In Part 1, we discussed the meaning of the name, ‘Shenmue’, the various examples of the meaning being foreshadowed before it’s reveal, as well as how flowers are often used as a symbol within the series. In Part 2, we will be exploring the other trees besides the titular tree of the series, (as well as nature in general) and how they represent Ryo’s character development and growth across the two games.
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.
So, trees in Shenmue then. Given what we have learned about the meaning behind the name of the series, it only makes sense there would be other trees besides the all-important titular one outside Shenhua’s house. And we see this almost immediately in the very opening moments of Shenmue I – I refer to of course, the cherry tree outside the Hazuki Dojo; where the Dragon Mirror is buried (before Lan Di takes it, of course).
Now, I’m not sure if there is meant to be any deeper meaning to the Dragon Mirror being hidden under a tree, and the Phoenix Mirror being hidden behind a far more labyrinthine series of secret doors and passageways that lead to the Hazuki Dojo’s basement – but the tree’s narrative importance itself cannot be denied. If the player focuses on the tree the first time they approach the Dojo when first gaining control of Ryo, it triggers a flashback of him as a young boy being trained by his father – at a time the cherry blossoms have bloomed and are falling serenely to the ground. Iwao tells him to ‘find his centre of balance’ – an early indicator of something that becomes a recurring theme throughout the series – Ryo being encouraged to concentrate first instead of acting rashly or wasting his energy. While something merely hinted at here in the first game, this theme becomes far more prevalent in the second game, which we will come to…
The tree also acts as a signal of the passing of time in the first game, and a dire warning from Shenhua in one of Ryo’s many dreams about her. As the game manual for Shenmue I states as it explains how the passage of time functions in the game, there is still an overall time limit to be aware of:
As each day is finished, the date will reflect this passage by advancing forward. Although there is no specific time limit set for completion of the game, Shenmue starts on a winter’s day and you are expected to reach the climax and complete the main objective of Shenmue by the time the cherry trees bloom in early spring.
While it does also reassure the player that ‘there is no need to rush or randomly storm your way through the game’, and to enjoy the world at its own pace (indeed, you are given more than enough time to complete the story, the chances of a player triggering the bad ending by accident being extremely unlikely), it does again serve as an example of trees and the seasons holding important symbolism in the series. The looming threat of Spring is there to remind us that Ryo only has so much time to move forward in his quest, and that he should not waste his precious time thoughtlessly.
The manual of course does not spoil what occurs if the player reaches this time in the game, but Shenhua gives us a cryptic but ominous clue. When Ryo falls asleep on the 31st March, the Spring already beginning, he sees her in a dream, where she tells him:
‘When the cherry blossoms fall, the dragon shall descend on you. Hurry’.
If Ryo/the player does not heed this advice and still wastes time until 15th April, 1987, he awakes to find the cherry tree starting to bloom; spring has arrived. The meaning of the Dragon Mirror being previously buried under the tree perhaps becomes clear in a cruel sort of irony. And, sure enough, so has the ‘dragon’ that Shenhua warned about:
Of course, Ryo is far from ready to challenge Lan Di, and avenge his father’s death – he has wasted time and learned nothing, not being able to get to Guilin to fulfil his destiny of meeting Shenhua in time, or even leaving Japan at all, for that matter. The cherry blossoms and the tree itself serve as a grim reminder that the player only has so much time to complete Ryo’s quest, tying very neatly into the overall themes of trees and nature that the series continually conveys. It almost works as a direct opposite to the ever looming threat of winter in Game of Thrones. Shenmue begins in the winter of 1986/7, of course, so it is the spring that Ryo must race against time to evade, even if he himself is not aware of the threat…
As Ryo’s quest moves on into Hong Kong in Shenmue II, the theme of Ryo learning to keep patient and calm becomes a lot more prevalent, in particular through the teachings of Xiuying Hong, who attempts to dissuade him from the path of revenge. Before Ryo meets her properly, however, he meets an old man, Jianmin Tao, who teaches him the basics of Tai Chi (a calm and flowing style where softness develops into force, as the old man himself puts it), and then one of the moves of Chen-style Tai Chi, the Iron Palm –used to demonstrate the aforementioned development of softness into force. How does Ryo learn this move? By performing it over and over again on a defenceless tree, of course! (the tree in question being what is commonly known as a ‘Flame Tree’ – indeed, the capsule toy that Ryo can acquire depicting the tree refers to it as this)
Jianmin tasks him to perform the move until the leaves from the tree have covered the ground (once again, the importance of what falls from the tree is signified), which Ryo must do in order for the old man to tell him about the Four Wude, which he is currently trying to learn to meet a master. To do this, Ryo must learn to focus and control his timing – things that would not have necessarily come to mind for him before. The fact that he is again learning this whilst standing under a tree (and perhaps it’s calming influence) as he was when practicing with his father – is very notable symbolism, and Jianmin even says to him to ‘centralise all of your body’s strength’, not dissimilar to Iwao’s advice. While Ryo is arguably only complying to do this because of Jianmin’s promise to tell him about the Wude, and therefore further his quest for revenge, this is the beginning of him learning to ‘regain his calm’, and a realisation that brute force and rushing in without thinking is not always the answer.
Once Ryo has finally met Xiuying Hong, the master of Man Mo Temple, she attempts to focus Ryo and for him to understand the importance of patience; her disapproval of his quest for revenge is made clear very quickly. It is here that the game takes a more peaceful, sedate turn as the player finds themselves controlling Ryo as he carries piles of books out from the temple library, over and over, which once again, he is only agreeing to do because of the promise of information from Xiuying to further his quest. (and she is doing it to give him ‘time to think’ and get the flames of revenge under control) Ryo eventually grows impatient with this and tries to find out about Zhu Yuan Da himself, leading him to discover a book written by him, the Wulinshu, which is in fact in the temple’s library. However, the cabinet holding the book is locked, and only Xiuying has the key. She refuses to give it to him, and when Ryo persists, she effortlessly catches a falling leaf from the flame tree in the temple’s garden, encouraging him to try it. Of course, the unfocused Ryo fumbles and cannot. ‘Even a single leaf becomes impossible to catch, unless you’re calm enough to concentrate. Right now, all you have on your mind is revenge. You’re impatient’, Xiuying then chides. She then challenges him to do it himself, and only then will she grant him the key.
The player must then help Ryo to do this, concentration and good timing required. Even after the first time, upon seeing that he still has not calmed himself, Xiuying challenges him to catch three in a row. Once again, Ryo is required to calm himself, find his centre while within the peaceful aura of a tree, the natural world around him and ‘the true nature of things’, i.e. not merely the one-track road to revenge that his mind is currently on. (The fact that a ‘flame tree’ assists him in keeping what Xiuying refers to as the ‘flames of revenge’ under control has a certain irony, does it not?) Of course, despite this, as we know Ryo ultimately defies Xiuying and continues on his quest regardless, but her teachings are certainly not wasted, as we will come to see later…
Before Ryo leaves for Kowloon, Xiuying teaches Ryo the ‘Counter Elbow Assault’ move, seemingly having relented in trying to get him to reconsider his quest for revenge, but still urging him not to let himself to be lost to the ‘evil path’, like her brother did. Once again, this lesson takes place in the temple garden, under the watchful eye of the flame tree. This is appropriate, as it is a move requiring thought, using your enemy’s movements against them, meaning Ryo has to concentrate and act methodically, as he has slowly come to learn partly through the calming influence of the natural world around him. The use of trees in these scenes certainly seems deliberate, especially given the latter revelation of the Shenmue tree, and its importance to the lore and overall story.
However, Ryo will not always have the calming influence of Xiuying (or an appropriately placed tree) around him at all times, of course. He is required to learn how to ‘keep his mind like a polished mirror’ in any situation, wherever he may be, using patience and thought to defeat his enemies. This is at last seen once Ryo is on the rooftop of the Yellow Head Building (within the dangerous and unforgiving walled city of Kowloon), against the fearsome Dou Niu; while Lan Di, the object of his desired vengeance, is hanging from a helicopter just out of reach. It is then Ryo is able to remember Xiuying’s teachings, manages to stop and concentrate, only on his mind and the comrades surrounding him, and defeat Dou Niu. Ryo’s character development and learning the art of patience all comes to a head at this climactic point of the story; in part due to the calming influence of nature, and in particular the apparent hold that certain trees can have over him. The meaning behind the title of this series suddenly becomes a lot more apparent and how it is so much more than a simple revenge story. Ryo’s shift from an angry, impatient young man who has rarely stopped to absorb the world around him to a calmer, more level-headed martial artist continues as he then journeys to the natural splendour of Guilin – how he will fare in Shenmue III, of course, remains to be seen…
Hope you enjoyed the post! Let me know your own thoughts and comments, fellow Shenmue fans.
And many thanks to the ‘Shenmue Fans’ YouTube channel for their hard work keeping a video library of the series, where all of the screenshots for this post were derived.
Until next time folks,
Miles / Stuart