Demons & Lilies - Breaking Down the Shin Megami Tensei V Announcement Trailer
On July 20, 2020, on a humble Nintendo Direct dedicated to third party releases, the latest trailer for Shin Megami Tensei V gracefully descended to earth and it is ELECTRIFYING!
You can see the trailer here:
Now let’s dive in!
The trailer opens with a shot of the sky blanketed with countless angels, ready for battle. The cut is punctuated by the thunderous strike of a taiko drum, an instrument that was used in feudal Japan to pump up soldiers and issue commands during times of war.
We see there are also legions of devils floating in the sky. It’s not quite clear if they’re on the same side as the angels, or if there’s about to be a huge face off. A booming celestial voice emphatically declares:
THE GOD YOU WORSHIP IS DEAD
This is the voice of Lucifer, the fallen angel who lead a failed rebellion against the Abrahamic God. He is a recurring character in the Megami Tensei series and takes many forms. He is positioned in front of Tokyo Tower, the second tallest artificial structure in Japan, originally built in 1958 is a tourist attraction and commercial broadcasting tower.
The idea was to circumvent the need for tons of broadcasting towers dotting the city by building one massive tower tall enough to broadcast to the entire Kanto region. It’s like a modern Tower of Babel! What a perfect place for such a stunning declaration!
Lucifer was the final boss of the very first Megami Tensei game for the Famicom, released on September 11, 1987.
This initial MegaTen game was actually based off of a popular science fiction novel called "Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei" (デジタル・デビル・ストーリー 女神転生) by Aya Nishitani.
You'll notice the first game does not have Kazuma Kaneko's signature style. That's because he got his start in the series with the sequel, Megami Tensei II (released for the Famicom in 1990) where he was character designer, demon designer, world map designer and sprite artist.
Fun fact: Kazuma Kaneko actually designed most of the classic Megami Tensei demons as sprites first and then extrapolated them into full illustrations from there!
The form that Lucifer takes in the Megami Tensei V trailer is based off of his design from Shin Megami Tensei 2, which was likely inspired by this print of Lucifer by Cornelis Galle the elder, a Flemish engraver best known for his masterful portraits and skillful portrayals of Christian subjects.
This print depicts a key scene from Inferno (the first of 3 parts of The Divine Comedy by the 13th Century Italian poet Dante Alighieri) where the titular hero (& author insert character) Dante is taken to the center of the earth where he observes Lucifer the fallen angel, trapped in a frozen lake, crying bloody tears as he chews on the worst sinners for all eternity.
Lucifer’s proclamation “Kami wa shinda” (“God is dead”) echoes into the next shot where we see massive crowds of people walking through Shinagawa railway station in Tokyo.
This contrasts with the opening shot of the armies of angels in the sky with their backs to the viewer. Now we see waves of humans, their backs to us, dutifully marching forward ready to board trains underground.
The word “dead” continues to echo as the camera hones in on the main character, leafing through a book while caught up in the flow of urban life. As the angels worship and serve god, people serve society and are bound by its rules. All of that is about to die.
The protagonist puts away his book, which it turns out is John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” an epic poem from the 17th century that’s considered one of the classics of English literature. Paradise Lost tells the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, but it’s best known for its focus on the story of Lucifer, the war in heaven and his fall from grace.
The main character’s High School uniform is emblazoned with flowers, specifically lilies. This is RIPE with potential meaning!
In Japan, and East Asian cultures, white flowers are associated with mourning and funerals. This dovetails with Lucifer's proclamation on the death of God.
But the use of white lilies here goes so much further than that!
Lilies are a very important flower in Christianity and are associated with the coming of Jesus, his purity and his resurrection. Some accounts say that lilies sprouted in the Garden of Gethesmane after Jesus was crucified. Others say that Lilies sprouted from his blood and sweat while on the cross. The New Testament directly mentions lilies in the following passage:
Why are you anxious about clothing?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.
They don’t toil, neither do they spin.
A particularly compelling motif is that of Jesus at the Last Judgement, with a lily and sword floating menacingly above him.
This imagery is very much in line with the themes of Megami Tensei, and this trailer!
The lilies on the protagonist's uniform could very well be "Easter lilies" which are an important part of Christian rituals the world over, but actually native to Japan! The MegaTen series is not unlike the Easter Lily, a native Japanese entity that has taken on Christian themes in modern times.
All this lily symbolism paints the protagonist of SMTV as a fated messiah figure and indeed, in the next shot he’s suddenly rising up from the literal ruins of society, like a flower sprouting from the dirt.
The trailer continues.
“Order itself has crumbled, and chaos shall reign over all.”
This line sums up the challenges ahead of the protagonist, who is now alone, meekly wandering through a dead world. He is a lone flower in the ashes of earth as we knew it.
“And within the throes of chaos, the world can be reborn,”
This line sets up the goal of the game. We are treated to a panning shot of the horizon. It’s death and ruin as far as the eye can see. But within this hellscape, there’s hope. The Lily imagery and Lucifer’s proclamation setup the protagonist as the possible champion of a new world.
“A future yet unknown.”
As this line is uttered, the character looks up to see devils in the sky and stumbles. The future is uncertain, hostile and terrifying.
“In a world without its Creator, which path shall you choose?”
But you can’t lose hope! God and everything you know may be dead. But you’re still alive and you still have a say in your own destiny!
Suddenly a bolt of blinding light shoots down from the heavens, obliterating the demons that were sneering at you. And in the place where it struck the ground, a heavenly being, pulsating with power rises up.
“Follow your will and choose your destiny”
With his face obscured in shadow, with the blinding light of the sun, source of all life behind him, he extends his hand to the protagonist...
who hesitates for a moment before firmly grasping it!
There’s so much to dive into here!
First, who is this mysterious celestial being? It’s clearly an original design for the game. With its glowing body lines it looks a lot like Demi Fiend, the protagonist of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (which was also just announced for rerelease!).
But my gut reaction was that it very much recalls Buddhist guardian deities. Its strong stance, imposing, yet protective stature and flowing skirt immediately brought to mind the Nio Guardians that often stand spiritual guard at Buddhist temples.
Nio Guardians are often depicted wielding vajras, a magical ritual weapon from Buddhist and Hindu lore. The word “vajra” means “diamond” and “thunderbolt” in sanskrit, and the weapon has the indestructibility and overwhelming power of both things. Note that this mysterious figure descended from the heavens in a bolt of thunder, obliterating the demons that were threatening the protagonist!
Now let’s look at that outstretched hand. If you’re a longtime Art-Eater reader, then perhaps that imagery is familiar to you. The being’s arm looks lacquered (or possibly bronze), like a Buddhist statue!
This is an aesthetic that we wrote about extensively in our past breakdown of the art style of Asura’s Wrath (2012).
Shin Megami Tensei also seems to be drawing from that same well and it’s quite possible that Asura’s Wrath itself was an influence on this particular design. Look at the striking similarities!
But wait! There’s more!
The mysterious figure’s skirt recalls the petals of a lily, the flower emblazoned on the protagonist’s uniform. This conveys a very clear bond between the two and also opens up the possibility for a truly compelling use of mythic imagery. Bear with me …
In Greek mythology it’s said that lilies were created at the birth of Heracles (Hercules as he’s known in Roman mythology and popular culture) who was the bastard son of Zeus and a mortal woman. Zeus wanted his son to be immortal, so he had him breastfed by his wife Hera, goddess of fertility whose milk could confer immortality. Zeus also didn’t want his wife to know about his infidelity, so he attempted this scheme while Hera was sleeping. In the heat of the moment, the infant Heracles suckled so vigorously that Hera woke up and pushed him away. In the clamor, a burst of milk splashed across the heavens to create the milky way. And a single drop fell to earth where it created the first lily.
Now, here’s how it ties to Buddhism. Nio Guardians are a manifestation of Vajrapani, a powerful diety that is the protector of the Buddha.
The earliest depictions of Vajrapani are from Gandharan Buddhist art, which was a confluence of Greek, Persian, South Asian, Central Asian and East Asian cultures that flourished under the Kushan empire.
The style of Buddhist art that emerged from this incredibly unique melting pot is sometimes referred to as Greco-Buddhist art. And indeed, within this cultural melting pot, Greek mythic figures made their way into the Buddhist pantheon. For instance, in Kushan art, Vajrapani was depicted as Heracles! With his well muscled body, oak club (which later was adapted into a Vajra) and lion skin skirt, he carved an imposing figure.
As Buddhism spread through Asia, these conventions would influence Chinese Buddhist art with the emergence of the Nio Guardians, muscular protective deities who would eventually make their way to Japan.
So! Within their core designs, it’s quite possible that Shin Megami Tensei is already telling us a compelling story through ingenious interplay of mythic references:
You are the lily, made from the spilt milk of a god that never wanted you, now able to nourish your avatar Heracles/Vajrapani, protector of the one who will save humanity, and together you will usher in a new world!
Light and heavenly strips of cloth are emitted from their union. The screen fades to white and the narrator tells us:
“Shin Megami Tensei V. Simultaneous worldwide release 2021”
That's one hell of a trailer huh??
Thanks for reading along. I don’t know how much of my speculation was intentional rather than coincidence, but man that was fun to research! And regardless of conscious intention, the connections are real and reflect the deep roots between different cultures that stretch back through the ages. That’s a common thread in just about every Art-Eater article!