Does this look like Miyazaki-style animation to you? Well, it should. It was deliberate. While, as a PS1 title, the rest of Jade Cocoon: Story of the Tamamayu (past this animated intro) doesn’t look nearly this good, the blocky characters do persist in this style, to the extent that they can. And as a 1998 release, right on the heels of the wild success of Princess Mononoke in Japan (which had not yet made it to US shores), US audiences were primed to gravitate toward whatever Miyazaki-esque thing they could–even if it was only an aping of the animation style, as was the case here.
We’d only had our PS1 for less than a year, when we got this (we lacked the money for a console, until Dad’s deployment plus Mom’s finding a job enabled it). Of my friends, only their brothers played games, so we were kind of a in a bubble when it came to thoughts, perceptions or expectations about games. I remember my mom quizzing the guy at Target as to which console we ought to go with. I stood slightly behind her, glaring daggers at him if he even thought about pulling one over on her. (To be clear: I had no idea if what he was telling us was right or not, but I figured a middle-aged woman clueless about games would be a target to a guy like him and I wanted him to know I’d kill him if he messed with her.)
Jade Cocoon, then, came to me utterly free of any context whatsoever. I hadn’t even started Japanese classes (that would happen the following year), so I hadn’t met any weeaboos yet or come to loathe actions made on their behalf. I loved Jade Cocoon. The art style; the music; the fact that, like Pokemon, it was mainly about catching monsters and mixing them together to breed new monsters, engineered to fit specific boss fights or other purposes…it was all right up my alley, at 12 years old. I still smile when shuffle play on my iphone brings up People Made of Stone, the awesome OC Remix of the awesome village theme. I particularly love hitting that remix on a run. You can’t help but feel badass.
But Mahbu, pictured above and wife to the player, doesn’t get to be badass. What happens to her is horrible. You, the player, trap monsters in four forests of increasing difficulty in cocoons, to be brought back and mixed together and remade into new monsters…but they have to be cleansed, first. The taint of the wild, infected forest must be removed from them. And, as your wife, it is Mahbu’s job to work the magic to do that. And it kills her.
You see it spreading like melanoma across her body. A black, obfuscating fungus on her skin. (Not unlike the demon taint of Ashitaka, if you’ve seen Princess Mononoke.) It starts with her hands–for that is where she touches the cocoons–and then up her arms. Sirius Village, where you live, is (one gathers) a fairly warm climate, where most people wander around in crop tops and voluminous shorts. But Mahbu begins to don more and more clothing–gloves, armlets, a full-length shirt, a mask–to cover up the infection. The infection you give her. Every time you return triumphant from the forest with a new batch of monsters to whip up, either into new and better monsters or into silk which you can sell, you are killing her.Let’s be clear, these are kids we’re talking about here. You kinda sorta were thinking about getting sweet on each other, before the game’s cataclysm sets in, but once it does events sweep you both into a necessary marriage, so that Mahbu can work the cocoon magic for you as you set about trying to save the world. You see Mahbu in the beginning arguing with her little brother, calling him a spoiled brat like any 15 year old girl. By the end, she is turning into a moth herself, shrunken and weak, and in a moment where the darkness in her heart calcifies into a boss you must fight, she says
“I suffer every time I perform a purification for you… Both my body and my soul. For the sake of the village? For the forest? How stupid.”
“I hate grownup women. I don’t want to be like your mother. And I hate boys too. I hate them. I hate them all.”
And who can blame her? Look what doing what everyone tells her–her family, your family, the village elder, you–has gotten her? Your character’s mother, by the way, essentially wears an all-concealing sack to hide the taint that wracks her body. Can you blame Mahbu for not wanting to go down the same path? She’s 15, for crying out loud. If that. And you’re destroying her. You, oh you get to remain pure and clean and heroic, but with each heroic act you riddle this girl’s body with incurable disease.
Way to go, buddy.
Unsurprisingly, I was not okay with this situation and stopped surging forward in the quest about the time I hit the Spider Forest. The Spider Forest which is, visually and aurally, drop-dead gorgeous:
Unlike the other three forests, it is permanently nighttime in the Spider Forest, and all the flora and fauna glow, as if we’re at the bottom of the sea. The music, too, is sprightly and playful–even if the intent behind it is to serve as a backdrop to a fable about greed (each forest has a moral lesson at its end, revolving around a character met along the way). I loved the Spider Forest. It’s impossible not to. I dallied there for as long as possible, trying to find an alternative to further polluting Mahbu. I stopped making new monsters and just started grinding the ones I had. Maybe these ones will be strong enough, I thought. Maybe I can leave Mahbu alone.
But of course it doesn’t work that way. When you finish that forest she’s more bundled up than ever, whether or not you ceased using her services (and, realistically, you can’t–not for long). It’s a function of the plot. When the whole village gets turned to stone and Mahbu remains as a tiny fairy-like creature mutating slowly into a moth, it is revealed (by a sin-cursed tribe in the fourth forest long thought to be merely legend) that Mahbu is yet another familiar anime trope: the long-promised Ray of Hope whom destiny has marked to blah blah blah, but only if you blah blah blah. Your basic messianic stuff. And sure, if you go through and finish the game she gets her real body back, devoid of markings. Restored.
But you don’t know that, playing through it. You think this is the shittiest situation ever. She’s been utterly fucked. People say she’s being a bad wife, resenting it–that she should celebrate the desecration of her body, the way your character’s mother does. Even at 12 I thought this was a raw deal. Growing up in an evangelical part of the country (if assuredly not an evangelical family), I was only too-ripe for the high-horse moralizing the village elders et al doled out. But my willingness to swallow their lectures about deadly sins ended where Mahbu’s disfiguration began. If this is how much you all value the most vulnerable (in that she was a child) members of your village, I thought, why exactly am I saving you again?
You think this stuff just goes in one ear and out the other, on a single playthrough as a preteen, but it sticks around. I thought of Mahbu when playing DA2 for the first time, thinking Well sure, okay, demons are these mages’ dark feelings manifesting, but are they any less justified in their rage than Mahbu was? When Mahbu’s anger turns into a monster in a boss fight, the form it takes is as a giant pair of thuggish ogre legs–with some tiny body up there, far away up off the screen. I loved that. It was a ridiculously tough fight for my under-prepared character (once the town got wasted and Mahbu went into moth-form I rushed through the plot, to try and save her somehow), but I loved that that’s all you got. Not some pretty seductive waif meant to confuse you or distract you–as if in her pain and fury she’d have time or patience for that!–but just a giant-ass pair of hideous legs that want to stomp your guts out. I wanted to stomp the main character’s guts out, by that point. What a dick, putting her through that.Plus, as the only character in the game without VA, he never gave voice to any sort of emotion on this topic. You never got to hear his voice crack as he looked at what he did to her. You never heard him pause awkwardly, hesitant to ask her to do what she must do. Again. This was a well-voiced complaint at the time of the game’s release–the silence of you, Levant, the main character. He should speak, people said. He most definitely should speak. With such an emotive voice coming from Mahbu (whose VA, Michelle Ruff, you can hear now as Luna in the Sailor Moon reboot), shouldn’t we hear some sort of emotion from the stone-faced boy who’s causing her such pain?
I agreed. For many years, I agreed. But not so much, now. Now I think Levant’s damning silence should remain that. Damning. People think he should speak, should care–but he doesn’t. Like so many people don’t. So his silence can remain as a constant absence, a reminder of the non-existent response of a great many people to the well-documented suffering of, in this case, people who get totally fucked-over while following the rules. Hating them, but following them anyway. Let players continue to vex themselves over Levant’s total lack of compassion. Then let them ask themselves if that’s really so out-of-character for him, or for those who control his actions.