Siren

[19 May 2004]

By Chris LaVigne

The Land of the Rising Dead

If the horror genre reveals the fears of society, then there seems to be something to be learned from the noticeable trend in religious-themed horror among video games coming from Japan. Director Keiichiro Toyama’s Siren is one of such games following in the steps of the Silent Hill franchise, which Toyama also originated, as well as the Fatal Frame series.

While theResident Evil series, the old grandpappy of platform horror games, takes capitalism and the growing fear of corporate greed and irresponsibility as its themes, Siren and its predecessors generate horror from a much different source. If Resident Evil scares us with visions of a future driven by profits at the expense of human life, these other horror games frighten us with the possibility of a return to a violent past based around repulsive ancient beliefs.

In Siren, as in the Fatal Frame and Silent Hill games, occult religious practices are the source of the game’s horror. In all three, a past where terrible atrocities were committed in a god’s name and abhorrent forms of religious worship were practiced returns to torment the present where a protagonist or group of protagonists must set things right. The original Fatal Frame shows this type of narrative most clearly with the girl Miyu having to endure visions of the disgusting strangling rituals of the past while trying to release the spirits of its victims from their eternal torment.

Siren takes gamers to the fictional Japanese town of Hanuda which is populated by villagers who, as the game’s manual explains, “are suspicious of outsiders and are protective of their deep-rooted local traditions and clandestine spiritual beliefs.” The village has suddenly been surrounded by a lake of blood to which the villagers are drawn by a haunting and unceasing siren. Inexplicably, buildings from the ancient past also appear as well as a hospital that was destroyed in 1976. And, to make things worse for the poor Hanudans, zombie-like creatures called shibito also emerge from the lake, many of them armed and all of them murderous.

The game tells its story in a fascinating way. Following 16 characters as they try to escape Hanuda, Siren jumps back and forth between each protagonist’s progress and chronologically to different points in time. The setup makes for a very suspenseful narrative, but also a confusing one at times.

With an addictive plot and an ambitious, innovative approach to storytelling that the rest of the uninspired gaming industry should take note of, Siren seems to have all the keys to success. That is, until you start playing it. Adding stealth gameplay to the horror genre, as Siren does, is a great idea. However, providing none of the control solutions that the designers of stealth games have worked out was a very stupid idea. Imagine trying to play Splinter Cell with the control scheme of Resident Evil and you will have accurately predicted Siren‘s frustration level. Add a learning curve that’s like beginning unicycle-training by attempting to ride over a high wire and you’ll be pissed off in no time.

Still, Siren‘s captivating story somehow keeps you playing. And keeps you wondering why the Japanese seem so afraid of a religious past that somehow threatens the present. It is possible that these anxieties spring directly from the Japanese experience of World War II. Japan’s pseudo-fascist regime of the time manipulated the Shinto religion to provide its authority and the justification for war, culminating in the idea that Japan’s emperor was a divinity himself. Under the American occupation that followed Japan’s defeat, the emperor was allowed to retain a symbolic position in the country, but was forced to renounce the claim to godhood.

In the last few years, however, there has been a rise in sympathy among Japanese towards imperialism and a corollary push to align religion with politics once again. The trend can be evinced even in the latest Godzilla movie where the Japanese military teams with pseudo-Shinto entities to defeat the king of monsters who, in this portrayal, has been possessed by the spirits of those killed by the Japanese in WWII.

Shinto is a kind of animism in which nature is revered and honoured. It is not necessarily conducive to war or fascism, although like all religions it contains elements that can justify each. With its focus on nature and a more traditional, rural lifestyle, one can see why modern Japanese, trapped in their polluted and cramped mega-cities, might see Shinto as an escape. This kind of yearning can be seen clearly in the films of Hiyao Miyazaki, especially his Princess Mononoke where medieval Shinto entities face extinction at the hands of human industrialization.

Miyazaki is ambiguous about the role of Shinto, however, and sees both good and bad in the spiritual creatures of nature and the environment-destroying humans. The recent batch of Japanese horror games such as Siren are much more straightforward in their rejection of old religious practices as being repulsive and horrifying. The goal of the heroes in these games is to purge modern society of its ignominious past, both literally and symbolically, so that the future can be free of its horrible influence. It seems too simple a solution, but in light of the way Japanese leaders have used religion historically, the panic could be justifiable. With 21st-century Japan once again militarized beyond purely defensive capabilities (having sent troops to Iraq), citizens of the Land of the Rising Sun may indeed have much to fear in the times ahead. Certainly, their horror games give us reason to be afraid.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/siren-2004/