Mundane Over Magic? (Shenmue III Ending Analysis)

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Hey all, sorry it’s been a while! Of course, since I last posted, the release of the long, long-awaited Shenmue III has now been and gone. I have completed the game once, and am now in the midst of my second playthrough on a New Game + save, attempting to mop up the trophies I didn’t get the first time round and achieve that elusive Platinum, as I have already done with the Shenmue I & II re-releases. (Very nearly driving myself insane trying to find all of the herbs in Bailu Village, to which I was very grateful when the trophy finally popped!) . It says a lot about the series, that as with the first two games, it is really the only game in modern times that I have felt compelled to play through again almost immediately after completing it.
Having said that, I am of course aware that feelings are mixed within the Shenmue fan community about the game in general – as there are for myself. I will post an article serving as an in-depth review and my overall thoughts in due course, but for the meantime I wanted to specifically analyse the ending of the game, as in what new information we learn plot-wise, and whether what occurs truly matches with what was hinted at at the end of Shenmue II (AKA the cliffhanger we fans were all left hopelessly dangling from for nearly 20 years).

WARNING: Obviously, as I go on now to discuss the ending of the game, there will be SPOILERS – please do not read any further if you have not yet completed Shenmue III!

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So then, the ending of Shenmue III. In the final scenario of the game, Ryo finds himself in the Fortified Castle Area across the river from the city of Niaowu, intending to rescue Shenhua from the mysterious woman who has kidnapped her. He is joined by returning ally Ren Wuying,  as well as Grandmaster Bei Xianzi, shrine maiden Lin Shiling and Tai Chi instructor Hsu Qiu (the latter two’s participation proving a major point of contention for a lot of fans, given their lack of presence and development leading up to this point, but I will go into that more in my general impressions post).


What brought him to Niaowu in the first place, of course, was to track down Shenhua’s step-father, Yuan Yunshen, who had been kidnapped by a gang of thugs working with the Chi You Men (and also Yunshen’s friend and fellow stonemason from Bailu Village, Xu Guowei). He finds and releases both of them from their imprisonment in the castle before finding Shenhua (held captive by Niao Sun, whose introduction and role in the series I plan to cover in a separate post)

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Of course, we first learned of Yunshen’s disappearance towards the end of Shenmue II, when Ryo and Shenhua discover the letter left by him, the words suggesting that he knew that Ryo would be coming to Guilin, and would meet Shenhua (and that he would be in possession of the Phoenix Mirror)-and instructing her to go with him, and ‘find the proof’. He also leaves behind the family treasure, the Sword of Seven Stars, which serves as a key along with the Phoenix Mirror to unveil the giant stone relief of both the Dragon and Phoenix Mirrors that he had secretly been working on…

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And of course, this is precisely where the story abruptly ended for nearly two decades, with no Shenmue III in sight until that fateful Kickstarter announcement in 2015. Speculation and theorising were rampant within the Shenmue fan community (especially so on the Shenmue Dojo forums) about where the story would go next, and whether there would continue to be supernatural elements within the series (given the aforementioned sword floated in the air and created a beam of light when combined with the Phoenix Mirror). It was a tantalising and yet agonising point to end Shenmue II on, as the story seemed to be taking a real turning point. How did Yunshen know Ryo was coming? Did he know that he was about to be kidnapped and/or killed? What is the ‘proof’ that he refers to? What was the purpose of sculpting the giant mirrors? We had so many questions, but for a long time it seemed like we would never learn the answers.

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Spill it, old man – we’ve been waiting 18 years!!!

But not to dwell on those dark times for Shenmue fans – fast forward to 2019 when Shenmue III is finally released, and picks up exactly where the second game left off, Ryo and Shenhua leave the cave and begin investigating what happened to her step-father, questioning the residents of Bailu village and eventually tracking down the gang of thugs responsible for assisting with the kidnapping of both Yunshen and his fellow stonemason Xu Guowei (and targeting of the other stonemasons for information on the Phoenix Mirror). This leads them to travel to Niaowu, where Ryo reunites with his treasure hungry ally Ren Wuying, and ultimately discovers Yuan and Xu being held captive by the Chi You Men (as well as Shenhua, who had been deceived by Niao Sun). He manages to rescue them, and after being forced to surrender the Phoenix Mirror and fail to defeat Lan Di in a tense confrontation, they leave Niaowu by boat. It is then that Ryo speaks to Yuan to find out exactly what he knows:
Below is a bullet point breakdown of what we learn from him in this scene:

• Yuan knew Zhao Sunming (Lan Di’s father and Iwao’s old friend)

• The mirrors were created by his ancestors (technically we learned this earlier from Ryo’s investigations in Bailu Village, but its important)

• The Dragon mirror and Phoenix mirror were once locked away in a location known as the ‘cliff temple’, and the Chi You Men had their eyes on them.

• Zhao wanted to retrieve the mirrors before they fell into the wrong hands, and the mirrors were entrusted to him (Presumably the Yuan family were the ones who entrusted them to him?)

• Zhao died years later, under mysterious circumstances (as we knew)

• His only son, Longsun (Lan Di) was then raised by the Chi You Men (this is interesting, as if the character of Ziming Hong is anything to go by, it seems members are recruited and trained from a very young age)

• The ‘cliff temple’ is the one depicted on the scroll that Ryo and Shenhua found in the Bailu village belltower. The Chi You Men have now taken it over.

So we basically get more information about Zhao Sunming drip-fed to us again, similar to how Zhu Yuanda divulges some information to us at the end of Shenmue II. On the surface, there is no issue here, and the journey to the cliff temple (Ryo, Shenhua and Ren are last seen walking the Great Wall of China on their way to temple) makes a nice hook and starting point for Shenmue IV (who would have ever thought we’d seriously be discussing the possibility of that game existing? It feels weird even typing it…)

However, what I personally take a bit of issue with (as others have, I’m sure) is the feeling of disconnection between what Yuan wrote in his letter to Shenhua, and his attitude/knowledge of things when you finally rescue him.

As a reminder – the text of the letter (from Shenmue II – points of interest in bold):

Dear Shenhua,
My work is done. The Phoenix entrusted to our people is now complete.
The time of destiny has come. Shenhua…go with the one who holds the Phoenix, and find the proof.
Yield yourself to the one…and go, together.
I shall give you the family treasure, the Sword of Seven Stars. Think of the sword as part of me and keep it with you.
I shall always watch over you.

I also checked back to the Shenmue III intro to see if the text recounted in the letter there matches – and aside from it stating ‘Yield yourself to the light’ instead of ‘one’ it’s essentially the same.

Now…as we mentioned, this letter reads as if Yuan somehow knew Ryo would be coming, doesn’t it? Why is now the time that Shenhua has to find the proof? Again as mentioned, it suggests that Yuan most likely thought he was about to die, or would never see Shenhua again (‘I shall always watch over you’). And there are several questions raised that just aren’t answered. Why did he need to carve the relief of the giant mirrors? By the proof, does he mean the scroll with the cliff temple on it? He also says that the phoenix entrusted to ‘our people’ is now complete – but from what we learn in Bailu Village, the creation of the actual mirrors was entrusted to his family – so why the need to build the giant ones? It’s very frustrating that Ryo does not think to ask Yuan this when he finally meets him (even if he does mention the ‘relief in the quarry’).

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There is something that possibly explains this narrative disconnect, however. When I posted about this on the Shenmue Dojo forums, a fellow member made reference to an interview where series creator and producer Yu Suzuki decided to go ‘all out’ with the Shenmue II ending, as the team knew there was a strong possibility it would be the final game released in the series- and that this is why the more fantastical elements were incorporated into the ending. I asked for the link to this interview and BalHan gladly obliged – the interview is from 2015, shortly after the announcement of Shenmue III. You can read it in its entirety here: https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2015-10-04-i-could-do-with-a-bit-more-money-yu-suzuki-on-the-return-of-shenmue

The specific point of interest is this:

The interviewer recounts in the article: ‘Towards the end of Shenmue 2, more fantastical elements began to creep in, though. The floating sword Ryo and Shenhua come across in that Guilin cave always had me worried that Shenmue 3 would throw away the mundane in favour of magic.

Suzuki’s answer is this:

“When we made Shenmue 2, we knew it was the last one,” Suzuki reassures me. “We decided to go out with a bang – that’s why there are those fantastical elements in there! Also, in China and in Japan, there’s a strong belief, like in England and with Stonehenge and the druids, we get energy from the spirits and the trees and nature. It’s called ki, and it translates as feeling and emotion. It’s not the same as fantastical fairies and demons – it’s more to do with a natural, basic power. We’re considering bringing that element into Shenmue 3.”

Now this raises an interesting query – does what we know from now playing and experiencing Shenmue III suggest that it was ultimately decided not to bring these supernatural elements into the third game? Was there originally a point where the end scenario of Shenmue II was written to be more mundane, and less prophetic/supernatural elements were suggested by Yuan’s words in the letter? Was the original intention simply for Ryo and Shenhua to discover that Yuan had been kidnapped, and there was none of this whole malarkey with floating swords, beams of light and giant mirrors, and possibly no indication that Yuan somehow knew Ryo would be coming? Is this the basis that Shenmue III’s story ultimately ended up being based on? It was suggested during this discussion in the forums that the second game’s ending may have been very different if a third game was assured at the time, and likely much less fantastical…

s3endingpost_image6Of course, the introduction of Shenmue III being a recap of Shenmue II’s ending could make this problematic if this is the case (being as it recreates the events) as it initially suggests that the third game fully intends to follow through with these supernatural elements. However, a key difference is that while the voiceover of Yuan reading the letter mentions the Sword of Seven Stars, we do not see it in Shenmue III’s version of events – in Shenmue II’s ending, the sword is seen floating in the air after Ryo places the Phoenix Mirror on the pillar, the beam of light from the mirror then shooting into the sword, causing the fire that illuminates the giant mirrors. In Shenmue III’s version of events, however, the beam of light from the mirror (also now a bright white light rather than red) causes the fire all on its own, the sword not even seen at all. While still slightly fantastical in nature, the key magical element that the interviewer (and a few other wary fans) were so concerned about has essentially been retconned and stricken from the record.

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None of this floating sword nonsense in Shenmue III…just pretend it was a dream…

The sword itself has not been eliminated entirely, of course – it still has a use later on in Shenmue III’s story. Ryo and Shenhua must use it to activate a mechanism in Bailu Village’s belltower, where they discover the scroll depicting the cliff temple. However it is interesting to note that it has been reduced to essentially dagger size, a far cry from the hefty weapon we saw in Shenmue II…its importance has certainly been downplayed.

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(Insert your own crude caption about size not mattering here)

However, we still run into the issue of there being an undeniable disconnect between Yuan’s words in his letter and his attitude and knowledge of things upon finally meeting him in Shenmue III’s ending. While in the case of the sword retcon the game clearly intends to dilute some of the more fantastical elements of Shenmue II’s ending, it still faces the problem of having to adhere to the key points of its events and the words of Yuan’s letter…

CONCLUSION AND PONDERINGS:

Is it possible, therefore, that Shenmue III’s story is based on an earlier draft/outline of Suzuki’s overall plan, that doesn’t take into account the ‘out with a bang’ ending that the second game ended up having, creating this feeling of disconnect? It’s conceivable that Shenmue II’s ending was conceived with no thought of the story repercussions should the series miraculously continue one day (and given the unlikeliness of this at the time, can you really blame Suzuki for this?) The more constrained budget for the third game likely didn’t help in this regard either (the story and plot are not quite as clearly conveyed or layered as the first two games, an issue I’ll go into further in the upcoming post regarding Niao Sun). It seems likely that Suzuki did not think of how to deal with those elements of the story if a third game ever materialised, creating the slightly muddied waters we’re in now.

Given Ryo and Shenhua’s failure to question the purpose of the giant relief of the mirrors in the cave, and their current journey onward to the cliff temple, it may seem like we’re supposed to forget about the Stone Pit altogether and that it won’t be important going forward. This is slightly disappointing if true, given how long us fans had to wait between the second and third games, and that being the point were left on. But it may well be something we’ll just have to accept.

I do hope, however, that the Shenmue Tree will still be relevant – given that it shares its name with the series! Suzuki’s reference in the interview to the ‘ki’ or ‘energy’ that we get ‘from the spirits and the trees and nature’ reassures me that it will be, though. But sadly, we may just have to accept that the floating sword and giant mirrors were ultimately meaningless fireworks to give Shenmue II’s ending its ‘bang’ – spectacular and awe-inspiring on the surface, but with no deeper meaning behind them.

What do YOU think? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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-Stu/Miles

Thanks to:

BalHan of the Shenmue Dojo forums for retrieving the Yu Suzuki interview

Gamer’s Little Playground for the video of Shenmue III’s ending, where images for this post were sourced.

The Shenmue Fans channel for the Shenmue II ending shots, captured from their video library

And Yu Suzuki for persevering against all odds to make Shenmue III a reality.

2 thoughts on “Mundane Over Magic? (Shenmue III Ending Analysis)

  1. I’m starting to think the end of II, because they knew was the last, was just a way to make fans scream for more Shenmue, which kinda happened. But then again, the money they spent on Online and other stuff… Who the hell knows anymore

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You may well be right – it’d just be interesting to know how the game would have ended if 3 was a sure thing! I keep finding myself wondering how the game would have been done if it came out back in the day (i.e. I’m guessing Bailu would feel far more rural and not have an arcade!), but perhaps I need to let go of these hypothetical what if’s and see where S4 takes us 🙂

      Like

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