May 052014

Beyond its fraudulence and corruption, Final Fantasy X’s religion of Yevon is notable for its obsession with death. The church facilitates a “spiral of death” in which summoners and guardians sacrifice their lives to defeat and subsequently rejuvenate the death-bringing Sin. Important figures in the church view death as a form of salvation. Several leaders of the church are in fact already dead and clinging to a kind of unlife. Death and the dead rule Spira. From a narrative perspective, abandoning the dead past for a living future is one of the primary themes of Final Fantasy X.

I covered much of Yevon’s focus on death in the last post, but there are a few other elements of the story that are notable in this respect. To some figures in the religion death is a form of salvation, an end to pain. On the bridge out of Bevelle, Seymour tries to convince Yuna of his point of view, explaining, “Death is a sweet slumber. All the pain of life is gently swept away… So you see, if all life were to end in Spira, all suffering would end.” He is not the only adherent of this belief. In Zanarkand, Yunalesca reacts to Yuna’s rejection of the Final Summoning, saying, “It is better for you to die in hope than to live in desapair.”

In line with this, as he calls on the party to take Yunalesca out, Auron urges them to “Die and be free of pain or live and fight your sorrow!” He doesn’t acknowledge that he made a third choice.

The deaths of Braska and Jecht haunt and embitter Auron. Before entering Zanarkand he states, “I wanted to change the world, too. But I changed nothing. That is my story.” Well, perhaps not all of it. Auron lives beyond death, preparing Tidus for the challenge of saving Spira. Even with this Auron is controlled by the past — raising Tidus is something he promised Jecht he would do, as ensuring that Yuna would grow up in Besaid was something he promised Braska.

Towards that end he deputized Kimahri, who had already departed from his people. The circumstances surrounding this event never become entirely clear, because Kimahri rarely speaks about what happened, leaving Biran and Yenke to fill the void with a narrative that, honestly or not, makes it seem Kimahri was in the wrong by their standards. However, it is evident that his broken horn is a mark of shame for Kimahri, alienating him from his own people and forcing him to live among the humans, where he is out of place and isolated. The breaking of his horn is a symbolic death of Kimahri among his clan, and the influence of this seals him off from almost everyone.

A more literal and immediate death — that of Wakka’s brother Chappu — has similar effects for the inhabitants of Besaid. The loss of her lover makes Lulu noticeably harsh and even cruel towards men, especially Wakka. While Lulu never suffers foolishness from anyone, she responds to Yuna’s (and even Tidus’) missteps much more kindly than she does to the blitzer’s.

Wakka suffers even more than Lulu. While he was evidently devout of Yevon and suspicious of the Al Bhed before Chappu’s death, the fact that his brother died in an attack by Sin, apparently betrayed by an Al Bhed weapon, makes him even more extreme in both beliefs.

Especially early on, the game reinforces his side of the story. The Al Bhed that Tidus encounters when he first arrives in Spira are hardly welcoming. They speak an unintelligible language, they attack Tidus, and then force him to take part in a dangerous effort to salvage an airship. This is a great way to set them up as villains, and FFX keeps them in an antagonistic role for quite a while. The Al Bhed surface again as villains in Luca, kidnapping Yuna and attacking the party with a giant robot. They play a major role in the failed Operation Mi’ihen, the false hope of their weapons leading to the deaths of most of the Crusaders. The Al Bhed and their robots attack again at the Moonflow, then a final time at Lake Macalania.

There are some counterexamples. The Al Bhed agencies are a place of respite on the party’s journey, and Rin appears to be an ally. Rikkus is more significant in this regard. She is, like Wakka, one of the friendliest and most warm-hearted characters in the game. While she is one of the Al Bhed that Tidus encounters initially, she helps him then, and when she joins the party later on, she becomes one of his closest friends, along with Wakka.

The last battle with the Al Bhed, however, is the point at which the game starts to turn its story strongly against Yevon. At Macalania Temple it is revealed that Seymour, a leader of the church Wakka reveres, murdered his own father, and shortly after that the party discovers that the Al Bhed’s attacks on the party were attempts to kidnap Yuna and protect her from the death that necessarily awaited her at the culmination of her journey as a summoner.  This is a revelation to the player (and Tidus), but that Yuna would die if she succeeded was something Wakka already knew. The unexpected discoveries for him come when he reaches Bevelle and sees the leaders of Yevon using the very machina he has hated and feared all his life. This shakes his faith in the church — “They treated us like dirt,” he says.

As the rest of the story plays out he casts aside his religion and his prejudices, although not without an occasional expression of disbelief. The game’s presentation of the Al Bhed also changes: from erstwhile antagonists they become sympathetic victims of an attempted Guado genocide and then important allies. Wakka’s personal transition is complete when he recognizes this and apologizes for his earlier prejudice. Wakka serves as a character focus for the game’s opposition to religion, and an example of a good person whose negative characteristics are enhanced, rather than diminished, by faith.

The same could be said of Yuna. This might seem a little odd to say, since FFX sets Yuna up as a selfless Christ figure. We should be somewhat suspicious of this, however, since the story is told from Tidus’ infatuated point of view. In truth, Yuna’s actions are troubling. Her reasons for choosing to go on the journey are ill-defined, and she doesn’t seem to fully appreciate what it will cost her friends, even though she herself lost her father to the quest. To some extent she seems to be trying to live up to Braska’s reputation, a fact that influences her choice to take on Tidus and Auron as members of the party. Here again we see the influence of death and the grip of the past, driving Yuna to take a pilgrimage that will destroy her and wound her friends.

What’s worse is that Yuna is so young she’s making the choice to die without experiencing enough of life to know what she’s sacrificing. As she grows closer to Tidus over the course of her journey, however, she begins to realize what she’s giving up. The only time she wavers in her purpose and considers abandoning her journey, at the lake in Macalania forest, she weeps and it seems she is grieving for herself, and the life she has chosen to abandon. While she continues on her journey, it is with a changed sense of purpose. She values her life enough now that she will not surrender it for just a temporary respite from Sin.

The individual arcs in Final Fantasy X, then, are about characters freeing themselves from the prison of the past. The catalyst for all these escapes is Tidus. He pushes Kimahri to confront Biran and Yenke, and similarly works for a thaw between Lulu and Wakka. It’s through him that Rikku joins the group and begins to wear away at Wakka’s perspective, even as Tidus’ constant irreverence and breaking of taboos demonstrates the emptiness of church doctrine. He is the one who makes Yuna seriously examine the meaning and scale of her sacrifice. Most importantly, it is his insistence on challenging the norms of the summoner’s quest that leads to the climactic confrontation with Yunalesca. The characters, and Spira itself, change because of Tidus’ influence.

Spira, in turn, changes Tidus. He begins the game as one of the all-time unlikable protagonists in a series that might as well be known for them. He’s a self-absorbed whiner with a towering daddy complex, further primed for audience dislike by being a dumb, brash jock. Even though he’s affected by Yuna’s plight, he never takes her journey as seriously as he should. True, the other members of the party never tell him what’s really at stake, but for his part he never asks, content to accept Yuna’s pilgrimage at face value. Even when the scales are lifted from his eyes his reaction is somewhat self-centered, as much about his own embarrassment as about Yuna’s actual fate.

Tidus retains his selfishness for some time yet, but after the battle with Yunalesca it is gone. When the fayth in Bevelle confirms that Tidus will die if Yu Yevon is defeated, his response isn’t the whining tantrum of the person from the earlier parts of the game, but merely “I’m grateful.” Tidus, whose initial selfishness is diametrically opposite to Yuna’s selflessness, has found something he will sacrifice himself for, just as she has found something worth surviving for.

Yet even in this there is the looming influence of death. Tidus is an escapee from a “Zanarkand” being summoned by Yu Yevon. In the distant past the people of Zanarkand faced defeat in a war. Without hope of preserving their way of life, the last inhabitants essentially committed mass suicide, entombing themselves in a living statue that gave itself over to a dream of their city, a perfect vision of their home, trapped forever as it was at the moment of its destruction. Lost in his summoning of this place, Yu Yevon surrounded himself with a living armor that became an all-destructive monster. Sin itself is, therefore, an echo of the death of Zanarkand, and Tidus is an expression of the past, Zanarkand’s dream of its better self.

The name “Spira” seems to refer to the “spiral of death” that consumes Summoners and Guardians to defeat and rejuvenate Sin, because the world itself is complicit in this system. In Latin, spira means a coil, as of a snake. There is, however, a similar word in Latin, spirare, meaning “to breathe” and thus “to live”. This word became attached to the concept of breathing in a force that gave rise to new ideas and powerful feelings, a metaphor that gave us such words as “inspiration”. In that sense “Spira” signifies not only to the grim cycle of death but also to the act that brings both physical and emotional life. In order to escape the past that shackles them, Spira and its inhabitants need an inspiration, a hope, a dream. Final Fantasy X is his story.

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