Final Fantasy XIII: A Review By An Old FF Fan

FFXIII cast from left to right: Snow, Vanille, Fang, Lightning (center), Sazh, Hope and Serah.

FFXIII cast from left to right: Snow, Vanille, Fang, Lightning (center), Sazh, Hope and Serah.

It took a while, but I finished the game Final Fantasy XIII. I disciplined myself, and avoided looking up any details on the Internet about the story, and so when I finally finished the game, I was really touched by the ending. If you don’t plan on playing the game, you can see the ending here (skip to 12:00). I thought it was a very beautiful story about friendship and finding one’s true home.

I’ve been playing Final Fantasy games since the original, and to me this is one of the finest. It was different than previous games, and this annoyed some FF fans,1 but I really liked the format, the tighter story-line, the futuristic setting, and so on. It was refreshing and new, and still had that brilliant creativity that sets Final Fantasy apart from other games.

Story

The story is set in a world that is actually two worlds: a floating, utopia called Cocoon that is isolated from the larger world below named Pulse. People of Cocoon live in a kind of high-tech “bubble” where their needs are provided for, but they also live in constant fear of the wild and dangerous world of Pulse below.

The people of Pulse, meanwhile, fear and hate the “nest of vipers” floating in the sky. Wars have been fought between them, and for Cocoon, they fear any contamination from Pulse that would shatter their society. Both groups are manipulated by god-like beings called Fal’Cie (fal-see) who can “brand” someone to do a special task. That person gains great power, but if they don’t finish their task in time, they become a tortured soul, a monster. If they succeed their task, they become crystal and sleep until they’re needed again. So, being branded by Fal’Cie is terrible either way.

Thus the story begins right in the middle of a “purge” where Cocoon citizens are being taken away because they are “contaminated”, but otherwise, the player has no idea what’s going on:

Characters

The characters are what made this game so great I think. There are six main characters total, which is less than other Final Fantasy games, but I think that this gave Square Enix more opportunity to develop them more fully.

In the beginning, the characters are forced to work together to survive, but often don’t like each other, but over time they come to understand one another, and their friendship deepens. But what was interesting was the particular relationships between characters.

For example, the main heroine, Lightning, is very angry at Snow because he wanted to marry her sister Serah against her permission, and she blames him for not protecting her before she was lost. Similarly, the young man, Hope, blames Snow for the death of his mother and nearly kills him at one point. Snow is very cocky and can’t control his mouth, so he tends to annoy people a lot, but as the story progresses, they realize that Snow is also very sincere (if maybe a bit naive), and he becomes a leader of the group and a kind of older brother to Hope. Also, Lightning influences Hope a lot too.  At first, she is full of hate herself, and Hope wants to kill Snow, but Lightning sees what she is doing to him, and talks him out of it.  In the process, she learns to open up as well.

Speaking of Hope, he starts out the game very angry and unable to handle the situation.  He had been a spoiled young man and was resentful toward the others, but Vanille was always very kind to him and helped him even when he might not have deserved it.  I liked Vanille’s character because even though she carried a terrible burden,2 she was always very sweet, positive and kind to the others.

Similarly, the relationship between Sazh and Vanille was interesting. Sazh is the oldest member of the group, and has lost his son in the conflict, and so he takes care of the young Vanille until he discovers her terrible secret. Sazh is deeply angry and depressed, but he learns to forgive her and even rescues her at one point.  Sazh is one my favorite characters because he’s the most human in many ways (speaking as a father myself).  Sazh, as a father, cares about Hope and Vanille and wants to protect them even though he failed to protect his own son, and stays within the group, even when things get very difficult.  Being a father myself, I can really appreciate his more mature, fatherly relationship to the younger members.

The relationship between Lightning and Serah also parallels the one between Vanille and Fang. Lightning and Serah are sisters, but their relationship is cold and distant, while Vanille and Fang grew up in the same village together, and suffered the same fate. Fang is very protective of Vanille (like Lightning to Serah), but the two maintain a very close friendship even during the most difficult times.

All of these struggles and relationships made the story really compelling for me, and the ending very moving. It was one of those classic stories where it’s all about the journey, and how they learn to forgive and grow together.

Gameplay

Gameplay was quite different than past FF games I played before. I remember the old games where you had to pick each character and what they were supposed to do in battle. FFXIII changed all that using a ‘paradigm’ system, where they characters knew what to do (and usually made good choices), so you had to determine what was the best strategy.

It took some getting used to: I kept ignoring the “auto-battle” command and kept picking individual attacks, then I realized the computer was doing a better job.

Once I figured this out, i could spend more planning strategy, and switching strategies quickly (or “paradigms” as they call it) when needed.  This was necessary too because I died a lot.  Usually when I play Final Fantasy games, I might die once or twice, but in FF13, I must have died at least 20 times within the first few chapters.  It forced me to stop being lazy and pay attention to what was going on, and start being more disciplined with strategies, and that helped in later chapters where I died less often, and got better about experimenting with strategies.  This really made it fun for me because the last two chapters are grueling.  Each fight is long, and dangerous.  If you don’t know how to use good strategy, then you’ll just get crushed.

Also, I have to say the game’s graphics and sound were gorgeous.  I usually don’t care about such things (I still play games from 20 years ago, so I don’t really care about graphics), but the artwork, scenes and such were inspired.  As I write this, I am enjoying the FF13 soundtrack too.  :)

Looking Back

When I was a kid, I loved FF1 because it was a good adventure.  The story was pretty thin, but it had a lot of imagination, and gave a good challenge.  Like old NES games, there wasn’t much room for error: if you made a mistake, you died and would have to start over.  But as time went on, FF games had stronger and stronger story (FF4 and FF7 were my personal favorites), but the patterns started to emerge.  FF9 was the last one I played3 and I never finished it.  I liked the characters and such, but I just felt I’d play it before.

For me, FF13 was a big break from earlier FF games and it took me a bit of time to get used to it, but I could feel that they were doing something different, inspired.  FF13 had a lot of imagination, like the older FF games I used to play, and I am glad they changed things because even though I am a Final Fantasy fan since the beginning, I felt the old format was running its course, and needed to try new directions, but still keep the same “soul” it had in past games.  For me, FF13 succeeded in preserving that “soul”, and I enjoyed every bit of it.

Regardless of what critics may say, I enjoyed the game a lot, and felt inspired by the story.

P.S. Kind of a double-post today. :)

1 I think people who disliked FF13 typically fell into two groups: those whose focus was gameplay only and didn’t like (or didn’t care for) the tight story-line format. The other group are those who just miss the old FF-style worlds, and couldn’t handle the change.

2 Vanille’s story makes a lot more sense when you play it through the second time also, especially the early chapters. What she says and expresses takes on a different meaning.  Very poignant.

3 Always wanted to try FFX, but that was after I graduated college, and didn’t have much money.  No Playstation back then.  ;)

Posted in Technology | Tagged | Leave a comment

Buddhist Vocabulary To Know

Hello,

Recently, I visited the Rissho Kosei Kai temple again this Sunday.  Last week, I came during a special service, so this time around, I wanted to see what a regular service looked like.  The service this week was split into an English service and a Japanese service, and the English service had a few people there.  Two of the people were pretty new to Buddhism, so after we recited the Lotus Sutra, there was a general discussion, and it was interesting to see the kinds of questions people asked like “what is a Buddha?” and so on.

So, I wanted to compile a lot of basic “vocabulary” for people who are new to Buddhism.

Vocabulary:

  • A Buddha – A Buddha is a being who has achieved full enlightenment.  In the process, he has completely lost all ego, and also any selfish desire.  He is perfectly content and peaceful.  A Buddha appears only very rarely, and usually only when the Dharma (see below) is totally forgotten.  So, when the Dharma is forgotten, a Buddha appears and “sets the wheel in motion” again.
  • The Dharma – The Dharma is the teachings of the Buddha.  But is also means “the way things are”.  Like the laws of Physics, it helps to explain how things work and why.  Whether you believe it or not is up to the individual.  But it still works the same.  So, the Buddha is one who “articulates” or “explains” the Dharma, but he didn’t invent it.
  • The Sangha – The Sangha is the Buddhist community.  In the narrow sense, it can mean a particular temple, monastery, etc.  It can also mean the Buddhist community as a whole.  The idea is that the Sangha is support one another on the Buddhist path.
  • A Bodhisattva – A Bodhisattva is a person who wants to become fully enlightened, wants to become a Buddha (see above).  A Bodhisattva is both a great teacher and a being of great compassion toward others.  The path of a Bodhisattva can be very, very long and take many lifetimes, but if they accomplish they’re goal, they reach enlightenment and become a Buddha.  Some Bodhisattvas are legendary, and are popular sources of devotion and inspiration like Kannon (Guan-yin), Jizo, and Maitreya.  Some Bodhisattvas are more down to earth and might be people you know.  ;)
  • Samadhi – Samadhi means a state of supreme concentration.  The idea is that if one follows certain Buddhist practices and practices them enough (months, years, etc), they will reach a profound, deep state of concentration that allows them to perceive the truth in a way that’s very difficult in mundane life.  Not everyone accomplishes samadhi, nor do they have to.  It’s one avenune along the Buddhist path.
  • Sutra – A sutra is the most fundamental Buddhist text.  Unlike Western religions, there is no single text.  Instead, the Buddha’s teachings and conversations were committed to memory and then written down later.  Some sutras came after the Buddha and try to “encapsulate” the Buddha’s teachings into a single narrative.  Either way, they are the fundamental source we have for what the Buddha taught, and how to follow the path ourselves.
  • Kalpa – A kalpa is a very, very long period of time.  Buddhism “thinks big” with regard to time and space, so a kalpa is one way of expressing this.  There is no set, mathematical measurement, but think of a kalpa as long an “eon” or a really long, long period of time.
  • Koti – A koti is a really big number in ancient Indian culture.  You might see something in Buddhist sutras (see above) like “kotis of kalpas” just means “tons of eons”, or a really, really, really long period of time.

I’ll update this list as I come up with more topics.  :)

Posted in Buddhism | 3 Comments

My Encounter With Rissho Kosei Kai

Hello,

Lately, I’ve had a bit of free time while my wife and kids are in Japan (not much, but a little), so I have been visiting a couple of Buddhist temples, including a Korean-Zen temple I had visited before.

Then, I decided to visit a group in south Seattle which I had not visited before: Risshō Kōsei Kai. Rissho Kosei Kai (立正佼成会) is a Nichiren Buddhist group from Japan, but not related to a certain other well-known Nichiren group who has a reputation for being aggressive. Like that other group, Rissho Kosei Kai is a lay-Buddhist organization that started in the 1930′s, and came from a parent organization. In the case of RKK, they came from an older group called Reiyūkai (US homepage here), which is still around and popular with Japanese nationalists. More on that later.

Anyhow, Rissho Kosei Kai has a small temple in south Seattle, which is about 35 minutes away by car. I drove there last Sunday morning and just dropped in for a service. There were about 15-20 people total, and nearly all were Japanese who grew up in Japan. I was worried about not fitting in, but people were very friendly and I met a couple other non-Japanese as well. The service that Sunday was for Urabon-e, a special Buddhist holiday in Japan related to the story of the Buddha’s disciple, Mogallana (mokuren 目犍連 in Japanese), and his mother who was suffering in a Buddhist hell. So, it wasn’t a normal service, but they did things that you typically see in Nichiren Buddhism:

  • Recite the odaimoku (お題目) which is Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. This chant was devised by Nichiren himself, and in its simplest form means “Praise to the Lotus Sutra”.
  • Recite parts of the Lotus Sutra, particularly chapter 2 and chapter 16. The English-language service books (kyōten 経典) had a nice translation of the sutras. We recited in English. For some reason I always find English sounds funny when chanted. ;)
  • Dedicate good merit to benefit others. In the case of RKK, they focus on dedicating to one’s ancestors too. Dedication of merit (ekō 回向 in Japanese) is a very common Buddhist practice in many cultures, and has two benefits: one it might help others find happiness, but it also cultivates goodwill in one’s own heart.
  • Recite the Three Treasures: “I go to the Buddha/Dharma/Sangha for refuge.” This is also one of the most fundamental practices in all of Buddhism.

Finally, there was a kind of “Dharma Discussion” at the end. The friendly, informal discussion was about the importance of one’s ancestors and why Urabon-e is significant. I had heard similar discussions before in Jodo Shinshu temples so it was nothing new to me. It’s an important part of Japanese Buddhism, in my experience. The discussion was mixed Japanese and English, which worked pretty well. The overall atmosphere of the discussion was very friendly and open. People cracked silly jokes, and also I learned some good things about the four reasons for Buddhist chanting.1

Afterwards, there was a nice potluck-style lunch downstairs, and I ate a good mix of Japanese and American food, and talked with other converts like myself. It was a good discussion, and I also chatted with some of the Japanese ladies. I was surprised to see how many of them grew up in the same city as my wife (Kawasaki), which is unusual. Most Japanese-American or Japanese immigrants I’ve met usually come from other parts of Japan.

A few things about Rissho Kosei Kai stood out to me, though.

First, RKK definitely reveres its founder Niwano Nikkyō (English here). He was sometimes referred to as a Bodhisattva (bosatsu 菩薩) and there are pictures of him in the temple some quoted sayings, etc. Actually, RKK has two founders: Mr. Niwano and a woman named Naganuma Myoko and both are referred to as bodhisattvas, sometimes. Mr. Niwano passed away 15 years ago in 1999, but people still mention him a lot. This was similar to my recent experience with Makuya where Mr. Teshima the founder was respected. Japanese Buddhism in general seems very founder-centric.2 In Shingon Buddhism, they practically worship Kukai (Kobo Daishi) by reciting mantras to him, and praying for rebirth in the Tushita Heaven with him. In Jodo Shinshu which I left, they often don’t chant sutras, but they do chant hymns written by Shinran.

Second, object of veneration in RKK is a little different than some other Nichiren groups. Instead of a Gohonzon, it is the “eternal Buddha” of the Lotus Sutra. RKK calls this the kuon honbutsu (久遠本仏) or “Original Buddha from the Eternal Past” or something like that. In the Lotus Sutra, the Shakyamuni Buddha in there is not the historical Buddha, but the personification of the Dharma itself, teaching and liberating people throughout time. Also, in home altars for RKK members, they use something called sōkaimyō (総戒名) which represents all your ancestors from the past. So, twice daily, you are encouraged to make offerings and pray to your ancestors. This is supposed to help them find happiness, and indirectly help you as well. Again, this is actually not that unusual in Japanese Buddhism, but RKK seems to emphasize it more than others.

Third, RKK is definitely a Japanese organization. Unlike certain other Nichiren groups, it hasn’t quite figured out how to translate its religion and culture to Americans. For example, the practice of praying to one’s ancestors is not really found at all in American culture. Even for me, it feels a bit awkward sometimes. I appreciate my ancestors, and even pray to them on death-anniversaries Buddhist-style, but still I think this kind of thing is difficult for Americans to relate to. Also, if you don’t speak Japanese, and know much about Japanese culture, you might get a little intimidated at first. Still, they did a good job balancing English and Japanese in the ceremony, and for publishing service books in nice, fluent English translations. I might purchase one of their service books if I visit again.

Fourth, RKK is pretty open about other religions. This is a big difference I feel compared certain other Nichiren groups I’ve seen. I told the priest at one point that my background was Pure Land Buddhism and I usually recited the nembutsu, but sometimes also the odaimoku. The priest didn’t seem bothered by this at all, even when I asked if it was ok to recite both. That was quite positive in my opinion. In fact, I don’t remember being told even once that I should recite the odaimoku. RKK does have something called omichibiki (お導き) which means “to guide”. This means to evangelize Buddhism and in particular the Lotus Sutra, but not in a threatening way as far as I can tell. It’s more about leading by example: practicing good conduct and being patient with others, but also sharing the happiness one has learned through Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra. So, RKK is definitely evangelical Buddhism, like other Nichiren groups, but so far I don’t find it intimidating in any way.

Anyhow, it was a good experience overall, so I took some books home with me and have been reading them. Rishho Kosei Kai felt like a genuine Buddhist community to me. I feel I could bring my family there, and that’s a big plus for me. I didn’t feel like an outsider like my old Jodo Shinshu temple or the local Vietnamese temple, and I didn’t feel stupid, like some of the convert-only temples I’ve seen in Seattle.3

So, although I feel cautious, I have to admit I would like to go back again. It is far from my house, but I think it’s worth visiting 2-3 more times before I decide to become a member or something.

Time will tell.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo

1 I wish I had written it down though…. I kind of forgot. :p

2 In this great blog post, the author explains that Japanese Buddhism is like a bento box where the food is separate from each other, while mainland Asian Buddhism is more like Korean bibimbap, where it’s all mixed together. Great analogy and matches my experience. It’s one of the reasons I like visiting the nearby Vietnamese temple: very eclectic without pressure to follow one thing or another. But since I’m not Vietnamese, I feel self-conscious going there.

3 The temple in Arizona was quite friendly though. I liked the intro Zen class there, and met some cool people. Sadly, I haven’t found a similar community yet in Seattle. The atmosphere in most convert temples in Seattle (not just Zen) I’ve seen so far is polite, but kind of tense. Like, if I farted4 during meditation, people might ostracize me. It’s hard to feel welcome in that kind of environment, to be honest. Maybe I’m exaggerating things though, what about you guys?

4 No, I don’t fart in Buddhist temples, but I do yawn a lot during chanting. I don’t know why I do that. :p

Posted in Buddhism, Japan, Nichiren | 3 Comments

Stay Cool Everyone!

Hello,

July 15th, at least in Japanese culture, is considered the hottest day of the year. A lot of people will probably be eating unagi eels today, I bet. Even in Seattle, it’s been unusually warm lately: the days reach 30°C (86°F)! That’s unusual for Seattle summers. ;) There’s a classic comedy-skit from the local TV show Almost Live that talks about the short, cold Seattle summers (link here):

It’s true: summer in Seattle is usually short, cold and grey with a few sunny days.

My wife and kids are currently in Japan and they told me it’s really hot and humid right now. Interestingly, they arrived in Tokyo just hours before the Typhoon came, but they said they were fine.

Anyhow, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, stay cool everyone!

P.S. If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, stay warm. ;)

Posted in Japan, Seattle | Tagged | 1 Comment

Hate Will Not Heal You

Another post before the weekend. :)

While playing through the game Final Fantasy XIII lately, I’ve also been enjoying the excellent soundtrack. This small song is called “Serah’s Theme” (セラのテーマ), which you can also see here:

The lyrics1 are very lovely:

Make my wish come true, let darkness slip aside
Hiding all our hope, mocking what we treasure
Battles we can win, if we believe our souls
Hang in for the light, till dawn
Fate will not leave you, hate will not heal you
Pray and one day, peace shall flow everywhere.

When I heard the part “hate will not heal you”, I was really moved. It’s so true.

It reminds me of something the Buddha said in the Dhammapada:

5. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.
6. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

Anyhow, very lovely song.

1 This is the japanese version of the song, by the way. I think it’s great. There is an English version of the lyrics which is slightly different, but I actually like this version better. ;)

Posted in Buddhism | Tagged | 1 Comment

Pride Comes Before The Fall

Crac des chevaliers syria.jpeg

At a famous, old castle in Syria called the Crac de Chevaliers is a famous inscription in Latin (photo here):

SIT TIBI COPIA
SIT SAPIENTIA
FORMAQUE DETUR
INQUINAT OMNIA SOLA
SUPERBIA SI COMITETUR

One translation is:

Grace, wisdom and beauty you may enjoy, but beware pride which alone can tarnish all the rest.

Something to think about.

Posted in Latin | Leave a comment

Makuya: A Japanese-Christian Church

Hello,

Recently I had an opportunity to attend a religious service with a little-known but interesting group of Japanese-Christians called Makuya or kirisuto no makuya (キリストの幕屋). The word “makuya” (幕屋) is the Japanese word for Tabernacle, which is the name of the ancient, portable shrine the Hebrews used.

What makes Makuya interesting is that it is a native Japanese-Christian organization, unlike most Christian churches in Japan.  Typically in Japanese media, Christians are portrayed as foreign missionaries, since most Japanese never see Christians other than the street preachers who harass them in places like Shibuya or at Buddhist temples during New Year’s.  But Christianity in Japan is a more complex subject, and although Makuya is a small organization, it’s interesting to see how a foreign, Western religion has taken root in Japan.

Makuya arose out of a larger Christian movement called the Non-Church Movement which started in 1901 and has a presence in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The idea behind this movement is a focus on Bible study, pacifism, and informal structure (instead of a formal church, creed, etc).  Makuya continues this tradition.  Makuya focuses on the “Biblical experience” instead of learning a particular dogma or creed, so people are encouraged to explore and investigate both with their mind and their heart.  Thus, they are particularly tolerant toward other religions (more on that later).

Makuya is definitely Protestant Christianity in that it is devoted to the Holy Trinity, grace by God, and the Bible as the Word of God.  The Bible version typically used (in English) is the new King James Version, or other similar translations.  All pretty typical stuff.  However, when I went there I also noticed some differences.  First, the main symbol of Makuya is a Jewish menorah, not the cross.  I was surprised to see a lit menorah with 7 candles (not 9).  Indeed, Makuya distinguishes itself because of its strong affiliation with Israel and Jewish culture overall.  Makuya people often make pilgrimages to Israel, spend time in Jewish Kibbutzim, and maintain good relations with Jewish communities.

When the Makuya people prayed, it reminded me of charismatic, Pentecostal style prayer: very emotional and passionate.  People repeated “father” over and over again as other people prayed, sometimes they laid hands, others cried, etc.  If you have not seen this kind of prayer before, it can be somewhat intense.  While people were fervently praying, I admit that I just kind of passively took it in.1

Anyhow, the other thing that was different in the Makuya tradition is the emphasis on meditation.  The founder, Teshima Ikuro, emphasized the importance of meditation as a way to experience directly experience “the Word of God” or logos in ancient Greek.  The particular meditation-style taught by Makuya is as follows:

  1. Preparation of the Body – This means simple calisthenics to wake you up.
  2. Preparation of Breathing – This is the breathing exercise to calm and focus the mind.
  3. Preparation of the Mind – One reads and recites passages from the Bible.

The breathing exercise was fairly simple.  You breath in by pushing out your belly (hara 肚 in Japanese) then hold for 2 seconds.  Then you slowly, slowly exhale.  Then repeat maybe 10-20 times.  For some reason, I really struggled to do this because I am used to Buddhist-style meditation which seems fairly different. They mentioned the commonality between Makuya-style meditation and Zen, but I admit I didn’t quite see it.

Still, one other notable thing about Makuya is their tolerance toward other religions.  When we introduced ourselves, I didn’t mention that I was a Buddhist.  I just mentioned my upbringing in Christian churches and such, but somehow they knew I was a Buddhist (probably something a Makuya friend mentioned before).  I was worried that they would criticize me for this, but they were quite open about it.  For Makuya, the emphasis is on experiencing God, not adhering to a particular creed.  So although my beliefs are pretty different, they didn’t seem bothered by this. Most evangelical, Western churches I’ve experienced in the past would be eager to criticize my Buddhist faith or remind me that I am destined to go to Hell. It’s certainly happened before. :-/

Overall it was an interesting experience.  It was the first time I personally encountered one of the “New Japanese Religions” or shinshūkyō (新宗教) which started to appear in the late 19th-century.  It was also an interesting fusion of Western Christianity with Japanese-style applied practice.  It was also interesting to see how a Japanese-immigrant community here in the US could maintain these traditions across generations.

At any rate, thanks to Makuya for sharing their traditions with me, and being so friendly and open. Makuya people are very warm and community-oriented, and they definitely make you feel welcome. :)

1 When I was maybe 17 or 18 years old, I attended a church service which also had charismatic-prayer and back then I didn’t really feel anything either. Around me, people were crying, falling down, speaking in tongues, etc., but I just stood there praying, yet I felt nothing. At one point, the prayer leaders all stood around me and prayed fervently, but again I just stood there. They prayed even harder, but after a minute or so I pretended to “fall down” just to get them away from me. That kind of prayer isn’t for me, I guess. Buddhist chanting is kind of bland and dull, but I like it that way. ;)

Posted in Buddhism, Christianity, Japan, Religion | 4 Comments