NOTE: This post will contain plot SPOILERS for both games in the series, so it is highly recommended you only read if you have completed both games. It also assumes you have basic knowledge of the two games and the series in general.
As all fans of the series will know, towards the end of Shenmue II’s Guilin scenario (Disc 4 of the Dreamcast version), there is a pretty significant plot reveal – namely, that ‘Shenmue’ is actually the tree outside Shenhua’s house in Bailu Village, and that she herself is named after the flower of the tree. I remember being surprised by this reveal on my first playthrough of the game – it works so well because I had never really thought to question what ‘Shenmue’ meant before that point, or even if it was relevant within the series’ own story and mythology. And obviously for any players who had been eagerly awaiting an explanation, I expect it would have been satisfying for them as well. The other really great and clever thing about it is that there are actually several hints and foreshadowing to this reveal before this point – some admittedly not within the main narrative, but they are there nonetheless – and there are many examples of trees and nature being used as symbolism before Ryo even sets foot in Guilin – which I will be exploring in this post.
As stated by the series’ script-writer Masahiro Yoshimoto, Yu Suzuki chose the title ‘Shenmue’ which loosely means ‘Spirit Tree’ – obviously this makes sense given the plot reveal in Shenmue II, with Ryo and Shenhua both commenting that the tree gives them a ‘feeling’ that they can’t quite explain. Suzuki admittedly took some liberties in order to make the title refer to a tree rather than grass, but it’s intriguing to see that the title itself refers to what will obviously become a very important plot device as we move further into the story with Shenmue III.
Speaking of the plot reveal literally staring at you in the face – there are examples of the game’s soundtrack of all things foreshadowing it. Let’s look at the tracks that comprise the Shenmue main theme, and Shenhua’s theme, and how exactly they are titled on the Shenmue Original Soundtrack:
|#||Japanese title||Translated title||Composer||Time|
|01||シェンムー ～莎木～ / Original Version||Shenmue ~Sedge Tree~ / Original Version||Takenobu Mitsuyoshi||03:59|
|02||シェンファ ～莎花～ / Original Version||Shenhua ~Sedge Flower~ / Original Version||Ryuji Iuchi||03:02|
‘Sedge Tree’ and ‘Sedge Flower’! Would you look at that? The meaning of both the title and the heroine’s name are, in a sense, given to you right there on a soundtrack CD released long before the second game. While it doesn’t appear to translate directly as ‘Spirit Tree/Flower’, ‘sedge’ does appear to reflect the environment and plant-life of Guilin quite accurately.
As we go further into the soundtrack, we find Tracks 16 and 17, entitled:
|16||Antiquity Tree||Antiquity Tree||Takenobu Mitsuyoshi||01:32|
|17||Flower Girl||Flower Girl||Ryuji Iuchi||00:54|
Hmm, trees and flowers again? Well, it should come as no surprise to learn that these tracks are arrangements of ‘Shenmue’ and ‘Shenhua’ respectively, which are of course found among the cassette tapes purchasable in the first game. So a significant plot reveal is foreshadowed, right under our noses in cassette tapes that aren’t even necessary to listen to or even purchase in the game! This is such a brilliant touch that I only really came to realise until recently; ‘Antiquity Tree’ makes sense as we are told the tree has been there for a very long time, and of course ‘Flower Girl’ is referencing Shenhua’s own name. Just another thing to add to the list of brilliant little touches within the Shenmue series.
Of course, Shenhua isn’t the only ‘flower girl’ in Ryo’s life, is she? Of course we must remember Nozomi Harasaki, childhood friend and unrequited admirer of our hero, who works at her grandmother’s ship, Aida Florist. This certainly feels like a deliberate case of flowers being used as a plot device/symbol, and a somewhat harsh confirmation that Nozomi is not the ‘flower girl’ of the series, but rather the one of Ryo’s former life, before his father was murdered and he set out on his quest for revenge. Although she does bring Iwao’s favourite flowers to the Hazuki altar room in an optional scene that many have probably missed, again emphasising the importance of flowers in the series’ themes and narrative.
In conceiving and preparing this post, I was curious to see if any of the other women in Ryo’s life are associated with flowers in some way, whether it is meant to be a recurring theme…
And the answer is…kind of? In reference to Joy, the Shenmue II character profile page for her, that contains old designs and concept art (found as a bonus when you insert Disc 2 into a PC) mentions that ‘she used to have a tattoo of a rose on her chest, but at some point it disappeared’. (see picture of said tattoo design above) So there appeared to be a continuation of the ‘flower girl’ theme embodied in Joy, but it was later removed. Perhaps because she can hardly be considered to represent the innocence and purity of Nozomi and Shenhua? Who knows…
However! A rose reference was retained for Joy, just not on her actual body – if one looks closely at her motorcycle, you’ll notice a rose design and the text ‘Blue Rose’! (Thanks to LanDC who originally ripped this texture way back in 2005!) I’m not sure if there’s meant to be any deeper meaning to the fact it refers to a blue rose – Wikipedia has the following to say:
Blue roses are often portrayed in literature and art as symbols of love, prosperity, or immortality. However, because of genetic limitations, they do not exist in nature.
I suppose prosperity is something you might associate with Joy, given that she has a very rich and powerful businessman for a father. There is also a belief in some cultures that the holder of a blue rose will have all of his or her wishes granted. There may be no meaning or relevance to this at all, and perhaps I’m looking too much into something you can barely make out in the game itself, but its an interesting little detail to ponder, nonetheless…
As for Fangmei and Xiuying? There admittedly doesn’t seem to be any such flower imagery or symbolism going on with these characters; I have a faint memory of Fangmei asking Ryo about what his favourite flower is (his response being that he can’t think of much else besides cherry blossoms), but she is of course seen as resembling a cat through Ryo’s eyes than anything floral. Nothing immediately jumps to mind for Xiuying either – but we will come to her later as we discuss the theme of trees being associated with learning calmness and patience in the Shenmue saga…
Watch this space soon for Part 2, where I will delve into how trees and nature are used as recurring plot devices and symbols in the Shenmue series. Until next time folks!