One of the best things about the visual novel medium is its ability — and willingness — to tackle things that are outside the normal remit of “video games” as a whole.
In the case of Ne no Kami: The Two Princess Knights of Kyoto, a visual novel from small, independent Japanese circle Kuro Irodoru Yomiji, there’s a certain degree of “crossover” in terms of subject matter. We have the sort of “plucky young heroes tackle otherworldly horrors” angle that we’re most used to seeing from more conventional video games, but at the same time we also have some sensitively handled exploration of romantic relationships, disparate cultures colliding and young people trying to find their place in the world.
Of particular note is Ne no Kami’s exploration of traditional Japanese and Shinto mythology, an angle which it takes great pains to point out is only its author’s interpretation rather than “fact”. But this doesn’t make it in any way “invalid”, of course; mythology, by its very nature, doesn’t have any “factual” basis in the first place, and has only survived so long by being reinterpreted and passed on across thousands of years.
Before we investigate the game’s story in detail, then, it behooves us to have a general understanding of the mythology on which it is based.
Ne no Kami’s overarching narrative concerns the conflict between the “visible world” and the “Afterworld”, the latter of which supposedly houses an evil god who was sealed away long ago. A hidden sect of humanity attempts to fight back against the ayakashi, which are aiming to open the path to the Afterworld and revive their ruler. They do this through the use of “divine swords”, which choose their wielder, rather than the other way around, and infuse said wielder with great knowledge and strength.
Let’s look at these aspects a bit at a time.
Firstly, let’s take the concept of the “Afterworld”, also known as Ne no Kuni or Ne no Katasukuni and referred to as such in the game. (In broader mythology, it is also sometimes referred to as Soko no Kuni or Haha no Kuni.)
The idea of some sort of “afterworld” or “afterlife” is a common one in worldwide religions, be it Christianity’s heaven and hell, Islam’s Akhirah or Hinduism’s complex network of worlds, each ruled over by one of its many gods. But in Shinto, there’s a very specific story behind Ne no Kuni, and indeed those beings who are supposedly trapped there. In order to fully understand it, we need to look right back to the creation of the world.
The Shinto equivalent of the “creation myth” concerns the kami (deity) Izanagi and his consort Izanami, who were brother and sister but nonetheless united in, depending on which interpretation you follow, marriage, sexual congress or both. Their first “attempt” produced a deformed son known as Hiruko (“leech child”), which the pair considered inadequate and cast adrift in a reed boat. Many Shinto shrines believe that the popular god of luck Ebisu, one of the Shichi-fuku-jin (Seven Gods of Luck), is actually this same child — and indeed if he survived his ordeal as a child, there’s certainly a degree of good luck there!
Undeterred by their “mistake”, Izanami and Izanagi once again set about the important business of getting it on (or, in some versions of the story, stirring the sea with a spear), and in the process produced numerous islands and deities as offspring. Unfortunately, Izanami suffered fatal burns as a result of giving birth to the fire god Ho-musubi (also known as Kagutsuchi) and passed into the underworld Yomi (or Yomotsukuni) as a result.
Grief-stricken, Izanagi broke his wife’s taboo — she said he should not look upon her — and followed her to Yomi. Since Izanami had already partaken of the food in Yomi, however, she was unable to leave — and Izanagi, upon seeing his putrefying, maggot-infested former consort, was horrified and fled. Seething with betrayal, Izanami threatened to kill a thousand people each day, but Izanagi countered by saying he would give birth to fifteen hundred people each day, a story which is typically interpreted to explain the human life cycle and how our population has grown over time.
Upon returning from Yomi, Izanagi washed himself thoroughly to remove himself of the “pollution of death” and, according to one interpretation of Shinto myth, gave birth to the “three noble children” sun god Amaterasu, moon god Tsukuyomi and storm god Susanoo in the process. (The other interpretation simply has these three born of Izanami, prior to her death and during the couple’s apparently busy schedule of copulation.)
Susanoo is the important “noble child” that we’re concerned with here, as it was he who was banished to Ne no Kuni after disobeying his father Izanagi’s orders to have dominion over the sea plain, instead expressing the wish to visit his mother in the underworld.
Ne no Kuni itself is a concept that doesn’t have a clear definition. According to Kokugakuin University’s Encyclopaedia of Shinto, it can be used to refer to either any place other than Takamanohara (sometimes Takamagahara, also known as the “high heavenly plain”, ruled by Amaterasu and home of the kami) and Ashihara no Nakatsukuni (the “central land of reeds”, or the human world — specifically, the land of Japan) or simply as another name for Yomi. Indeed, if we were to take a simple tripartite view of the cosmos as suggested in some interpretations of Shinto, there isn’t anywhere left that it could be other than Yomi if both Takamanohara and Ashihara no Nakatsukuni are both out of the picture.
Ne no Kami follows this tripartite view of the universe. What the game describes as the “visible world” — and the main setting of the game — is Ashihara no Nakatsukuni, while the “Afterworld” that threatens to invade is Ne no Kuni. Meanwhile, humanity has found a way to access the protection of Takamanohara/Takamagahara, which has seemingly since been abandoned by the kami of yore. In the time of Ne no Kami — modern-day Japan — certain individuals may access Takamanohara by passing through barriers in certain shrines, and indeed one of the main characters in the game, known as Uzume, spends her life in this other world.
The name “Uzume” is itself a reference to traditional Shinto mythology: as we discussed back in our exploration of Megadimension Neptunia V-II some time ago, one interpretation of the name Uzume is as a reference to the god who eventually lured Amaterasu out of hiding after she attempted to escape from an out-of-control Susanoo. Indeed, Uzume herself specifically tells protagonist Len that her name “is the name of one of the legendary gods” and that “for generations, one of the members of [her] family has had to inherit the name” in order to fulfil her responsibilities.
Meanwhile, the servants of the “evil god” in Ne no Kami are, at various periods, referred to as ayakashi (often interpreted as a specific type of supernatural monster or spirit that typically appears over a body of water, but sometimes used as a more generic term for ghostly or otherworldly beings) or yōkai (a term that more broadly and literally means “ghost”, “phantom” or “strange apparition”).
The ayakashi seen in Ne no Kami come in several different denominations: oni, dogs, crows (or harpies) and foxes, with the latter being perceived as most dangerous.
Oni, regarded as the “grunts” of the supernatural army, are typically depicted as demons, devils, ogres or trolls. They’re usually represented as gigantic, monstrous humanoids, often with sharp claws and wild hair. Protagonist Len seemingly correctly recalls that oni are often depicted as wearing tiger-striped underwear or loincloths, though it becomes apparent through her subsequent recollections that she’s actually recalling Lum from Urusei Yatsura rather than more established, monstrous depictions. Given that Len, at the outset of the narrative, is completely unfamiliar with this “hidden world” of ayakashi and sealed gods, it’s understandable that her only real point of reference would be a popular anime and manga series, though it’s also worth noting that Urusei Yatsura did indeed use oni as inspiration for the alien race to which Lum belongs.
The foxes, the most formidable of the ayakashi forces in Ne no Kami, are interesting to explore. There’s long been a connection between foxes and humanity in Japanese mythology; in ancient Japan, it’s said that humans and foxes lived close together, and they’re a common subject of folklore. According specifically to yōkai folklore, foxes have the ability to shapeshift into human form — and it’s this interpretation that Ne no Kami follows, with distinctly humanoid “foxes” whose relative power level is represented by the number of tails they have.
The view of foxes in Japanese mythology has changed over time. Certain aspects of folklore depict foxes as cunning beasts keen to trick others, while others depict them as faithful guardians, friends and even lovers. Mistrust of foxes tends to stem from the Edo period (1603-1867), which was a particularly superstitious time in Japanese history that regarded foxes as “witch animals”.
Interestingly, Ne no Kami depicts the leader of the ayakashi forces as a fox called Inari; in the Shinto pantheon, Inari is regarded as a kami of fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture and industry and general prosperity — not things you’d generally associate with “evil”. Inari does, however, carry a strong connection with foxes, as their patron kami, and Inari’s messengers are depicted as pure white foxes.
The concept of “divine swords” that choose their wielders is a common one in Japanese media, with various interpretations being seen literally in modern video games such as Aselia the Eternal and more metaphorically as sentient weapons in titles such as Nier (which features a sentient book that works alongside the protagonist) and Persona 3 (which features Aigis, an artificial humanoid who is essentially — at least at the outset of her story — a sentient weapon who latches on to the protagonist). It’s a common trope in worldwide media, but in Japan it can once again be traced back to Shinto myth, specifically that of the Imperial Regalia (or, sometimes, “Three Sacred Treasures”) of Japan.
The Imperial Regalia consists of three items that exist in our real world: the sword Kusanagi, the mirror Yaya no Kagami and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama. These represent valor, wisdom and benevolence respectively and, according to Shinto legend, were brought to Ashihara no Nakatsukuni by Ninigi, supposed ancestor of the Japanese imperial line and grandson of Amaterasu. They supposedly originated during Amaterasu’s self-imposed exile in a cave following Susanoo’s chaotic rage: as the legend runs, Uzume hung the mirror and jewels outside the cave to lure Amaterasu out, while Susanoo subsequently presented Kusanagi to Amaterasu as a token of apology after defeating the eight-headed serpent Yamata no Orochi — coincidentally, a beast which we last saw here on MoeGamer as part of the Senran Kagura series, which also draws heavily on traditional Japanese mythology.
The Imperial Regalia aren’t in themselves sentient or “divine” weapons in the same manner as those we see in Ne no Kami, but given their supposedly divine origins, we can interpret them as being the origin point of a number of similar myths. In particular, their traditional role as being a symbol of the Japanese emperor’s divinity as a descendant of Amaterasu has a lot in common with modern interpretations of divine swords as choosing their wielders based on connections with legendary figures or even gods. That said, Ne no Kami subverts this common trope a little: secondary character Tsuchimikado describes himself as a “descendant of the great onmyouji Abe no Seimei“, but subsequently reveals himself to have no ability to wield the divine swords whatsoever. Meanwhile, Len, a seemingly ordinary schoolgirl, manages to pick one up without any difficulty whatsoever.
Ne no Kami’s connections to traditional Japanese mythology run deep, and the game is good enough to provide a helpful glossary for some of the more esoteric terms that crop up throughout the narrative — a growing trend for works (and particularly visual novels) that explore a particular concept or aspect of culture in great depth or, in the case of titles like Kadokawa’s Root Letter, are set in real-world locations.
That said, despite the apparent complexity and depth of what we’ve described today, as a standalone work in its own right, Ne no Kami remains thoroughly accessible even for those less familiar with Japanese and Shinto mythology. Since protagonist Len is a rather ordinary individual who has, prior to the events that kick off the story, only really concerned herself with standard, stereotypical teenage girl things like fashion and food, we as the audience are able to take a journey of discovery with her, learning more and more about the “hidden worlds” that we can’t see — and the unseen threats that continue to face the modern-day Japan depicted in the game.
It’s a challenging ride, for sure — and, as we’ll discuss next week, one that Len is initially rather resistant to — but a rewarding one. And, as we’ve talked about today, it’s potentially one that forms an ideal starting point for a deeper look into Shinto mythology, and how these ancient tales have continued to inform Japanese popular media right up until the present day.
Next time, we’ll look in detail at Ne no Kami’s story as a whole, and how it uses the elements of mythology we’ve talked about today to tell a fascinating and dramatic — yet also deeply personal — story.
More about Ne no Kami
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