Thoughts on Lightning Returns and cultural appropriation [SPOILERS]

[NOTE: I’m just about to finish Day 10, so please no spoilers on things that come after that.]

I was having a conversation with my husband the other night about cultural appropriation and Lightning Returns, in which I had occasion to make the following comparison: “It’s like an Evangelical white Texan decided to write a game about Hinduism. That’s how wrong it gets everything.”

And I’d really like to expand on that! But before we go any further, let’s break down the specific example I’m talking about.

Lightning Returns: the most bonkers take on Catholicism ever

So firstly, let’s just get started with the fact that in 13-1, Lightning becomes the pawn of the fal’cie, nigh-omnipotent servants of an omnipotent but mostly absent god who created the world and then abandoned it. She then spends the entire game fighting against entities that are roughly analogous to archangels, and soundly kicks their asses. And somewhere in there she somehow befriends Odin and he becomes her beating-things-up buddy, because, I dunno, I guess he just really likes that her name is Lightning?

Then in 13-2, she’s suddenly abducted by a goddess of Death-but-not-really(?) and turned into a valkyrie. And now in 13-3, she’s back working for God again, and she is literally the savior. As in, that is her title now – Savior Comma The[1].

So now 13-3, Lightning Returns, stars Lightning, The Savior, chosen of God – Bhunivelze the Lord of Light, who apparently decided that priestly robes were passe and that Lightning should have priestly bondage wear instead.

Fetish messiah ftw

And then there’s a bunch of stuff about the end of the world because it’s Squeenix and let’s just cut to the fact that “God’s” base of operations is The Ark, which looks like a fevered acid-trip conjured by the love child of a Futurist and an Art Nouveau aficionado. And that weird tree there? Oh, don’t mind that, that’s just The Tree of Life, AKA Yggdrasil, AKA the World Tree of Norse mythology:


Why is Yggdrasil a plot point in a game that is literally about making Lightning the Christian Bondage Wear Messiah? Let’s not worry about that, okay? Let’s also not worry about that in 13-3, Lightning saves a white chocobo named The Angel of Valhalla, who was really – surprise! – Odin all along! Only Odin is a giant white chicken now, because reasons. And Odin, Valhalla, and Yggdrasil… well Norse culture only predates Christianity by, like, a couple centuries, and Scandinavia is, like, in the same hemisphere and Norse people and Christians are both white, or you know, mostly white, or okay there are non-white Christians but we just won’t pay attention to them because that’s not important.


So, okay, Lightning the Bondage Messiah has been chosen by God to save the souls of as many people as she can before the end of the world so that they can live again in the new world that God is going to create. And no, none of that sentence was in any way a metaphor, because here is Lightning doing some sweet, sweet, soul saving:

saving souls

Oh, and then there’s the official church of God, who are, like, God’s official homies. Only they’re called “The Order”, and they are totes Catholic because seriously check out this badass Cathedral:

photo 2 - Copy

But even though the Order are God’s official homies, they’re also preparing to fuck up God’s shit by doing a ritual to destroy all of the dead souls still hanging around and shit, which would ruin God’s promise to bring back Lightning’s dead sister after she helps him save the world and stuff. Because holding family members hostage is something that totally happened, like for real the New Testament was full of DO WHAT I SAY JESUS OR I WILL FUCKING SHIV MARY SERIOUSLY DO NOT FUCK WITH ME JESUS.

Oh, and even though I haven’t finished the game, I know for realz that Lightning is going to wind up beating up and maybe killing God because Squeenix is telegraphing it so hard, which is also legit Christian, because don’t you remember that time that Jesus and God had that throwdown in the Octagon?

Jesus confirms that is totally what happened.

…I think you probably get the idea by now.

So what does this have to do with cultural appropriation?

What exactly does and does not count as cultural appropriation is always tricky to pin down. Myself, I would say that although Lightning Returns is a bizarre and misinterpretation of Catholic Christianity, I would not call it cultural appropriation, simply because of the context of the two cultures in question. While Japan did not suffer as many ill effects of Western colonial oppression as other Asian countries, it still left an indelible mark on Japanese society. And in general, it is certainly true that Christianity was often a tool of colonial oppression.

And yes Japan does have a history of colonialism itself, and yes it does have a problem with racism against non-Yamato-Japanese. But Japan has never colonized the West, nor has it attempted to forcibly convert Western people or otherwise destroy Western religion. And bizarrely-worded t-shirts aside, it certainly doesn’t have a history of selling misrepresentations of Western religion and culture for profit in such a way that would comprise a threat to the integrity of said religion and culture.

So while Lightning Returns is a deeply weird take on Christianity that some might find offensive (I don’t, but I could understand people who do), I don’t think it’s fair to call it cultural appropriation.

So why go on at such length? Because I think the close-but-not-quite nature of Lightning Returns makes it a useful illustration of what cultural appropriation looks like for people who might not be accustomed to looking out for such things.

There are, unfortunately, a lot of game writers out there who see nothing wrong with raiding non-European cultures for game fodder. Because these cultures are often seen as “inspiration” and not as cultures that belong to real, living people, the result can be big, dumb pastiches of stereotypes and misinterpretations that read as bizarre at best to members of that culture. And because the majority of game developers are still, sadly, white, it only perpetuates the cultural trend of white people commodifying and profiting from the cultures of groups that they themselves have historically victimized.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about writing a game about or set in a culture that you are not a part of. I’m a firm believer in promoting the stories of marginalized groups of people! Hell, I wrote a game set in the Reconquista specifically because I was bothered by the erasure of PoC from European history. But it is wrong to write a game about a culture that isn’t yours if you don’t treat it as something worthy of respect.

Which is where we come back to Lightning Returns as a useful example of What Not To Do!

Looking at Lightning Returns, we have:

* Casual conflation of two distinct cultures from ethnically similar but distinct groups of people (Norse paganism =/ Christianity)

* Use of a cultural or religious symbols to argue for the destruction of that culture or religion (because come on, I don’t have to have finished the game to know that Lightning is going to try to kill God)

* Characters represented in such a way that would be offensive to a significant portion of the real-world members of that culture (Lightning’s bondage messiah gear)

* Representation of a religious figure/cultural hero as something antithetical to their traditional representation. (Jesus was a Jewish carpenter and prophet, not a pink-haired Japanese sword-wielding lady badass who beats up gods for fun.)

So, you know, if you’re struggling with the whole “how not to do cultural appropriation”, you can at least not do those things, which will be a start.

[1] Because a Buffy reference seemed appropriate.

[2] Only it’s Thor that’s the Norse Thunder God, not Odin, but let’s not get sidetracked…


26 thoughts on “Thoughts on Lightning Returns and cultural appropriation [SPOILERS]

  1. A lot of Japanese media offers pretty bonkers takes on Judeao-Christian institutions. I played a japanese beat’em-up once where the final boss was the Judeao-Christian God, who turned out to be an evil computer that was powered by conflict.

    Also, “Lighting the Bondage Messiah” sounds like it would make for an awesome Bowie album.

      • It’s also worth noting that though christianity may have been introduced as a colonial influence on Japan, native Japanese Christians have undergone ages of extreme persecution that has ended with merely a strange and possibly blasphemous bowdlerization of their beliefs. I don’t know much about modern oppression of christians in Japan, but I have seen lots of examples of how christianity is portrayed in the Japanese mainstream.

        • True! But at the same time, I doubt that I’d call Japanese misinterpretations of Christianity a destructive influence in the same way that I’d point to white women wearing bindis or war bonnets being sold as Halloween costumes.

          • It’s hard sometimes to draw the line on when wanting to enjoy something that isn’t a part of your cultures or beliefs becomes unacceptable or offensive, and where everyone sees that is different.

            For instance, I read once that christian style weddings had become exceedingly popular in japan to the point where fake ministers (costumed actors) would perform what were essentially mock-christian weddings to accommodate the demand. Now, in our own culture, christian style weddings are pretty much the norm, despite becoming a secular society. Still, to those who believe that christian style marriage is a sacrament might be offended that something that is important to them and their beliefs has been turned into mere pageantry and masquerade. It would be interesting to hear what the ultraminority christian population of Japan thought about that trend.

          • It may not be harmful to western christians, but it may be harmful to eastern christians who still face persecution in many countries.

    • Xenogears is another example of this, particularly the later games. Anime-wise you have Evangelion, whose use of ‘Christian’ nomenclature and symbolism is awfully random and nonsensical when you examine it. I suppose it’s just used to give an ‘occult’ vibe to things.

      When the Japanese want to add a creepy occult vibe to something, they tend to pick Christianity or one of it’s heretical cousins to cherry pick stuff from, I notice. The results are sometimes pretty weird, if not an entertaining spin on themes many people are very familiar with in the West.

      • It’s also worth bringing up the persecution of the Kakure Christians. Modern Japanese portrayal of christianity seems much less innocent in that context.

          • Look up Mario Kannon – Christians would hide icons of the Virgin in buddhist statues because that was the only way they could venerate her safely, since being a christian was punishable by death.

          • One of the main reasons Christians are an ultraminority in Japan was that the Shogunate had been particularly effective in killing them all.

            • Well damn. I wrote this from a perspective of “how does this affect me and other Western Christians”. Looks like that could have used re-thinking.

              (All that other stuff stands, though.)

              • It would be like if all of our mainstream video games were about how weird, evil and crazy Native Americans were and how they were going to use their Great Spirit Magic to blow up the ocean or something.

              • True, but it’s not a recurring theme in AAA titles*.

                *The magic indian from Mortal Kombat is the only one I can think of off the top of my head.

              • It seems to be more a problem in tabletop RPGs and minis games, honestly. I can think of AAA video game examples, Rock in Soul Calibur and… uh… that guy in the Tekken series. And also I’m pretty sure there’s an awful NDN stereotype in Street Fighter? (Why are fighting games always THE WORST??) But largely it seems like video games don’t have as big a problem with this as TRPGs and minis games still do.

              • Aww, man, Rock, I forgot that guy… Then again, everyone in that game was some kind of offensive stereotype. I wasn’t including SC or SF, because those weren’t US titles.

                I’ve read, though, that bizarre cartoonish diversity of fighting games actually added to their appeal in minority communities, because they were the first games where anyone could play as someone who was a non-white or non-male.

              • And now I’m wondering if I subconsciously always picked Cervantes because we were both Hispanic? (Hispanic and with brutal combos…)

  2. Religion is definitely a tricky area all around. There are a number of issues to consider.

    Where there is a clear relationship and power differential, the presence or lack of offense is obvious. For instance, Haitian voudon incorporates a lot of Catholic symbolism, but no one could possibly call that appropriation. That’s simply adopting the religious and cultural markings of the conqueror or oppressor. On the other hand, western representations of “voodoo” – and especially the use of such in tourism – CAN be appropriation. And they become offensive when they are used in media to represent something “savage” or “other.”

    That last part is particularly common in North American (white) usage of the religious and sacred symbolism of Native American or First Nations tribes. New age groups over the last several decades have appropriated that imagery like crazy, but they were not the only ones. Plenty of folks have done so, and it is definitely offensive.

    The tricky question comes when there is not a clear power relationship between the two cultures, either because they have not historically interacted or because one is long gone. The Japanese obsession with Kaballah, for instance, is difficult to define clearly. So is neo-paganism or any modern use of Norse, Greek, or Roman pantheons. Fascination without understanding can certainly lead to offensive interpretations, but is it really appropriation? Tough to say. But if there are practitioners anywhere in the world, we should be more careful. Using a religion to represent the exotic is exactly like using an ethnicity for that purpose.

    When there isn’t a current group that can be directly offended by misinterpretation, then it’s really just historical ignorance. But religion does that anyway. Modern Christianity bears little resemblance to the early church, and few sects of any religion can claim much greater purity of practice than that. (Yes there are some that can, but they are rare and typically small in percentage compared to worldwide practitioners of a given religion.) So historical ignorance is something that we can encourage people to correct, but it doesn’t have to be considered offensive.

  3. I kind of know what you mean. I felt a bit uneasy, especially towards the end when it started to sound kinda anti-God there. However, after reading deeper into it, seeing that there was a lot more to the story than what we got in the triology (which seems really shocking when you consider it), I actually devised a hypothesis that makes me feel a little better about the whole fighting Bhunny-whatshisname.

    I took it to be that God-with-the-hard-to-spell-name wasn’t actually an interpertation of God (from Christian beliefs), but was actually a version of Lucifer that succeeded in taking over the universe. Trust me, after you see him (and you will), you’ll notice some… devilish details… that seem to indicate this connection. After you beat the game, take a look at the Final Fantasy Wiki again, which goes in so much more detail than the game itself (which seems so bizarre!).

    Also, I’d like to answer your question from your last post, where you ask, “Who do I have to kill to get a pair of pants?” You don’t have to kill anyone. All of the best outfits can be bought at the outfitter shops, if not on the first day, then on later days. For example, the Splendid Admiral can’t be bought until day 8 in Yusnaan (and I highly recommend that you get it if you haven’t already). πŸ˜€

  4. Ummm… the Norse mythos bit has been picked up in a lot of Squeenix games (Odin is actually a recurring summon character in the Final Fantasy series – he shows up as a summon in a lot of them – III through IX, then XI and XIII). Meanwhile if we really want to get into cultural appropriation and doing terrible things to religious figures in the name of gameplay, I think the Hindu people are well ahead of the Christians in the line – Shiva is persistently shown as being solely female (the Hindu deity is generally depicted as being male), persistently a low-level summon (for someone whose epithets include “The Destroyer”, this could be considered something of an insult) and persistently ice-associated (where the Hindu deity of the same name is more likely to be associated with the moon or the river Ganga) – and the only Final Fantasy since FFIII they haven’t been pulled into as a summonable entity was FFXII (where their name was used for an airship instead).

    This also ignores a tradition within the Final Fantasy series of taking and using Christian iconography as a way of depicting villains (have a look at Sephiroth’s various transformations in Final Fantasy VII as a start; actually, let’s just start with his name, shall we?; there’s Seymour’s death in FFX, where his corpse is left in a cruciform pose on the floor, and the camera very deliberately shifts to show him in such; the whole of the religion of Yevon in Spira in FFX takes prods at Christianity as well – particularly the catholic version). Let’s be honest, this is probably one of the first Final Fantasy games where the Christ-figure (the one who’s being resurrected and brought back more powerful) isn’t the villain (Sephiroth, Seymour, Yu Yevon, need I continue?).

    Essentially, I tend to regard this sort of recycling of cultural iconography from Western culture in Japanese games as a case of “the biter bit”, or “served with our own sauce”, given Anglo-American Western culture tends to pinch everything that isn’t nailed down of a culture’s iconography and mythology should we decide we like it (and then starts work on prising free the nails).

  5. As a Jew, I’ve seen Japanese games and anime basically just grab random Jewish iconography or clusters of random Hebrew lettering to indicate “magic” or “the power of god” without ever engaging in it.

    You see in Evangelion or FFVII the kabbalistic “sephirothic” chart – the tree of the facets of god as determined by spiritualists of my religion – basically just slapped on the screen for its exotic mystical effect. In Orthodox Judaism, kabbalah is treated as serious business; the rabbis have rules so people don’t study it without sufficient emotional maturity. But for the Japanese, it’s “magic”-style wallpaper.

    That’s actually less offensive to me than when Hebrew lettering (almost always done badly and incomprehensibly) is used in shows about wizards and magic in magic tomes and magic circles (either drawn or when they just appear on casting). After finally having Europe stop associating my religion with witchcraft and black magic, Japan keeps it up? Not that someone in Asia would know without looking it up, but isn’t the whole point of being careful with culture to CHECK FIRST before you reiterate stereotypes that caused people to be put to the fire and sword?

    And I don’t want to give Japanese developers a pass because Japan has basically no experience with Jews because the Japanese culturally appropriate from the Chinese, whom they do know, all the time. The Dynasty Warriors series is basically a retelling of the Chinese war epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Suikoden series is (loosely) based on a 12th century Chinese novel. The anime series Fushigi Yuugi uses Chinese stylistic design in its alternate universe, although it’s not explicitly Chinese. None of these are particularly faithful to the source material or make any effort not to be Japanese things with an exotic flavor.

    And then there are depictions of China and Chinese from Street Fighter’s Chun Li through Ranma 1/2 and others, where you slap on a Chinese style shirt and do “kung fu” without any actual engagement with the culture of China.

    While Japan and China have, over the course of the past 2000 years, have had a more complicated relationship with cultural exchange than a lot of the cultures Westerners borrow from to be exotic, the examples above are really no different than the cultural appropriation we find problematic when done in Europe or the U.S.

  6. My take is this: cultural exchange is good, cultural appropriation is is bad, and the difference is that a cultural exchange is only possible when both cultures operate on relatively even footing. If a large power disparity exists, then anything that the stronger culture borrows is going to be appropriation.

    So I agree that “Lightning Returns” doesn’t count as appropriation, despite that there is some history of Christian oppression in Japan, because the Catholic church has plenty of power is today’s world, and modern Christians have a voice in Japanese society (er… I think. If I’m mistaken then I apologize).

    How “respectful” the cultural adaptation is doesn’t really factor into whether or not it’s appropriation, though hopefully a respectful appropriation will have less of a sting. Likewise, an exchange doesn’t become appropriation just because one side is offended. Cultural exchanges can still be stupid or rude, and Catholic people have every right to be offended by this videogame. The Catholic Church couldn’t necessarily stop the video game from being sold, but they could speak out about it, their voice would be heard, and an extended campaign would very likely have an effect on the industry.

    This is not historically the case with Native American’s who dislike a particular portrayal of their culture, though the fact that we are hearing about (for example) the Washington Redskins controversy means that the tribes do have more cultural influence than they used to. We’re hopefully moving towards the point were an exchange is possible.

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