Musica Mundana — Secular Christian Rock

So back when I was first making these posts I joked on Twitter about the silly directions this could go. One of those directions was an explanation of how the soundtrack to Subarashiki Kono Sekai (aka The World Ends With You) is basically Christian rock with the references to God/Jesus/religion removed. Well guess what, internet: I’m bored, and I feel like blogging, so I’m actually going to follow through on that threat. Ha ha!

While TWEWY is a relatively old game at this point, there are spoilers for it within, hence: more after the jump!

CD cover, Subarashiki Kono Sekai OST
CD cover, Subarashiki Kono Sekai OST

So music is tremendously important to the aesthetic and purpose of this game. The creators wanted to imbue TWEWY with a sense of modern style. Music as motif is present even without reference to the pop/electronica/synth vocal tracks. The main character, Neku Sakuraba, is defined by his initial desire to shut out the world around him, embodied in his characteristic personal prop: his ever-present headphones. This isn’t a new thing in game character design; the main character of the original Persona 3 was given a pair for a similar reason, or so the developers relayed in the artbook that came with the game.

It’s interesting, though, that TWEWY uses headphones and music to represent interiority and being shut off from the world, because the music itself — played over countless battle scenes, map screens, and even the game’s menu — is filled to the brim with inspirational music.

Now, as a point of fact, I don’t pay attention to music lyrics most of the time since in the Japanese music I listen to I only understand 1/10 of them, and in the English songs I like they’re almost universally about straight people having sex which I don’t care about (sorry). But listening to TWEWY’s soundtrack over and over as I played it, the lyrics began to drive the point home to me, and I found it kind of fascinating.

Consider two songs you hear very frequently during week 1 of the game, where your partner is Shiki: “Calling” and “Long Dream”

Here are the lyrics to that song. Think about the chorus: “Wake up! Leave your hesitation. Wake up! Time for us to realize. Wake up! Show appreciation. Wake up! Time for us to realize.”

And that’s “Long Dream” (lyrics). Again, this song is all about working together and opening your mind with the express purpose of helping people to see the truth: “Hear the people / Hear their voices / They are reaching out to catch you!”

These are only two examples from early in the game, and they are actually pretty similar in genre; they have a very JPOP-y feel. “Long Dream” in particular is also prototypical fight music; it has the aggressive rhythm/pulse you’d expect to keep driving the action forward (particularly in this game, which is controlled entirely through touch screen actions like swiping, tapping, and drawing rather than menu selection). Yet this persistent theme of two people working together to find “the light” or something close to it persists across genres. Consider the J-rap-y “Owari-Hajimari” (roughly, “The End and the Beginning”):

That’s a lot to take in and is in a foreign language, so check out the extremely prose-dense lyric sheet. “Listen to what she says / We are the universe / Remember the password we agreed on / the end is the beginning / the beginning is the end.”

And so on, and so on. There’s plenty of good, functional reasons why these songs should play out this way. For starters, the central theme of TWEWY is that our lives are enriched through opening ourselves to each other, and that by creating art and having empathy for people we develop our imagination, refine our very being. Neku’s combat ability — the game’s gameplay conceit for its thematic material — is powered by this. Fashion, graffiti, music, food, friendship: these are the things that allow him to turn self-expression into a sword against the darkness. So it makes sense that the soundtrack for this game not only continually drives home these points lyrically but that it does so in a variety of musical styles and approaches that fit the various styles of his companion characters (Shiki, Joshua, Beat) and enemies (Sho in particular).

But there’s a second layer that I find interesting. The feeling I get from these songs is very much the feeling I get when I listen to the more tolerable pieces of Christian popular music that exist. In both cases the lyrics are about motivation, togetherness, seeking a greater purpose, and understanding that there are things in life bigger than ourselves. Christian music just tends to be very overt that Jesus is the way for that to happen; the TWEWY soundtrack, by comparison, sticks to abstract principles, interpreting what I find to be a very Christian ethos through the lens of popular culture that TWEWY itself tries to be.

I mean, even TWEWY‘s plot uses Judeo-Christian metaphors and rhetorics as its plot scaffold; the Underground and the Reaper’s Game are a sort of Dante’s purgatory where souls are judged (though in a much more swift and brutal manner). The Reapers are traditional Japanese “shinigami” — localized death gods in charge of human souls. And people like Joshua and Hanekoma, who exist in the “vibe” above the Underground, use the term “angel” and “fallen angel” to refer to themselves. Even Joshua’s name echoes a Judeo-Christian story and metaphor. Yet Hanekoma the fallen angel is also, through his transgression of the rules, perhaps the producer of (and strongest proponent of) the highest good in the game’s eyes: that bonds between people produce capital-t Truth, capital-b Beauty, something the player only discovers after delving through the end game content.

In a weird way, these narrative choices are an interesting simultaneous appropriation and subversion of Christian religious cultural expression. TWEWY embraces many of the core things that are “good” (I hedge) about religion: the call to band together, to believe in things bigger than ourselves, and to have empathy and compassion for others. Yet it also rejects strict interpretation, calling into question the idea that absolute order and belief in a dogmatic controlling system (evinced by Kitaniji’s “red pin” mind control plan) contribue to these higher goods. The faith that TWEWY pushes is messy, chaotic, and deeply personal.

[Ed. note: How could I have forgotten: the game even uses musical terms to refer to these divine beings! Joshua is the “Composer,” if you recall, and Kitaniji his “Conductor.” That pushes the metaphor even further, in the sense that Kitaniji (the stand-in for dogma) creates nothing; he constructs and (re-)interprets what others have created!]

Happily, I think their attempt to recreate that feeling in the game’s music produced some of the most fun, amazing, and satisfying tracks to ever be a video game score. The various Subarashiki Kono Sekai and The World Ends With You soundtracks are available on the US iTunes store; I deeply recommend you check them out.

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