Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon And The Rejection Of Modernity


Like the loud lament of a disconsolate chimera, The Encounter With Dracula Is Terminated wails unapologetically from its new home, pleased to be part of a new bastion of pioneering thought in the field of video games critique — only partly because it is a better home than a hutch. TEWDIT is an edutaining squint at computer games, aiming to explore aspects that may not normally merit consideration, and quite possibly may not even be there at all. In this entry, I trade the stifling blue background of the mode 7 blog for the blue skies of Edo, and ask a pressing question: Is Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon simply a derivative N64 platforming adventure, or is it a treatise on rejecting the uncompromising transformative tide of Modernity? I’ll say which in the bits under this bit.

An Abundance Of Filth

Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is a 1998 entry into the long-running and not-often-released-in-the-western-world Goemon video game series. It’s a 3d game which, while superficially resemblant to Mario 64, has many similarities to Ocarina of Time. Initially the player controls Goemon and his tubby friend Ebisumaru, switching between the two on the fly. With blue hair that looks like a pineapple and a weaponised kiseru smoking pipe, Goemon is a distinctive looking man, and, according to the manual, a thug who is quick to temper. Goemon is loosely based on Ishikawa Goemon, a legendary Japanese thief who shared his spoils with the needy. He was boiled to death in a pot. However, the reputation of “Japanese Robin Hood” was afforded to another thief of folklore named Nezumi Kozo, who was the inspiration for Ebisumaru. Kozo, who met his end via a standard head lopping, gained a reputation for giving the spoils of his 100-plus run of Samurai robberies to the poor; a conclusion based largely on the fact he had no money when he was apprehended. It’s thought by scholars that he likely spent it all on booze and ladies, which ties neatly to Ebisumaru’s portrayal as someone who, during the end credits of the game, lays on his back and wiggles until he is under women’s skirts.

Kabuki actor Arashi Hinasuke II as a pre-cooked Ishikawa Goemon

Mystical Ninja is set in the Edo period, a time of centrally governed feudalism. The era’s Neo-Confucianist mibunsei system divided most of society into four birth-transmitted castes: Samurai, peasant farmers, artisans, and merchants. As vagrants, Goemon and Ebisumaru exist outside this structure and likely belong to the reviled Burakumin class. Although those classed as Eta (“an abundance of filth”) were prohibited from wearing a hat, Ebisumaru chooses to enjoy a blue balaclava-style hat with a hole for his large and protuberant nose. This is likely a display of disobedience rather than a suggestion of a higher social standing. Unusually trope-free, the third playable companion Yae is a kunoichi (female ninja) who joins with Goemon to conduct her own investigation. She has no historical analogue, but stands out as the only main character portrayed as remotely competent. With green hair, Zatoichi-esque katana swipes and purple ninja jumpsuit, she’s definitely a stand out female character in an era where the closest comparable games featured women in pink dresses and, most of the time, some sort of cage.

Yae vs tropes

All the world’s a stage?

The game’s manual reveals that Goemon and Ebisumaru had been “too busy eating dumplings to notice” the UFO descending upon their city. Nietzsche saw modernity as the irreversible advance of decadence, and that is manifested in these dumplings; its transformative power forebodingly represented by the giant peach spaceship of antagonists Spring Breeze Dancin’ and Kitty Lily, leaders of the Peach Mountain Shoguns. Having been transformed by their “Instant Stage Beam”, the castles of Japan have become vividly colourful, eclectic, and filled with the mechanical servants of the Peach Mountain Shoguns. After an opening cut scene in which Goemon and Ebisumaru have been ejected from the dumpling shop due to Ebisumaru shedding his clothes and performing a “hypnotic dance” in the hope of negotiating a discount, the story begins with the pair investigating what has happened to the local castle. The gameplay of the castles is akin to the action and puzzle-platforming of Zelda’s temples, with items and abilities gained at key points to aid progression through these. These are complemented by open, connective sections of the Japanese countryside and the tranquil environments of towns in which you can stock up on items and talk to residents.

Gorgeous Impact

The fourth main gameplay component is first person, and involves controlling a huge robot named Impact to fight bosses that are too big for Goemon. He has a terrifying fixed grin and can shoot a laser out of his mouth. Can such a towering machine fit this pre-modern setting? His song Gorgeous Impact, while acknowledging he is a “metal being”, tells us how “the machine comes alive”, showing his beating metal heart and noting his “steel spirit”. He ends his number by singing “I am the best, yes, Impact”. Unlike the soulless automatons that serve as adversaries, every effort is made to show Impact’s resemblance to a living being, be it physically, spiritually, or egotistically. Impact disappears at key points, as he is acting in a movie and must go to America. Historians amongst you may be thinking “if a giant robot that shoots lasers out of his mouth was in Japan in the Edo period, how can this be historically coherent with the fact that the ruling Shogunate had no means of resisting the American Commodore Perry and his aggressive gunboat diplomacy in 1853, resulting the very next year in capitulation to the first of the widely resented Unequal Treaties? The answer is Impact was making a film so it makes perfect sense and is probably true.

Dash! Dash! Dash!

I’m Honoured To Hand You My Pipe

The division of labour that characterises modernity industrially is not present in Mystical Ninja; its world’s inhabitants a far cry from factory-style specialists of a single, menial task. The economist Adam Smith’s famous foresight of the great increase in productivity gained through the division of labour can be symptomatically followed by workers experiencing depression, disconnection, and functioning on a near mechanised level — a fear of Karl Marx’s that has borne bitter fruit in our modern world. Not so in Goemon’s Japan. Be it the proprietor idly mingling in Iyo’s coffee shop, the staff of the Oedo tourist center offering transport upon their proud dragon, or Mokubei, the artisanal pipe maker striving for perfection atop Mount Fuji, each character is a master of their entire domain. Although his singular animation is to thrust his fist upwards in a repeating motion from roughly his waist area, the bursts of increased speed and vigour as his excitement for the topics of conversation peak leave the player in no doubt as to Mokubei’s thrill at a chance to share his craft. It’s a passionate gesture that conveys the intense joy it brings him to expose his pipe.

do you have a good pipe

Infinite Jest

We’ve established the world Goemon inhabits as one in which modernity has not yet taken root. But, beyond describing the economic and technological conditions of modern life, how can we define modernity? The poet Baudelaire coined the term to mean the fleeting and transient experience of life, particularly of an urbanised nature. However, the term has come to encompass the many structural and philosophical changes to the world since the 1860s, and is defined by industrialisation, democratisation of ideas of governance, and the growth of the scientific and rational worldview, all of which gave rise to transformative historic events such as the enlightenment and industrial revolution.

move heavy thing

For Baudelaire the flow of time is intrinsic, and modernity was characterised by an obligation upon artists like himself to have an awareness of the peculiarities of the present while being open to the novelty and incongruity of the future. Yet T.S. Eliot struggled with the ability to view the world so omnipotently. His poem Burnt Norton concerns time as an abstract principle, asserting that while the nature of time is transiently relative to the present, to truly attain consciousness one must be freed from the flow of time:

“To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.”

T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Unlike Eliot’s “place of disaffection” (how he terms our reality), Mystical Ninja’s world allows both reflection on Baudelaire’s moments of transience and Eliot’s transcendent consideration of both past and future. Acknowledging the timeless moment, a town guard breaks the fourth wall by letting you know how he is going to have to stand there until you clear the game, which he finds “kinda painful…kinda depressing”. Characters interact with an unseen diegetic narrator (who has an avatar of an elephant in dungarees), and at points even ask him to interject, such as to explain that, as a timer ticks down, Ebisumaru must go into a box and gather sweets while an unidentified giant pokes his head in and drops explosives, all the while being chased by wide egg-shaped robots in pink dresses. He does not explain why. The gentle breeze of the phenomenal J-pop soundtrack blends sands from the distinct dunes of emotion: Areas like the Turtle Stone Bamboo Forest move from a tense verse into a reflective and cathartic chorus, while areas such as the Musashi or Uzen regions offer a chance for contemplation through the sound of the sea or a waterfall alone. Mystical Ninja captures the fleeting, while its narrative and environment keep the past, present and future in sharp relief. Or, to put it a way befitting of Eliot’s pronouncements, everyone involved in the production of Mystical Ninja must have been unconscious.

Who is this also why

“I Don’t Care If We’re Talking Peach Mountain, Chestnut Mountain…Or Even A Pear Mountain” — Goemon

In a break with gaming convention, you’re chastised at the point of completion. The narrative concludes with the Japanese populace expressing fury at Goemon’s victory; they were enamoured with Spring Breeze Dancin’ and Kitty Lily’s progressive troupe. Their embrace of the Peach Mountain Shoguns is our societal embrace of modernism in spite of the warnings of spiritual and environmental dissonance. “Novelty has become a criterion for truth”, said Thomas Oden, a Christian theologian espousing paleo-orthodoxy, and I’m sure he would agree that there can be no more fitting an example of novelty than a large peach with a spout that transforms buildings into big stages for a dance troupe. So, to more accurately paraphrase: a large peach with a spout that transforms buildings into big stages for a dance troupe has become a criterion for truth. Yet it is all too obvious that the pious would reject a big peach; At the core of modernity is a rational understanding of the world driven by scientific and technological advances, rejecting the spiritualistic received wisdom of divine will or incomprehensible forces dictating the fate and fortunes of all. Goemon and his contingent still adhere to this wisdom by variously relying on a medium, and a fortune teller who raises a lot more questions than he answers.

“I will solve your worries for 10 ryo”. “Go and meet the Rude Guy”. “Poolasoomaaa”.

Goemon’s fourth playable ally, Sasuke, joins Goemon after learning that his master The Wise Man is presumed dead following an explosion attributed to the Peach Mountain Shoguns, and Goemon is already seeking revenge for the attack. It is later revealed through an optional conversation with the medium that Sasuke caused the explosion himself by tripping over with a firework in his hand and then forgot. Canned laughter plays as the medium tells Sasuke that it’s probably best not to share that with Goemon and Ebisumaru.

Spring Breeze Dancin’s misdeeds amount to kidnapping gifted children to join his troupe — although they seem to be quite happy about it — and transforming castles with his Instant Stage Beam to bring Japan ostentatious performances. Goemon consistently fails to pay attention to names or events, often calls people derogatory names (especially by referring to the New Romantic-styled generals of the Shoguns, the “Flake Gang”, as weirdos), and is usually impatient to begin hitting someone with his pipe. After Goemon orders Impact to kill Dancin’ and Lily by blowing up their ship, it’s difficult to conclude who the heroes and villains of the piece were. It’s only clear that Goemon’s opposition of Dancin’ is a reflexive rejection of modernity in Edo Japan. A gatekeeper in one of the game’s towns laments: “If only the title of the game was starring gatekeeper rather than starring Goemon”. Perhaps if it were, the gates to Japan wouldn’t have been closed quite so tightly.

Gorgeous, My Stage