The Serenity Prayer and Rakuen
“Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
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Rakuen is an RPG created by Laura Shigihara, who previously worked on the heartbreaking game To The Moon, which was about scientists trying to fulfill a dying man’s last request. This story starts in a hospital; our player character, a young nameless boy with a paper samurai hat, travels to another world. There, the Forest Guardian Morizora tells the boy that he can get a wish, if the boy helps several people both in the hospital and in this fantasy realm. The boy readily agrees. Meanwhile, a mysterious boy named Yami visits him at night, and another hospital patient named Sue shows off her marble collection. The boy hopes to save everyone that he meets. Each being in the fantasy realm corresponds to a hospital patient, and you can double back to the hospital to check your progress.
On the surface, Rakuen seems like a simple adventure puzzle game. You have to solve chess equations, drain out water at several parts of the hospital, and match tea flavors to customers’ preferences. In the fantasy world, you have to find the right food for flowers as well, or find ways to redirect sunlight. The player needs to engage in trial and error, while keeping their character from drowning. The deeper you go into the game, you realize it talks about personal tragedy, and how we deal with our pain.
Laura Shigihara said that her inspiration for the game came from composing a song called “Jump”: “ When I wrote the song, I thought about two things: I thought about how in life, we often have to go forward and hope for the best, even though we don’t know how things will turn out… Whether it’s a new job, a new relationship, an illness, anything, really… Sometimes the only thing we can do is hope for the best, and jump.”
Taking that leap into action can be nerve-wracking, and exciting; Rakuen depicts that experience with joy and pain. We want to do good, but we worry about our actions’ impacts, and if they matter. The boy strides cheerfully in both worlds, even when traversing rather dangerous areas with flooding and hostile NPCs. Then his mask slides, slowly, as he starts to fail in his quests. Helping people can be much harder than it appears on the surface. Not everyone’s problems are easily solved, especially regarding health and hope. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, both in real life and in such a game. As the boy sinks into doubt and grief, so do we. And we wonder
From here on out, we will discuss the game in detail, so SPOILER WARNING.
Little Actions and Limitations
In Rakuen, the littlest actions have the biggest impacts. The mother makes a paper samurai hat for her son when he dreads losing his hair to chemotherapy. She tells him that it’s hero armor, and he can wear it for protection. The boy uses it to put on a brave front, to go on the quest to Morizora’s forest. At the end of the game, he passes on the hat to his mother, so that she’ll have protection for the real world. This little gesture comes full circle.
The book also starts as a little action. To help her son through his sickness, the mother reads him the tale of Rakuen every night from an old book of fairy tales, and makes it their tradition. The boy needs the book to deal with the stress of hospitalization, to believe in a paradise beyond this world. Eventually that book becomes the pathway to Morizora’s forest, and the means for the boy to become a hero despite his cancer and failing health. It’s no surprise that the climax occurs in the hospital, when the boy confesses that he has lost his belief.
Your first task in the game is to find the book after a homeless man named Uma steals it. Eventually Uma gives in and returns what he stole, since the book and going to the Forest has not helped with his gambling addiction, homelessness, or sick child. When the boy confronts him, Uma feels really sheepish and returns the book immediately. He also gives the boy a key to unlock the portal to the Forest Guardian and wishes him luck.
The boy doesn’t tell us his wish until the end: he wants to go to Rakuen, a mystical afterlife, and accept his death. The first question that comes to mind is “why?” Why not cure your cancer, or save your daughter or your son? And why didn’t Uma take the chance to get a wish?
There may be a simple answer: a wish isn’t enough to solve all the real-life problems we may encounter. We see the limits of Morizora’s powers, as well as people’s capacity to cause change. You have to be willing to help others, and know your strengths and limitations. This means also accepting your failures, and accepting loss when your friends and family die.
Redemption is another factor; to go on the quest for Morizora, you have to face your flaws and worries while completing your tasks. While the boy has no massive failures, because he is little and is a good kid overall. He has no ulterior motive, and comforts everyone else while burying resentment about his own state in life. While the game requires you to access unauthorized areas in the hospital, and to engage in some dangerous activities, the boy trespasses and fiddles with pumps to fulfill the quest.
Time may be the primary limitation for normal people. The boy has all the time he needs because he’s in a hospital, with a terminal condition, and his mother mentions she took a week off from work. Despite that, he may die at any moment, which means he has a finite span and has to work with that. Life has a way of interfering with those long-term dreams.
Uma doesn’t make a good first impression on the boy, or the player. Stealing food from a hospital is one thing; stealing a book from a sick child while he sleeps is quite another. As Yami points out, Uma only expresses remorse when the boy catches him red-handed and could lead the hospital staff to him. The boy shows mercy instead, thinking that Uma was desperate. It turns out that both Yami and the boy have correct interpretations of Uma’s actions.
Uma could have fulfilled a quest, if he wished. A counterpart of his daughter exists in the fantasy world, slightly faded and alone; the boy encounters her. The creatures in the other world know Uma. They ask if the boy and his mother are horses — Uma in Japanese means “horse” — and he appears at various times to help the boy in his tasks. These clues are evidence that Uma has spent a fair amount of time in the fantasy world, and he could have gone to fulfill a quest for Morizora, and gotten a wish. Or, if he didn’t even want to grant a wish, he could have found his daughter’s counterpart and helped her. He in fact has more time than the boy or his mother, considering the boy was receiving chemotherapy in bed and wasn’t even well enough to walk around for a few weeks at least.
The more we learn about Uma, the more we feel pity and judgement at the same time. His daughter Sue is in the hospital, too sick to leave her bed, and he hasn’t even tried to visit her. In the past, when they lived together, he was abusive towards his family and gambled their savings away. In time he abandoned his family, and they lost their home, which was why he was on the streets. Sue to cope with the drama adopted a dog off the street that she called Puchi, and retreated into her imagination, using her marble collection to tell stories of different worlds. One world, for example, is made of pillows and she can build forts there, and another is filled with enough toys to play with for a lifetime. Sue channels her desire for childish, normal things into wistful dreams. The more Uma lived and transgressed, the more he hurt Sue; when they lost the house, she had to leave Puchi behind and became too sick to find her. And when Sue needs him the most, while she’s sick in the hospital and dying, he isn’t there though he’s hiding in the same hospital. As he puts it, “I failed her” and says he doesn’t deserve to have the freedom to travel worlds. Yet he doesn’t use that power to help her, or to even visit her hospital bed.
With Uma, we get the hint that he cannot complete the quest because he’s not selfless enough. He lost his home, and his daughter’s trust, due to being a gambling addict. His bad habits dog him, and become his fatal flaw. Homelessness also doesn’t help his health, emotionally or physically. Uma’s living on borrowed time, as is Sue, but he refuses to fix the situation alone as the ill boy has. He admits to the boy that he was traveling because he hoped to numb his guilt and pain over hurting Sue. He still lacked the maturity to face his problems and do what he could to help his loved ones.
The boy’s actions help redeem Uma. He guilts Uma into returning his book, and Uma performs a decent deed by giving him the key as well so that the boy can reach Morizora’s Forest, and give him a chance to get a wish. Uma’s little action sets the plot in motion, as the boy finds the portal to the forest and agrees to perform the quest. When the time comes to get Sue’s song, the boy encounters her baggage and her desire to reunite with Puchi. The boy, with his trademark persuasive optimism, teams up with Uma to find Puchi in the fantasy world so that the fantasy Sue can see her dog again.
Ultimately, Uma cannot redeem himself in his daughter’s eyes, but he can make her last moments on Earth easier. This rings harsh after the boy helps another elderly father reconcile with his daughter, but the boy has to face this reality. Nevertheless, the boy tells Uma that he has to try, to tell Sue that her father loves her. He may not be able to make up for his past misdeeds, but he can improve her future. Soon it will be too late, and her illness will kill her, leaving Uma with bitter regrets.
Uma accepting his shame and past failures earns him a spot on the boat to Rakuen, the mystical afterlife, at the end of the game. The boy tells him that Uma can make things right with Sue, which gives Uma the courage to approach Sue’s fantasy counterpart. Puchi goes with him, to help. When he brings back Puchi in the fantasy world, Sue does not see him and focuses on her dog; nevertheless, this moment matters. Uma proceeds to walk away from his daughter and fade into a ghost; it is too late to mend the bond between this father and daughter, because of all that has happened and because of their poor health. His time has run out, and so will hers in a matter of hours in-game. Even so, he manages to introduce one last shred of good in her life, so that she can be happy and reconcile with Puchi. If the boy returns to Sue’s hospital bed before the festival Star Night, you can see Puchi by her side. Uma started the game with a little kind gesture towards the boy, and he ends his story with one final gesture towards his daughter.
A Mother’s Love
The mother in the meantime had the book to Rakuen, and it’s implied that she has gone to the forest before. She helps the boy in his various quests, by making suggestions if you click on her, and going to rescue him in the climax from their mutual grief. At the end, when they part, she tells him that she can be strong and that he has been her hero.
We have two assumptions: the mother either already got a wish from Morizora, or she gave up her chance so that her son could be the hero. The idea that the mother got her wish lies in how she serves as her son’s guide in the fantasy world, and she becomes a player character when the boy disappears. She knows her way around this world. She seems to know the place better than her son does, and is unsurprised by the fantastic things they see or quests that they perform.
The more likely assumption, that the mother gave up her chance to get a wish, was that she did so to ease her son’s eventual death. As we can infer from his medicines, and when she breaks down on hearing the results of his X-ray, the boy doesn’t have long to live. He spends most of his time in bed, and overhears what the doctors say about him. His mother keeps insisting that he is going to get better. She believes in it so much that she assists him to the best of her ability to complete his quests, even seeking him out in an abandoned part of the hospital when he goes missing. She wants to make him the hero he wants to be, to save people and help them. Symbolically, we see this sacrifice when the player starts moving her around, and navigates through her life. The mother gives up so much for her kids.
As we learn, the boy’s greatest fear when he does is that no one will take care of his mother, after her husband dies and that she will lose one of her two children. He and his mother confirm that his father died; the mother promises that she will always be there for her son, but he asks, “But mom, who will be there for you?” She doesn’t have an answer, not that we hear at this juncture. No magic can rescue her from grief, or pain.
Regardless of the possibilities, the mother puts in her full effort to help the boy on his quest. She gives her time, love, and mind to help him, all within her agency. She cannot change her circumstances regarding her husband’s death or son’s illness, but she can help her son succeed.
The Manifestation of Yami
At the beginning of the game, a strange boy named Yami breaks into the boy’s room. He says he’s been locked up in his room for a long time and sneaked past the nurses to visit. Yami speaks some cold words that have grains of truth: he said Uma most likely took the book to sell the silver, and was saying he was hungry to gain the boy’s sympathy. He also says Uma can leave, while he and the boy have to stay in the hospital. They might never leave.
It’s revealed that Yami is the manifestation of the boy’s fears and doubts. He represents the dark, resentful thoughts that we have at night, and what we repress when trying to put on a brave face. The boy likes Yami, but also wants to believe in a better world and future. He still cannot deny Yami’s legitimate points. Neither can the player. Yami is right that Uma is selfish, and he is right that the boy will never leave the hospital. He also says that their dad did leave them, even if it was for a good reason.
In the climax, when Sue dies, the grieving boy agrees to go with Yami. They vanish, and the mother has to take over as player character to find them. She uses a plant that represents love to locate them in a dark part of the hospital. She tries to talk to Yami, who reflects her son’s thoughts, but she cannot reason with him. He’s lashing out in grief and anger. In the end, all she can do is accept that his pain is legitimate, and let it wash over her as she sings. To calm him down, she reaches out with love, and sings him a lullaby.
Ultimately, we cannot just dismiss our worries, fears and anger with calm reasoning. We need to show empathy for ourselves, and kindness. Rakuen purports that we have a right to be upset, to express anger about how wrong the world is, even anger at the people we love when they leave us. We can calm the darkness within us if it we give ourselves a moment of self comfort.
How the Fukushima Meltdown Affects the Game
The boy wants to be a hero. He admits this at the end of the game, when his mother navigates past the Envoys to save him. The boy also knows that he’s not healthy enough to become a conventional hero and protect his mother. While at school, he collapsed, and his mother had to rush him to the hospital. If you study his medications, you realize he has a form of cancer, one that the doctors sadly diagnose, and they cannot improve his condition. His mother cries when she learns, and has to alternate her time between hospital visits, taking care of chores at home, and continuing at her day job. Then a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown happen, and her husband dies containing the meltdown at the power plant. As the boy points out when he realizes that his father died, no one can protect his mother now. He wants to protect her, but he doesn’t know what he can do from his hospital bed.
This natural and nuclear disaster was the Fukushima Daichi reactor tragedy, which happened in March 2011. Due to some terrible luck, the tsunami sabotaged the cooling reactors, which turn threatened to spread nuclear fallout. While there is no citation that workers died containing the reactor, Japan in 2018 did admit that at least one worker died from radiation exposure. Before this admission, the government had denied it so as to not pay compensation to the person’s family. They attributed most of the deaths caused by the tragedy due to stressful evacuation procedures for the locals, who were not allowed to return home .
The game doesn’t outright spell out that the earthquake, tsunami, and meltdown mentioned in passing is the Fukushima tragedy. You find out context clues from articles talking about nuclear fallout, the casualties, and the boy asking if everyone will have to swim to travel from the hospital. Patients and doctors comfort the mother by telling him her husband died a hero and that he saved many lives, which implies that no radiation poisoning happened in the game. Interestingly enough, real life varies from the game here; the nuclear fallout did happen, though no plant workers died at the time, and the thousand deaths that followed were caused by faulty evacuation procedures for the ill and the elderly. Here, we see no such evacuations; the hospital patients are stranded due to the flooding, and the visitors and doctors have to stay as well.
The boy’s father, at the cost of his life, changed history. As he details in a phone call, all the plant workers are staying late to protect the town and prevent fallout; they’re “eating ramen and singing fight songs” to power through the voluntary overtime. Both him and the mother put on a brave front and he promises to come home, but the mother’s worried expression betrays her fears for the worst. While the boy protests, since the younger workers are allowed to head home, the dad’s choice to stay prevents the fallout that happened in real life. As one newspaper article details, “the heroic efforts and improvisations of its operators resulted in the successful shutdown of all four operating reactors”. The other hospital patients call him a hero, and the newspapers honor him. He and the other characters will never realize the chaos they narrowly missed, because the current tragedy swallows them in its devastation. The boy in particular fights his grief and anger, because he wants his dad alive, to protect his mother.
What We Cannot Change
Rakuen is about accepting the things we cannot change, while asserting that our little actions make a difference. By this I mean we should take time to grieve when we fail, but also know that our actions aren’t futile in the face of a cruel, uncaring world. We can care, and we can act.
Sue and Kisaburo’s deaths illustrate the boy’s limitations, and yet how important his quests involving them are. For Kisaburo’s quest, you help his wife in the fantasy world sell tea to high-paying customers, and make her business a lasting success. Interspersed between the lighthearted scenes of serving tea at a fancy party are heartbreaking ones, showing Kisaburo in the real world gradually losing his perception. He forgets his wife and children, and keeps insisting that they don’t interfere in his construction work even though he’s been retired for years. His children realize that their mother can’t take care of him forever and suggest that she take him to the hospital to find out what is wrong. Extra game material reveals that he also has brain tumors, which have messed with his perception of reality. Even though you complete the quest, the fantasy counterpart of Kisaburo goes missing, which his wife sadly accepts. We learn later that he died in the real world.
With Sue, we know that she’s so sick that she cannot leave her bed. The boy at least can walk around once his tests improve. He tries to cheer her up by bringing her marbles, and she tells stories about what each of their worlds has. Then during her quest, we learn about her backstory with her father Uma, and how you can help Sue by reuniting her with her dog Puchi. Uma tries to reconcile with Sue as well, but he has been traveling for so long that her fantasy counterpart doesn’t even see him. While Sue still dies, she dies happy, and leaves her jar of marbles for the boy as thanks for his kindness. He made her last few days positive and memorable, so that she can pass on without a problem. Let us note that Puchi is still alive, and I hope someone is still caring for the dog since the game isn’t clear on that.
Ultimately, we can only move forward in the world when we embrace pain. The mother keeps insisting to her son that he will get better. It turns out that he won’t; the doctors whispered in the boys’ earshot that his condition wasn’t improving, and that he can’t believe he can save anyone. The mother cannot use her words to convince the boy when he knows the truth. Instead, she tearfully sings that no matter what happens, she can be strong and he doesn’t need to protect her. Afterward, it’s only then that the boy makes his wish: to go to Rakuen, a mystic afterlife, rather than to fix his illness. The mother sadly accepts this, heading home to talk to the boy’s younger brother and their grandmother.
Rakuen holds a mirror to our world, to our tragedies and joys. It asks how we can make change happen, when our actions seem tiny in the face of natural disasters. We can even see the game as a love letter to the survivors of the Tohoku Earthquake and the Fukushima meltdown, as an assurance that their pain is seen and they are not alone. We want to change so much about the world, to right the wrongs, to save people from their worst problems. Ultimately, we all have our limitations. And yet, if we strive within our limitations, we can make the smallest actions matter. Nothing we do is too small, as long as we do it with the intent to help others.