Shin Megami Tensei 4 comes out this month! While Atlus has been releasing SMT games quite frequently since the SMT series’s start in the 1990s (remarkably frequently, in fact, especially considering that the quality of the titles has been kept pretty consistently high--there hasn’t been a year in the last decade in which a SMT game hasn’t been released, and most of those years had multiple titles), the big, official numbered games of SMT have been quite few, so SMT4 is kind of a big deal. For me, anyway. And in celebration of this, I have decided that for the rest of the year, I’ll be putting up an SMT rant once every month.* Enjoy. Or don’t, as may be the case.
The SMT series is, as I have stated before, pretty darned nifty. Certainly no other RPG series as a whole contains such consistent and thoughtful insights on and use of mythology, religion, and the occult in general--and the surface level of the games’ plot and characters are usually quite engaging, too, meaning that unlike a great many other higher works of storytelling art, SMT is actually fun to experience while you’re gleaning its deeper meanings. Sometimes the overall mythological theme of an SMT game is simple to pick up on. For example, it’s fairly easy to tell that the theme of SMT1 and 2 is Christianity, SMT Persona 3 and 4 is the Tarot, and SMT Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2 is Hinduism and Buddhism (the former more than the latter, I think, though some of the most important, core concepts of the story are more Buddhist than Hindu). But quite often, the mythological theme of an SMT game is not transparent, and needs a little bit of thought and interpretation to discover, and I believe that to be the case with Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne, also known as Shin Megami Tensei 3. I think I’ve come up with a pretty good interpretation of it, and as a quick bit of searching has not revealed to me any official explanation by Atlus of the game’s theme, I shall share it with you. That said, this is just a theory of mine, so I don’t hold it to be as ironclad and supportable as my usual rant opinions--it’s more just a possibility.
Trying to figure out the mythological theme of SMT3 was tricky for me. Oh, sure, general Christianity seems the first and most likely answer, with Lucifer playing a secretive overseer role as he often does and various parts of the story that fit with it, but non-Christian entities seem to play at least an equal role in the game’s plot, and every individual truly important to the story (the 3 people who create the Reasons (philosophies to choose from), the Manikin leader, Hitoshura himself, and the teacher) seems to be an original, non-denominational character. While every SMT game contains some important cast members whose cultural origins are different from the game’s main thematic mythology, there’s not usually this much, or even, a mixture.
Further compounding my confusion were the angels. In SMT3, the Reason that initially seems closest to the traditional SMT side of Law (which is, in SMT, associated inextricably with God and all things Heaven-born) is Hikawa’s Reason, which emphasizes an abandonment of passion and emotion in favor of pure logic and viewing oneself as a part of a spiritual and social whole rather than as an individual. In games such as Shin Megami Tensei 1, 2, and Strange Journey, we see a similar emphasis on an absence of self and dedication to strict, lawful unity associated with divinity and Law. Yet the angels in SMT3 support Chiaki’s Reason of might makes right, a world where the strongest thrive and rule over the weak, a world which is most definitely closest to the traditional SMT idea of Chaos, the anarchistic idea of pure free will and adherence to no law or society that Lucifer supports and embodies. Why would the angels be shown to support Chiaki, and not Hikawa?
Here’s my theory: Shin Megami Tensei 3 is not about any particular religion, or even religion in as whole a form as a system of belief in something supernatural. Rather, SMT3 is about the foundation of religion’s behavior.
Take away one’s notions of religion as a form of belief for a moment. Strip away the association of deities, higher levels of being, prayer, divinity, spirits, sermons, spirituality itself, just for a moment. Let us look at religion at its most primal, basic, animal sense. What kind of behavior do we see? What social course of action does religion follow?
Well, it varies a bit from one religion to the next. For example, let’s look at Christianity, and its relatives Judaism and Islam. Beyond brotherhood, love, God, prophets, prayer, forgiveness, and all that jazz, there is a clear sense of command to these religions: “This is the True belief, Other beliefs are Untrue, and Everyone should follow this belief, because this belief is Greater than the others.” These are religions whose message is meant to be a personal one, but whose practices are largely social and require frequent confirmation by others in a spiritual community (often those spiritually higher) of one’s faith, religions who have inspired and encouraged missionaries, crusades, and the reward of those within the community of belief and punishment/shunning of those without. The message can be softened and shaped into something more reasonable and moral in practice once you begin adding in the layers of goodness and spirituality and so on, much in the same way that our desires in life are softened and shaped into things more reasonable and moral by our sensibilities and personality and intelligence, and become great and admirable ideals and beliefs. But the innate, most basic desire of Judaism, Islam, and especially Christianity, their Id so to speak, is to expand and convert.
Or we could look at another major set of religions, that of Hinduism and Buddhism. Dig deep into the core of these, past the reincarnations, deities, enlightenment, and so on, and you have a somewhat different prerogative. While organized religions such as Christianity and its kin are formed with communal worship and confirmation and structure in mind, with the idea that all should take part in it, Hinduism and Buddhism are ultimately about the self, and yet also the denial of the self. The message is modified, I think, to be: “This is the True belief, and because it is the only True belief, all other beliefs are simply misguided attempts to be this one. Everyone does follow this belief, whether they know it or not, because this belief is the Only one.”** Because these religions focus their attention on guiding the individual past the human condition and because they are self-assured in their rightness, there’s far less pressure in the social sense for Hinduism and Buddhism, with few public ceremonies and customs to maintain and prove one’s faith and adherence like I mentioned above for the previous religious set. Of greater concern than conversion of others is the focus upon oneself, the elimination of human elements to become greater. Guidance from others is fine, guidance TO others is fine, but it doesn’t have the same necessity. The necessity is the betterment of self, not another, to find a greater personal level of existence and becoming one with all existence, dispassionate and above emotion and individualism.
If we take SMT3’s theme to be these most basic cores of religion, the desire and behavior before the actual belief, then it explains the more varied and level involvement of religions in SMT3, as, ideally, essentially all religions would be covered in one way or another by the game’s Reasons. It also explains why the major characters of the game are all original ones, for they’re meant to embody and interact with philosophies greater than any one faith. It also makes sense of the Angels’ choice to follow Chiaki. Her Reason of might makes right, a world where the strongest are the best and the ones that thrive, actually DOES work extremely well with Christianity’s core behavior model as discussed above--the desire to expand, convert, and overcome its opposition. Oh, absolutely I do not believe that this is the true form of Christianity--its true form is one of love, tolerance, equality, brotherhood, forgiveness, and so many other good and virtuous concepts. But I also absolutely believe that the true nature of a man is more than the base instincts he builds himself upon and over. Thus Christianity’s foundation, if not its real self, is close to Chiaki’s philosophy, and this is shown through the angels’ alliance with her. Lastly, it makes sense within the game’s setting for this idea of the foundation of religions to be the game’s theme, because the whole idea of SMT3 is that the world the game takes place in is currently in its fetal stage, and these conflicting Reasons will determine its future, what kind of world it will become. Well, if SMT3’s setting is a world at its fetal stage, wouldn’t it be appropriate for its theme to be about religion in a similar fetal beginning?
I admit my theory’s not perfect enough for my tastes here. I mean, Chiaki’s Reason of might making right covers the religions whose major intent involves conversion and expansion (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, the Roman pantheon...hell, probably just most religions, really). Hikawa’s Reason also covers the Hinduism and Buddhism side with its abandonment of emotion and self in pursuit of clarity, reason, and harmonious stillness with the world. But I’m not too sure how much meaning, if any, the Manikins’ failed Reason is intended to have. I do have a few ideas about that, though. Since they are made of earth and wish to be free of the abuse of those around them who enslave and/or destroy them indiscriminately, they might be meant to embody religions and belief systems whose focus is upon respect for and care of the natural elements and the environment, such as Wicca and many tribal beliefs. Or perhaps the Reason is meant simply to be a broad example of the many smaller, oft-forgotten religions that get swallowed up by larger ones (particularly Christianity--sorry to belabor the point, God, but your followers do have quite the history of tremendous dickery), shown by the way the Manikins’ attempt to assert their Reason is quickly and thoroughly crushed. And of course, there’s always the possibility that the Manikins’ Reason is not really intended to have any particular meaning at all, at least not to the degree that the others do, since it gets crushed and, if memory serves, supposedly wouldn’t have been allowed as a foundation for the new world anyway.
More than the Manikin Reason, though, Isamu’s Reason causes me to have some doubts to my theory’s validity. I think I have a reasonable idea of what belief system foundation he’s meant to be, but it’s too tenuous for me to be as sure as I am of my interpretations of the other 2 major Reasons. Basically, my thoughts on Isamu’s Reason is that it’s supposed to be the behavior of withdrawal that marks individual beliefs, agnosticism, and atheism. I mean, in the context of the game’s events, the Reasons are how society and humanity will function in the new, reborn world, so if Isamu’s ideal is for every person to exist on their own with no interaction with others, then it stands to reason that the analogy would carry over to the religious behavior foundations in the form of people who, rather than following an organized and/or communal system of belief, instead seek their own answers and come to their own conclusions, more or less independent of others’ guidance and input. It’s not as solid an interpretation as I feel I have of Chiaki and Hikawa’s Reasons in relation to religious behavioral basis, but it does still work, I think, and with Chiaki’s Reason covering extroverted religions and Hikawa’s covering introverted ones, one of the few options left for Isamu’s Reason to cover would be the faith (or lack thereof) formed outside an organized belief system altogether.
This theory of mine is nothing more than conjecture, and the most vindication I can hope for on it is simply not to have some developer’s words officially prove it invalid, but I do nonetheless think it’s an interesting way of looking at Shin Megami Tensei 3. And it’s thematically sound, I’d say, since SMT3’s setting and plot concern the reboot of reality, a world at its fetal stage primed for the development of what it shall be, which would tie perfectly to exploring the seed of thought and behavior that religion is grown from, as I mentioned before. At any rate, it’s an idea I like, and the interpretation of SMT3’s meaning that I’m going to stick to, at least until adequate proof or convincing argument proves me wrong, or a better understanding reveals itself to me.
* This contract assumes, of course, that SMT4 turns out to be good. If it doesn’t, I feel no obligation to fulfill SMT Year on my end. Although if SMT4 is bad enough, it will probably provide enough rant fuel on its own to last the year out anyway, so it still might all work out the same.
** I admit that my understanding of Hinduism and Buddhism is considerably less concrete than my understanding of western religions (which in itself is not 100% solid). I’ve read parts of the Bhagavad Gita and I loved Hesse’s Siddhartha, and I’ve done some independent research on these belief systems, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m barely a novice in this intellectual pursuit, certainly no expert. So bear that in mind here--I’m trying my best to understand and interpret them here, but I may fail to do so well enough.