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Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Trauma-Depression Theory of Okami

This post brought to you by a collaboration between Fission Mailure and Nine Over Five.

Editorial: The Trauma-Depression Theory of Okami.


[Trigger warning for discussions of depression, trauma, and reproductive
health.]

Okami is one of those games that probably should be more popular. It has a beautiful, unique art style; a compelling story of epic, mythological proportions; Zelda-oid gameplay; and an excellent soundtrack. But this editorial isn't about how Okami is an underappreciated gem. It's about a theory that I genuinely had trouble thinking up a name for.

The ponderings that led to this began a few nights ago, when Reecey (who has done a guest post for this blog before, and whose Final Fantasy VIII Let's Play posts are a thing you should check out) remarked upon how everyone in the world of Okami treats a hundred years as an immeasurably long time, when really it's a drop in the ocean.

The conversation spiralled from there, onto the static nature of the world of the painting (which we know is a literal painting – after all, when you travel back in time a hundred years, most of it is blank canvas), whether the characters and their ancestors are actually the same person, and whether Amaterasu, as one of the only people who can use the game's superpowered Celestial Brush and as a being described as the 'origin of all', is actually the painter. 

A very good painter, apparently.

It's from this last idea, that of Amaterasu as the painter, that the Trauma-Depression Theory of Okami came from. The core of the theory is thus: Amaterasu is an avatar of a painter, and the world of Okami one of her paintings, with the Moon that the Moon Tribe come from being another painting, and the Celestial Plain being a third – and that painter has recently suffered from a miscarriage and associated depression. In her depression, she has destroyed the Moon Tribe painting (in the mysterious, possibly Yami-related cataclysm that Waka fled from), and the Celestial Plain painting (Yami and Orochi invading the Plain), leaving just the last one left.

It sounds like a strange theory. After all, Okami is cheerful, fluffy, Japanese mythology and folklore soup, right? Or is it? Well, probably, yes, but the heart of literary analysis is allowing yourself to be a little strange, and it was difficult to find anything that actually contradicted this theory. In contrast, a lot of stuff seemed to back it up, one way or another.

Let's start with Yami, the God of Darkness. Yami is – not what you'd expect. He's a deformed, amphibious fetus-like creature, contained in a tank and encased in a protective shell that keeps him alive. His appearance brings to mind both childbirth and sickness, as he is literally dependent on the vast, mechanical apparatus around him to keep him alive. 

You could say he's a ... handy person.

Moreover, Yami has a very specific association: As Amaterasu is the sun, he is the dark moon that blots out sunlight – it's an association made very specific by the game, as the restoration of his power is heralded by a solar eclipse that strips Amaterasu of her power, destroys every star in the sky, and casts the world into perpetual night. The idea of a heavy, oppressive gloom that blots out the light is one that most people with depression will feel some kind of connection with, and it's also basically Yami's entire schtick.

The fact that he's so closely associated with a dark, obstructive moon is also relevant, as the moon plays two roles in this story: In Yami's case, when it's used as an obstacle to the sun's light, it's negative, but it also has a positive symbolism as a reflector of Amaterasu's glory, with two plotlines revolving heavily around the idea of the moon as a medium through which the sun's power is translated. You could take from that that Yami could be, in another setting, a reflection of Amaterasu.

The other bosses, each of which is a piece of Yami's power, can be taken as reflecting the same themes of depression and trauma.

Orochi, who is the most prominent villain in the first act of the game, is an alcoholic glutton who consumes the maidens of Kamiki Village in an attempt to overcome his creator. Not only does he represent overindulgence and substance abuse (and you defeat him, eventually, by getting him drunk), he represents these things as a means to overcome Yami, as one might take food and drink to excess to overcome depression. 

Heads.

Crimson Helm is explicitly described as forming from a pool of blood. Blight represents not only a sickness, but a sickness which visibly changes your personality, as he controls and influences the Emperor from within. The Spider Queen is based on Jorogumo, a creature usually depicted as a figure of maternal violence, fearsomely and wholly alive, but here is depicted sitting at the bottom of a ruined temple, surrounded by the dead. Lechku and Nechku are based off the Ainu legends of Moshirechiku and Kotanechiku, who represent the inevitability of all things dying, and who in legend trap Amaterasu.

Ninetails, meanwhile, the villain of act two, is a deceptive figure, with her chief deception being herself. She disguises herself as what Amaterasu is – a goddess of light – but when her illusions are stripped away, she's revealed to be ill, battered, and tired. Ninetails, who is after Orochi probably the most prominent villain in the game, isn't a creature of ravenous appetite and indulgence like Orochi: She is someone who is wounded, in pain, sick and exhausted, who is trying to convince everyone around her that she's doing well. In pursuit of that illusion, she commits what may be the worst crime of the game and murders Rao, herself symbolic of vivacious youth and innocence.

(Ninetails forms a strange parallel with Amaterasu herself, actually, who is genuinely a goddess, but who is perceived by those around her to be a regular wolf.) 

Oh, hey, tailfaces.

This might all set up the game to be quite dark, but ultimately, if this theory does hold, then it's a story of recovery. After all, Amaterasu conquers all of these enemies. When, at the end, Yami destroys the sun and stars and throws the world into darkness, reducing Amaterasu into being a regular wolf, she is saved – not by any individual, but by the collective help of everyone she's met and helped. The game paints a positive picture at the end, that if you help other people then they'll help you when you're at your lowest – and the sun is reborn, and Amaterasu emerges more powerful than ever, and every time Yami destroys it again, Amaterasu responds by painting it back into the sky.

'Okay,' people with the phenomenal patience to have read this far might be saying, 'but what 'bout Okamiden.'

I am glad you asked, hand puppet who can only ask questions I want you to. 

D'aw.

In Okamiden, you play as Chibiterasu, Amaterasu's son, born after Yami's defeat – which only helps my idea that Yami represented depression after a miscarriage, really. Yami's not gone completely: Depression never really goes away, it's always lurking at the edges of your mind waiting to make its comeback.

Chibiterasu fights his way through various foes until he encounters Akuro (or 'evil wolf'), the reborn Yami, who in the final battle takes the form of – well, a dark Chibiterasu. Yami is no longer a fetal creature who must depend on an elaborate machine to survive: He is now literally Amaterasu's son. 

D'argh.

Reecey speculated this might represent post-natal depression (it was Reecey who provided most of the meanings for this theory, as she was the one who thought of the theory in the first place. I mostly scrabbled about on the wiki and google) and the fear that comes with having a child after you've had a miscarriage, which seems to fit into the rest of the theory to me. Ultimately, the game ends positively again, although also on a slightly more bittersweet note: Chibiterasu is victorious over Akuro, but Kurow, a young Moon Tribe boy who was one of his companions, dies alongside the demon.

It's certainly not a perfect theory, but it's an interesting one, even if Okami probably is just a fun, heartfelt Japanese mythology kitchen sink where you play as a wolf. It is an excellent game, though, with my highest recommendations – just so long as you get it on the Playstation 2. The Wii version is incredibly awkward to play. It's the drawing.

Many thanks to Reecey for coming up with this theory, and whose blog is over at the aforementioned Nine Over Five. 

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