Behind Nostalgia

In order to look at the necromantic strings holding my story “Nostalgia” together, I have to truly go back into the past, and look at Sweet Home.

Now Sweet Home, or Sûîto Homu is a 1989 Japanese role-playing game made for the Famicom: in which you, as a television crew must venture into the haunted mansion of the fresco artist Mamiya Ichirō, and deal with the malevolent spirit of his wife the late Lady Mamiya. It is, basically, an 8-bit nightmare directed by Tokuro Fujiwara for Capcom where you have to switch between protagonists who have different abilities lined up with their tools and you both have to work together and, well, split up to get things done.

Another thing to note is that it was the spiritual predecessor, or even the prototype of Resident Evil, and survival horror games in general. That almost says it all, really.

Released, or announced, concurrently with video game was a film of the same name directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and produced by Juzo Itami. There has been much confusion about which came first: the game, or the horror film. I had been introduced to the game through the YouTube Let’s Plays of Deceased Crab, and I briefly paused continuing to view them in order to play the game myself. This is no easy task, as an English version of the game was never released on the Nintendo outside of Japan, one of the possible reasons being the absolute nightmare fuel of the slow, dread-filled pacing of the cinematics, and their graphics. I mean, just look at this. Look at it.

Nightmare fuel and a rotting skeleton from Capcom’s 1989 Famicom horror JRPG Sweet Home.

I mean, what the fuck right? Imagine being a child, which the Nintendo Entertainment System had been advertised towards, and seeing this monstrosity pop out at you. As an adult, and other kinds of people, this would be awesome, right? So, it didn’t get an English translation or port, but there are fan translations and lovely ROMs that you can get online in order to play the game on your computer.

I didn’t get far. The game is a labyrinth, and it’s easy to get lost, to not know what to do, and switching between characters can get cumbersome. Also, you have a limited amount of items that you can get and your items aren’t endurable. I lost patience with the arcane mechanics of the thing, and that’s really not why I brought you all here to examine this particular experiment of mine.

The film is even stranger. It also hasn’t gotten an official Western release, or translation. It is comical at times, almost Hallmark and cheerily bizarre with the characters’ social interactions. But then, it gets dark as fuck. Seriously, the puppeteers and special effects artists that create Lady Mamiya and some of the other things in that film — especially when Ken’ichi Yamamura’s flesh boils and melts off thanks to confronting the ghost — could have easily worked on both The Dark Crystal, and some of the ugliest horror films of that time.

Many people have talked about these elements, with far more qualifications than me, and my learner’s knowledge of horror. So why did I write this story? Why did I create this scene, and incorporate it into an actual scene in the film?

For me, it all began again when I got Fangoria, and read an article in Vol. 2, Issue #1 by Preston Fassel in the column “Corrupt Signals” entitled “Sorting through the murky history of the film/videogame SWEET HOME.” This was the point where I was not only reminded of the game, and encouraged by Fangoria looking at other media in the genre — as I was interested in examining certain horror comics myself — but it hit home, or I realized, there was a film.

So, of course, I had to watch it.

And I did. I found a fan subtitled version of it on YouTube and watched the hell out of it: and those “being burned from the inside out” scenes that Fassel talked about were no exaggerations. But I think what really got, and this is something I’ve been looking at in various forms since really honing in on horror is the concept of “family horror.”

It all comes back to two characters: Mamiya Ichirō and Ken’ichi Yamamura. In the Sweet Home game, just as in the film, an old man named Yamamura helps you in your quest to quell the spirit of Lady Mamiya and gets incinerated from the inside for his troubles. He provides clues in the game, if I recall right, while in the film he is an actual character who works at a gas station near the estate, and believes fervently in spiritualism of some kind. But in the film, he sacrifices his life to rescue the girl taken by Lady Mamiya and returning the girl to her father Kazuo Hoshino and his producer the woman Akiko Hayakawa.

Yamamura is a boisterous, taciturn, scolding old man who drinks much sake but at the same time uses the power of belief to do considerable things in the film. He is also, paradoxically, humble and self-effacing. He understands, and is furious, when he hears about how the television crew disturbed the grave of a young child on the estate grounds and he always gives Kazuo Hoshino, and the director of the crew absolute hell. But he also helps them, and tries to show them the way. Juzo Itami plays the old man himself, and there is a cantankerous gravitas there, a living experience, like he’s seen something like this before … perhaps even personally.

There is also the matter of the artist that used to own the estate: Mamiya Ichirō. He is never seen in the film, but referenced as the crew is there to find lost works of his in his locked up home. It isn’t clear what happened to him, nor is this apparent in the game as the antagonist is his dead wife. What we know is that his child, with Lady Mamiya, wandered into the furnace and died: prompting Lady Mamiya to go mad, abduct other children, then when found out she committed suicide. But no one seems to know what happened to the fresco artist amid these consecutive tragedies.

The game, however, seems to intimate that Yamamura and Ichirō are the same person, especially when he still manages to communicate with the characters after he is supposedly dead. There is the matter of the fact that he vanished, and in the game there are servants who seem to know who he was. The film doesn’t go into this detail, and there are no servants in that house: trapped, as they were in the game, or otherwise.

I kept asking myself: could film Yamamura also be Ichirō? Would this make sense? I thought about it for quite some time, watching a Walkthrough of the game after I’d seen the film, and then a story began to form in my mind. I wondered what would happened, that day, if Ichirō had taken a break from the fresco he was creating based on his son’s birth — which would have gone through depicting his entire life — and helped his wife find him before he was burned alive?

The death of a child is a terrible thing. The panic Lady Mamiya must have felt in not being able to find him, and then discovering his body in the furnace must have been terrible enough. But what about Ichirō? What was he doing that day when his infant son burned himself alive when the furnace was turned on?

I considered the Mamiya could have been a merchant clan, or a Clan of craftspeople, in the early days of Japan. Perhaps I flubbed that part. But I decided the house was Ichirō’s ancestral home, and I built up a bit of a history which might have been helped by the film. I looked up Japanese terms for “wife” or “mother” or “beloved” or “child.” I imagine I gained mixed results in terms of accuracy. But those references to the sister-mother and brother-father creator gods was intentional thematically speaking, and I am proud of including them.

Sweet Home is about the agony of a mother having lost her child, while the protagonists Kazuo and Emi had lost the woman that was their wife and mother respectively and still mourned her: still affected by her loss. Akiko becomes something of a love interest for Kazuo, and a maternal figure and friend for Emi. She makes the most effort to get to know Emi, and help her deal with that grief, and when she is taken again by Lady Mamiya she puts on Emi’s mother’s garb — related to an item in the game to deal with the ghost I believe — to confront her with the power of a mother’s love.

It wouldn’t, in my mind, be an exaggeration to say that Sweet Home is about mothers and lost children, and their struggle to bring them back. But what about fathers?

Kazuo does attempt to confront the ghost, and he dies. We know that the man throughout the beginning of the film neglects himself and sometimes even his fatherly duties in doing his job, while burying his own pain in his work: however bumbling and well-meaning he is. So I thought to myself: what about Ichirō? What if Ichirō, after losing his son from absent-minded devotion to his artistic craft, buried himself further into his work to deal with the grief and guilt of losing him — despite burying him with an elaborate grave marker to placate his spirit — only to make himself ignorant of his wife’s madness. What would losing her do to him?

Perhaps, in a way Mamiya Ichirō does die, and a man named Ken’ichi Yamamura opens a gas station, after spending years wandering and studying Buddhism and Shinto. Maybe that marker on the child’s grave was his to not pacify him, but his mother. Perhaps Yamamura drinks, and works, and abandons his art — or any creative impulse he has goes into the creation of talismans to ward against evil — to forget, to let the foolish, neglectful person he was die, until, one day, a bunch of foolish television crewmembers go … back there.

Then he can’t just sit back. He can’t ignore the past. He has to go back. He has to go back to that place.

And he does. He tries to pass his knowledge to Kazuo because he sees some of the person he used to be in the man, and he wants to save him: especially where Emi’s life is involved.

Eventually, he’s forced to go into that fateful return into the incinerator: the one that took his son from neglect, and his wife from suicide. He takes Emi out of there, saving her. And the story, in which I asked myself what would happened if the artist saved his son — and hence his family — becomes less of an alternative history, and more of a vision of what could have been, a delusion of pain as he succeeds in saving at least another child’s life: not his son’s, not the children his wife killed, but the daughter of another foolish man consumed by his own artistic endeavours.

But he knows he must pay the price. Perhaps he’s always known. And he dies, and he dies horrifically. Maybe he thinks he deserves this. Maybe he thinks he has earned so much worse. But I like the idea that he had one look at Emi and Akiko, and realized — and remembered that important theme in the film about the power of a mother’s love, both in the mad grief of loss, and in saving that which she loves — and realizes that a maternal power can succeed where the paternal failed so miserably. That’s how, in my story and from his perspective, he dies: in agony, but with the hope that one child will be saved, and one mother will be united with that child despite him, or perhaps in some small way because of him.

I actually think, looking back to the film, that it would have been more powerful if Kazuo had died by Lady Mamiya as well, leaving Akiko and Emi as the only survivors: only after presenting her with her dead child to take to the afterlife. It would have been a good mirror of Yamamura if he was indeed Ichirō, and the power of motherhood in absent and redemptive fatherhood. But perhaps Kazuo, having survived in a bumbling manner benefitting his character, in hiding at the end was the levity needed. After all, we’d seen a lot of deaths and he did bravely face down a being that he should have failed to survive to save his daughter. He deserves his life. They all do.

I was actually kind of glad he survived, where the old man did not. I just like the fact that if Yamamura were Ichirō, he did in part redeem himself, and in facing his regrets and bravely facing the pain of his past and present, he gave another family another chance. Perhaps redemption isn’t a part of horror, in any culture, but there is a cathartic element in that: especially when you consider Lady Mamiya’s evil nature softening into the genuine grief you see as she holds the body of her long-dead baby, and passing on.

I hope that one day the game and film will be get official releases, and become available to everyone. It makes me appreciate both mediums where the story is told, and this necromantic experiment in analyzing and speculatively synthesizing them together gives me some insight into how the narrative works.

Nostalgia

Mamiya Ichirō wanders out of the room, his face smudged with paint.

He’s just begun the fresco for his family. For his newborn son. It will be just theirs, unlike the rest of the work he’s shown to Nihon, and the world. It will show every step of his son’s development, from infancy, to childhood, his adolescence, and his adulthood. One day, when he inherits their ancestral estate, he will see it and show it to his family. Or maybe his brothers and sisters will have other rooms. 

It’s chilly in the house now. Most old families, even modern ones, would simply bear it with blankets on futons and stringent tea. But Ichirō’s work has paid dividends: not only are his works world famous, but neither he nor his family will never want for yen in his life. His family had been well to do even before this, and he’s upgraded the furnace they had installed here decades back. He’s left the room to turn it on, but he can feel the house beginning to warm up. He smiles. His wife must have turned it on already. It does take a while to kick in, or to ventilate through an old, drafty house like theirs. That’s why he’s taken a break. The furnace and incinerator for the garbage sometimes break down, and he just wants to make sure they are all right. 

Sometimes, he gets lost in his own work. His wife, his beloved, she has to remind him to eat. And it’s different now that they have a child. He has to keep pace with his time. Painting his child growing up is one thing, but seeing him grow, and being there is another. He has to remind himself to take more breaks. 

“Tōsan!”

His wife comes across the hall. Usually, she is composed and serene. Always a gentle word, and a smile. With her long straight dark hair, and her pale skin she wouldn’t look out of place at a Heian court. Their families were said to have survived from that time, even the Mamiya that were a minor clan of craftspeople elevated by one of many courts. His wife’s family were minor nobility, and he never forgets it when he looks at her manners, and her temperament, and the beauty that she represents. They managed to even survive the Second World War through ingenuity on his family’s part, and then the frescoes he’s made from his family art and the serenity he so desperately sought and found in himself during that time. 

“Kāsan?” He takes his wife gently by the shoulders, her white yukata soaked with sweat, the same moisture glowing from her flushed forehead. “What’s wrong?”

“Thank goodness you’re here.” She holds him, then breaks away. “I can’t find find our son.”

“Oh?” Ichirō smiles wearily. “He’s … he can walk?”

“He’s been to walk for a while now, Ichirō.” Her dark eyes turn stern. He knows he’s made a mistake now. He knew even before he asked the question. Of course his son can walk. He’s learning. It’s been some years now, and it’s about time. How can he track his son’s progress with his art if he keeps getting sidetracked like this. 

“I’m sorry.” He bows. “I … where is he?”

“I don’t know.” There are tears in Mamiya Fujin’s eyes. “He likes to play on the lower levels. That’s where the servants find him too. I’ve been calling him for a while after turning on the furnace. It’s tea time.”

Something in Ichirō turns. It’s as though his centre of gravity has reversed. “Pardon?”

“It’s tea time. I turned on the furnace, it’s been chilly …”

Ichirō feels the blood drain out of his face. She looks at him with concern. “Koishī? Ichirō?”

It’s a premonition. He grabs her hand, and runs. They run. The boiler room is close. Adrenaline seems to fill Ichirō’s veins. His heart is pumping furiously. By the time his wife realizes where they are, at the door, she breaks away from him and tries to open it.

“No!” He draws her back, as she struggles with the door. 

“Aisoku!” The gentle affection behind that word is gone, replaced with panic. “Aisoku!” 

“My love.” He pushes her back. “Get the servants!” He wrenches open the door. “Get them to turn off the heat!” 

“Ichirō …” She tries to come back. 

“Get them, I say!” He roars as the heat blasts him. “Aisoku! Aisoku!”

He leaves her behind, hoping she will do as she’s asked. It is hot. Everything is blurred. He can’t breathe. But … but as tears come into his eyes, he sees … a shape on the ground. He runs over, staggering, and picks it up. He picks him up. His son. His son is breathing shallowly. But he’s alive. He’s all right. Tears stream down Ichirō’s face as he holds his son in his arms, as he walks slowly, and painfully away from the boiler, towards the door. 

“Papa …” The boy whimpers. “Papa …”

“Aisoku.” Ichirō sobs, burying his face in his son’s damp hair. “My Aisoku. You’re all right. We are all right.”

He sees the door. The red hot light is dimming. Ichirō feels his skin burning. He hurts. But he has his son. His son is alive, and unharmed. He can see him. There are soot smudges on his yukata and his face to match the paint on his. They’d been nearby. They got here just in time. Primal terror fills Ichirō when he considers that he could have still been painting that room, or his wife could have been upstairs. No one knew where his son had gone! He hadn’t known. He’d been so busy with the business, and his work. He realizes he hasn’t particularly spent as much time with his wife. He has something for her. An amulet he bought from a merchant. Something old. Perhaps Buddhist, or even a talisman from the early days of Shinto. But a trinket would have meant nothing without their beloved son. 

“I have you, Aisoku.” He says. “I have him, Kāsan!” He calls out, as the cooling shadows grow. It is the end of a long, arduous day with one terrifying moment. But it is all right. He staggers out, his carrying his son in his arms, and his wife is there, her own arms wide, ready to encompass them. He smiles. He did it. He …

*

“Emi!” 

The man, who died a long time ago, staggers out into the darkness. The halls are cool and mouldering. But he is burning. His flesh is seething. His power of concentration is waning so much now, the strength that allowed him to crush that bottle of sake gone for what seems like ages. 

He drops the girl. He can’t help it. The others … Kazuo, and Akiko rush forward to pick Emi up. Without her in his arms, he is burning in agony. The boiler still leaves its mark on him. It is charring his skin, as it had the man incinerated in half upstairs, and the woman melted on the wheelchair in another room, and Mamiya Fujin, and those children, and … and the child … 

He focuses. He has to have some concentration left. They need him. “Run!” He rasps through burning lungs. “The shadows are coming!”

“But Mr. Yamamura …”

The stupid man. So indecisive. So caught up in his work. He didn’t pay attention! He didn’t pay attention! Not to this house, not to his loved ones, or his own flesh and blood. He needs to listen. He …

“Don’t worry about me!” The man, calling himself Yamamura Ken’ichi, growls. He hurts so much, and there is no time. It is too late. It’s always been too late. But not for them. Not … “Get out quickly!”

Then, it is just the agony. They take her. He registers that. They call out her name. They call out his a few times. He feels his flesh liquefying, and his bones charring from the flames inside of him. The woman … Akiko. She is crying out for him. For a few moments … he sees her again. She is pale, like the grave, like Izanami no mikoto herself, with part of her beautiful face burned away. He is Izanagi-no-mikoto, who ran away. He thinks about the flames now, how she suffered, how the child burned, how he lost them, and the children that are now forming on parts of her neck. All of his sins, of neglect, come back for him. Yes. The man calling himself Yamamura deserves this. He is just as guilty of killing those children, and the people that came here after despite the memorial and the warnings …. these people, and those poor devils Akashi, Etsuko, Shogo, and Kenji … the servants that refuse to leave, in terror of their mistress, and the child … and Kāsan … Kāsan … 

I’m sorry. He says to her, in his mind. And for a few moments, he thinks he almost sees some sadness there on the face of the woman who killed children, because she had been abandoned in his own grief too. He reaches out with one crumbling hand. Then, it’s just Akiko and nothing more as his eyes run down his face. Just darkness. That woman. Perhaps he was wrong about her. Nothing is stronger than a mother, or a mother that has lost her child. Gods only know a father’s love only went so far. Concentration. Prayer. Regret. Redemption. 

Love. Akiko feels love for that girl. Yamamura contents himself with that, realizing in his last moments, he still feels love as well, that it’s all he has left, as the remnants of the person he used to be finally disintegrate into ashes.