphs contain spoilers for the video game Dragon Quest X.

The legendary hero and the player (screen caps taken from the youtube videos by ShinsanShinshi)

But what about those other heroes, who kill monsters without regret? Simple solutions are less shocking if the setting of the story is equally simple, if the subjects of the killing act have less realistic or human qualities. But still, the silent critique contained in Deathnote does also shed some unfavorable light on these heroes. It is interesting to see that in Dragon Quest X there is a whole storyline dedicated to a magical note. Like the one in Deathnote it makes the things written in it become reality but unlike that one, its power isn’t limited to killing and its users never even use it for killing. Instead they themselves are threatened by death in case they use up all three wishes the note grants.

Queen Arwe writing a wish into her magical note book

Queen Arwe is delighted that the note she came into possession allowed her to meet the legendary hero Fostail from hundreds of years ago. Her next wish is that she will give birth to a son who will become as good looking and heroic as Fostail. Her wish is promising to be granted in Raguas, whose prophetic ability, which he shares with his mother even at a young age4 Given the fact that Raguas becomes the hero in the story he and originally his mother have written, the prophetic ability can be seen as knowledge of the story that develops, either because he already heard it from his mother or because he himself is writing it. By this interpretation it would be a self fulfilling prophecy. , scares his father and result in angry scoldings, which in turn make Raguas scared of his father. His mother cheers him up with the promise that he will one day obtain her treasure if he becomes as great as Fostail, the hero about who she tells her son stories.

But Arwe dies before Raguas comes of age and the young prince disappears after repeated quarrels with his grieving father. Who is intent to drive out the curse that has befallen his land with a purifying ceremony that might well be the end of him, as he’s weakened by a fatal illness. A man claiming to be Fostail arrives and implores the king to search for Arwe’s note instead, since he fears the king won’t survive the ceremony. As players we can tell that the man claiming to be Fostail really looks like the legendary hero, if we have already traveled to the past, as the story allows in another part of the game.

So when we help Fostail find Arwe’s note we learn that Raguas has already used one wish to turn himself into Fostail, which is why the legendary hero could appear 500 years after his own time. But this transformation into a hero didn’t save his land since it also resulted in Raguas losing his memory, that memory being replaced by a fantasy about becoming a hero that’s not really him. His original tool, the note, having been disguised as the hero Fostail’s lute. When he regains his identity of being a young prince he can use the note to make the curse disappear. Unfortunately his father still dies from the attempted ceremony. Raguas is of the opinion that his job is done by saving the land and his father would surely be more suited as a ruler than him, so he tries to use the last but fatal wish to resurrect his father.

Father and son

At this moment it is revealed what the final wish was that Arwe wrote into the note to cause her own untimely death: If Raguas was ever to use the third wish the note should disappear before he could write it. So the son is saved and the parents die before their child, as is the natural order. And Raguas has to rise to the role of king without relying on a magical tool.

Like Light, Raguas’s mother tries to create an utopia of good prevailing over evil, like in Light’s case using the note ultimately results in its user’s death. But unlike Light she never kills anyone and her narrative is benevolent, meant to shape her son into a good man. Still, the fantasy of becoming the legendary hero Fostail, which actually seems like a retelling of the original Dragon Quest trilogy in which the player would become the descendants of a legendary hero and eventually the legendary hero Roto himself in the final part 3, didn’t solve the problem at hand. It was meant to inspire goodness but it doesn’t define its form. The true solution is to banish the curse, to purify the narrative of our inner demons. Killing monsters symbolizes this purification, the villains are not the others but a part of ourselves.

“My note!”

But the fact remains that villains exist in reality and that there must be ways to deal with them. Light’s method is not an option in reality, fortunately, but still there are those in favor of attempting his absoluteness of ‘justice’, with real means. His death may serve as catharsis for such inclined readers. In the end, good intentions of the writer only turn out as good as the understanding of the readers shaped by these bildungsroman narratives. So a good bildungsroman should further understanding rather than rigidly shape.

“Uh oh. Did he read what I wrote about me liking Azuki?”
“Why the grave look? This isn’t some Deathnote, is it?”

The follow up series to Deathnote, Bakuman5 Also drawn by OBATA and written by OHBA. looks behind the scenes of making a comic and its characters are completely grounded in reality. The coming of age story of its protagonists is believable, and exciting despite the lack of fantastic elements. As it turns out, maturity has a place in Jump. And it furthers understanding and enjoyment of the magazine as a whole.

Akito refuses to be a tool of his mother’s revenge, to be a modern samurai in the workspace.

  1. A promotion compilation book from late 2008 covering several then upcoming Square Enix titles with art, game screenshots, interviews and preview articles for these games. []
  2. From the 1990 Making of Dragon Quest manga by artist Shōtarō ISHINOMORI and writer Hiroyuki TAKIZAWA. []
  3. Hikaru no Go is a collaboration by writer Yumi HOTTA and artist Takeshi OBATA, who would later also draw Deathnote and Bakuman. []
  4. Given the fact that Raguas becomes the hero in the story he and originally his mother have written, the prophetic ability can be seen as knowledge of the story that develops, either because he already heard it from his mother or because he himself is writing it. By this interpretation it would be a self fulfilling prophecy. []
  5. Also drawn by OBATA and written by OHBA. []
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