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Okay, so @logarhythmic, @aeraspais, and I are supposed to start replaying Final Fantasy VII this week — which means I have to wind up this Shadow Hearts emotional spiral. That’s why I have done this. That’s why I’ve written several thousand words about Yuri Hyuga which I am now going to post in my tumblr: to cleanse my emotional palate so I am ready for the tidal wave of Final Fantasy VII feelings which is looming on the horizon. So. Yeah.
I never expected to love Yuri; — I remember that I was surprised to like him as much as I did the first time I played through Shadow Hearts and Shadow Hearts II and I was surprised all over again on this playthrough. But here’s the thing about Yuri that I forgot: I forgot that the foundational premise on which Yuri’s whole moral/philosophical worldview rests is the idea that it is unacceptable to take a single person’s life in pursuance of a higher aim. And that speaks to me.
A recurring theme of Shadow Hearts and Shadow Hearts II is that of villains plotting to ‘destroy’ the world in order to reshape it anew — or otherwise framing acts of destruction as somehow in the right.
- Dehuai, the villain of the first half of Shadow Hearts planned to summon a god from the Earth to destroy Japan, which he perceived as a threat to the world and specifically to his native China — an idea which is never really disputed by the protagonists (in fact at one point Zhuzhen says “It might be easy to blast Japan out of the water. But just one misstep and you could wind up blowing the entire world into oblivion,” as if his objection to Dehuai’s plan is not even that it would be wrong to destroy Japan but that there was no guarantee that only Japan would be destroyed).
- Albert Simon made a soul-pact with the demon Amon to challenge Rasputin — who had made a soul-pact with Astaroth and, through Sapientes Gladio, planned to conquer first Russia and then Europe — but, disillusioned by the Catholic church’s anti-egalitarianism, and under Amon’s influence, sought to summon a god from another galaxy to destroy the world so that he could remake it according to his principles.
- Ishimura gave Rasputin and Nicolai his political support, encouraging them both to seize power in Russia and promising “the next Emperor” supplies and weapons, in an attempt to destabilise the West and escalate the First World War — in order to “plant the seeds of future power now on the Asian continent”. He argued that the thousands of lives that would be lost in this war of his orchestration were worth it to secure Japan’s future, whatever that meant to him. To this end he had Kato save Nicolai’s life so that he could use Nicolai as a pawn after having his scientists separate Nicolai from Astaroth — an act which risked and in fact resulted in unleashing Astaroth on the world.
- Finally, Kato: having witnessed Lt. Col. Kawashima’s execution at the hands of the Japanese army for treason (despite having acted solely in Japan’s best interests in helping Yuri defeat Dehuai), he helped Ishimura in his aims so that he could leverage Ishimura’s resources to create a clone of Kawashima, Ouka, with whom he intended to live out his days peacefully. When Ouka was killed by Nicolai, he decried the very system he had navigated in order to create her, and — like Albert Simon before him — decided to destroy the world so that he could remake it according to his ideals.
Each and every one of them argued that what they were doing was the right thing to do: Albert Simon and Masaji Kato both supplicated Yuri with the idea that the world as-is was a world of pain and suffering beyond repair or salvation and that the only solution was to raze it to the ground and start over — a compelling argument both on an objective level (given that the universe of the games is one wherein people routinely meet sticky ends, often while struggling to protect others) and on a personal one (given that Yuri’s life has been characterised by loss) — and he rejected it on both occasions. Because, while Yuri has written off all possibility of love or happiness for himself, he does see value in the world as-is, he does see something worth saving in humanity.
Kato: So you’re satisfied with the miserable state of the world? You’re happy just to let things continue the way they’ve been?
Yuri: No, I’m not. The future that I want is the one that I create for myself. Even if it costs me my own soul.
Not only does he reject Simon and Kato’s arguments but he recognises that — for all their talk of creating a better world — they are primarily motivated by ego. Who are Simon and Kato to decide what is ‘best’ for the world, to decide that the lives of all the people living in the world are worth throwing away in the name of creating a society which best fits their worldviews? Who are they to reshape the world in their own likenesses? Who is Dehuai to destroy Japan and kill millions of innocent Japanese civilians in the name of protecting China? Who is Ishimura to decide that the lives of thousands of Europeans are worth sacrificing to secure future political power for Japan? Yuri rejects their paternalism and he’s horrified by political long games which involve short-term sacrifices of people’s lives in pursuit of long-term ‘goals’. “Did it for your country?” he asks Ishimura. “I say you did it for yourself.” In fact, without the political machinations of and interference from men like Dehuai and Ishimura the world would be a better place: it is because of power struggles between these men that ordinary people get killed as they struggle to protect themselves and their families. Jeanne was murdered because of Nicolai, Rasputin, Kato, and Ishimura’s ambition. But it is the deaths of innocents like Jeanne which Albert Simon and Masaji Kato invoked in order to argue for the idea that the world was unsalvageable.
The thing which is so disingenuous about Kato accusing Yuri of being “satisfied” with the state of the world is that Yuri tried to prevent everything which led to the two of them facing off at Asuka from happening — and Kato facilitated all of it. Kato facilitated Nicolai’s soul-pact with Astaroth by promising him both political and material support from Japan — which led to Nicolai releasing the Malice from Apoina Tower which caused the First World War to escalate in intensity; Kato prevented Yuri from killing Nicolai, which would have sealed Astaroth, and instead took him to Japan where Astaroth was released, setting off the chain of events which led to Ouka’s murder; — and Kato was the one working with Ishimura in order to gain political traction of his own, sanctioning and facilitating a plan of Ishimura’s which would have resulted in untold death and suffering to others. Kato was “satisfied with the miserable state of the world” until it touched him personally. Yuri’s dissatisfaction encompassed not just the tragedies of his own life but all the needless tragedies wrought by men’s ambition.
Yuri: I hate it when people let others die just to get what they want.
Because Yuri is not invested in the idea of ‘being’ a hero he operates within a moral framework which privileges individual acts of kindness between human beings over grand acts of ‘salvation’. When he involves himself on a global scale it is always to prevent some large-scale and indiscriminate act of destruction. That’s why he never involved himself in the war. Before he was cursed by Nicolai he had access to the power of a god: he could have obliterated the armies of any country he chose and ended the war in a heartbeat that way. But he didn’t. Instead he chose to use the power of Amon to protect a village full of civilians from invasion. In the opening cutscene of Shadow Hearts II his objective isn’t even to kill the invading German forces; — he could have levelled the church and killed all the soldiers inside it if that were his aim. His aim was to protect the village. In fact, he would have accomplished that aim too if he had levelled the church — but the only reason anyone died in that operation was because of the explosion caused by a grenade thrown by one of the soldiers. Once the attack was halted, Yuri walked away, leaving Karin and several of her men alive in his wake. Because human life is important to him. The political factors driving the war are immaterial to him — he doesn’t care about the abstract concept of ‘France’ (a place he had literally never heard of in 1913) or ‘Germany’; all that matters is that he does everything in his power to minimise the damage. Nothing is more important to him than the preservation of human life.
One of the central themes of Shadow Hearts is that of grief and loss. A number of minor villains are driven to commit atrocities by grief for the loss of someone close to them. The mythology of the games is riddled with instances of people trying to use the Emigré manuscript to restore loved ones to life and having their experiments go horribly awry; — in the first Shadow Hearts, Jack set up an “orphanage” and started kidnapping the homeless children of London and killing them in experiments designed to restore his dead mother to life. It is the loss first of Yoshiko Kawashima and secondly of Ouka which informed Kato’s “revelation” that the world was unsalvageable — that the experience of living in it was one defined by grief and loss which Kato saw no value in.
But for Yuri, who has lost everyone he has ever loved, each successive loss has only solidified his conviction that it is unacceptable to take life even in the name of “reshaping” the world into one less defined by grief and loss. Ishimura asks how Yuri, whose father gave his life to protect Japan from Dehuai, could oppose his plan to secure future power for Japan — but it’s because Yuri’s father died for Japan that Yuri has to oppose Ishimura. He needs to know that his father’s death had meaning, that it was worth it — that the Japan he died to protect was a Japan worth protecting.
By trying to stir up a war in Europe, Ishimura undermined everything that Ben Hyuga’s death stood for. If all Ben Hyuga’s death meant was that Ishimura could engineer the deaths of millions of people then Dehuai was right to consider Japan a threat — and Yuri lost his father, his mother, and risked his own life and soul to facilitate Ishimura’s plan. He can’t accept that. He can’t accept the argument — whether it comes from Albert Simon or Masaji Kato — that the world is unsalvageable because that means everything he has lost has all been for nothing. If the world truly is beyond all hope — if there is nothing of value in it — then nothing he has been fighting for has any meaning, and his father, mother, and Alice all died for nothing. That’s why he has to keep going. He’s trapped in this recursive loop of self-sacrifice: he has to risk his life and his soul to save the world from Rasputin, Nicolai, Ishimura, and Kato because if there comes a point where he accepts the futility of his actions then everything he has ever done becomes futile. He has to keep giving to imbue everything he has already given with meaning — to make it worthwhile. If the Yuri of the first game is a Yuri fighting to hold things together, the Yuri of the second game is a Yuri fighting to create something worthwhile from the ashes of all the things which have fallen apart. He has nothing left to fight for but his ideals; everything else has been taken from him.
Yuri: This life isn’t my own anyway.
Alice’s death in particular means that he is forced to find value in his own life. In the first Shadow Hearts Yuri is only too ready to die: when Dehuai summons the Seraphic Radiance, Yuri attempts to fuse with it — risking his life and his soul — to try to limit the destruction wrought by it. In the end his consciousness is subsumed by it and it destroys Shanghai. After that, Yuri chooses death over the endless struggle to control the destructive power of the Seraphic Radiance which would characterise the rest of his life. He is afraid of himself and his own power; — he has always feared a loss of control, and decides it would be better to throw his own life away than risk being consumed by the demons he has fused with. It is only because Alice begs him not to give up that he comes back to the land of the living: he had to believe in the value of his own life because Alice saw value in it, and he loved her. He said that protecting her gave his life meaning and that if she died he would die too because there would be no more value in his life. But he couldn’t. She sacrificed herself so that he could live; he had to live to give her death meaning.
Yuri: What have I been fighting for? When that kid was staring at me like that I realised I had no idea.
Roger: You’re fighting for Alice, aren’t you? I think that you are. For the world she loved so much, the future… and also yourself. Her dreams were very important to you, so I think you fight to try to help her dreams come true. Am I wrong?
It’s this fundamental respect for who Alice was and what she believes in which makes Yuri’s attitude towards her in Shadow Hearts II so compelling. He loved her because she exemplified everything about humanity which he found beautiful: because she saw value in the world which Albert Simon was so ready to destroy, because she refused to believe that the world or anyone in it was beyond hope of salvation — and it’s a testament to the strength of his love for her that he refuses to believe that there is no value in living in a world without her. It’s a testament to his love for her that, knowing that every attempt to use the Emigré manuscript has ended in failure and most have caused some kind of awful tragedy, he never tried to bring her back to life until he was convinced that it was necessary to perform the ritual to understand exactly how Kato planned to destroy the world. Beyond that — if he believes she made the world beautiful then he has to work twice as hard to compensate for her loss. His grief over her death is eclipsed by the strength of his belief in the ideals they both shared.
It’s because Yuri knows that the world is full of pain and suffering — that there is nothing unique about his own grief for his parents and Alice — that he is unwilling to buy into the ideology of men like Ishimura and Kato. It’s because he has lost people he loves that he understands that each individual life has value; — it’s because people have chosen to die for him that he is unwilling to accept that there is any cause worth taking life for. He is horrified when Jovis dies of exhaustion after performing the ritual to help Yuri regain access to Amon: it doesn’t matter that it was a risk Jovis chose to take because he knew that Amon was their only hope to prevent Rasputin from slaughtering millions — as far as Yuri was concerned accepting Jovis’ help made him no better than Rasputin himself. Even Ishimura’s life has value: even Ishimura is someone’s father, someone’s grandfather. Regardless of the fact that Ishimura was a war criminal who had wilfully orchestrated the deaths of millions of people, regardless of the fact that he made a mockery of everything Yuri believed in, Yuri couldn’t bring himself to kill him — because he knew it would accomplish nothing. And it was Kato, not Yuri, who finally killed Nicolai: once Astaroth had been contained there was no reason for Yuri to end Nicolai’s life.
Yuri: If I hadn’t come here, this valley would still be a nice, peaceful place.
Karin: But then we couldn’t save Russia. Think of Anastasia’s family. It’s your own mother’s homeland.
Yuri: These guys deserve to be saved too.
That’s why I think that, regardless of what Karin or Saki or anyone else thinks, Yuri could never have fallen in love with Karin. His failure to love Karin has nothing to do with timing (although the idea that he could be ready to move on less than a year after Alice’s death is really ridiculous), or whether anyone could “match up” to Alice, or whether he knew how Karin felt about him — and everything to do with the fact that Karin fundamentally did not and could not understand Yuri’s worldview. In the opening cutscene, she begs her superior officers for a chance to return to and capture Domremy — a village full of civilians which she knows has no strategic value — not because she believes that there’s any moral value in it, not because she wants to fight for her country, but because she wants to do well in the military to restore the honour of her family.
When Yuri went after Ishimura with the intention of killing him all his friends, including Karin, stood back and let him do it — despite the fact that, regardless of whether Karin felt that Ishimura deserved to die (and that’s a defensible moral position), what Yuri was doing was at odds with his own moral worldview. Karin couldn’t understand that because Karin works within a relativistic moral framework wherein the lives of people she loves carry more weight and value than the lives of people she doesn’t know. She couldn’t understand that for Yuri to kill Ishimura he would have to buy into the same black-and-white moral worldview which led Ishimura and Kato to view the lives of people in Europe as inherently disposable because she doesn’t know how to look at the world through a lens which imbues each individual life with value.
Yuri: I did the best I could. That’s why… I don’t have any regrets.
What it really comes down to for me with Yuri is this: I have never believed that villainous characters are inherently more interesting than heroic characters — because it’s easy to be a villain. I’ve always been more interested in heroes because it’s difficult to be really heroic. Being a good person requires not just a struggle with self-interest but a clear understanding of what ‘goodness’ is — and because our understanding of ‘goodness’ is constructed in a society which privileges certain attributes in certain individuals a lot of the time heroism is conflated with attitudes I find really repulsive (e.g. the paternalism which often goes along with depictions of male superheroes). Not only is Yuri a rare example of a (male!) protagonist with an idealistic moral outlook which falls in line with my own but he’s an example of a character who sticks to his ideals even under the duress of an overwhelmingly tragic narrative arc. Almost every bad thing that happens to him or the people around him happens as a punishment for heroism — his parents were killed because his father stood up to Dehuai; the curse which eventually killed Alice was placed on him because he risked his life to protect people from the four masks; he was cursed by Nicolai to lose his soul because he saved the world from Albert Simon; etc. — but he keeps fighting. Even in the context of a world where no good deed goes unpunished — even after he has given up all hope of happiness for himself — Yuri rejects the idea that there is nothing worth fighting to protect.
That’s why I love him.
… all of this. This is why Yuri is one of my absolute all-time favorite RPG protagonists.
He is my favorite male protagonist in a video game, hands down. <3
Dat Concept Art.