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For the Frog the Bell Tolls

Kaeru no tame ni kane wa naruI first heard about Kaeru no tame ni kane wa naru (For the Frog the Bell Tolls) during my stay in Kyoto in 2002. A female Japanese student named Minori I met at Kyoto University brought it up as a favorite game she had played when she was younger. This Gameboy classic from 1992 was never officially localized for the West and if it weren’t for the fan translation it would be still completely unknown to non Japanese gamers. The Gameboy Zelda game Link’s Awakening on the other hand, which reuses Kaeru’s engine, is widely appreciated over here as well.

Unfortunately my exposure to this game which forms the base for one of my favorite games ever (Link’s Awakening) remained limited to what I heard from Minori, who also recommended Yami no purple eye to me, since I told her I liked Chie SHINOHARA’s manga, and the Momojiri musume series of books by Osamu HASHIMOTO. I bought and read the latter two recommendations but Kaeru escaped me until very recently when it was re-released on the Japanese 3DS virtual console.

It is a short and easy but very entertaining take on the RPG genre, using the classic Ernest Hemingway novel For Whom the Bell Tolls as a loose base to tell its parody fairy-tale story. It may not be immediately apparent but despite the change in setting, game and novel really share a wealth of motifs and themes and reading and comparing the original novel with the game further enhances understanding and enjoyment of the game’s scenario written by Yoshio SAKAMOTO (known in the West for his work on Metroid and Wario).

Takarazuka adaptation of For Whom the Bell Tolls

Hemingway’s novel is set during the time of the Spanish civil war in the 1930ies and describes the three days Robert Jordan, an American dynamiter, spends with a band of Spanish guerillas preparing for an important attack on a bridge, which could turn the tides of war in favor of the partisans. The planned attack remains central throughout the novel but the outsider Jordan also sheds light on the country Spain and its people in his interaction with the other characters. For this the author draws upon his experiences as a journalist in Spain covering the civil war as it happened.

In the last chapter when the bombing of the bridge finally happens, one of the characters becomes impatient and says, „Is he building a bridge or blowing one?“ And this is exactly the point, for a non Spanish reader the novel becomes a window into Spanish culture as seen by Hemingway. It bridges cultures and ethnicities. Language becomes a bridge as well, a theme echoed in the Nintendo game where transforming into animals will also enable the player to speak the language of that animal.

The hero of the Nintendo game, a prince out of a European fairy-tale inspired fantasy and named by the player, also travels to a foreign land, to save a kidnapped princess or so he is lead to believe. His rival, Prince Richard, which our hero just never seems to be able to beat at fencing, turns the saving of the princess into yet another contest which in his opinion obviously only he can win. This rivalry is a central theme in Kaeru and one can easily get the impression that the game has nothing in common with Hemingway’s novel at all since this rivalry seems to have no counterpart in the similarly named Hemingway novel.

I will come back to this seeming disconnect between the two works later. Let’s just turn our attention to the more obvious references to Hemingway that also abound in the game. Jordan has to destroy a bridge and the whole narrative is a build up to this crucial event. The Gameboy hero, the Prince of Sable, on the other hand has to restore a bridge to even set foot into Mille-Feuille and travel to its first town, Alamode (wordplay on French à la mode meaning fashionable). The thief Jam tells the prince how to do this: the bridge is controlled by the Geronian invaders from Ecclere Shrine at the center of Mille-Feuille, which the invaders turned into their fortress.1 The player has to return to this temple several time to explore more and more of it. A similar design mechanic was later used in Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for the DS. The prince, who unlike Jam cannot swim, succeeds in finding the switch to close the draw bridge and makes his way to Alamode.

The bridge

There he is mistaken for a Geronian invader, because Jam stirrs up the villagers by claiming only the Geronians can control the bridge. The prince is beaten up by the angry mob and robbed of his money by Jam. Jam must be inspired by Hemingway’s Pablo, the official leader of the partisan group Jordan joins. Pablo at first is Jordan’s main person to talk to for the attack on the bridge. But he also becomes disruptive to the plan since he doubts it can be successfully brought to an end. In chapter 16 he stirrs xenophobic sentiment against Jordan saying he is a false professor who doesn’t even have a beard. More concretely, some members of the partisans express the notion that Jordan shouldn’t teach Spanish at American universities (his main profession before he came to Spain to support the partisans as a dynamiter) but rather English, since that is his own language.

As Pablo becomes a liability, calls to kill him are repeated throughout the narrative and Jordan several times contemplates doing this himself but the conflict never escalates that far. Pablo, who is compared to a horse thief by Jordan in chapter 13, steals the exploder in chapter 33 in an attempt to stop the attack altogether. Jordan has to come up with an alternative strategy using hand grenades as a replacement for the dynamite. He regrets not having killed Pablo when he had the chance but since a second group of partisans who were supposed to back them during the attack on the bridge was recently wiped out by the fascists, he has to admit that Pablo’s doubts about their chances to successfully complete the bombing were indeed justified.

Only when Pablo returns with a new group of partisans the plan again has a shot at succeeding. Pablo proves to be supportive as well as a liablity. Jam too mostly creates obstacles for the hero who is even turned into a frog, but this predicament creates new possibilities as the frog can swim and jump very high, and thus can go places the prince couldn’t before. Jam also gives a bracelet to the prince which enhances his strength so that he can move heavy boulders.

Pablo’s wife Pilar, the de facto leader of the group since Pablo mostly acts disruptively, is more openly supportive of Jordan. She even allows Jordan to start a relationship with Maria, who she has shielded from the other men in the group because of the traumatic rape Maria experienced at the hands of the fascists. She could even see herself with Jordan if she were younger (chapter 12). This dynamic of an older woman that herself isn’t attractive anymore but can give a younger woman to the protagonist is echoed in Kaeru as the witch Mandora who makes the stunningly beautiful Princess Tiramisu appear before the prince. Magical capabilities attributed to gypsies, though denied to exist in reality, are also attributed to Pilar who reads cards to reliably predict the future, according to several members of the partisans (Pablo and Anselmo in chapter 19). Mandora instead schemes to create the future she envisions. The magic of a fine body (chapter 13), i.e. female attractiveness that can sway male rationale both Pilar and Mandora control indirectly, in the form of Maria and Princess Tiramisu.


The gypsy wizardry that is denied by all is also at the center of moral consideration in the novel (chapter 3). The gypsies believe in a brotherhood of animal and man, because of anatomical similarities. They apologize to the bears they kill when hunting, like the native Americans do. For Anselmo (and many other characters in the novel) this brotherhood does not exist. Hunting and killing animals is exhilarating, killing a human, even a fascist enemy, is a sin. Jordan, while not sharing the gypsy belief, doesn’t like to kill animals. He kills humans in the war out of necessity, but has contempt for all kinds of killings, even that of animals.

But in times of war the partisans have given up their civilized dwellings and hide in a cave. Before the war Anselmo decorated his house with stuffed animals he hunted, now he inhabits the natural dwellings of these very same animals. War has returned the partisan to a primal life style and made barbaric killing of men acceptable, even necessary. So in the mind of the novel’s characters the humans that kill and the ones that are killed are often described as or compared to animals.2 In a way the idea of brotherhood with animals, although denied to exist, does take hold of the characters. Make belief creates ‚reality‘ in the mind of people. Male rage also is referred to as an aimlessly aggressive animal (chapter 35).

The subtle psychology and varied moral considerations of Hemingway’s novel are mostly lost in the fairy-tale good and evil moral conception of Kaeru, although there are some mixed/gray characters and mature view points shine through in the parody dialogue. But the game’s fantastic narrative echoes the same symbolism evident in the novel. The male rage as an animal is echoed in the mammoth frozen in a cave. A cave the prince has to pass to attain his goal. The subtle psychological characterization in Hemingway’s novel becomes much more obvious in fantastic imagery that actually turns the characters into animals.

When Hemingway’s character feel helpless they state their enemy would like them to be rabbits or sheeps (chapter 3), in Kaeru they actually become a helpless animal, a frog, to be eaten by the Geronians. When Hemingway’s characters return to animal dwellings, the characters in Kaeru return to „an earlier stage in evolution“ and actually become an animal, whose name kaeru also means „to return“.

The prince can change both into a weak animal not fit to fight (except bugs which the frog can eat) but also into a predatory animal, the phallic snake which eats frogs. Jordan’s nickname for his love Maria is rabbit, and is originally the food she cooked for him on his arrival to the cave hide out of the partisans. It was delicious as she is beautiful. But when threatened by the observing planes of the enemy, Jordan feels barer than a flayed rabbit. Clearly in Jordan’s mind his empathy for Maria makes him swing between his male animal identity prone for rage and struggling for rational thinking and a female animal one that even dislikes the Spanish hunting tradition.

In chapter 10, one of the longest chapters in the novel, Pilar tells of the brutal slaughter of captive fascists and how hard it made it for her to continue the battle considered necessary. The novel doesn’t demonize or even dwell on ideas like the evil of the enemy, given the time it was published this likely wasn’t necessary. Instead it stresses the violence committed by the heroes of the story with this chapter 10. But even later in chapter 31 when Maria tells what has happened to her and her family at the hand of the enemy, although Jordan feels strong rage and has no doubt that he has to have revenge on them for Maria‘ sake, he provides cultural insight which in a way explains what happened to Maria. He doesn’t want to understand because he says that would mean to forgive, but he attributes the cruel rape of Maria to ideas about virgins in Spanish culture and history, not the particular ideology of the fascist enemy. And he admits mistakes of his own people as well.

He heard her breathing steadily and regularly now and he knew she was asleep and he lay awake and very still not wanting to waken her by moving. He thought of all the part she had not told him and he lay there hating and he was pleased there would be killing in the morning. But I must not take any of it personally, he thought.

Though how can I keep from it? I know that we did dreadful things to them too. But it was because we were uneducated and knew no better. But they did that on purpose and deliberately. Those who did that are the last flowering of what their education has produced. Those are the flowers of Spanish chivalry. What a people they have been. What sons of bitches from Cortez, Pizarro, Menéndez de Avila all down through Enrique Lister to Pablo. And what wonderful people. There is no finer and no worse people in the world. No kinder people and no crueler. And who understands them? Not me, because if I did I would forgive it all. To understand is to forgive. That’s not true. Forgiveness has been exaggerated. Forgiveness is a Christian idea and Spain has never been a Christian country. It has always had its own special idol worship within the Church. Otra Virgen más. I suppose that was why they had to destroy the virgins of their enemies. Surely it was deeper with them, with the Spanish religion fanatics, than it was with the people. The people had grown away from the Church because the Church was in the government and the government had always been rotten. This was the only country that the reformation never reached. They were paying for the Inquisition now, all right.3 Hemingway, Ernest For Whom the Bell Tolls, London: Arrow Books, 2004. Page 368.

In Kaeru, the corresponding episode to Maria’s ordeal is lacking the realism and intensity, and rape is only hinted at. It stays true to the fairy tale parody style when a Red-Riding Hood escapes from her work as a shop clerk because the shop owner was physically abusing her and also doing „those other things“. Like Jordan the prince is morally outraged, the satisfaction of punishing the evil male figure is instant though and simple good versus evil is served. The local enemies swarming the fields surrounding the eskimo village where the girl lives include wolves, a predatory animal from Red-Riding Hood lore replacing the earlier snake enemies. The frozen mammoth also makes an appearance in this village when it awakens and demolishes the town.

The prince had to promise earlier that he would stop the mammoth if his intrusion into its cave would wake it. He is called a weakling and denied the means to proceed when he at first doesn’t give that promise. And when he finally faces the last boss, the Geronian leader that at first appears a little snake (before changing into his true giant snake form), he feels like a bully for attacking it. It is this gentleness as Richard explains later that stops him from showing enough courage to do what is necessary to win. Same as Pilar, his actions seem cruel to him and potentially stop him from going through with what he needs to do.

I have already mentioned the xenophobic sentiment against Jordan stirred by Pablo but there is also some degree of resentment in Jordan towards certain aspects of Spanish culture (see the above longer quote) and most strongly in all characters towards gypsies. The gypsy member of the group Rafael is rarely referred to by his name and often called worthless. Jordan affirms this statement by Pilar and bases this judgment on lack of political development and discipline.

Anselmo says gypsies „talk much and kill little“ (chapter 2) and he accuses Rafael of lying/exaggerating. When he says he is hunting foxes, he really is hunting rabbits. He would say he is hunting elephants if he really was hunting foxes. And if he caught an elephant he’d say it was a tank. This habit of displacing ideas, substituting one with a similar one of a different degree, it is that gypsy make belief or wizardry that is feared and reprehended among the group.

In chapter 22, Rafael exposes Jordan and Maria to danger when he deserts his post to hunt a pair of mating hares. The killing of the mating hares echoes the danger Rafael exposed Jordan to, who was also making love to his rabbit Maria. In chapter 2 his hunting ‚foxes‘ (really rabbits) similarly echoes his finding Maria in the battered train. The train seems to feel pain, like the hunted animal ‚tank‘ (really an elephant) from Anselmo’s example.

But Maria is also called worthless (as a soldier) and also figuratively turns Jordan into an animal. In chapter 20 she says:

“No. Afterwards we will be as one animal of the forest and be so close that neither one can tell that one of us is one and not the other. Can you not feel my heart be your heart?”4 Hemingway 2004, page 271.

The animal is a sexual metaphor, the magic of sexual attraction a power that returns both Jordan and Maria to primal urges. But it is also a symbol of unity, of baring oneself to the other and sharing their weakness.

In Kaeru, Princess Tiramisu escapes the kidnapped princess fate by becoming the witch Mandora and transforming the Prince of Sable and Prince Richard into frogs for the Geronian leader to feed on. The prince transforming into a frog when coming in contact with water, it should remind Japanese manga reading players of Ranma, a boy who turns into a girl when sprayed with water. The witch Mandora almost looking masculine in appearance, it is easy to associate her with the artists of love comedy and ero manga who draw pretty girls like Princess Tiramisu. The male princes being turned into frogs and thus food for the phallic villain with the princess out of phallic evil’s reach, it is like yaoi, a trend in manga for girls which excludes female avatars and tells stories of male homosexual romance.5 Originally shōnen ai, followed by june and today’s boys love, these all refer to male homoerotic stories for a female audience. Yaoi is a popular fan fiction variety of this and parodies manga for boys. It sometimes is used to refer to the other non parody variants as well. Yaoi is a major stream inside otaku culture and represents the often ignored females that are part of the otaku tribe. In yaoi terms, Richard as the winner at fencing is the seme (the male part) and the Prince of Sable is the uke (the female part).

Maria doesn’t want to be worthless, she urges Jordan to teach her to be of use to him. In chapter 31, Jordan tells Maria how he wants to change her hair style. She responds:

“I would look like thee,” she said and held him close to her. “And then I never would want to change it.”6 Hemingway 2004, page 359.

Cross dressing women are another common theme in manga for girls since Tezuka’s Princess Sapphire. The concept of a male avatar for girls strongly resonates with Jordan and Maria’s love, their becoming as one and mutual empathy. The outlook of Maria becoming strong and showing her worth, that the bell could toll for her as well, it holds a promise not unlike the one of the French revolution in The Rose of Versaille, another cross dressing girl’s manga classic by Riyoko IKEDA.

In Hemingway’s novel the title’s bell remains a figure of speech only explicitly mentioned in the title and the John Donne quote at the beginning. In the context of the novel it is a call to war, a symbol of the chosen hero. In Kaeru, the spring bell (spring being another metaphor for first romance experienced in one’s youth) can change the frogs back into humans. It is the salvation that saves Prince Richard and his soldiers from being eaten by the Geronian leader Deraling (a wordplay on English darling). The Prince of Sable can change himself back without the bell, by eating happy fruits, another sexual metaphor this time from the bible, the apple the snake seduces Eve into eating.

Once both princes regain their human form, they have to fight for the hand of Princess Tiramisu. Marry Tiramisu (who really is the witch Mandora, as the captain of the royal guard Pornaref points out) or leave Mille-Feuille.

There are two destinies for Jordan foreshadowed in the novel. His precursor as a dynamiter, Kashkin, was wounded and had to be shot so he wouldn’t become a prisoner of the enemy. For that reason Pablo asks Jordan in chapter 2 already if he is prepared to face the same fate. The other variant has Jordan marry Maria, living happily ever after.

In the last chapter, Jordan manages to complete the bombing and Maria, although struggling, succeeds in watching over the horses during the attack. But Jordan is wounded and has to stay behind so the others can escape and survive. Jordan’s parting words to Maria are as follows:

“Now you will go for us both,” he said. “You must not be selfish, rabbit. You must do your duty now.”

She shook her head.

“You are me now,” he said. “Surely thou must feel it, rabbit.“7 Hemingway 2004, page 482.

Similarly, after the princes have already defeated Lord Deraling, who commanded the Geronian bridge, the Prince of Sable again is defeated by Prince Richard. But as Prince Richard points out, that isn’t because Richard is stronger but because the Prince of Sable is too kind for his own good. He urges him to muster up the proper courage, and leaves him behind to take the male seme role and become the husband of the princess.

Some of the points I raised in this comparative analysis I covered before when dealing with other games (most specifically FFX of which I wrote a detailed interpretation at the end of my exchange year). Kaeru really seems like a missing link by introducing the Hemingway source. Its influence can be seen in many games that came after Kaeru, as became clear when I finally played the game and read the novel. But why did SAKAMOTO choose this work as a source for his take on RPGs in the first place? I think the bridge motif of the novel, which is also an important one in Final Fantasy games previous to Kaeru, might have influenced Japanese RPGs even before Kaeru, and SAKAMOTO simply emphasized the connection with his game.8 Fußnotenauszug: I remember reading a discussion on the importance of bridges for a good RPG in the reader’s letter section of RPGamer in 1998. They don’t point out a connection with Hemingway but indicate the weight the bridge motif holds for players. RPGuru 10/07/98, RPGuru 10/08/98, RPGuru 10/09/98, RPGuru 10/11/98. ...

As opposed to linearly structured levels in action games, RPGs usually offer a world map to explore in different directions, more or less freely. But since RPG designers most often tell a pretty linear story in the end, they use obstacles to prevent the player from going where the player should not be at this point in the story. Boulders blocking ways, ocean separating land masses, special terrain that can only be crossed with certain vehicles.

In the original Final Fantasy (1987), before the game even begins, the player’s party has to do the tired rescue the kidnapped princess routine. Only after this simple plot device is taken care of, a bridge is built that enables the player to leave the tiny part of the world map that is the first country. And the opening credits role as the game really begins when crossing the bridge. It isn’t far fetched to assume SAKAMOTO took some inspiration from this classic.

The bridge again features prominently in FFIV (1991), in which the protagonist Cecil is unknowingly sent on a bombing mission. Here the bridge becomes the backdrop for the opening text narration. After it Cecil kills a Mist Dragon and brings death to the woman who summoned it, trying to defend her village from Cecil’s invasion. The orphaned summoner girl Rydia retaliates with an earthquake that tears the land mass apart, separates Cecil from his friend Kain and leaves him with his victim Rydia. He has to earn her trust and repent for his sin of blindly following the orders of his king and adopted father.

The themes implied by the bridge, which can be torn down or built/repaired, distance and connection, they are shared with both Hemingway and Kaeru. Another theme, the bombing mission, is shared with Hemingway but missing in Kaeru, where it is left out, for reasons I will try to explore later. For now let’s continue tracing the parallels in the narratives of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Final Fantasy games. One very obvious hint of FFIV being inspired by Hemingway would be the similarly named Namingway, an in-game NPC who can change the name of the player characters. In FFV, released in the same year 1992 as Kaeru, in a scene memorable also because of its well composed accompanying sound track, Battle at the Big Bridge with Gilgamesh, the bridge becomes the backdrop for a climactic battle.

In the next FF (VI), released in 1994 and likely already influenced by Kaeru, the ninja Shadow is haunted by his past. He and a fellow bandit Billy were robbing trains together until Billy was wounded and Clyde (Shadow’s real name) had to leave Billy behind. Billy asked Clyde to kill him so he wouldn’t fall into enemy hands but Clyde could not kill his friend. The guilt of not complying with his friend’s wish is so deep that at the end of the game he decides to stay behind in the last dungeon to die there. After the bridge, the train and specifically the assault of it is a new motif possibly borrowed from Hemingway, which repeatedly turns up in FF games starting with VI. Leaving a wounded comrade behind, the necessity to kill a friend in that situation and being prepared to die oneself are unique to FFVI but are also significant parallels to Hemingway’s novel.

Before releasing the next FF, the development team helped out with making Chrono Trigger, a 1995 RPG classic that shares pivotal elements with Kaeru: a fencing character turned frog and a bell as a symbol of youth and adventure, Leene’s Bell waking protagonist Crono in the very first scene. CT bears testament to the impression the Nintendo classic must have left also on creators at Square. But as I pointed out, Hemingway was an influence at Square even before SAKAMOTO decided to highlight the connection.

Returning to FF with VII in 1997, the bombing mission motif returns and trains while not attacked still feature prominently mostly in parts of the story that revolve around these bombing activities. In the same year James Cameron’s movie Titanic has a male hero dying and leaving behind a young woman, after encouraging her to emancipate herself. The parallels of Titanic’s ending with that in For Whom the Bell Tolls should not have escaped FF director and producer Hironobu SAKAGUCHI and his team as they would tribute the Hemingway reference with ones of their own. In his 2001 Final Fantasy CGI movie SAKAGUCHI also has his heroine survive and the male hero die in the last scene. In the game FFX of the same year, the male protagonist Tidus disappears and leaves behind the true heroine of the story, Yuna. And although FFVII was missing the attack on a train, FFVIII did not. For the first time one such assault is interactively staged in great detail.

Although the bombing aspect of Hemingway’s novel is not included in Kaeru, it is central to the novel and cannot be ignored when asking why SAKAMOTO chose it as a base for his game. A bombing mission that can turn the tides of war, obviously this idea has a strong significance for a Japanese. WWII was ended with the Hiroshima bombing. But also the preparedness to die in a military assault, the idea of the suicide mission, it echoes the kamikaze attacks used by the Japanese military in WWII in which humans became bombs themselves. Hemingway’s novel should speak loudly to a Japanese reader and the honesty of characterization and the depiction of cruelty of war on both sides can serve to reconcile former enemies.

After WWII, Japan adopted a pacifist stance and swore off war forever. At the same time, modernization and embracing of democracy were accelerated, also increasing the level of Westernization. Young Japanese find themselves torn between two cultural identities, one promising greater freedom but at the same being resented by the other out of a grudge over the lost war. In manga, especially manga for girls of the 1960ies and 70ies, the reader’s reality is displaced in Western settings and older Japanese even felt that the younger generation, which at one point was called shin-jinrui, a new human breed, had grown alien to them. FFIV is also a story of contact with aliens and becoming ready to live together with them. Cecil is half human and half alien, like a child of Japanese heritage and Western modernity.

When the Prince of Sable closes the bridge leading to Alamode, its inhabitants mistake him for an evil Geronian, like a Japanese youngster might be mistaken by his elders for a Western yankee (a term describing juvenile delinquents who bleach their hair and are often into American popular culture, especially r ’n‘ b and hip hop). There is no bombing but the restoring of the bridge still reminds of the inflicted pain. Otaku are the nerd variety of these alien shin-jinrui which grew up on manga for girls and romanticization of Western themed fairy-tale and later historical settings.

As a pacifist nation, war is relegated to the realm of fiction in Japan. A great interest in war and war like settings is evident here. The concept of the hero and of being empowered is connected to depiction of violence and war like action but as history always looms and asks to be raised in comparisons, critical evaluation of violence and hero types is also common place. FFIV’s Cecil struggles with his guilt and changes from a dark knight into a paladin. Clyde cannot kill his wounded friend to spare him getting caught by the enemy and after years of self torment takes his own life to escape that guilt.

In the context of violence and war, this new hero types can only be seen as positive. So is the encouragement of the Prince of Sable a call to return to embracing war? Obviously not, love is a battle field also and the battle is for the hand of the princess. When women appear as victims of phallic evil, guilt can work in the wrong places. The courage Prince Richard speaks of is needed to not stay alone. So is Kaeru simply excluding the bombing motif to focus on the saving the princess parody?

Actually it doesn’t exclude references to war history completely. The empowerment of the Prince of Sable is possible largely thanks to products manufactured by a company called Nantendo. The bracelet enabling to move boulders, as borrowed from Nintendo’s Zelda series, was made by Professor Arewo Stein. This wordplay roughly means „I want to do that thing“ and at the same time sounds similar to an abbreviated version of Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein was one of the scientists that provided the theoretical basis that gave the U.S. the technology to use as a bomb in WWII. Nintendo gives players the technology to play as Western looking heroes like Mario and Link. The phallic explosive power with war potential is symbolized by (among others) the frozen mammoth. It is a dormant grudge, its frozen state should remind Japanese players of Godzilla or the frozen Lucifer in Megami Tensei II, an important Japanese RPG classic that for the first time in that kind of game features the possibility of choice and an alternate ending. That choice being sparing a defeated boss turned frog.

Frozen mammothLucifer

To repair the spring bell that can turn frogs into humans again, a huge amount of money is needed. The rich Japanese tourist Alfred Jinbei offers to pay the sum in exchange for the gold found somewhere in Mille-Feuille. The chase for gold is similar to Mario collecting coins, which pay for bonus lives. The Japanese word for bell, kane, can also mean money, changing the game title’s meaning into For the Frog Money Cha-chings. And the gold in Kaeru is obtained by drawing an Arthus like sword stuck in a boulder, not unlike the master sword in Zelda. It’s also a metaphor for a war in the economic sphere over market leadership, with salary men as modern samurai soldiers.

Upon being drawn, molten gold flows like magma from the hole left by the sword, making its way to the ocean and freeing the mammoth from its icy prison. The first attempt to calm its rage is made using the mirror shield to scare the mammoth with its own fierceness. It certainly worked for Cecil, who developed into a paladin (by not fighting his mirror image), and Clyde, who decided to end his life, both because of guilt over past actions. But the mammoth keeps raging and it is Arewo Stein’s next invention, the mammoth controller, that defeats it. The mammoth with the controller on its head directed at first by the prince and then by Alfred Jinbei, it symbolizes video games as a safe place to explore violent urges.

Alfred Jinbei really is the captain of the royal guard Pornaref and worked as part of Mandora/Princess Tiramisu’s elaborate scheme to escape Deraling and have the princes take her place, one of them finding the Gold Sword. The true power of the sword only appears when the true friendship of the Prince of Sable and Prince Richard shines, a friendship that would be the base for romance and eroticism in yaoi fan fiction. Jinbei gives the Prince of Sable a ship so he can reach Nantendo to obtain an updated power bracelet needed to make his way to the gold. The player gets to control the ship on its way to Nantendo but boulders set the course so the prince cannot stray from the outlined path.

In 1994, Kazushige NOJIMA wrote and directed Glory of Heracles 4. In this RPG set in Ancient Greece, boulders on the sea could be smashed with a late upgrade to the ship, promised by its builders from earlier on in the game. Obtaining vehicles and upgrading them, it’s an often used plot device in RPGs to allow to move on in the story. Kaeru also connects its areas with docks and a boat that can be used after the golden magma has melted the frozen sea at the center of Mille-Feuille. It’s typical for RPGs that towards the end the world can be freely and conveniently traveled, yet Nantendo is still only reachable from Spring Hill via Jinbei’s ship, only one way leading to Nantendo without danger of being led astray.

Earlier I pointed out that the prince transforming into a frog when he comes in contact with water is reminiscent of Ranma from Rumiko TAKAHASHI’s wildly popular manga. Ranma was engaged to Akane TENDO by their fathers. Akane is a martial artist, her sister Nabiki is very greedy and their oldest sister Kasumi is the motherly type. Ranma has to marry one of these three to inherit the Tendo Dojo and himself has no say on who he wants to marry. The company name Nantendo, which is of course a spoof of Nintendo, can also be read as „which Tendo“ and given the parallel to Ranma 1/2 it’s easy to associate the question „which Tendo sister will you marry?“ here. And since there is only one way to Nantendo and only one princess in the game, like Ranma, the player doesn’t really have a choice either.

NOJIMA later wrote the scenario for FFVII, which used choices throughout the game to decide which one of four alternative scenes the player would experience. This is similar to the above mentioned Megami Tensei games where such choices change the players alignment and the ending they will get. In FFVII it isn’t the ending that is decided that way but a dating scene midway into the game. Alignment here decides which girl (or guy) FFVII protagonist Cloud will date: his childhood friend Tifa who is a martial artist, the greedy ninja girl Yufie or the flower selling girl Aerith who is identified with Gaia, the Mother Earth. You have a choice here and writer NOJIMA already wanted to give his players a choice in GoH4 when he gave them a ship that could crush the boulders limiting the ways on the sea, as they did on the route to Nantendo.

Dating, be it in dedicated simulation games or in more general story driven games like RPGs, has become an important gameplay mechanic. In games like Phantasy Star III, Dragon Quest V and Fire Emblem IV your player character can marry and you can even play as your offspring in the next generation. It is a logical continuation of the earlier „save the princess“ plot device so central in video game narratives.

In CT, there was a princess that could not be saved. Lost in time, Schala is nowhere to be found even though her younger brother Janus keeps looking for her.9 Sara and Jakki in Japanese. The player also, searching the game world in different ages for story episodes can look for her, but none of the many smaller sub scenarios continues her story and provides closure about what happened to her. Near the end of the game, the characters tell of their feeling that someone seems to be guiding them. One can speculate that this benevolent being might be Schala, or the player who controls them, or the game designers who guide the path in an only seemingly free choice narrative.

If Schala really guides the path of the heroes, this is another similarity to Kaeru, or more specifically to Mandora/Tiramisu, who plotted the path of the Prince of Sable all in advance. Both Schala and Tiramisu are comparable to the game makers in that regard, Tiramisu even allies herself with Nantendo. In the CT sequels Radical Dreamers and Chrono Cross, protagonist Serge is accompanied by Kid, who is revealed to be Schala from CT. Frustrated players who couldn’t find her in CT had to wait for another game to finally get their closure.

In CC, instead of traveling in time, protagonist Serge travels between two alternate realities, one where he lives and one where he is dead, in other words where he doesn’t exist. Kid, who travels with him, is a reincarnation of Schala, another part of her is trapped in a crystal merged with the final boss Lavos. As opposed to the motherly older sister she was in CT, her appearence is that of a sleeping, innocent little girl. Here we see the grudge symbolized by the frozen mammoth in Kaeru return, and the merged Lavos and Schala can be calmed with a song. Only then Serge’s adventure is undone, his existence secured. In the ending, footage of real world Tokyo follows the recapped memory scenes from the game’s story. The player is thus eased back into the real world and encouraged to find Kid, or rather a girl like her, in the real world. It’s a step up from Richard’s encouragement in Kaeru.10 Fußnotenauszug: Yet the finding the girl from the game in the real world motif was already used in the above mentioned Megami Tensei II, and the mother (goddess) as a symbol of the mother land and consequently nationalism is also already evident in the Gaia church/chaos alignment of this game series. In CC the mother figure Schala appears as an innocent girl, this is the suppressed guilt over war crimes resulting...

The otaku generation was often critized for being unoriginal since their favorite creative mode is the parody. At the same time people felt that conservative values are ridiculed by parody which is the real threat otaku culture poses to them.11 For a comprehensive overview of this topic, refer to Sharon Kinsella’s article Amateur manga subculture and the otaku panic. Parody escapes the canon and provides an alternative. It also exaggerates and reveals aspects of narratives that were suppressed. The need to suppress something is also what fuels the escapist tendency of fiction and the „consuming“ of it.

Yet some of the biggest success stories in popular Japanese culture are linked to the rise of otaku culture. Both TAKAHASHI, who established the genre love comedy in manga for boys, and Nintendo used parody to great criticial acclaim. But it’s not their sole focus. The more serious Legend of Zelda series, which Kaeru also spoofs and takes many gameplay cues from, couldn’t help but be impacted by its parody. Not only did the Zelda developers borrow Kaeru’s graphical engine for its first handheld entry to the series but also story themes.

For Whom the Bell TollsStranded on an island, Link has to wake the Windfish (and in effect himself) from the dream he has about the island that imprisons him. The game is like a coma, which the player has to wake from. While in this coma, playing the game, the player recludes themselves from the social world, like Serge he ceased to exist in it, if only temporarily. When the game ends, when its world ends, its existence becomes undone. It’s the escape from the escapist fantasy and the frame of reference for its deeper meaning is given perfectly by the John Donne quote at the beginning of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know For Whom the Bell Tolls; It tolls for thee. —JOHN DONNE

Time table

誰がために鐘は鳴る For Whom The Bell Tolls novel 1940
リボンの騎士 Princess Knight manga 1953
らんま1/2 Ranma ½ manga 1987-1996
ファイナルファンタジー Final Fantasy FC 12/18/1987
デジタル・デビル物語 女神転生II Digital Devil Story Megami Tensei II FC 06/04/1990
ファイナルファンタジーIV Final Fantasy IV SFC 07/19/1991
ゼルダの伝説 神々のトライフォース The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past SFC 11/21/1991
カエルの為に鐘は鳴る For the Frog the Bell Tolls GB 09/14/1992
真女神転生 Shin Megami Tensei SFC 10/30/1992
ファイナルファンタジーV Final Fantasy V SFC 12/06/1992
ゼルダの伝説 夢をみる島 The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening GB 06/06/1993
ファイナルファンタジーVI Final Fantasy VI SFC 04/02/1994
ヘラクレスの栄光IV 神々からの贈り物 Glory of Heracles IV: A Present from the Gods SFC 10/21/1994
クロノ・トリガー Chrono Trigger SFC 03/11/1995
タイタニック Titanic movie 1997
ファイナルファンタジーVII Final Fantasy VII PS 01/31/1997
ファイナルファンタジーVIII Final Fantasy VIII PS 02/11/1999
クロノ・クロス Chrono Cross PS 11/18/1999
ファイナルファンタジー Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie 07/11/2001
ファイナルファンタジーX Final Fantasy X PS2 07/19/2001
ゼルダの伝説 夢幻の砂時計 The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass DS 06/23/2007
  1. The player has to return to this temple several time to explore more and more of it. A similar design mechanic was later used in Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for the DS. []
  2. In a way the idea of brotherhood with animals, although denied to exist, does take hold of the characters. Make belief creates ‚reality‘ in the mind of people. []
  3. Hemingway, Ernest For Whom the Bell Tolls, London: Arrow Books, 2004. Page 368. []
  4. Hemingway 2004, page 271. []
  5. Originally shōnen ai, followed by june and today’s boys love, these all refer to male homoerotic stories for a female audience. Yaoi is a popular fan fiction variety of this and parodies manga for boys. It sometimes is used to refer to the other non parody variants as well. Yaoi is a major stream inside otaku culture and represents the often ignored females that are part of the otaku tribe. []
  6. Hemingway 2004, page 359. []
  7. Hemingway 2004, page 482. []
  8. I remember reading a discussion on the importance of bridges for a good RPG in the reader’s letter section of RPGamer in 1998. They don’t point out a connection with Hemingway but indicate the weight the bridge motif holds for players. RPGuru 10/07/98, RPGuru 10/08/98, RPGuru 10/09/98, RPGuru 10/11/98. []
  9. Sara and Jakki in Japanese. []
  10. Yet the finding the girl from the game in the real world motif was already used in the above mentioned Megami Tensei II, and the mother (goddess) as a symbol of the mother land and consequently nationalism is also already evident in the Gaia church/chaos alignment of this game series. In CC the mother figure Schala appears as an innocent girl, this is the suppressed guilt over war crimes resulting in escapist fantasy. []
  11. For a comprehensive overview of this topic, refer to Sharon Kinsella’s article Amateur manga subculture and the otaku panic. []
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